Dharma Talk: The Different Faces of Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Teachings on the Dimension of Action of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion from the Universal Door Chapter of the Lotus Sutra


When the bodhisattva named Inexhaustible Mind heard the name Avalokitesvara, he asked the Buddha, “Why did that bodhisattva get such a beautiful name?” The Buddha replied, “Because the actions of Avalokitesvara can respond to the needs of any being in any circumstance.” Then Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind asked, “How does this bodhisattva enjoy being on this Earth? How does he enjoy walking and contemplating and going about this planet?” The word used in this question is a verb that means you relax and enjoy yourself. Answering that question, the Buddha talked about the way Avalokitesvara spends his or her time on this planet.

We all have time to spend on this planet and the question is whether we enjoy it or not. What are we doing? Do we really enjoy our time sojourning on this planet? Do we carry a lot of luggage, making it feel too heavy to enjoy our time here?

Avalokitesvara is a manifestation and any manifestation has to be situated in time and space in the historical dimension. The Buddha Shakyamuni manifested himself as a prince, as a practitioner, as a monk, and as a teacher. His manifestation lasted eighty years. We are also manifestations. We manifest ourselves in the historical dimension and there are things we want to do and we want to enjoy what we do.

The Interbeing of the Historical and the Ultimate Dimensions 

Everything has its historical dimension as well as its ultimate dimension. In the ultimate dimension we are in touch with the essence, the substance, the ground of a person or a thing. In the historical dimension we get in touch with the appearance or the form of something or someone. If we speak about a bell, the substance that makes up the bell is metal. The form of the bell is a manifestation from that ground. So in the historical dimension you can see the ultimate dimension. We also carry with us our ground of being. It’s like a wave that manifests herself on the surface of the ocean. The wave is also the water and touching the historical dimension of the wave deeply, you touch the water, her ultimate dimension.

Yesterday there was a question about God. Our friend asked, “I thought that there is no God in Buddhism. Why is Thay speaking about the Kingdom of God?” It’s true that in Buddhism we do not talk about God but we do talk about nirvana, the ultimate dimension. If God means the ultimate dimension, the foundation of all manifestations, then there is God in Buddhism. Our ground of being is the nature of no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We call that “nirvana”, the ultimate. If you understand God to be the ultimate, to be the foundation of every manifestation, then we can speak about God. If by God we mean an old man with a beard sitting in the clouds and deciding everything for us, we don’t talk about that God.

The Dimension of Action 

What is the purpose of a bell? How does the bell serve? The bell offers sound for us to practice. That is the function of the bell. This is called the dimension of action. We all have this third dimension. Although we carry within ourselves our true nature we also enjoy manifesting ourselves through our jobs and activities. The Buddha Shakyamuni wanted to do something, that is why he manifested himself. The bell wants to do something, that is why she has manifested herself as a bell. There is something we want to do, in our current manifestation. The dimension of action is connected to the dimension of history, and the dimension of history is very much linked to the dimension of the ultimate.

Our body in the historical dimension may have a beginning and an end but our body in the ultimate dimension is indestructible. It is our Dharma body. Our body in the historical dimension is the body of retribution. The form and manifestation of our physical body is a result or retribution of the lives of our ancestors and our own way of living and being in the world. While using this body of retribution we can practice touching our Dharma body. Everyone has a Dharma body and if you can touch your Dharma body you are no longer afraid of birth and death. The moment the wave realizes that she is water, she is no longer afraid of being and nonbeing, birth and death. As water she doesn’t mind going up and going down. She can ride freely on the waves of history without fear. The role of the bodhisattva in the dimension of action is to help people to touch deeply their ultimate dimension because once you have touched your ultimate dimension you lose all fear of birth and death. You realize that this manifestation is just a continuation. Before this manifestation you were already there in your ancestors and after this manifestation disintegrates you will continue in your descendants and in all forms of life.

The Universal Door 

The twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra is called “The Universal Door Chapter.” This chapter is about the dimension of action of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The Universal Door refers to the kind of practice that can respond to all situations of suffering in every place and in every time. This chapter is about love, and Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of love and compassion.

Amb32-dharma2valokitesvara is translated as Quan Tu Tai or Quan The Am in Vietnamese. Quan means to observe, to look deeply or to recognize. In Sanskrit this word is the same as vipasyana, to look deeply. Vipasyana goes together with samatha, or stopping and concentrating. You select a subject, you stop and concentrate on that subject and you look deeply into it. It may be your anger, your despair or a difficult situation you find yourself in. Tu Tai means freedom. Thanks to looking deeply you get the freedom you need. In the Heart Sutra the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara found out that everything is empty of a separate existence. Upon having that realization he became free from all afflictions. The Am means the sounds of the world. Quan The Am is the one who looks deeply into the sounds of the world.

Living beings express themselves in different ways. Whether they express themselves well or not, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can always understand them. If a child doesn’t have enough words to express herself the bodhisattva is still able to understand the child. If the person expresses himself in spoken language or in bodily expression the bodhisattva also understands.

Avalokitesvara has the power of manifesting herself in so many forms, and she is capable of being present everywhere at the same time. When you go to a temple, whether it is in Vietnam or Tibet or China you might have a chance to see a statue of a bodhisattva with 1,000 arms. Each arm holds an instrument. One of her hands is holding a book; it may be a sutra or a book on political science. Another hand is holding a bell. Another hand is holding a flute or a guitar. And a bodhisattva of our time may hold in one hand a computer. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book there is an English translation of the verses of this chapter made by Sister True Virtue. In this translation the bodhisattva is called a she. And in Asia many people think of Avalokitesvara as a she. But in fact the person can be a he as is explained in the sutra. The bodhisattva can manifest herself as an artist, a politician, a musician, a Dharma teacher, a gardener, a little boy, a little girl, even as a millionaire or the head of a big corporation. If the situation needs his or her presence she will be there in the appropriate form to respond to the situation. Compassion can take so many forms.

Cultivating Compassion 

“Whoever calls her name or sees her image, if their mind is perfectly collected and pure, they will then be able to overcome the suffering of all the worlds. When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” 1

Calling the name of Avalokitesvara may give rise to something in your mind. Your mind becomes concentrated, mindful, calm, and lucid. If you call her name in such a way that your mind becomes still then you will be able to overcome your suffering. Evoking the name of Avalokitesvara is one of the ways to allow understanding and compassion to be born in our hearts. When something or someone can offer you freshness, joy, and loving kindness, the image of that person becomes the object of your contemplation. Every time you think of her or of him, suddenly the elements of compassion and understanding are born in your heart and you can overcome the suffering you are experiencing at that moment.

A place can also embody compassion and understanding. Suppose you come to Plum Village and you enjoy the beauty of the nature and the lifestyle. When you leave, every time you think of Plum Village you have a pleasant feeling. That is the meaning of mindfulness or contemplation. The object of mindfulness is the image or the sound that can inspire us and can produce the element of understanding and compassion in us. It is not just devotion. We should not invoke the name of Avalokitesvara or visualize the form like a machine; doing that will not provoke any calmness or mindfulness. To evoke the energy of Avalokitesvara is the practice of calming and concentrating our mind to bring back the nectar of compassion and understanding in us. That practice can help us avoid all kinds of dangers.

Avalokitesvara can also manifest himself in many names. The message of Jesus is love. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” Avalokitesvara may say, “I am the Universal Door.” We all have our Avalokitesvara, of different names and forms. What is essential is that that name can help us to calm down and to make understanding and compassion possible.


“When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” How can we understand this statement? If you are pushed into a pit of fire and you know how to be mindful and to recollect the powerful energy of Avalokitesvara then the pit will be transformed into a cool lake. The cool lake is inside and it is also outside.

In the same chapter of the Lotus Sutra we read, “If there is a person who is a victim of ignorance and that person knows how to be mindful of the great compassion of Avalokitesvara then he will free himself from ignorance. If a person is a victim of anger and she knows how to practice mindfulness of the great energy of Avalokitesvara then she will be free from her anger.” We have to understand all of these verses in that spirit.

Sometimes a whole nation is plunged into a pit of fire made of anger. Imagine how big that pit of fire must be. If you know how to be mindful of compassion, and of Avalokitesvara who is the symbol of compassion and understanding, then you will calm yourself down. You will be able to see more clearly and your anger will subside. After September 11th, I recommended that America engage herself in the practice of stopping, calming and looking deeply to see what to do and what not to do to respond to the situation with compassion and lucidity. This is the action of Avalokitesvara.

Drawing Dangers into Ourselves 

In the Universal Door Chapter we read about many dangerous situations such as: caught in a fire, caught in a flood, caught in a war, caught in a situation where we suffer so much. Usually we believe that dangers come from the outside. We do not realize that most of the dangers we are afraid of come from within us and not from some objective situation. When you do not have a clear view, a right understanding of reality, you create a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and danger. When you have the element of anger, delusion, and craving within yourself, you draw danger into yourself. You create your own suffering. The practice of compassion, the practice of deep looking helps you to be lucid, to be loving, and that lucidity and that loving kindness is a protection from all kinds of dangers.

It is clearly stated in the sutra that if you are caught in a situation of anger and you know how to produce mindfulness of love then you will be free from that situation. If you are caught in the situation of delusion and you know how to practice mindfulness of compassion then you can get out of that situation. That is the Universal Door.

The Fierce Bodhisattva and the Gentle Bodhisattva 

Is it possible to carry a gun and yet remain deeply a bodhisattva? This is possible. When you enter the gate of a temple, you see the statue of a very gentle bodhisattva on your left, smiling and welcoming. But looking on your right you see a figure with a very fierce face, holding a weapon. His whole face is burning. Smoke and fire are pouring out of his eyes and his mouth. He is the one who has the capacity to keep the hungry ghosts in order. Every time we organize a ceremony to offer food and drink to the hungry ghosts, to the wandering souls, we need to evoke the bodhisattva with the burning face (Dien Nhien Vuong) to come and help. The hungry ghosts only listen to him because he has that fierce, “You behave, otherwise you will get it!” look. He is a kind of Chief of Police bodhisattva. That is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. So when you see someone carrying a gun, you cannot necessarily say that he or she is evil. Society needs some people to carry guns because there are gangsters, there are people who would not behave if there were no one embodying strict discipline. It is possible that someone carrying a gun can be a real bodhisattva because the bodhisattva of the burning face is a real bodhisattva, a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. It is possible for the director of a prison or a prison guard to be a bodhisattva. He may be very firm with the prisoners but deep inside of him there is the heart of a bodhisattva. Our job is to help prison guards and police officers to have a bodhisattva heart.

Today there is a police officer here; she took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 1991. She knows a lot about the suffering of members of the police force in America. You are supposed to be a peacekeeping force but sometimes you are looked upon as the oppressors, as a symbol of violence. There is violence, there is suppression in society and you have been appointed to keep the peace. It’s very hard to do your job if you don’t have enough skillful means. If you don’t have enough understanding and compassion, a lot of anger, frustration, and despair may grow within you. Then it is possible that you can become the oppressor. The door of your heart is closed. No one understands you; they look upon you as an enemy. There is no communication between you and the world outside that you are supposed to serve. So the suffering of the police may be immense, the suffering of prison guards may be immense. They don’t enjoy their job and yet they have to continue. Avalokitesvara must appear in their midst and try to open their hearts. Avalokitesvara says that you can carry a gun, you can be very firm, but at the same time you can be very compassionate.


If you play the role of a tender bodhisattva, you have to have real compassion and understanding in you. Usually the First Lady, the wife of the Prime Minister, the wife of the President or the Queen, should play the role of the tender bodhisattva, the figure of a mother, a gentle sister caring for the sick and the poor. While her husband is doing things like conducting the army, conducting war, the First Lady plays the role of a tender bodhisattva. But if she is a real bodhisattva her action will not be just a decoration, she will manifest real compassion and real understanding.

If you have to play the role of the fierce, burning face bodhisattva, even if you carry a weapon and demonstrate your firmness, you have to have a tender heart and deep understanding. If you look for Avalokitesvara only in a nice appearance, you will miss her, because she can manifest herself in all kinds of forms. She can manifest herself in all kinds of bodies: as a child, as an adult, as a judge, as a mother, as a king, as a schoolteacher, as a businessman, as a politician, as a scientist, as a journalist, or as a Dharma teacher. So you have to look deeply in order to recognize Avalokitesvara.

The Eye of Understanding 

The ten thousand arms of the bodhisattva are needed because love can express itself in many forms with many kinds of instruments. That is why every arm is holding a different instrument. But if you look closer, you see that in each hand there is an eye. The eye signifies the presence of understanding. Very often by loving someone we make that person suffer because our love is not made with understanding. The other person may be your son, your daughter, or your partner. If you don’t understand the suffering, the difficulty, the deep aspiration of that person, it is not possible for you to love him or her. That is why you need an eye for your arm to really be an instrument of compassion. It is important to check whether your loving has enough understanding and compassion in it. You can ask for help. “Darling, do you think I understand you enough? Do I make you suffer because of my love?” A father should be able to ask his son, a mother should be able to ask her daughter that question. “Daughter, do I make you suffer because of my lack of understanding? Please tell me so that I can love you properly.” That is the language of love. If you are sincere, your daughter will tell you about her suffering and once you have understood you will stop doing things that you thought would make her happy but really make her suffer. Understanding is the substance with which you can fabricate love.

Transformation Bodies of Avalokitesvara 

Several of us are acting like bodhisattvas with several arms. We are taking care of members of our family, and we also participate in the work of protecting the environment and helping the hungry children in the world. We think we have only two arms but many of us are present a little bit everywhere in the world. You can be at the same time here and in a prison. You can be at the same time here and in a far away country where children suffer because of malnutrition. You don’t have to be present with this body because you have other transformation bodies a little bit everywhere. And that is why it is very important that you recognize your transformation bodies. When I write a book I want to transform myself into thousands of me in order to go a little bit everywhere. Every book of mine becomes one of my transformation bodies. I can go to a cloister in the form of a book; I can go to a prison in the form of a cassette tape. Each of us has many transformation bodies. That is what the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara does. She can manifest herself in so many bodies. Being a bodhisattva is not something abstract; it’s something concrete that you can do.


When I was young I read a book written by a French tourist who went to Africa and enjoyed hunting tigers in the jungle. He didn’t believe in God. One day, late in the afternoon, he got lost in the jungle. He didn’t know how to get out; he began to panic. He wanted to pray for help but because he didn’t believe in God he had never prayed before. In his panic, he said, “God, if you really exist, then this is the time to come and rescue me!” There was some arrogance in his way of praying. Right after he said that, there was some noise in the bush and an African gentleman appeared wearing nothing but a loincloth and thanks to that person the Frenchman was saved. Later in his book he wrote an ironic sentence that showed he was not very grateful. He said, “I called for God but only a Negro came.” He was not able to recognize God in the person of a native African. He didn’t know that the “Negro” who came to him was God, was Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. You have to be very awake in order to recognize the beautiful bodhisattva in an unfamiliar form.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara might be very close to you. You may be able to recognize her in the here and now and yet you are looking for him or her in the clouds. Compassion does exist; understanding does exist. It is possible for us to cultivate the energy of compassion and understanding so that the bodhisattva can be with us all the time in our daily life. Then we will be well protected.

Four Skillful Means for Embracing Living Beings

How does the bodhisattva act in order to help living beings to overcome their suffering and to realize their ultimate dimension? We speak of four skillful means used by the bodhisattva, in the dimension of action, to embrace living beings. They are: (1) making offerings, (2) using loving speech, (3) doing things to benefit the other person, and (4) “doing the same thing” or becoming one with the people you want to help.

Offering the Gift of Non-fear 

There are three kinds of gifts spoken of in Buddhism: material gifts, the gift of the Dharma, and the gift of non-fear. When you offer things to people, you are practicing compassion and you also open the way for reconciliation and healing. Giving her some beautiful music can help her to relax while listening. Giving him a book on the Dharma may help him to deal with his difficulties. The Buddha said when you are angry with someone and you are capable of giving him or her something, then your anger will die down.

The most precious gift that Avalokitesvara can offer us is the gift of non-fear. People are afraid of losing their identity, of dying, of becoming nothing. When you give the kind of teaching and practice and insight that helps people touch their ultimate dimension, they lose all their fear. But you need to have that gift of non-fear within you in order for you to be able to offer it to others.

Perhaps as a child you have played with a kaleidoscope, a very simple, wonderful toy. I have a few in my hut. In it there are loose bits of colored materials and two mirrors at one end that show many different patterns. Each pattern is a beautiful manifestation. If you turn it a little bit, that manifestation will be replaced with another manifestation. Every manifestation is beautiful. As a child, you don’t regret when one manifestation replaces another. The manifestations also, no matter how beautiful they are, do not feel sorrowful when they give their place to the next manifestation. The child just enjoys the changes without any regret because the next manifestation is as beautiful as the current one. There is no fear, no regret because all manifestations have the same ground, the little bits of colors in the kaleidoscope. The ground of all manifestations is always there. If you can touch the ground, you don’t mind the changes. You are not caught by this body, you know this is just one manifestation. You are ready to manifest in another form as wonderful as this one.

The Loving Speech of a Bodhisattva 

The second skillful means is to use loving speech. You can be very firm and uncompromising, and still use loving speech. Loving speech can convey your feeling and your idea to the other person better than shouting at them, blaming them, or being sarcastic and sour. A bodhisattva should be able to use loving speech.


I would like to return to the example of the police bodhisattva. Seeing the way people react to the police, the police officers’ hearts harden every day. They feel very isolated; they feel they are victims of society. So the police bodhisattva can propose that the community of police officers organize an open house. They will prepare food and beverages and will invite the neighborhood to come and hear the story of the life of a police officer. You can tell them, “When I set out in the morning carrying my gun and going to the street, my spouse does not know whether I will come home safely because there is so much violence in society. Although we carry guns we can be killed or maimed by other people. So we start our day with fear, with uncertainty; we don’t know what will happen to us during that day. Our task is to impose order, but maybe we will be victims of violence on the street. If we do our job with anger and fear in us, we cannot do it well. That is why we suffer as police officers. We really want to help but we suffer very much. When we go home we cannot offer joy and compassion to the people in our home because it was so hard during the day. If there is no happiness in our home, we are not nourished.”

Then members of the community will have more understanding and compassion for you. Communication is possible. There can be collaboration between the police officers and community members. There must be a way out of even the most difficult situations. The way out is through listening with compassion and using loving speech. Once communication is restored we have hope and suffering will be lessened.

The third skillful means is to do things that benefit the other person. From your actions the other person feels safer and has more opportunities for a happy life. Showing people how to receive training to obtain a job, how to increase their family ‘s income, how to improve their health or have more security, are examples of the kinds of action that benefit people.

The Skillful Means of “Doing the Same Thing”

The fourth skillful means is, you become one of them. You look like them, you wear clothes like them, and you do exactly what they are doing, in order for them to have a chance to learn the path of understanding and love. That is the action of the bodhisattva.

Nowadays there are so many youngsters who belong to gangs. Each gang may have thirty or forty members, each with a leader. In order to help transform their hearts and minds, you have to transform yourself into a gang leader. You look like a delinquent but you are really a bodhisattva because that is the only way to approach them. You have to talk like them, you have to behave and wear clothes like them in order to be recognized and accepted, then you can begin to help transform their hearts. That is called the practice of “doing the same thing.” That is what Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can do. So in the prisons you can manifest yourself as a fellow prisoner and you become the bodhisattva among prisoners. In the police force, you have to manifest yourself as a police officer, and you play the role of bodhisattva in order to bring about relief, understanding, and compassion.

A Bodhisattva in Prison 

There is a nun who is a student of mine who has spent a lot of time in prison. When she was young she had the opportunity to study English literature in a university in America. She ordained as a nun in Vietnam. She was imprisoned because she participated in activities to promote human rights. During the time she was in prison she practiced walking meditation and sitting meditation every day, although her cell was very small. Thanks to the practice she remained calm and fresh; anger and despair were not able to seize her. She was able to help the other prisoners. Other prisoners had a lot of anger that showed on their faces when they interacted with the prison guards. But she was treated well by the prison guards, not because she was a nun, but because she had the compassionate look of a practitioner. She was smiling and fresh that is why they didn’t worry about her.

The fact is that while being in prison she was not a victim of anger and despair. She was able to make use of her time there, like a retreat. She didn’t have to do anything ,just enjoy the practice. She grew up spiritually during her time in prison. Instead of transforming her prison cell into a pit of glowing embers, she transformed her dwelling into a cool lotus pond because she knew the practice of mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. If we find ourselves in a situation like hers and we know how to practice the Universal Door of mindfulness and compassion, then we will not suffer and we can help people who are in the same situation. We can also help people like the administrators and prison guards.

Praising Avalokitesvara 

“From the depths of understanding, the flower of great eloquence blooms: the Bodhisattva stands majestically upon the waves of birth and death, free from all afflictions. Her great compassion eliminates all sickness, even that once thought of as incurable. Her wondrous light sweeps away all obstacles and dangers. The willow branch in her hand, once waved, reveals countless Buddha lands. Her lotus flower blossoms a multitude of practice centers. I bow to her, to see her true presence in the here and now. I offer her the incense of my heart. May the Bodhisattva of deep listening embrace us all with great compassion. Homage to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.” — Verses of Praise from the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.


In this chant praising Avalokitesvara you begin to see that the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has a deep understanding of your situation, of the situation of the world. And she is able to convince you with her great eloquence to follow the path of understanding and love. She is free from the dust of craving, anger, and delusion. Her nectar of compassion can heal all kinds of sickness whether it is depression or cancer. The best kind of medicine is compassion. Without compassion it is very difficult to heal. You need compassion from the inside and from the outside. The light emitted by him or her sweeps away all kinds of dangers. You draw dangers into yourself by your craving, hatred, and delusion. But because you have the light of compassion, you can dissipate and be free from all of these dangers.

The bodhisattva holds a willow branch in her hand. When she waves it she reveals countless Buddha lands. The Buddha land is right here, right now, but because we are deluded and caught in our anger we don’t see the wonders of life, the wonders of the Pure Land in the present moment. We need her to use a willow branch in order to reveal it to us. She dips the willow branch into the nectar of compassion and as she spreads it, she transforms suffering into joy. With the nectar of compassion you can do everything. You can transform death into life, despair into hope. It is possible for you to cultivate the nectar of compassion like a bodhisattva. With her pink lotus flower she creates a multitude of practice centers. There are many practice centers in Germany, in England, in America, and in Israel. You are an arm of the bodhisattva; you are establishing Mindfulness Practice Centers everywhere. I bow my head; I praise her, I praise compassion, and I offer the incense of my heart. Please manifest yourself in the here and the now for us.

The Ten Virtues of Avalokitesvara: The Five Contemplations and the Five Sounds 

“Look of truth, look of purity, look of boundless understanding, look of love, look of compassion, the look to be always honored and practiced.”

If you want to know the nature and the practice of Avalokitesvara, you should be aware that she practices five kinds of contemplations: of truth, purity, great wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness. The first contemplation comes from the definition of her name, Quan, meaning looking deeply into the truth of reality. You have the capacity to distinguish the true from the false, the beautiful from the ugly.

The second contemplation is the contemplation on purification. Like a cloud in the sky, she has to purify herself so that when she becomes the rain, the rain will be pure for the sake of the world. To be a cloud floating in the sky is wonderful, but it is also wonderful to be the rain falling on the mountains and the rivers. To become the snow on the top of a mountain is also wonderful. To be a drink in a glass of water for a child is also wonderful. So water can manifest herself in many forms and every form is wonderful. That is why bodhisattvas are not caught in one form of manifestation, in one body. We know that this manifestation is linked to the next manifestation in terms of cause and effect.

If the cloud is polluted then the rain will be polluted also. That is why, while being a cloud you purify yourself so that when you become the rain you become very pure, delicious water. You know that there are many clouds that carry within themselves a lot of dust, a lot of acid. The clouds that hang over big cities are quite polluted. When they become snow the snow is not clean; when it becomes rain, it can carry a lot of acid and destroy the forests. So while you are a cloud try to practice self-purification so that when you are transformed into snow and water you will be more beautiful. By self-purification, you help with the purification of the world.

We know we draw dangers to ourselves because of the way we look at things and because we have craving, anger, and delusion in us. That is why self-purification, learning to look deeply to remove our anger, our craving, and our delusion is to remove danger. Especially when you touch the ultimate, you are no longer afraid of anything.

The third contemplation is the contemplation on the great wisdom, maha prajna paramita. The object of your contemplation is not just knowledge, but the great wisdom that has the power of bringing you to the other shore, the shore of safety, the shore of non-fear, the shore of well-being.

The fourth contemplation is the contemplation on compassion, the energy with which we can embrace all beings whether they are sweet and lovable or unkind and cruel. The fifth contemplation is the contemplation on loving kindness, the energy that is the opposite of what we feel towards an enemy. When we contemplate on loving kindness we feel our association and friendship towards all beings. We should practice contemplation of these five objects.

The Five Sounds of a Bodhisattva

“Sound of wonder, noble sound,
sound of one looking deeply into the world,
extraordinary sound, sound of the rising tide,
the sound to which we will always listen.”

This verse in the Universal Door Chapter speaks about five kinds of sounds that characterize the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The five sounds are the sound of wonder, the sound of he or she who understands the world, the noble sound, the sound that is powerful like the sound of the rising tide, and the sound that surpasses all sounds in the Locadhatu, the mundane world.

First is the sound of wonder: you yourself are a wonder, the tree in the front yard is a wonder, the Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder, and the galaxy is a wonder. You should listen in such a way that you can hear the sound of the wonders. Otherwise you are living in a dream. You are in the kingdom of wonders and yet you are not in touch. That is why you have to listen. You listen to the mountain, you listen to the flower, you listen to the birds, you listen to yourself, and you become aware that everything is a wonder.

The second sound is the sound of he or she who practices looking deeply into the world. The Buddha is described as “he who deeply understands the world.” All of us who are friends, disciples, continuations of the Buddha, do the same. We try to look deeply into the world in order to understand better. That is the meaning of meditation. To meditate is to have the time to look deeply at what is there. And looking like that we come to understand the world, to understand ourselves, and we are free from afflictions, from making mistakes.

The third sound is the sound of nobility. There are sounds that are heavy, that carry a lot of craving, a lot of despair. But when you are a practitioner you are on a path of self-purification and the sound you emit every day becomes finer and finer, because every cell in your body, every mental formation in you is on the way to self-purification and transformation. That is why the sound emitted by our cells becomes more and more noble. That is what happens with the bodhisattva; her sound is a wonderful sound, that is high and noble. If you are mindful and concentrated, you can tune in to that sound for your pleasure, for your transformation, and for your healing.

The fourth kind of sound is the sound of the rising tide. When I was a student at the Buddhist Institute I invited other students to produce a newsletter for the students of the seminary and I proposed the title, “The Voice of the Rising Tide.” But because we wrote so many radical thoughts, later on we were forbidden to continue with our publication. The sound of the rising tide is very powerful. If you can tune in to that sound, you receive transformation and healing. That sound can embrace and take away the sounds that are vulgar, that are low. The fifth kind of sound is the sound that can transcend all the other sounds of the world. The Locadhatu emits the sound of the world, while the sound emitted by the bodhisattva reveals to us the Dharmadhatu, the realm of ultimate reality, the Pure Land.

When you practice being aware of Avalokitesvara, you get in touch with these five kinds of sounds and these five kinds of contemplations. This is the essence of Avalokitesvara. Avalokitesvara is not the name of a god. Avalokitesvara is a real person having real qualities characterized by these five contemplations and five sounds.

Compassion Like Thunder

“Strength of Thunder, Calmness of Clouds
Heart of compassion like rolling thunder,
heart of love like gentle clouds,
water of Dharma nectar raining upon us,
extinguishing the fire of afflictions.”

The element of karuna, of compassion, is like thunder. Compassion is not something soft, it is very powerful, like thunder. The element of maitri, of loving kindness, is like a wonderful great cloud causing the rain of the Dharma to fall down like nectar, extinguishing all the fire of afflictions. You have two images, the thunder and the cloud. When these two things come together, it produces the compassionate Dharma rain falling down, extinguishing all kinds of afflictions.

Taking Refuge in Holiness

“Contemplation on Holiness:
With mindfulness, free from doubts,
in moments of danger and affliction,
our faith in the purity of Avalokita
is where we go for refuge.”

In every moment, dwelling in mindfulness without any doubt, we have great confidence in the power of compassion and understanding. Avalokitesvara becomes the object of our mindfulness, of our recollection. Even in danger or dying, you maintain that kind of awareness because Avalokitesvara is a holy entity, a saint. Wherever there are the elements of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, there is the element of holiness. Avalokitesvara is a holy person and if we make him or her into the object of our mindfulness, we get the element of holiness in us. That is why we don’t have to be afraid of dangers anymore, even prison or death. She is the element of holiness and she is our refuge and our protection. That is the next to the last verse.


Looking at All Beings with the Eyes of Compassion

“We bow in gratitude to the one
who has all the virtues,
regarding the world
with compassionate eyes,
an Ocean of Well-Being
beyond measure.”

The last verse says, fully equipped with all kinds of merits, she is capable of looking at living beings with compassionate eyes. I think this is the most beautiful sentence in the whole Lotus Suta. Use the eyes of compassion to look at living beings. When you understand the suffering of the other person, you can accept him or her and suddenly compassion flows out of your eyes and you will help that person to suffer less. Using compassionate eyes to look at living beings is the most beautiful practice. You have a compassionate eye; the Buddha eye has been transmitted to you. The question is whether you want to make use of that eye.

The merits are accumulating into an infinite ocean. Merits can also be translated as happiness or well-being. You cannot describe the great ocean of happiness. Happiness is made of one substance, called compassion. That is why in cultivating compassion you cultivate happiness for yourself and for the world. Happiness is described not in terms of pounds or kilograms but in terms of oceans. Our happiness accumulates and becomes an infinite ocean. We touch the feet of the bodhisattva with our forehead to express our deep gratitude and respect.

On the Gridakuta Mountain where the Buddha delivered the Lotus Sutra, Shakyumani was playing the main role, the role of the Buddha, and Avalokitesvara played the role of a bodhisattva. But in many sutras we have learned that Avalokitesvara became a Buddha a long time before and is a fully enlightened person. Yet coming to the Gridakuta Mountain, he played the role of a disciple of the Buddha. This is a kind of play because if there is a teacher, there must be students. If there are students, there must be a teacher. So you take turns in order to be a teacher or a student. Some time later you will become a teacher and I will be your student. This is the tenth door of the Avatamsaka Sutra. It’s like a formation of wild geese in the sky. If the leader gets tired, he slows down and lets another lead. Sometimes you play the role of the leader, sometimes you play the role of a follower and you don’t discriminate at all, you are equally happy. With that we can conclude the Universal Door chapter and we know that Avalokitesvara has played the role of the student very well. But if we look deeply into her personality, her action, her wisdom, we know that no one can surpass her in terms of compassion and understanding.

From Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh on June 9th, June 14th, and June 15th, 2002 during the twenty-one day Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village, France. Transcribed and edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Steadiness.

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1 “Discourse on the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma: Universal Door Chapter” found in Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2000). All following quotes in this article are from the same source unless noted otherwise.

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

Poem: Contemplation

Since the moon is full tonight,
let us call upon the stars in prayer.
the power of concentration,
seen through the bright, one-pointed mind,
is shaking the universe.

All living beings
are present
to witness the
ocean of fear
flooding the

Upon the sound of
the midnight bell,
everyone in
the ten directions
joins hands
and enters the
meditation on

springs from the
as pure, refreshing
healing the
wounds of life.

From the highest
peak of the Mind
the blessed water
streams down,
penetrating rice
fields and orange groves.

The poisonous snake drinks
a drop of this nectar
from the tip of a blade of green grass,
and the poison on its tongue vanishes.

Mara’s arrows
are transformed
info fragrant flowers.

The wondrous action of the healing water—
a mysterious transformation!
A child now holds the snake in her innocent arms.

Leaves are still green in the ancient garden.
The shimmering sunlight
smiles on the snow,
and the sacred spring
still flows towards the East.

On Avalokita’s
willow branch,
or in my heart,
the healing water
is the same.

Tonight all weapons
fall at our feet
and turn to dust.

One flower,
two flowers
millions of little flowers
appear in the green fields.

The gate of
deliverance opens
with a smile on the lips
of my innocent child.

Thich Nhat Hanah, 1965

This is a metta (love) meditation to produce the balm of amirita (immortality) that can transform our hearts and the world. Mahakaruna is the mind of love that has the capacity to relieve the suffering of many living beings.

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Letters from the Editors

True Spiritual Communication

Dear Friends,

This is the fourth issue of the Mindfulness Bell that has been produced by the current editorial team. We are learning and developing our skills as we go, and we hope that each new issue is more inspiring and informative for our readers. Towards this end, we have decided to discontinue announcing themes for issues in advance, after the next issue, which will focus on education. Instead, we have adopted the policy of presenting the most current and relevant teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh, and forming the issue’s theme around that teaching. We encourage you to continue to offer the fruits of your practice in whatever area of life they manifest. We will do our best to compile the offerings we receive in a comprehensive and intelligent form.

Thay’s teaching in this issue is taken from three Dharma talks given at the Hand of the Buddha Retreat last June at Plum Village. It is a deep and beautiful piece on Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of deep listening.

When I first became acquainted with the practice of compassionate listening, I felt a deep desire to develop my own skill and to share it with others. Recently I realized that the anger that has come up in me all my life arises when I don’t feel acknowledged or understood, or free to express myself. My core difficulty in life seems to be the feelings that come from the experience of not being heard.

Several years ago I offered a compassionate listening skills training program in my community. We met for two-hour sessions, and mostly practiced listening in pairs or small groups. By far the most meaningful exercise we did was in groups of four, where one person spoke and the others listened — one to the story line, one to the emotions being expressed, and one to the underlying values. When the speaker was finished, the listeners shared what they had heard. In each case, it was hearing his or her values reflected back accurately that gave the speaker the deep relief and comfort of feeling truly heard. I offer you this practice: try going beyond the story and the feelings next time you listen to someone, and listen for the values the person is trying to convey. I believe that this is a way to find commonality and to begin healing the vast differences that sometimes seem to overwhelm us.

I would be happy to share my outline of the listening course I developed. My vision is for us to gather in small groups, all over the world, connecting with our hearts while we offer the gift of truly being present for one another.

The sound of morning bird song, the sound of a deep lake, the sound of a heart opening in love,

Barbara Casey                  barbaracasey@sbcglobal.net


Dear Friends,

Today is a clear beautiful day in Plum Village.  The sky is blue.  The poplar leaves shimmer and quake in the light wind reminding us of the Sutra on the Land of Great Happiness where each tree is made of precious jewels emitting wonderful music. During walking meditation this morning we stopped and rested in the plum orchard. In the shade of each tree there were two or three or four sisters and brothers simply enjoying being together with each other and with the world.   One sister offered me a small glass of hot water from her thermos.  She sang me two songs that bring her joy.   I listened to my sister’s voice like I listen to the quaking of the leaves.

At the beginning of the walking meditation I removed my shoes, as the grass was soft and inviting. The earth beneath the plum trees was hard and cracked. I enjoyed walking on both surfaces. To me this is an example of True Spiritual Communication. We communicate with our voices and we also communicate with our bodies and our minds.  My feet communicate with the earth and the earth communicates with my feet. My eyes communicate with the colors and forms surrounding me and the colors and forms communicate with my eyes. There is communication between my sister and me, between my brother and me as we walk silently through the orchard. And why is this communication spiritual? To me it is the communication that wakes me up, that brings me into contact with reality, that nourishes my awareness and my capacity to understand and to love.

When I am attentive I can hear many things in the quaking leaves. I can hear stories and poems, songs and sutras. I can hear lullabies and I can hear the musical voice of my teacher barely whispering yet penetrating and deep, sharing the true teachings of love and understanding.

While Thay and a delegation have been on a two-month teaching tour in North America, those of us remaining in Plum Village have been enjoying our Fall Retreat. We enjoy every day as a Day of Mindfulness, a day to practice, and a day to be present. Along with the fruits of our practice we have been enjoying harvesting many fruits of earth and sky as well walnuts and hazelnuts, peaches and apples, figs and pears, and of course plums!

Please enter this issue of the Mindfulness Bell as you would an orchard in the late autumn sun. There are a variety of appealing fruits to enjoy, in the form of articles, images and poetry. There is also the warm companionship and inspiration of many friends and teachers offering their insights and experiences on the path of practice. Taste, taste and see for yourself the sweetness, the sharpness, and the richness of the living Dharma.

Enjoy!                 Sister Steadiness

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Poem: Open Heart Surgery

I cannot tell you about the sunrise on the Sound today
About the fiery sky
and the half moon directly above me,
shining her bright benediction.
There’s no way I can describe
the comfort of the silent mountain in the distance.
And the way the mist rose off the still waters
or the sound of the gulls’ call through the morning air.
I had to close my eyes
to still the weeping of this humbled heart.

And when it seemed the glory was waning,
as glories do,
the eagle came,
to catch her breakfast in the waters
before me.
I cannot explain how it felt to belong
to this wonder.
As  I walked slowly,
the sun rose over the hills,
drying my salty tears.


In days to come,
when I am world weary,
I will have the joy
of that bright sky in me.
When I am uncertain
and blown about by winds of change,
I will have that solid mountain
to ground me.
When words cause confusion
instead of understanding,
I will have that bird song
to soften and ease me.
When I am tossed
and torn with worries and wild thoughts,
I will have that peaceful water reflecting the gentle moon.
And when I am fearful,
I will borrow the confidence and clear-seeing
of that eagle.

I can tell you that
If I am struck blind tomorrow
this sunrise will be what  would have wanted to see today.

by Barbara Casey
November 11, 2001
Camp Indianola, Puget Sound

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Invoking the Name of Avalokitesvara

By Sister Giac Nghiem

Before l was a nun, I found Avalokitesvara one day at my acupuncturist’ s office. He had a beautiful statue of Avalokitesvara and told me that she has the same energy as Mother Mary. I felt I had met Mother Mary in another form, with the same energy of love and understanding.

I ask for help from Avalokitesvara in this way: when someone close to me is suffering, asking me for advice I say “Oh my friend Avalokita, I know you are everywhere. I need your help because I am so small and so young on the path. I do not know how to answer those who are close to me and need help.” Always I have faith that she is here and helping me. I have never seen or heard her, but in my heart I know that she is here.

At the beginning of my nun’s life I cried a lot. Sometimes I felt that Avalokitesvara helped me come out of my suffering by becoming a drowning mouse or an abandoned cat by the side of the road or a snail about to be crushed under someone’s feet. I took care of every animal or plant I found that had a problem. l said to her, “Oh today you have turned yourself into a mouse drowning in the water because you know that l am drowning in my suffering and you are giving me something to do. You put the mouse that is nearly dead into my hand to help my compassion to grow.” My only prayer is to say to her, “Avalokitesvara, my beloved, please put me exactly where someone needs me and help me to be your hands, to be your eyes, to be your ears, to be your body.  Please help me to open my heart and I am sure I can help.”

Excerpted from an interview with Sister Giac Nghiem by Sister Steadiness, September 2002.

Sister Giac Nghiem, True Adornment with Awakening, ordained as a nun in 1999. She is French and has helped for many years with the Hungry Children programs in Vietnam as a lay­woman and now as a nun.

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Fierce-Faced Bodhisattva: A Policewoman’s Story

Interview with Cheri Maples by Barbara Casey during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat, June 2002

Cheri, how did you decide to be a peace officer?

Cheri: There were three things I wanted to be as a little girl: a lawyer, a police officer and a professional baseball player. I really wanted to be a professional baseball player, but when I was growing up girls were certainly not cops or lawyers, and even less professional baseball players. However, in addition to being a police officer, I am also a licensed attorney so two out of three is not bad.

I went to high school and college during the Vietnam War and like many other people in this country born in the 1950s, by my teenage years I had become somewhat of a “question authority” rebel. In my early twenties, I had my first exposure to the reality of community organizing work and working to get institutions to be more responsive to the people they served. I had two different jobs. In one, I was doing community organizing in the largest federal housing project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I was often the only white person in the building. The second was as an advocate for a first-offender’s program for women convicted of prostitution. I was the only white woman on the staff. Through these two experiences, I learned how limited and “white” my view of the world was, including my thinking, seeing, and hearing. Both these experiences had a big impact on me.


I was working with people who didn’t have any resources, which also had an impact on me. All of this work led me to think more about violence against women. Almost every single woman who had been referred to the prostitution program bad been a victim of a sexual assault at some time in her life. This motivated me to get more active in various efforts to end violence in the lives of women and children. I realized that though there were so many peace activists with good hearts, most people were not capable of making peace in their own homes.

I started volunteering with the Women’s Coalition, an umbrella organization in Milwaukee that housed several different groups working on various women’s issues. They sent me to training put on by community organizers from the Alinsky Institute in Chicago which was a tremendous training in grassroots organizing. I was also working on a master’s degree in social work part time and commuted to Madison from Milwaukee once a week to attend classes. By 1979, I moved to Madison for a semester to finish my degree, but once I got there, I never left because the community was so much more progressive and so much more of a supportive atmosphere to live in as a lesbian.

I did my field placement for an organization called Dane County Advocates for Battered Women. It was a grassroots organization with a wonderful young and dedicated group of women working to provide some safe alternatives for women in abusive relationships. At the time, it was a huge job because there was so little consciousness about the issue. I worked there for a couple of years and became the Community Education Coordinator. In addition to doing training for police officers, hospitals, churches, and anybody else that would invite me, I started organizing groups of formerly battered women to help get legislation passed to provide state funding for shelters for battered women and their children.

I left that job to become the first director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Woman Abuse. Wisconsin was trying to form a coalition of all the various service providers in the state and there were tremendous conflicts between service providers in different parts of the state. They received a grant that funded a paid staff position and I was hired. The organization grew and eventually became the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. I had the privilege of working with people from both urban and rural organizations who were very different from each other and were from every place on the political continuum from feminists on the left to very conservative people on the right.

I enjoyed that job very much and had the opportunity to put my community organizing skills to work building a coalition.

After two years of working there, my partner and I decided we wanted to have children. We each had one biological child and I am the proud parent of two sons, Jamie who is now nine­ teen, and Micah who is fourteen. It got very hard to support a family on a community organizer ‘s salary so I decided to return to school to get a Ph.D. in social work. I did the course work while working as a teaching assistant. In my last semester of course work, I realized I was not very comfortable being in academia fulltime. I grew up in a very poor, working-class family and I just was not very comfortable or happy in academia on a fulltime basis.

One of the field students that I had supervised when I worked at Dane County Advocates for Battered Women had become a police officer. She talked to me about becoming a police officer. She pointed out that although policing was really a type of social work that it was a male dominated profession and hence paid a lot better than any of the work I had been doing. The police chief at the time, David Couper, was very progressive and an anomaly as a police chief. Some referred to him as the socialist police chief of the Midwest. He was very progressive and interested in diversifying the police force. He had brought people of color on to the force and was very committed to bringing women into policing at a time when there were not any women working as police officers on the street.


I had a difficult time imagining myself in a paramilitary organization. I had worked mainly in grassroots organizations small enough to make decisions by consensus, so the contrast just seemed too great to me. I eventually decided to just go through the application process, which was very long. The interviews intrigued me because the questions they were asking me were about who I was as a person and how I communicated with people, not about my ability to use force. It was quite a decision to follow this career path because I had always worked outside the institutional system, trying to make it more responsive to people and had not been part of the system before.

A lot of people I had worked with were very angry with me. They thought I was making a wrong choice and that I was selling out. I was pretty divided about it myself. I almost quit while I was going through the police training academy. I was in very good shape physically I have always been very athletic but some of the attitudes of people whom I was going through the academy with really bothered me. However, my class was very diverse. There were two other lesbians in my class, about one­third of my class was women, and about one-fourth of the class shared values similar to mine. This was in 1984.

How were you women treated?

Cheri: There had been two or three classes of women before us, but many men did not accept women yet, and there were still lots of questions about whether women belonged in policing. With time, men started to see that women brought some positive things to policing, for instance that you could talk a person into handcuffs instead of using force to get people to comply with your requests. I believe they were just starting to see the value of interpersonal and communication skills in being an effective police officer and that women brought this style into policing much more often than men did. I don’t think it was just a coincidence that women started coming into policing about the time that “community-oriented” policing began.

However, even once women started being accepted, the attitude toward lesbians was very hostile. When I went on my first field training experience, other officers (both men and women) were wearing “happily hetero” buttons and “straight as an arrow” buttons, and there was a big hubbub because the police chief ordered them to take them off.

When women first came on the force they had received pornography in the mail. It was very hard to get uniforms and equipment made for women; we were often walking around in men ‘s pants and shirts and bulletproof vests. All of that has changed. Sometimes a woman would respond to a call and if there were male officers with a hostile attitude who had arrived before her, they didn’t want anything to do with her. Other times they would just sit in their car to see if she could handle a situation herself. People of color experienced the same thing as they were coming on to the police force. People were not very accepting in the beginning. There was a lot of racism, a lot of sexism, a lot of homophobia.

However, there was something refreshing about being with the other police officers. Unlike academia, where some people used politically correct language to hide their real biases and feelings, people in the police department were very honest about their attitudes, even in the early days. I appreciated that and it made it possible to communicate honestly.

When I began training it was hard because I was learning a job where my own safety, as well as the safety of others, was dependent on my ability to handle myself in volatile situations. When my life is on the line and my safety is an issue, I need to have the trust and support of people around me.

I went through what I’m sure people in the military go through. For example, for the first three months that I was working on the street, I had combat dreams just about every night. This really surprised me because I never felt consciously afraid. I don’t know why, but even when I was in dangerous situations involving weapons or gunshots being fired, I never felt afraid at the time. I think we just learn to do our job and think about it afterward. However, I believe there is a type of a cumulative posttraumatic stress. For me, although fear was not a conscious issue, whether or not I was doing the right thing and whether or not being a police officer was right livelihood for me was always an issue. It was strange because even though I struggled with this, the job felt like a really good fit for me.


The first time I came to a retreat of Thay’s, by the end of the retreat I really felt like I had come home. Becoming a police officer felt similar. Even with the challenging atmosphere, I felt like I had come home to something that was important and that I had never experienced anywhere else that I worked. And I had done some very challenging and very satisfying things. With time, I also began to enjoy the close relationships I formed with many of the men I worked with. As a lesbian there aren’t all these romantic possibilities and sexual tensions getting in the way of real intimacy so my relationships with my male coworkers were often very, very close. Although it wasn’t comfortable when a man didn’t know that T was a lesbian and would ask me on a date, that did not happen too often. The intense homophobia, sexism, and racism that existed in the early ’80s has definitely been transformed in my department. It has not disappeared but life is so different here now than when I first joined. What made this transformation possible was simply people really getting to know each other, working side by side, and piercing the stereotypes. There were all different levels of relationship issues that were going on that were hard and challenging to deal with. I’m really glad that I was thirty-one years old at the time and not trying to deal with these things at age twenty-two because it was hard enough at thirty-one.

How many years did you do police work before you came across Thay’s teaching?

Cheri: l was a police officer for seven years before I went to my first retreat in 1991. By that time I was starting to understand that being a police officer was probably going to be a career for me rather than a transition to something else. T was working nights, on the “power” shift, 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., the overlapping shift with afternoons and evenings.

I had read a couple of Thay’s books, which sparked my curiosity. In the spring of ’91, l had a work injury and I sought treatment from a local chiropractor. I saw a registration form on the bulletin board in the waiting room for a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh i n Mundelein, Illinois. I decided to check it out. Although Thay gave the Dharma talks at that retreat, the monastics led the Dharma discussions and discussions about the five precepts. (They were called precepts rather than mindfulness trainings at that time.) Sister True Emptiness (Sister Chan Khong) played a very large role at that retreat.

The first thing that caught my attention was that Thay’s attitudes towards women and gay and lesbian people seemed so different from any spiritual leader I had ever been exposed to. He was so open and loving. His language was also gender neutral in that he used pronouns that were both male and female, which was still somewhat unusual at the time. I’ll never forget a question someone asked him about how he felt about lesbian and gay relationships.  I thought, “Here it goes, my bubble will be burst.”

I didn’t even want to hear the answer to the question because I was so sure I would be disappointed. Imagine my surprise when he said something like, the gender of the participants makes no difference, it’s the quality of the love between the people that is important. I had very big fears of feeling like an outsider as both a lesbian and a cop at these types of gatherings. That dispelled one of my big fears, that I would be considered second-class as a lesbian.

However, as a police officer l usually felt like even more of an outsider at these types of gatherings. Most people attending Thay’s retreats had progressive politics and many people with progressive politics automatically assume that police officers are the enemy. My partner, who attended the retreat with me, wanted to go to the discussion on the five precepts. I went with her but I felt that I could not even consider taking the precepts because of the requirement not to kill. As a person who carried a gun and who had a sworn duty to protect the lives of others, I knew that the possibility existed that I would have to kill some­ one to protect my own life or the life of another person. Even though I prayed I would never be in that position, I knew it was always a possibility that went with the profession.

At the discussion, I had a conversation with Sister True Emptiness that had a huge impact on me. She encouraged me to take the five precepts and challenged my assumption that I could not take them. She said something like, “Who else would we want to carry a gun except somebody willing to do it mindfully?” She was so supportive and wonderful and her logic was irrefutable. That conversation gave me some hope that it was possible to integrate my job with my spiritual aspirations.

I had never had the experience of the kind of silence, mindfulness, and slowing down that comes with the practice that I experienced at that retreat. Most of the retreat was in silence, and I felt so refreshed by the fourth or fifth day. I realized there was something about the practice that was really important. When I got back home and began making some initial efforts to practice, my energy slowly started to change. Although it was a gradual process and not something that happened overnight, I’m convinced it started at that retreat with my receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

A lot of people at that retreat would not take the Five Mindfulness Trainings because they didn’t want to give up alcohol and marijuana. It wasn’t an issue for me because I was a recovering alcoholic and I bad been sober for a year. Shortly after I came back from the retreat I had a call involving a fifteenyearold and a sixteen-year-old who had met a man at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, who took them back to his house, got them drunk and sexually assaulted one of them. I was devastated. I had used AA as a real source of support; it was my introduction to spirituality. I could not believe that somebody would use it for that kind of personal gain. However, I knew that I was meant to be on this call. I spent the entire night and half the next day with the young woman who was sexually assaulted. I got her collected with her sponsor and a good support system and checked in with her occasionally over the next few months. I gave her a medallion that I had received as a gift for my six­month sobriety anniversary. I carried that medallion around all the time and I would take it out of my pocket and rub it whenever I was having a hard time. I told her to do the same thing. We have kept in contact and recently (ten years later) she came to my office to thank me for the support l gave her at such a difficult time. She is now married and has a beautiful two-year-old daughter.

I had other experiences after the retreat that showed me that the precepts were constantly working in my life. For instance, I had a domestic violence call in which my attitude toward the man involved before the retreat would have been: “you jerk.” He was very angry and acting out his anger inappropriately. I could have arrested him for domestic disorderly conduct. Instead I got his wife and daughter out of the house and we were able to avoid any actual violence. Although he had intimidated and scared them, which is another form of violence, I could tell how hurt and scared he was beneath the anger and just sat there with him and talked to him until he started crying. Then, I held him, with my gun belt on and all. I would never have done that before it certainly isn’t considered a “tactically sound” response.  But, when you think about it, what could be a better antidote to an escalation of conflict? I could see and feel his pain. Three days later I was at an AA meeting, and this same man walked in. He pointed at me and said, “You! You saved me that night.” And he gave me a big bear hug. Those kinds of events are so nourishing and reinforcing because you know you are really connecting with people.

I had a number of those experiences and I started enjoying being out on the street. I used to be in a hurry to finish one call and get to the next so other officers would not think I was slow. But after the retreat with Thay, I started taking the time to be with people wherever I was. I was much more compassionate in my work and as my energy changed and my demeanor softened so did the energy of people I was encountering on the street, even people I had to arrest. It was seldom necessary for me to use force after that. I am absolutely convinced that the energy you put out is what you get back, no matter who you’re with. The anger and chip I carried around on my shoulder from a somewhat abusive and very neglectful childhood got much smaller and I slowly started the process of transforming the anger and rage I was walking around with.

And now you are in charge of personnel?

Cheri: I slowly went up the chain of command. I became a street supervisor, which is a sergeant, and then I became a lieutenant. As a lieutenant, I was the officer in charge of the night shift. Then I was a patrol lieutenant for a couple of years, then I was a detective lieutenant for a couple of years and now I’m the captain of personnel and training. I’m in charge of all the recruiting and hiring of police officers and the probationary training period of all the recruits while they are in the academy. We have our own academy that the police recruits are required to attend for seven months before they go out on the street, first with other officers, and then solo. I have a team of nine other people that I work with. I’m the top person in terms of rank, but we make decisions by consensus whenever possible, which is very unusual in a paramilitary organization. Every one of the officers on my team is great. We are also in charge of all the in-service training police officers are required to go through in order to maintain their law enforcement certifications. I do a lot of thinking about how to integrate the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings into the training we do.

When I was given this position, I immediately began managing my team in an alternative way. For instance, I don’t control the budgets that I am responsible for; I give each supervisor on the team a budget and projects to be responsible for. We started with a two-day retreat held in my home where we built the philosophical foundation that we work and operate from. The essence of what I believe we need to do as a team is to inspire and enroll the recruits and other officers in possibilities through the training function. We have to show them and the rest of the organization that we create the community together. That it is not about what the people above them or below them are or aren’t doing it is about what we are each doing as individuals and the community/family we create together. Ethics is now integrated into every single thing we teach. It’s not a separate course anymore. We want recruits to understand that they are responsible for this family the Madison Police Family. We want them to understand that they have to be a reflection of the values of the organization in every interaction they have.

We take them on the ropes course (a physical training exercise involving teamwork) right away to get some cohesion formed in the group and then we lay a philosophical foundation. The new recruits need the support of their families when they are changing jobs so those family members also need to understand what is happening on the job. We began offering sessions with partners and family members, and started having the recruits do their own violence self-assessment as part of our domestic violence training. They also receive assessments and training on alcohol and other drug abuse. I am responsible for the domestic violence, community policing, diversity, and policy training they receive. I train as a team with people from different parts of the criminal-justice system, other service providers, and people in the community so they get several different perspectives.

The training team’s function is to give the recruits the tools they need to effectively do their job. There are certain tools they need to have: they need to have crisis-intervention and mediation skills so they can deescalate a crisis; they need to have good communication and interpersonal skills. They have to know how to use a firearm and take care of themselves and others physically. Most important, they need to have good split-second decision-making skills.

I also try to help them understand that some of the skills we are teaching them as police officers (e.g., command presence, taking control) do not work well in interpersonal relationships. I try to help them learn to distinguish when these skills are useful and when they are not. If they can’t do this, they will not make very good police officers, and they will make terrible partners, spouses, and parents. It’s sometimes hard to turn it off and on and you may not even be aware of what you are doing, but they can’t let this kind of attitude bleed into their home lives. Partners, friends, and family members need to understand this so they can help the officers know when this is happening. As police officers, we need the help and support of those around us to give us honest and loving feedback.

Those are some of the alternative things that we try to include in our training. We do a lot of enrolling people in possibilities in terms of getting them to think about what they want to be as human beings and how they want to interact with others on the planet. I want them to understand that the more open they are, the more likely they will be to perform this job with the open heart required to be effective. We get 900 applications for twenty-two positions, so I tell the recruits that I know they are all smart enough to do the job, but I don’t know whether they have enough heart to do it.

Do you use listening skills in your training programs?

Cheri: We do training in listening skills and interpersonal skills not only in the recruit academy, but also in the leadership academy, which everyone who wants to be promoted must attend.

There’s also lots of training involving listening skills in other areas. We do a big section of training on race and suspicion and the history of people of color in this country with law enforcement. We want people to understand that when someone says, “You’re only arresting or stopping me because I’m black” or something like that, that there are very real reasons people feel that way. We try to get police officers to understand why people react like this and that it’s not about them personally.

We teach a lot about conflict cycles and how they start. There’s what is, and then there are our perceptions of what is, and most people collapse those two things continually without realizing it. We try to get them to think about how that happens for them internally and how it happens with the people they are encountering on the street, so they can stop the inevitable conflicts that lack of insight produces.

We do a lot of teaching about how to ”treat other people how they want to be treated but first find out how they want to be treated,” because cultural differences can create misunderstandings if you just assume you know how someone else, especially from a different culture, wants to be treated. We do a lot of scenario training with both routine and high-intensity situations. All these activities include communication and listening skills. We try to balance the training between the community-oriented skills and the tactical skills they need to keep themselves and others safe.

I’ve also made a training team credo that is based on the Fourth Mindfulness Training. Right away I teach that gossip is a false form of intimacy. Don’t let people tell you that only women gossip. I work in a predominantly male organization and it’s a worse problem than I’ve ever encountered. It’s like being in high school, except everyone wears a gun. I try to get the officers to talk directly to people rather than about them. It is very difficult, but as a staff, we keep bringing it up and asking ourselves how are we doing with it.

The other thing I try to get each of the staff and recruits to do is to live our mission statement and to think about their own personal mission statements. We have lunch together and talk about what our aspirations and motivations are, who we want to be. It’s a very different way of doing business than the way it is done in most police departments. That is one of the advantages of going up the ranks to management. You get to be in charge of at least a slice of the pie.

One way of handling all the suffering that you have to deal with, day in and day out, is to close your heart. Do you have that problem?

Cheri: It’s interesting that you say that because that’s where I was at before this retreat. I was closed down and didn’t even realize that there had been too much to take in. That’s why I was in tears when I asked Thay the question about police officers.

There was so much emotion just sitting there. It’s so important for us as police officers to examine this issue deeply. Closing down to people’s suffering and becoming cynical because of so often seeing people at their worst can happen slowly over time without one even realizing it. I know I’ve changed and l have watched the people around me change. We have to do more as an organization to provide officers with the support they need not to allow this to happen. We currently operate on pretty superficial levels with the help we do provide.


I’ve also worked to offer mandatory crisis debriefings for everyone involved in stressful incidents. If it’s not required, people often feel like wimps when they ask to go. The problem is that it’s still up to a commander to identify those incidents. What one person considers usual business may have a horrifying effect on another. For example, when recruits get to their first car accident and see their first dead body or people with terrible injuries, they might need help with that. However, that’s considered routine for people who have been on the job for a while.

Right before I left for this retreat a number of members of my Sangha approached me to ask how they can help support the police. One person is very interested in getting involved in restorative justice, in getting victims and perpetrators together to communicate and transform their suffering. Another wants to work with police officers and help them deal with the accumulated stress that can lead to a type of posttraumatic stress syndrome. Whatever support people can offer us, we’ll take.

There’s still so much for me to deal with that has come up at this retreat. l realize that I’m still not 100% comfortable with what l do, and Thay’s Dharma talks and answer to my question were very helpful to me on this level. I want to discover new ways to stay honest with myself about what is going on internally.

Well, you are doing a huge job of bridging, and that is a key responsibility in our society, but often a lonely one.

Cheri: You just get so much crap; people see you as an enemy everywhere, and that’s as hard as dealing with the suffering you see daily. You are seen as the bad guy by everybody, including poor people and people of color who are already exploited.

So, you are seen as the enemy both by people who want to help others and people who need the help of others. It gets hard to be the bad guy everywhere. Although 911 has certainly helped with this, it hasn’t changed the stereotypes of cops much.

How does your Sangha support you, especially in those hard times? You must have days when you feel you’ve worked so hard and instead of acknowledgement you get the opposite.

Cheri: Never have I felt such support in my life as the support I get from my Sangha. Never have l gotten so many expressions of openness and offerings to share and communicate about my dilemmas. We meet on Tuesday and Friday nights; I hated to meet on Friday nights at first but now I love it because it’s a door from my week to my weekend. I can’t tell you what my Sangha means to me as support. They asked me to make a presentation on my work, and the discussion that followed was so healing for me. But I still struggle with whether I’m on the right stage. I am an anomaly as a police officer. There aren’t many of us police officers interested in mindfulness. However, that is why I am so excited about Thay’s commitment to do a retreat for us sometime in the future. It could be the start of a wonderful transformation in policing in this country.

I don’t want to imply that there is anything wrong with what I’m doing; l feel I’m breathing life into the values of a democracy and the spirit of the law, and I’m proud of that. But some of the people I work with have no business being cops, and that’s hard. There are so many cops across the country who not only have no business being cops because they are violent and corrupt, but the injustices they inflict affect the reputations of all of us. One of the things I do is to talk about how important it is that each of us uphold the responsibility we are invested with as the only people in society who have access to legal force.

Most of the time you’re on your own, there’s no one looking over your shoulder. It’s a bureaucracy turned upside down because people at the bottom level make 99% of the decisions. Prosecutors and judges only see who we bring before them. If we don’t make an arrest, they simply aren’t aware of it. Supervisors within the organization also see very little of what actually takes place on the street. What’s amazing to me is the amount of discretion we are given each moment in every situation. I’m convinced that police officers don’t take credit for most of the good work they do. Ninety percent of what we do is deal with people who are in crisis who don’t know who else to turn to, not the stuff you see on TV. People are out of touch with the reality of our work and we help perpetuate most of the myths.

Cheri, how would you like us members of the community to support police officers?

Cheri: I think the most important thing people can do is to give us the kind of encouragement that Sister True Emptiness gave me. The first real support outside of my family that I got for being a police officer was from Sister True Emptiness and the people in my Sangha. I have also felt incredible support from the larger Sangha here in Plum Village, which I am so grateful for. I can’t tell you what it is like to feel I am with people who have values that I share on a deep political and spiritual realm and who support what do. It is important that we all provide that kind of encouragement and support for each other, which is exactly what Thay’s Dharma talk on the different faces of love was all about (the Dharma talk published in this issue). We need mindful people in every conceivable area of society. All of us need to practice mindfulness so we have the awareness not to create damage in our relationships and our work.

As a police officer, as a parent, as a partner, I know that I have often played the role of both victim and oppressor.  We need to offer each other the safety and support to talk openly and honestly about these things so we can learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. Likewise, those of us working within the system need to support each other in doing the critical self-examination necessary to understand and identify the ways in which we have been coopted that we are blind to. We need to help each other stay on the path of working tenderly and lovingly on our edges. For example, when people see motives in me grounded in ambition rather than love and compassion, I want them to gently point it out to me. When people see me closing down and operating from that edge of anger, I want them to gently point it out to me. If we can do these types of things from a place of Jove without judging each other, we will have much to offer each other.

Cheri Maples, True Mindfulness Trainings, is a captain in the Madison, Wisconsin police force, supervising personnel training and recruiting.

In response to Cheri’s request Thich Nhat Hanh will offer a retreat for law enforcement personnel from August 24-29, 2003 in Madison, Wisconsin. Anyone knowing of people who might be interested in attending, please email her at cmaples@ci.madison.wi.us

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A Proposal to Listen – For Peace and Security

Offered by Listen For Peace, A Grassroots Organization Inspired by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh’s Teachings on Compassionate Listening

The Proposal

In light of the intensifying conflicts around the planet, and before another war is declared, we call upon the United States and the world community to pause. As one humanity, we cannot survive the continuing cycle of violence in response to violence. There are alternative responses. We recognize that the wellbeing and safety of the people within the United States and the wellbeing and safety of the rest of the world are inseparable. In order for harmony and safety to exist among nations in the world, we must first nourish harmony and safety in our own country. Peace begins with each one of us.  Therefore, we propose a process of listening, understanding, and reconciliation on both a national and an international level.

Within the U.S., we need to listen to our own suffering as seen in problems such as racial and religious discrimination, and school violence. Listening with compassion to this suffering would increase national understanding and trust, and show us paths out of division and despair. Recognizing the strength and goodwill of the people of our nation, we know we have the capacity to do this. We call upon community, humanitarian, and spiritual leaders to come together in local and national forums for compassionate listening. In these forums, representatives of diverse communities would be guided by people skilled in mediation and reconciliation to carefully express their suffering without blaming or condemning. When possible, these forums would be televised to increase participation. In this way, the collective understanding of our nation’s suffering would deepen and result in creative new solutions and legislation to improve the lives of all people in the U.S. This would help alleviate the despair in this land that could explode into acts of violence. By embodying strong, compassionate leadership through self-examination and reform, the U.S. would inspire other nations.


Internationally, we propose the creation of a Peace Parliament to listen to the suffering of people throughout the world, and to offer courageous alternatives to war. The parliament’s focus would not be dialogue between the political representatives of nation-states and would not duplicate the vital role of the United Nations. It would instead create a safe space for members of diverse communities to share both their difficulties and visions for a peaceful world. This would increase understanding of difficult global situations, and become a source of insight and concrete proposals for political leaders around the world. We call on all people to engage in this work on both the national and international level. We call upon trained mediators from local, national, and international organizations. We ask community, humanitarian, and spiritual leaders to volunteer, and the media to offer its support, so that these processes of healing can begin.

We call upon all nations, and the United States in particular, to answer this immediate need, not by hastening toward increased tragedy, but by moving in the direction of peace and security. We must act swiftly and with care to create the lasting peace we all desire.

Responding to Suffering:

Dear Friends,

In response to Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks on compassionate listening at the Stonehill College Retreat in Massachusettes, U.S.A. in August 2002, a group got together and developed a task force for taking action in their communities and relating to our political leaders.  Deeply concerned with the escalation of violence in our own country and in the world, this group of people felt inspired to do something to bring relief.  Together with the input of Thich Nhat Hanh and monastic and lay members of the Order of lnterbeing, “A Proposal to Listen For Peace and Security” was drafted and a grassroots organization, “Listen For Peace” was formed.

You are requested to copy “A Proposal to Listen For Peace and Security” and to collect the signatures of family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues and send them in. Feel free to distribute copies of the proposal for others to do the same. You may like to bring the proposal to your town, city, and state representatives to share this important inspiration. If you want further material and support or would like to offer your help please visit the Listen For Peace website: www.listenforpeace.org.

Very warm regards from,
Maple Forest Monastery and Green Mountain Dharma Center, Vermont

To sign the proposal and down load our signature page, go to: Listen for Peace: www.listenforpeace.org

Please mail completed signature sheets to: Listen for Peace, P.O. Box 210, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts 02130

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Poem: The Question

Fleeing solitude
on the melting tar road,
I turned to words,
and was invited into silence.
Right away,
oaks cooled the cross-breezes
and leaves chanted
of a vast tenderness.
The view down the valley
was nothing special,
it wouldn’t stop traffic,
but I could not move,
and yielded,
and sank.
The answer was here.
“Field, haystack, forest, hedge,
why are you so beautiful?
Why do you break my heart?”
Our last walk here,
is it too precious for words?
“Because you are here.”
“Because you stopped.”
“Because you saw me.”
“Because you asked.”

by Caleb Cushing
(written about an experience he had on the last lazy day of the Eyes of the Buddha Retreat in 2000)

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Ambient Light

By Margaret Kirschner

My friend, Mary, a photographer, captured an unusual image of a water lily. Her photo was taken on a dark day, over a dark pond, without a flashbulb. She set her camera on a tripod, opened the shutter wide and let the camera wait as long as needed for whatever light might be there to reflect onto the film.

She had read an essay in the National Geographic magazine about photography in the Egyptian pyramids where no flashlights were permitted, despite the pitch blackness of the tombs. The cameras, with their shutters wide open, would simply be left on their tripods for hours, days, up to a week or more, until they received enough light to form the picture. This light was referred to as “ambient light.”

Mary’s picture is revealing; the outer petals are shaded in subtle nuances; they gain brightness closer to the center, until the light appears to radiate out from the core. It makes us aware that no matter how deep the darkness, there is always light if we have the confidence to wait for it. A flash would have lit each petal with an equal, momentary brilliance, obliterating the shadings and robbing us of our knowledge that ambient light exists; that it has subtleties; and that it is centered.

The same phenomenon is true of sound. When we sit in silence, listening with openness, and waiting with confidence for however long it takes, the words we need to hear arise out of the quiet. They often come like the light does, first in quiet images or whispered thoughts, much like the shadowed outer petals of the lily. Gradually they gain strength until the core idea resounds, the word ready to be spoken. Like the lily blossom, the focus is centered. In meditation we call this “going deeper.” The results are new understandings of ourselves; our behaviors change, often spontaneously.

Ambient: surrounding, encircling, encompassing, and enveloping. All words to describe what is always there, but undetected by us until we remove ourselves from the artificial light and sound of our technological world. The vision and the sounds of the essential are there to be seen and heard when we become aware of the silence and the darkness. We might call this the Universal Consciousness that is recessed in our own store consciousness.  It waits for us to call upon it.

The same holds true when we listen as counselors, whether as parents, fellow workers, or professionals. When we sit in the other’s silence, as in time-lapse photography, openly, without bias, the ambient message comes through as mysteriously as the ambient light that forms the photographic negative. It is intriguing how often it comes in the darkness of a still night. It is this understanding that helps us break through to new perspectives and the behaviors they generate. Actions that follow are compassionate and constructive because they have come, not just from our bits of information, nor from our logical processes, nor from our biased perspectives, but because they have come from the ambience. They have arisen from the history, the ancestors, the children, the friends, the conditions of the universe, from more complexities than one person seems capable of knowing. They bring a deep understanding to the listener as well as to the one being listened to. They carry the ambient light and sound, wisdom as beautiful as Mary’s lily blossom.

So we sit quietly focused
upon our darkness
with our lenses open
in confidence
for as long as needed
until ambient wisdom comes.

Margaret Kirschner, Mutual Support of the Heart, is a retired medical psychotherapist living in Portland, Oregon and practicing with the Portland Community of Mindful Living.

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How a Chopstick Prevented a Strike

I am a labor lawyer, representing registered nurses at contract negotiations. While I consider my work to be Right Livelihood, it brings a myriad of challenges to my practice.

One of my most rewarding challenges occurred in December 1999. I was negotiating at a large teaching hospital in New York City, and we remained apart on a number of issues that the nurses deemed vital for safe patient care. I had served a ten-day strike notice, and we were meeting for what both sides had agreed would be our last session prior to the strike deadline.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that my work brings to my practice is that it forces me to confront my aversion to conflict. When I find myself in conflict situations, strong feelings of fear and anxiety arise in me. My habit energy is to abort these feelings by reaching a resolution as quickly as possible, even if it means compromising process and leaving parties’ needs (including mine) largely unmet.  I knew that on the day of negotiations I would need to be particularly mindful of my feelings of fear and anxiety, holding them and smiling to them as I practiced patience and letting go of the outcome.

The weekend prior to our last negotiation session, I was very fortunate to be attending a two-day retreat. During Dharma discussion, I brought up my situation at work, and the challenging negotiation session awaiting me that week. Time was set aside at the retreat to create a healing circle, with everyone visualizing a successful resolution to the negotiations.

As I meditated the morning of our negotiation session, I put forth a strong intention for both parties to reach an agreement. I visualized myself welcoming conflict as if greeting an old friend. I also visualized both parties smiling and shaking hands at the end of the day. I was surprisingly calm as I drove to work.

When I arrived at the negotiation site, my negotiating team, a nurse colleague and five registered nurses who were employed by the hospital were already there. One of the nurses greeted me by holding up a chopstick, stating that it would be our ”Talking Stick.”

A Talking Stick is a method used by Native Americans during council meetings to allow everyone to speak their mind. Only the person holding the Talking Stick can speak, and the other council members must remain silent. It is similar to the method of bowing used in Thay’s practice during Dharma discussion groups, where the person bowing has the opportunity to speak without interruption, and with the undivided attention of the other members present.

With the help of the chopstick, our caucuses — discussions among our negotiating committee — were like Dharma discussions. Mindful speech and listening were present during the entire process. As a result, we were more flexible and creative than ever before in drafting contract language that met both parties’ needs.

We even were successful in obtaining staffing guideline language, something that management kept saying throughout negotiations that they would never agree to.

This atmosphere of listening deeply and being nonjudgmental carried over into our discussions across the table with management. Both parties recognized everyone’s desire to reach a favorable outcome, even when the discussions became rather heated.

With the help of the chopstick, we reached an agreement. As the parties smiled and shook hands, a number of us commented on what a satisfying negotiation session had taken place.


Lois Penn, True Energy of Awakening, practices with the New York Metro Community of Mindfulness. She has been practicing non-avoidance of conflict with the New York State Nurses Association for the past nine years.

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A Guided Meditation for Listening Deeply

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

One morning when I woke up in Green Mountain Dharma Center I remembered a dream I had had which made me feel ill at ease. In that dream l had a serious difficulty with a sister, but in waking life I did not feel I had a difficulty with that sister. I pondered where the dream might have come from and remembered a meeting of the Sangha a few days before. I had felt unhappy after that meeting. During the meeting the sister bad spoken quite vehemently about her wishes implying that the sisters should all comply. At the end of the day everything had been resolved to the satisfaction of everyone in the Sangha, or so l thought. I felt very light and content. However that sister who bad spoken so vehemently had not felt content and she had come to me in my dream to tell me so a few days later.


When I woke up from the dream, it was such a beautiful day but I felt so tired. I lay on my bed breathing and fortunately it was lazy day, the day with no schedule. The birds were singing wholeheartedly and I remembered the lines in the shorter Amitayus Sutra:

“Furthermore Shariputra, in Sukbavati you can always see different species of birds of many varied wonderful colors. Like the white crane, the peacock, the oriole, the egret, the kavalinkara and the jivanjiva bird. Six times every day these birds sing with harmonious and sweet sounds. In the song of the birds people can hear teachings on different Dharma doors such as the Five Faculties, the Five Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment and the Noble Eightfold Path. When the people in this land bear the teaching in the form of bird song their minds are in perfect concentration and they come back to practicing mindfulness of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.”

I opened my heart to the Dharma talk of those New England birds, or should I say those Pure Land birds. For they were singing the Dharma just as wholeheartedly as the birds are reported to do in the sutra. They were singing: loving kindness, compassion, maitri, karuna; it’s in your heart. You can practice it. As l lay on my bed I practiced those teachings. Breathing in, l know you suffer. Breathing out, l embrace you in my heart. I embrace you just as you are without any expectation that you should be different. I embrace you because you are my Dharma sister, the daughter of our teacher.

That is how we practice on our own when we have a difficulty with someone. When we meet them again we watch how we respond to them. Can we feel the same love and compassion that we felt for them when we were meditating on our own? If so, we have resolved the difficulty as long as they are as at ease with us as we are with them. lf when we meet again we see that there are obstructions still lying between us, we need to organize a session of Beginning Anew when we can sit down and practice deep listening to each other.

When we come to listen deeply to the other we do not need to rest in our head. We can bring our attention down to our belly and, as we follow our breathing, listen as if we were listening to a piece of music. It may not be the most soothing music but we listen all the same. Bringing our attention to the movement of our abdomen as we breathe in and out is the way to practice with any strong emotion whether it be our own or that of the other person.

Help from the Tree

The day after the meeting I was practicing walking meditation. Breathing in, I know I am sad. Breathing out, I embrace my sadness. I walked along the lovely tree-lined driveway to the Green Mountain Dharma Center. It was such a beautiful day that if I had not been sad I would have been in paradise. I recognized that but did not try to push my sadness away. As the Buddha teaches in the Discourse on the Middle Way: The practitioner knows that when suffering has the causes and conditions to arise it arises, and when the causes and conditions for its existence arc no longer there it ceases. We recognize that our sadness is caused by many different conditions, so many that we would probably never be able to count them. We are inclined to place the blame for our sadness on just one or two things, but that is a very narrow view.

Lining that driveway are many tall, straight maple trees topped with leafy green. I hugged one of them and it felt so good. I put my cheek on the rough bark and embraced the tree for many minutes. The wind was blowing hard, and looking up to the top of the tree I could see it swaying energetically. As I felt the trunk again, there was an almost imperceptible movement: a little rocking from side to side, which at first I had not even noticed. It was like the movement of a boat on a calm sea or a mother quietly lulling her child to sleep. It entered my heart and became part of me. That is what Thay means when he tells us to return to the trunk of our tree in times of strong emotions! Now I knew how the trunk of a tree feels in a strong wind and I could practice it for myself.

When we listen deeply to someone who has a difficulty with us we can be the trunk of the tree for them as we follow our breathing in our abdomen. At first we listen to someone who is suffering because we have been told that is the correct practice to do. We may feel we do not want to listen. As we continue to sit there and follow our breathing using this exercise, we see that compassion begins to ooze out of our heart. If we have used this exercise before, when we begin to listen to the other person we may start out with compassion. However life is always unexpected. We never know in advance what the wrong perceptions of the other person may be or how strongly they may be voiced. So as we listen we may begin to lose our compassion. At that point we use the guided exercise outlined below to help us restore our compassion. If we cannot restore our compassion we should join our palms and quietly ask for an adjournment of the session or a sound of the bell to give us space for conscious breathing. Once when I was facilitating a session of Beginning Anew in a difficult situation I said to the practitioner who was listening: “If at any time you feel that you are losing your compassion put your hand on my knee and we can take a break.” At one point that happened and I asked: “Do you want to adjourn?” and the person replied: ”No, I just need to breathe for a few moments.” He practiced like that and we resumed with good results for both parties.

Something people do not always know is that when we have listened to someone express the suffering they feel we have caused them, although we do not reply for at least another three days, we can at least say we are sorry. It is a good way to finish the session and our practice probably gives us enough humility to do this. Even if we feel the other person has not suffered because of what we said or did but because of his or her wrong perceptions, we can still say: “I am so sorry. I never wanted you to suffer. Please forgive my lack of skill.” We have to admit that we are not 100% skillful.

Listening to Heal Misunderstandings

This exercise is to help us prepare ourselves before we listen deeply to someone with whom we have a misunderstanding. It can also be practiced while we are listening to the other person. If we have already practiced this exercise before we sit down with the person who needs us to listen deeply to them we shall be able to use the suitable parts of the meditation whenever we feel we need them, to keep concentration and compassion present in our hearts.

The Buddha advises us not to identify ourselves with what is not ours. If we see the gardener making a pile of sticks to burn and we identify ourselves with the sticks we shall suffer. Similarly we should not identify ourselves with the wrong perceptions someone may have concerning us. However, wrong perceptions have their basis in the consciousness of a person and lead that person to suffer.  Our task as a practitioner is to embrace that person and their suffering in our heart. As we listen deeply to someone, we can continuously remind ourselves that this person is suffering and worthy of our compassion rather than our hate. The suffering of that person is very real and has its basis in traumas and difficulties, which that person has experienced in the past.

Breathing in I know that I am breathing in,   (In)
Breathing out I know that I am breathing out.   (Out)

Breathing in I calm my body,   (Calm)
Breathing out I smile   (Smile)

Breathing in I know I have suffered,   (My suffering)
Breathing out I smile with compassion   (Compassionate smile)

Breathing in I know you have suffered   (Your suffering)
Breathing out I smile with compassion   (Compassionate smile)

Breathing in I know we both suffer   (Our suffering)
Breathing out I want us both to have a new chance   (A new chance)

Breathing in I listen  (Listening)
Breathing out I hear  (Hearing)

Breathing in I hear your bitterness   (Bitterness)
Breathing out I embrace you in my heart   (Embrace you)

Breathing in I hear your wrong perception   (Wrong perception)
Breathing out I do not burn with anger  (Not burning)

Breathing in I know I have made you suffer   (You suffered)
Breathing out I am sorry   (I am sorry)

Breathing in I open my heart   (Opening my heart)
Breathing out in my heart there is room for you  (Room for you)

Breathing in I want to be happy  (My happiness)
Breathing out I want you to be happy   (Your happiness)

Breathing in I see us happy   (Our happiness)
Breathing out that is all I want   (Is all I want)

This exercise was used during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in June 2002 in the New Hamlet. A retreat is always an excellent time to practice Beginning Anew. Many of us may come from the same local Sangha to a faraway country to attend a large retreat. We may see that one of the members of our Sangha with whom we have an unresolved difficulty is also practicing with us in the retreat. Our local Sangha wants us to begin anew because they know that if two of us are not happy the whole Sangha cannot be happy. There are monks, nuns and skilled lay practitioners at the retreat who are able to help us in the Beginning Anew process.  If we practice in the retreat setting, the energy of collective mindfulness and concentration can be a tremendous support for us.

Sister True Virtue is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, US.A. She enjoys writing and translating and spending time with her younger sisters.

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Poem: petals of insight

in the morning, i breathe the cool air,
moist with dew
all around the earth is waking up,
soaking in the fresh warm light.
i too, turn to face the sun, sweet joy.

in the afternoon, i take gentle steps
on this precious soil of my mind.
i lay my body down,
in the shade of a healthy pine tree.
my arms crossed over my chest,
embracing myself

tenderly i hold the pain
of many lifetimes.
my precious companion,
teaching me the way of
acceptance, compassion.

written in my breath is a loving word,
a peaceful  smile.
i rise, following the rhythms of the sun.
i recall my teacher’s words,
“My child, we walk among stars. Can you see this is true?”
each flower, a cosmos
of sun and Earth,
ancestors and loving kindness.

in this moment, it is not an external notion,
i see i am the sunshine.
my suffering is not mine,
is not encased in this body alone,
is not caught in you and me,
is not separate from the sunshine.

to embrace is to include, to surround, to surrender.
i asked my teacher, please show me
how to transform my suffering,
how to bring peace to my heart and my mind.
my teacher said,
my child,
embrace yourself, include yourself.
do not cut yourself with fear and jealousy.
do not be ashamed of your pain .
it is precious,
it is the fertile soil of enlightenment.

that beautiful rose that touches your heart,
look closely,
you will see some petals are withering,
some are just beginning to bloom.
the beauty is not found in its perfection,
but in its wholehearted offering.
fragrant and fresh,
withering and worn.

breathing in and breathing out.
one action
lights up the mind of understanding and love.

21 may 2002

by Sister Steadiness


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A Lifetime of Global Peacemaking

An Interview with Gene Knudsen Hoffman by Barbara Casey

Gene, how did you first become familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh?

Gene: I have been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation since 1950 and we sponsored Thich Nhat Hanh’s speaking tours for peace in the United States and abroad in 1966. I was interested in this young Buddhist who had so much to contribute to peace. In 1985 I went for a month to Plum Village, his center in France. While there, he asked me to organize his first retreat with Vietnam Veterans. It was a wonderful retreat here in Santa Barbara and there are several veterans from that retreat that l still see.

Thay, as we learned to call him, is particularly strong and powerful in h is teachings on reconciliation.  Since that is my field, l learned much from him.  The international program I founded, Compassionate Listening, is based on h is teachings that we must listen to both sides of any conflict before we take action and we must acknowledge the suffering and grievances of both sides without judgement. Ultimately through this process, we bring the two sides together for reconciliation.

When Glasnost came, everyone just stopped, thinking that no more work of reconciliation was needed, but I knew that wasn’t true. So l began working in the Middle East and since then I have been going back and forth, working there. On one trip to Israel, I stopped in London and attended a Quaker meeting. I saw a huge sign outside the hall saying, “Meeting for worship for the tortured and the torturers,” so l went to that meeting. I had long listened to the tortured, but listening to the torturers I’d never thought of that. So I developed a Compassionate Listening program and wrote many articles about it. Then in 1996 I received a call from Leah Green in Seattle, saying she wanted to use my Compassionate Listening process in her peace delegations to the Middle East. No one else had wanted to work with me because they said I didn’t advocate for anything. When you advocate, you pick a side and you have enemies. I didn’t take a side. When people asked me who I was advocating for, I told them, “I’m advocating for reconciliation.”

Tell us about Compassionate Listening:

Gene: Compassionate Listening is a process for making peace because you listen to the grievances of both sides, you hear the suffering of both sides, and you hear the life stories of the people who represent each side. It is a listening program that does not criticize or advise. The Middle East project has been bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Now there are more people who are beginning to understand the situation. When l went to Israel the first few times, the Israelis I met said the Palestinians didn’t exist and no one would go into the Palestinian Territory except the peacemakers.

Compassionate Listening is people listening to both sides without judging or condemning and being there as nourishing, nurturing people caring for people on both sides. It’s amazing.

One of my last visits to Israel included a meeting with the military head of Hamas at that time. He was a very appealing young man. I listened to his life story. He had been arrested and exiled by the Israelis, and made to sit on the border of Lebanon where they were fighting. His story was horrific but he was a loving man. I went up to him afterwards and said, “l might have some ideas on nonviolence for you and I wonder if you would like to hear them?” And he said, “You sound just like my mother.” I told him, “I’d like to be your mother!” We hugged and I left. A week after I came home, the newspaper reported that he had participated in nonviolent demonstrations twice. I don’t know where he is now but the transforming experience of having a group of people listen to your life story was reflected in the change in this young man.

I was requested by the American Friends Service Committee in Alaska to offer two trainings. They were having problems with indigenous people in Alaska having their food supply threatened. Their program went for a year and a half and then they came together and made seven concessions.

In the listening process, there is a group leader and the same listeners stay with the project. They start out listening to one group and then the other. They don’t bring the groups together until they feel they are ready; by that time they have often worked through many of their differences. This is the process that I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh because in his community each person tells their side.

How does a person use compassionate listening skills in their daily life?

Gene: You listen to people; you don’t criticize or condemn them and you don’t argue with them. You are grateful they told their story. I have one grandson who is a little terror and is defiant of everything he’s told to do. One day he came over and he didn’t talk to me, but he was being very troublesome. So l said, “Tell me what’s going on, are you upset with me. Have I done something?” He said, “I’m mad at my dad!” I said, “Thank you for telling me; tell me about it.” He said, “I didn’t want to come here, I wanted to stay and play with my friends, but my dad made me come!” That explained everything. Before I understood, his behavior was so awful l was ready to send him home. After I knew the problem, he softened up and his dad was here and we all began talking, and then everything was fine.

I think that you have to ask, is there anything wrong?  Is there anything I’ve done? Can you tell me how you’re feeling? I don’t know if it will work, but it works in the home if we can stop our own feelings of aggravation and listen. Just stop and say, “I’m going to listen to you now; tell me whatever it is that’s bothering you because it will help me.”

At home it’s so easy to just start arguing, I think it really helps to set an environment by stating what you’re going to do; “I’m going to stop and listen to you now.” Stopping and verbalizing your intention helps to create safety.

Gene: If an argument starts, one of the things that I usually do is to say, “I can’t talk about this anymore, I have to think about it.” Because at the moment the argument is going on I would just fall into it and defend myself. I do what I need to get out of the angry mode because that’s the hardest place to listen from.

In the Compassionate Listening project, you have to be able to listen to people you hate, but sometimes a person just cannot listen and they have to stop. I would have a hard time listening to [President] Bush, and I think it would be the best thing for me to go and listen to him. I think I would learn more about whatever it is that arouses me and makes me fear for my nation and for our lives.

How can Compassionate Listening help us in these times?

Gene: I think we should listen to the people who differ from us, either in small groups or one on one. We should listen to what we find is the truth they speak and affirm them in it. That is one of the processes of Compassionate Listening. For example, in the U.S. we can go in pairs, from door to door; and ask three questions: What do you think of the war against evil? Do you see a way other than war for resolving these differences? Would victory resolve our differences? Why or why not? Each person will have an opportunity to look at their own truth and to consider the beliefs behind their words.

We went to Libya and stayed a week doing Compassionate Listening. We met with people in government, politics, law, and academia. We also met with the religious leaders of Islam. I told them that I, as a Quaker, believed the spiritual teachings were evolutionary and asked them if the teachings in the Koran were too. They went into another room to consider my question and when they returned they said, “We interpret Mohammed’s teaching in different ways as time goes by.” When we asked them about their treatment of gay people, we were relieved when they answered that they don’t kill them anymore.

Gene, if you had an opportunity to meet with President Bush, how would you go about listening to him?

Gene: I would go with a small group who had been trained in this process. We would say something like: “We want to know about you as a person and as a President. Tell me the best time you ever had in your childhood.” We would not ask adversarial questions. We would say we want to know about your life, we want to know what you believe and what your faith tells you to do. What I would like to find is the good spirit in Bush that can be built upon, where we can build on what he believes, because there is no point in attacking him. I would listen with compassion to him.

How do you think we can bring peace?

Gene: There is no future without forgiveness. We must start going in delegations around the world, acknowledging the harm our country has done, acknowledging our grief over it and asking for forgiveness. I think every country has to do it, but I think that it needs to start here. The goal of compassionate listening is that we will acknowledge the harm that we’ve done and ask for forgiveness and listen to the other people. All of this bombing and destroying people has never brought peace.  So we have to do something much bigger. That will come in steps and just doing this compassionate listening is an important beginning.  There is a coming together of the two sides.

One of the many things I love about compassionate listening is that it’s not at all abstract.  It’s something I can do even when I feel completely overwhelmed by the state of things in the world.

Gene: Yes, and I still go back to the one on one. Since 9/11 I’ve had at least twelve people call me up and just want to come and talk to me, so I’ve listened.

Compassionate listening seems easy to do but is so difficult. If one aspires to be a compassionate listener, what are the qualities one needs to develop in oneself! Especially to be able to listen to people who have different views?

Gene: In the course I teach, you examine yourself for hatred. All the classes are on the Web, and it’s free. Whatever you can’t listen to, you don’t do. You have to discipline yourself and not react. With my grandson I react all the time, so I am working on that. You have to discern the truth and it’s not listening with your human ear, it’s listening with your spiritual ear. It’s much better to work in a group with a leader, but you can do it by yourself with my booklet.

What is your vision? How do you see Compassionate Listening being used in society?

Gene: I think it is a process that can be used in every experience and l think it’s a process that we Americans have to learn. This process is a step in our evolution, a direction that is different from the way we’ve gone before.  I’ve never seen so many articles published on listening before; I believe its time has come. We just have to transform ourselves and it’s a wonderful thing to do! We have been doing things that are very destructive to human beings for a long time.  We don’t know how rich and important it is to go out and do something!

It seems that separation breeds more separation, and compassionate listening breaks down the illusion that we are different, that we are “other.” We need to do that on a personal, one on one way, for the seeds of that belief to dissolve.

Gene: That’s a great statement. I’ m going to use that in my teaching. We can only aspire to the impartiality and balance that’s needed to do compassionate listening. But if we’re aware of our biases, then we can stay in honesty while listening.

Our nation is in denial about all the harm we’ve done. ‘”We’re peaceful,” we say, while we drop the bomb in Afghanistan and support war all over the world. I don’t think we can hope for much until we transform and begin to listen, and then it’s going to be a rough road.

What advice do you have to our readers if they want to begin incorporating compassionate listening in their lives?

Gene: l recommend they find other people and practice together. Go to my Website, www.coopcomm.org and you will find my training booklet, “Compassionate Listening: an Exploratory Sourcebook for Conflict Transformation.” They should do it together as a team; they could do it in their Sanghas. Try going door to door, as I have suggested, and then come together and share your experiences. It’s good to go representing a group, taking a poll or survey. See how you’re doing by writing a “love letter” to the person you dislike or hate the most. My sourcebook has many of these kinds of suggestions.

I’m amazed about all the new efforts to listen in our country. I think it’s thrilling. It’s amazing how effective it is in our personal life as well as our public life. Keep saying no to things you don’t believe in, but look for the truth in the invitations. Don’t worry about any outcome; go on growing and learning that’s the reward.

Gene Knudsen Hoffman is a Quaker peace activist who has pioneered compassionate listening practice for over thirty years. She has become a legend in the peacemaking community through bringing compassionate listening to the heart of the world’s greatest conflicts in Russia and the Middle East. Gene offers a step by step manual on this practice, available on the internet free of charge, at:  www.coopcomm.org


Compassionate Listening: An Exploratory Sourcebook by Gene K. Hoffman


In Compassionate Listening, we do not seek to change those who share with us, we seek only to love them. The more people are loved, the more freedom they have to respond to their own inner truth which may or may not prompt movement.   The only change we can be assured of is that if we truly listen to our fellow human beings, we ourselves will be changed.

What are the results of Compassionate Listening?

People who are involved with Compassionate Listening projects report them to be transforming experiences usually for both the listeners and speakers. Those in conflict have the chance to learn about one another as human beings and potential friends. Their understanding of the complexities of issues addressed are broadened and deepened. Their preconceptions are often shattered, their abilities to listen and be present are challenged and expanded. They find new understandings of themselves and others. Often listeners remark at what a reciprocal experience they have felt, despite only taking the role of listener.

When not to get involved with Compassionate Listening

You must not try to take on the Compassionate Listening role around an issue where your own experience is too fresh or painful. You will get hurt, and you will l hurt those with whom you set out to build bridges. You may need to rest and come back to the issue later.

“Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in awareness, we could have seen the beginning phases and helped to avoid it. The reconciler is not a judge standing outside the conflict, but becomes an insider who will take his or her responsibility by understanding the suffering of both sides. The participants in the conflict should communicate clearly how they see the suffering endured by the other side. The conflict’s resolution should be offered on the basis of benefit to both sides. Our purpose is the realization of understanding and compassion.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

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The Eighth and Ninth Mindfulness Trainings

The Eighth Mindfulness Training: Community and Communication

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

The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

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


The above trainings are taken from the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of lnterbeing, established by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1966. The Order of Interbeing grew out of the engaged Buddhist movement during the American-Vietnam War, when monks and nuns stepped outside their temples to help victims of war and many young people abandoned their ambitions to respond to the call for nonviolent service to help their devastated country.

Currently there are around 700 OI members spread all around the world. The Order of lnterbeing is composed of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen committed to practicing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and living according to the bodhisattva ideal of concrete, engaged compassionate action in the world. For more information see Interbeing by Thich Nhat Hanh, published by Parallax Press.

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A Chance to Go Onwards on the Path of Practice

Visiting Vietnam

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

Before our party of monks and nuns left Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery to go to Vietnam, Thay gave us instruction. His first words were, “We are sending you as an offering to Vietnam.” These words impressed us deeply. They made us feel light and easy and strong as well. Our teacher and our Sangha had formed us and now we could make a suitable offering to Vietnam. How happy we felt! We were not going to Vietnam as individuals but as representatives of our teacher and our Sangha.


Being in Touch with Our Spiritual Ancestors

The first fruit of our practice in going to Vietnam was being in touch with our ancestral teachers of the Buddhist tradition. As soon as we arrived in Vietnam we went directly to the Root Temple carrying a letter from Thay. The Root Temple is where Thay ordained and practiced as a novice. Thay is considered by the monks of the Root Temple to be their spiritual guide and master and he often sends teachings to them. In his letter he gave instructions for the organization of a seven-day retreat in the Plum Village style. Many monks, including the Abbot and several Dharma teachers, had not returned from their pilgrimage of study and practice to North Vietnam and we wanted to wait for their return to begin our retreat. During the absence of the Abbot, the venerable Thien Hanh was the head of the Root Temple. Ile greeted us with much warmth as a kind spiritual father. He eagerly encouraged us to organize the seven-day retreat so that as soon as the monks returned from Hanoi we could begin the retreat. On the day following our arrival he took us on a tour of the monastery, which we call the Root Temple. We visited the stupas of all the high monks who had studied, practiced, and taught in that temple, being nourished constantly by their spiritual energy which has never been lost, because it has been maintained by the daily practice of generations of monks. Many outstanding monks have been formed here and many Zen masters have practiced here as abbot before retiring to a hermitage to continue the practice towards the end of their Lives. The very earth and trees of the Root Temple have absorbed this practice and we all benefited greatly from this environment.

In the following days we visited various temples which are closely connected to Thay. On our three days of excursions to other monasteries we were able to be in touch with the years of suppression of Buddhism under the Diem government. We saw the place in the Phuoc Duyen Temple where a young monk whose Dharma name was Thanh Tue had immolated himself in 1963. We circumambulated his stupa and saw Thay’s poem “The Fire That Consumes My Younger Brother” which had been inscribed there. (See poem on page 37.) This reminds me of Thay’s words:

“It is better to die than not to speak out the truth. If you are too cowardly to speak out the truth then you die as a monk and teacher anyway.” Our visit to the Thien Mu Temple was also to be in touch with the temples’ long history of resistance to efforts to suppress Buddhism, including the most recent protest to the governmental authorities wanting to make it necessary for people to buy a ticket to enter the temple. We could also pay respects to our own teacher’s preceptor who was abbot of that temple at one time. Whenever we touched the earth with our five limbs we were aware we were watering the seeds of continuation of our ancestral teachers in us.

Organizing a Seven-Day Plum Village Style Retreat at the Root Temple in Hue

Three days of visiting temples, sometimes as many as six in one day, made us feel ready to begin our retreat. I was impressed by the first Sangha meeting I attended in the Root Temple to finalize our schedule for the retreat. The whole Sangha was present, so there were at least 60 monks including the Abbot and Dharmacharyas of the temple. Our small organizing committee of eight was requested to present the proposed schedule. This committee consisted of two monks and two nuns from the Plum Village delegation and four monks from the Root Temple. Thay Van Phap expressed himself well in meetings and so he was chosen to represent our committee. The Abbot and one Dharmacharya sat at the front of the meditation hall facing the rest of the community. Whenever there was a point which was not clear the Dharmacharya would demand further explanation from the organizing committee and if he was not satisfied with the proposals he would make suggestions for change and the rest of the community were also free to give their suggestions for changes.   After that the Dharmacharya would make a new proposal and put it to the community in the form of a sanghakarman procedure. (1) If the whole community agreed by silence it was accepted.

The first matter that came up for discussion was the ho canh (inviting the bell to call people to meditative concentration in the morning and evening). It was agreed by everyone that the whole retreat would be conducted in the Plum Village style of practice but there were points that needed to be clarified as to how this practice could be carried out. In Plum Village the ho canh is conducted inside the meditation hall but in the Root Temple it is conducted outside. We agreed that it would be good for the ho canh to take place outside of the meditation hall on the path leading to the meditation hall since the cloud bell could easily be hung from the eaves of the covered walkway there. Then there was the matter of the sports period that had been included in the timetable. The Dharmacharya wanted clarification on exactly what this involved. We explained the sports period we had had every day in the monastic five-day retreat in Plum Village with badminton, volleyball and ping-pong. Some monks wanted it to be optional but in the end it was agreed that what was on the timetable could not be optional. We were also given a firm warning by the Dharmacharya that this period should not be any less of a practice period than the sitting meditation. Thirdly there was the matter of how exactly we were going to organize the mindful meals. It was readily agreed that all the meals should be self­service. But exactly how was this to be done? Breakfast would be taken in the new Buddhist Studies hall, sitting on the floor. Lunch would be taken in the meditation hall also sitting on the floor and supper in our family groups wherever the family wanted to sit. The meeting was very long but I never felt tired. Everyone listened deeply with great interest and harmoniously resolved every detail. It was truly a practice of the Togetherness of Views. (2) It was democratic but at the same time the element of seniority was always there. The Dharmacharya made the proposals after listening deeply to everyone. These proposals were always based on the Dharma and the Vinaya. (3) Therefore the monastic Sangha respected the proposals and very readily agreed to them. The atmosphere of the meeting remained light throughout. I have never enjoyed a meeting so much in my life, largely due to the fact that every decision was based on the Dharma and the Vinaya and that all of us were always ready to let our individual ideas go to be in harmony with the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

When we returned to the Root Temple after a week visiting North Vietnam, we practiced two full days in the tradition of the Root Temple. It should have been seven days, but unfortunately we only had a week left. We spent one day recovering from our journey and preparing for the grand memorial ceremony of Zen Master Thanh  Quy, who was the direct teacher of our own teacher. It was a day of many arrivals in the temple. Buddhist lay practitioners came from places far away in the provinces and as people arrived laywomen and nuns made their way to the kitchen and the dining room (which had turned into a temporary kitchen) in order to prepare for the next day’s feast. We sat down too and helped make little cakes of rice flour pastry and mung bean paste. Our cakes were not so beautiful at first but after making a few dozen they certainly improved. People slept the night lying side by side in the Buddhist Studies hall. As for our delegation from abroad, we had to go back to our hotel.

Paying Respect to Our Grandfather Teacher Thanh Quy

The memorial day was calm, light and joyful. I enjoyed very much hearing from the Dharmacharya about the great humility of our ancestral teacher. He would always join his palms first to greet anyone who came before him. He was a true Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta. (4) One day when a Dharma brother from another temple had sent a letter to him carried by a novice, he insisted on standing up. The novice invited the teacher to sit down so that he could read the letter to him. The ancestral teacher refused; he said that the letter came from an elder brother in the Dharma and possibly contained instructions therefore it was only right for him to stand while the novice read. On another occasion the ancestral teacher had to go to a meeting of the Buddhist Assembly of the Thua Thien province. Su Ba Dieu Khong was also there. (5) The ancestral teacher had come with a novice as attendant but the novice had stayed outside. The ancestral teacher asked Su Ba to allow him to go out and bring the novice in. Su Ba replied that it was hardly necessary for an elder to go out and fetch in a novice. The ancestral teacher replied that the novice was still young and would be afraid to enter an assembly of high venerables alone. The ancestral teacher did not want the novice to be afraid. Deeply moved by the humility and loving kindness of the old monk, Su Ba then and there touched the Earth three times before him

At noon on that memorial day we enjoyed our first formal meal in the tradition of the Root Temple. For this meal you sit at the table and eat from a small bowl. The different dishes are set out in front of you for you to help yourself and others who may not be able to reach the dish nearest you. As you eat, the laypeople come and touch the Earth towards the end of the tables because the formal meal hall opens onto the same courtyard as the ancestral hall. After lunch the monastic Sangha processes into the Buddha hall in order to practice circumambulation and reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. You can imagine that such a meal involves quite a bit of preparation on the part of the younger monks. All the dishes have to be divided up on to small platters and carried from the kitchen to the formal meal hall (not a small distance). After the experience of the seven-day Plum Village style retreat the self-service meal was felt to be more practical and now in the Root Temple the monks help themselves to food and process with their bowls to the formal meal hall.  They call this “going on the alms round.”

The division of the Sangha into five families was a very successful part of the seven-day Plum Village style retreat. Each family found a place outside to sit together just as in the Summer Opening in Plum Village. After eating we would sing. Singing was the activity the monks in the Root Temple enjoyed most of all. Never a day went past without singing. ln a very short time the monks in the retreat had learnt all the new Vietnamese songs we had brought from Plum Village and very often they had memorized them even better than our delegation had. The favorite song was “Qua Con Me” which can be translated as “After the Passion.”


Praying for Rain: Buddhist Practice in the North

The north of Vietnam is very different from the center and the south. All three regions have their own special characteristics. Not only does the accent and some of the vocabulary differ in each of the regions but there is a difference in culture also, which includes ways of preparing food. There is poverty throughout Vietnam but in the north it is most apparent.

Moreover the north has lain for more than twenty years longer and this has had an obvious impact. Looking at the old people in the north you see how worn they are. Stunted and often bent, they continue to do voluntary construction work in the temples, pushing cartloads of bricks and sand or earth. The people are more dour than in the other regions. The old people remember Buddhism from the time before communism and they come to the temples with these memories. As for the young people, they still have not wholly understood Buddhism. Superstition is more evident in the north. It is common for people who come to the temples not to learn the practice, but to pray for things to go well for them.

One day I heard an old woman praying out loud in the early morning before it was light. I wondered what she was praying for. When I came near I heard her chanting a repentance chant and making the vow that all could reach awakening. It is more the younger generation who come and pray for material success. Some people in the north will still make offerings of chicken or cigarettes or beer on some of the altars in the Buddhist temples. This is because they think they are offering to gods or to spirits.

Buddhism has always wanted to help in times of hardship and it is right that the temples should do so. In the chant “May the day be well” we also pray: “May there be no place at war. May the winds be favorable and the rains seasonable and the people’s hearts at peace.” When we pray like this there is the underlying meaning that we shall practice in such a way that war is no longer possible. We do not pray for grace and favors that are not linked to our real efforts in the practice. We visited the temples that have been connected to the four bodhisattvas of rain, of clouds, of thunder, and of lightning. These bodhisattvas belong to the time when Buddhism had only just come to Vietnam. There was a need to assimilate some of the previous rites and rituals into Buddhism. This does not seem to have been difficult. Vietnam was and is a country of peasant farmers and the rain is needed for the people to survive. Tremendous hardship has always been experienced because of drought. The practice of the Three Trainings (mindfulness trainings, concentration, and insight) is essential for the practice of praying for rain. The monk’s prayer must be based on his virtue and his insight into the three Dharma Seals of impermanence, no­self and nirvana. The making of statues to represent the four bodhisattvas, their being venerated in the temple and taken out once a year or in times of drought is also a necessary part of the practice. It is the outer form that contains the content and the content is the practice of the Three Dharma Seals, the Three Trainings and compassion. Someone who has not understood the emptiness of self cannot pray efficaciously because they have not seen that the one who prays, that which is prayed for and the person for whom it is prayed are one.

We visited the Dharma Rain Temple, now known as Chua Dau, and the Dharma Cloud Temple. The first patriarch of Vietnamese Zen, Tang Hoi, must have frequented the latter temple, (6) although he was not trained there as a monk, because he was a monk in the town to which it belonged, the ancient capital of Luy Lau.

There are so many beautiful temples in North Vietnam but not enough monks and nuns to look after them. In the district of Hai Duong alone there are 700 temples but only 200 monks and nuns. The care of many temples lies in the hands of committees of laypeople. The But Thap Temple (Stupa like a Calligraphy Brush) is an example of a temple which has no abbot. The solution to the shortage of monks and nuns has been approached by inviting bhikshus or bhikshunis to be Abbot of more than one temple at a time, but But Thap temple does not even have a shared Abbot or Abbess. This temple moved me deeply.  It has been a Pure Land temple in the past.  It has a large statue of Amitabha Buddha and a stupa of nine stories (not the stupa after which the temple is named), made of wood. The nine stories represent the nine grades of lotus and it is said that people would throw flowers up to the story which represented the grade of lotus in which they aspired to be born. As we walked around that temple there was a sense of interbeing of everything flowing into everything else. The peasants were working in the rice fields around the temples. There was an angry cow who had been tied up and could find no more grass to eat in her range. All we had to do to remove her frustration was to untie her tether and tether her to a fallen tree a few meters away. I thought that if a cow can be angry in these circumstances, how much more angry the cows must be who are factory­ farmed in Europe and North America.

In the north of Vietnam the temples have many halls with small altars for the veneration of different Buddhas, bodhisattvas, monks and also lay practitioners. Most temples have an altar where the laypeople can pay their respects to Anathapindika. (7) There are many altars to nuns, queens, and princesses. Those who reached awakening in this very life are depicted seated on lotus thrones. In the beautiful Thay Temple there are four or five altars where it is possible to pay respect to women who had high realizations in the practice. (8)

When Buddhism came to Vietnam from India it came to North Vietnam in the first century of the Christian era and so the vestiges of Buddhism there are very ancient. The temples we visited in the south of Vietnam were much more modern. In the south the Buddha hall is usually light and spacious. In the North the temples are always quite dark inside.

Visiting Our Grandmother Teachers in the South

Our great joy in the south was to visit the high nuns who had already graced Plum Village with their presence. Many of them had visited Plum Village specifically to be present at the great ordination ceremonies there and to transmit the full ordination to the nuns. We visited Su Ba Bo De, Su Ba Pho Da, and Su Ba Long Hoa. Every Su Ba allowed us to visit their temple, gave us lunch or the evening meal, and had us come and speak informally with the nuns about our practice. In the Long Hoa Temple we also practiced walking meditation. The sharings usually took place in the Buddha hall in the form of a presentation. Su Ba Bo De gave us much support as did Su Ba Van Hanh. Su Ba Bo De was with us on every excursion and every Day of Mindfulness that we led in the south of Vietnam.

Our first trip was to the Bao Loe area. Itis a beautiful mountainous area north of Saigon in the direction of Da Lat. The indigenous mountain people work in the tea and coffee groves here but because of the drought and the fall in world tea and coffee prices the people are in great need. They no longer have a means of making a livelihood. Many women with their little babies carried in a sling over the shoulder would come hungry for the midday meal, which was offered to them at the Prajna Temple where we led a Day of Mindfulness. It rained heavily that day, the first time for many months. The deluge was so great that we could not have the Dharma discussion groups on the different walkways around the main halls. The doors had to be closed and we all crammed ourselves into the Buddha hall for a 200 person question and answer session.

This temple is very near to the Fragrant Palm Hermitage that Thay established in the 1960s. We visited it the day after the mindfulness day. It was hot and dry and the grass was tall and yellow. The tea grove started by Thay and his disciples was still there. It seemed that any vestiges of the former practice center had been razed to the ground. All that remained was the foundations of the hut of Su Ong Thanh Tu upon which had been constructed a new home for a poor family, which now lives there. The most beautiful aspect was the view and a shady grove of fragrant pine trees planted recently. The security police had told us we were not to go to this place because for some reason they have always been afraid that it might be the headquarters for a counterrevolution. This is probably why the buildings were razed to the ground. When the security police realized we had gone anyway they sent three of their members to supervise us while we were there. We walked, sat, and ate our lunch with the two members of the resident family who were present. It would have been good if we had taken the book Fragrant Palm Leaves with us to read aloud and recreate some of the spirit of the practice center in former times.

The Phap Van Temple is the place where you can still feel Thay’s presence. The Abbot, the Elder Phuoc Tri, who has been to Plum Village, told us that as soon as we arrived in the temple we should see our Su Ong. I said that I was sure we would, because I knew that Thay was with us wherever we went in Vietnam. What the Elder meant was that he had a large photograph of Thay in the dining area of the temple. Nevertheless, with or without the photograph, Thay is always there.  It is the temple which is next door to the buildings of the former School of Youth for Social Services and the present Buddha hall is the library of that School. Thay Thanh Van’s memorial stone is in the garden of that temple as are the memorial stones to the young disciples of Thay who were killed as a result of their being part of the School. This year and ten years ago when I also visited this temple I have felt inspired by the work and sacrifice of Thay and his disciples in wartime.


Su Ba Bo De came with us to the beach at Vung Tau. She told us that we must not swim out too far. She went swimming too, stayed in the water almost an hour and swam out farther than anyone else. Su Ba must be a contemporary of Thay. She has probably been through the rigors and strictness of a traditional Vietnamese nunnery but now she is free to enjoy herself as part of her practice. That freedom was probably made possible in part by her visits to Plum Village and the love shown to her by Thay. All the Su Bas showed us infinite kindness when we visited their temples. They love Thay very much even if they have not always been able openly to support him. When they show such care and concern for the disciples of Thay; or our delegation from Plum Village, it is a way of expressing their love for Thay. Su Ba Pho Da cooked personally for us, saw to it that we had the most comfortable siesta and afterwards served us with green mango accompanied by sugar and soya sauce, grapefruit, and many other delicacies. We then asked if we could have a Sangha meeting among our delegation before we left the temple because we needed to organize the rest of our stay in Saigon. She joined the meeting and made many helpful suggestions. It reminded me of how subtle and wise her contributions to Dharma discussions in Plum Village had always been.

Being in Touch with the Youngest Generation of Monastics

The Elder Minh Canh attended our Days of Mindfulness in the Phap Van Temple. Everyone said how much he had benefited from his stay in Plum Village. He was eager to have a copy of the latest book by Thay to appear from the underground press in Vietnam. This book is mostly the articles from the last edition of the La Tho Lang Mai, the annual newsletter of  Plum Village in Vietnamese. Monks told us that they had stayed up late at night just to read it to the end. It was so interesting. When in the Phap Van Temple I had talked about the situation of many children in the West whose parents work all day and never have time to spend with their children. One young dieu (9) told me that he was moved to hear that. Although in the country districts parents continue to love, care and have time for their children as they have always done in the past, in Saigon the situation is becoming very much the same as in the West and many of his friends suffer deeply from being isolated from their parents.

Because we were from abroad young novices and dieu would often come and confide in us their difficulties.  There is a very high “dropout” rate for dieu. One dieu told me that in the beginning they were ten but now they are only four. The dropout has something to do with the fact that the dieu have to go to school and they are influenced by their classmates who invite them to go on excursions away from the Sangha. Another reason l was told on many occasions is that the young children have an idea of what monastic life must be like before they enter the monastery and are severely disappointed when they confront the reality. Some said that they did not feel love from their teacher and elder brothers and that their ideal of service was not nourished. The lack of understanding between teacher and disciple was frequently cited. In the Root Temple there are twenty­four dieu. The “dropout” is less than in many other places because the elder brothers and the teachers have a real concern for the young dieu. When we went on an outing to the mountains and sea from Hue, it was considered at first to allow a limited number of dieu to come in order to act as attendants on the elders. On second thoughts that seemed very unfair. The second decision was that it would be better to leave all the dieu at home because there was no more room on the buses. The looks of disappointment on their faces were so great that another decision was made: each bus was to have five or six dieu squeeze in extra. So we sat three to a seat instead of two and everyone went.

We later had a question and answer session for the dieu, who asked questions such as: “What happens in Plum Village if you feel tired and do not attend the walking meditation? What does Su Ong do?” When we asked them which part of the practice they enjoyed most, the answer was unanimous: chanting, and they chanted very well. During the Plum Village Retreat we had a Beginning Anew session sitting in a circle in our family groups. In my family was a young bhikshu who was overseer of the dieu. He readily admitted his mistakes such as not listening deeply enough or being patient enough with the novices who had been dieu under him. The novices also readily revealed their difficulties under him but without forgetting to appreciate his good qualities. All this was done in the spirit of deep listening and loving speech and no one was hurt.

We returned from Vietnam more mature in the practice and more rooted in our ancestral teachers. We had a deeper understanding of our own teacher and the life of practice in which our teacher had been formed from an early age. Maybe we had brought to Vietnam a taste of Plum Village and the practice in which Thay is forming his own disciples now. Although this practice has been devised in the West, the young people of the East are increasingly becoming close to the West and calling for a renewal of Buddhism such as Thay’s practice can offer. Just as Indian Buddhism was fortified by its establishment in the Far East, so Far Eastern Buddhism can be fortified by its establishment in the West.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in  Vermont. She has translated several of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books from Vietnamese into English.


  1. A democratic procedure for verifying that the whole community is agreed for the measure in question to be undertaken.
  2. The Buddha taught Six Togethernesses (saraniyadhamma).
  3. The body of precepts and explanation of precepts given by the Buddha.
  4. A bodhisattva is someone who has devoted their life to liberating themselves and liberating all other Sadaparibhuta means literally “Never Despising.” The life of this bodhisattva is described in the Lotus Sutra. He devoted his life to letting people know that they should not disparage themselves because they had the Buddha-nature.
  5. Su Ba is a respectful title for a senior nun who has been ordained for at least forty years, meaning “Grandmother Teacher.” For a monk of the same standing the title Su Ong is used, meaning “Grandfather Teacher.”
  6. 2nd century C.E.
  7. A layman of the time of the Shakyamuni Buddha who devoted his life to serving the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and donated the Jeta Park monastery.
  8. Belonging to the Le era (15th century).
  9. The young monk or nun of school-going age who has entered the monastery in order to prepare for the lifelong commitment to the monastic The dieu has already left home and lives and practices fulltime with the monastic community.

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Poem: The Fire That Consumes My Brother

The fire that burns him
burns in my body.
And the world around me
burns with the same fire
that burns my brother.

He burns.
His figure dominates the mountain,
and the giant torch of his body fills the jungle.

O my brother,
let me kneel
upon the precious ashes
of your flesh and bones.
Let me summon your young spirit from the shadows
and give it life
in the form of a flower,
the first lotus of the season,
before anyone has picked it,
the first new bloom before the sun goes down.

I hear you now.
The storm screams with your cries.
Hearing you,
each cell in me, O my brother,
brims with tears.

I still hear you,
your appeal from heaven or hell,
and I turn to you,
wherever you are.

For a moment the world’s heart stops,
while Earth looks at Sky,
and each one asks,
“Where is high and where is low?”
Your name
in the blinking stars
has been inscribed in space.

The fire that burns you
burns my flesh
with such pain,
that all my tears are not enough
to cool your sacred soul.

Deeply wounded, I remain here
keeping  your hopes and promises for the young.
I will not betray you–
are you listening?
I remain here
because your very heart
is now my own.

Thich Nhat Hanh, 1963

Found in Call Me By My True Names (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1999)

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Living the Simple Life

A Retreat at Maple Village

By Nguyen Duy Vinh and Miriam van Husan

We left the city of Montreal behind and drove past the still bare fields. The blue-gray mountains drew us ever onwards. Once in the small village of Saint Etienne de Bolton we were completely surrounded and embraced by these ancient hills. Soon we came to the turnoff to Maple Village a short drive up the lane and we saw the sign “We have arrived, we are home in the here and in the now.”  We were ready for the Victoria Day weekend retreat called, “Living the Simple Life.”


We have been to Maple Village before but again we were touched by the simple, unaffected kindness and gentleness of the Vietnamese Sangha which had organized the event. We were welcomed into a loving extended family with aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, a novel experience for those who have grown up in the nuclear family of mainstream North American society.

Maple Village consists of a main house and several small cabins nestled in a clearing in the forest. From the windows of the meditation hall one can see the imposing mountains and the multiple valleys surrounding us. The weather teased us, as often happens in Canada, and on Sunday morning we awoke to find the Village covered in a soft blanket of snow! It was a landscape that inspired and reinforced the serenity of spiritual practice. In fact, after only four days the transformation experienced by many people was obvious.

The monks from Maple Forest Monastery, Thay Vo Ngai, Thay Phap Tru, Thay Phap Ung, Thay Phap Hung, and Sramenera Phap Chuyen, brought a special joie de vivre to all the activities. Each of the teachers spoke of their own experiences of their life before meeting Thay Nhat Hanh, which demonstrated how they had grown with Thay’s teachings and practice. Especially touching was Thay Vo Ngai ‘s experiences in Vancouver: figuring out how to cook; feeding his lunch to the schoolyard sea gulls; scattering rice outside his window for the birds and leaving none for his brother! This unconscious emulation of St. Francis was very moving. Thay Phap Ung spoke of his adventure (perhaps misadventure would be a better word) trying to escape from Vietnam with his father how they were captured by the police and how he was able to distract the police, allowing his father to escape while he himself ended up in prison for a month. Such presence of mind in so young a boy! All the Dharma talks were about the “simple life”: What do we really need? What is truly necessary for a happy life?

As in a monastery the day was structured, with the wonderful sound of the bell reminding us of the various activities. The day began at 5:45 a.m. with our brother Chan Huu inviting us to wake up and greet the new day. The daily program was nicely balanced with sitting and walking meditation, Dharma talks and discussions, physical exercise and various other special practices such as Total Relaxation and the Five Touchings of the Earth.

The question and answer period ending the retreat gave everyone the opportunity to explore further the theme of the simple life. How does a layperson live a simple life? The monks’ responses were apt: To examine our patterns of consumption. To look deeply into our Lifestyles and see what is a necessity and what is a luxury. What do we really need in order to live and function in our society? Our aspirations, our volitional forces have a profound impact on our life by rendering it more complicated or more simple. Our acceptance of ourselves and our acceptance of others can make our lives simpler. We aspire not to have more power, more money, more material possessions, but to have more time more time for ourselves and more time to offer to those we hold in our hearts.

Dharma Teacher Nguyen Duy Vinh, True Awakening , and Miriam van Husan, True Protection, practice with the Pagoda Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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The Perfect Sangha: New Zealand

By Shalom

The bell calls clear and time across the courtyard. Voices from the Dharma discussion groups fall softly back into the silent container of the native bush, hills, and a translucent blue sky. Only the chirrup of thousands of midsummer cicadas remains.

We breathe softly, filled with the sharings of each other and aware of the growing compassion in our hearts and consciousness. As a group of four women we have spoken and listened deeply to each other, sharing the Dharma, our lives and aspects of the practice. In the stopping, we can also feel the tangible presence of mindfulness and of love, carried on the pure clear tones of the sounding bell. We complete our group with a bow of true reverence, deeply grateful for this format of mindful sharing. Slowly the retreatants merge to talk and share the loveliness of this still summer morning. The energy rises as preparations to serve the mid-day meal come to completion.


For most of those present, this is a relaxed time of day easily identifiable with their everyday lives outside of the retreat time; however, for the core organizer group, this is a time to take our practice a step further and join together for the daily check-in meeting. On one level we are simply talking logistics – who will lead the meditation walk today; is the evening program clear and are the videotapes of Thay set up; do we have enough milk for breakfast tomorrow; how are the retreatants doing generally; what announcements need to be made today; and so on. On a deeper level this is the time where we really experience the practice in action.

This year we do not have a teacher present to guide us and to turn to as the wisdom holder. We only have each other, a handful of practitioners that form the core of two fairly small and relatively young Sanghas. Over the past five or so years we have had our share of challenges. Becoming familiar with our different personality types and coping (or not) with each other’s egos, differing ways of interpreting the practice, different needs, levels of commitment, stress and experience. As the days progress and the retreat deepens, it becomes more and more obvious that something wonderful is unfolding within this core group. We almost do not dare bring attention to it for fear that the magic will dissolve. As we sit together we smile, somewhat shyly, at how well the retreat is going, although we continue to focus on the organizational aspects of our meeting. I notice how differently I am seeing these people, how spaciously we accept and share ideas, problems and possible solutions. I notice how gifted and giving they are. How much I have learned and gained from this collective experience of working together with quieted egos; I feel very humble. I look around at people who in the past have judged, criticized, challenged, misunderstood and felt misunderstood by. I see myself clearly reflected. I see that the very nature of our difficulties as Sangha and the practice itself have brought us to this place of healing our arrogance and experiencing on a profound level communion and true love. There is lots to do here but there is no struggle. The retreat is going well because of the quality of our being rather than the amount of our doing. I experience myself as a cell in the body of the Sangha in transformation. What beauty, what a wonder to feel these seeds being nourished in me.

Once again the bell sounds in the courtyard. Our meeting must come to closure. The silence steps graciously into the space that the bell creates.  I breathe in.  I hear Thay’s voice:  “Don’t look for the perfect Sangha.” How often in the past I have been caught by my ignorance, my aversion, and desires for a different or better Sangha, my practice not ripe enough to open to the seeds of Sangha in my very own garden.

The bell sounds again. I breathe and smile in gratitude. We don’t need to look for the perfect Sangha, we only need to stand still long enough and practice together, and leave the rest to nature to nourish the seeds of perfect Sangha within us.

One month later, back home and fully engrossed with the householder’s life, I move through the day of deadlines at work, childcare, bills, traffic, cooking, and cleaning and I continue to be nourished by the depth of practice of my sisters and brothers in the wider Sangha. Physically we are many miles apart and on one level it continues to be a challenge for me to live in an isolated rural community with few practitioners. However, on another level, this last New Zealand Retreat has changed my relationship to others irrevocably. My interactions at work, in community projects, school support groups, and in my family all come from a freer, softer, more connected me. In my body, in my heart, in the very eel.ls of my being, Sangha continues to bloom.

Shalom, True Precious Land, lives and practices in New Zealand.

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Practicing the Mindfulness Trainings in Prison

By Mark J. Wilson

I am ashamed to admit it but I am a prisoner of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), serving a life sentence for a murder I committed on June 29, 1987, when I was just eighteen years old. There is nothing I can say to excuse or justify what I did. It was a senseless act. At that point in my life I was a heavy and regular user of methamphetamines. I did not think or care about the rights or feelings of other people. I made countless hurtful, destructive and life-altering choices that affected others. I justified and rational zed every bad thing I chose to do. There came a point when I no longer valued human life.


Shortly after my arrest, the enormity of what I had done consumed me. I was stricken with guilt and filled with disgust, not only for what I had done, but also for who I had become. I vowed to do everything I possibly could to change my life.

Upon my arrival at prison, I began to do all I could to understand how it became possible for me to take someone’s life and how I could now change to become a caring person. I felt the need to try somehow to make up for what I had done and the pain I caused. Fortunately, when I entered the prison system fifteen years ago there were many mental health treatment and education programs available.  I enrolled in them all. This was the beginning of what I later realized would be a life-long journey toward becoming a better, more compassionate person.

In 1998, I was scanning the bookshelf in my housing unit for something to read, when I came upon the book, A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield. I could not put it down. This was my first exposure to meditation and to Buddhist practice. I soon found my way to the prison’s Buddhist Study Group, and I’ve been attending ever since.

Within our Sangha, we study books written by many great teachers. Thich Nhat Hanh’s  teachings have been a steady presence, and each week throughout 1999 and 2000 we studied his book, For a Future to Be Possible. This was my introduction to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. They resonated with me because they typify the kind of life I strive to live today: a life of love, kindness, compassion, generosity, and deep respect for all life. They represent a life so utterly contrary to the life that led me to take another person’s life.

Upon completion or For a Future to Be Possible our Sangha was blessed with the opportunity to receive transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings from Dharma teacher Lyn Fine on October 15, 2000. I jumped at the chance. Each month, following the transmission, our Sangha recites the Trainings together and discusses their application to our lives. Recently, we had the opportunity to renew our commitment to the Trainings by again receiving transmission from Lyn Fine and Jerry Braza.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that prison is a place where suffering takes many forms and is always present. Because of this, it is also a place where many opportunities exist for prisoners to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in an effort to ease suffering. I have been greatly blessed during my incarceration with the opportunity to serve the prison community in a variety of capacities, including: inmate legal assistant, facilitator of a Victim Awareness and Empathy Development program, facilitator of an “at risk” youth crime prevention program, and hospice volunteer for terminally ill prisoners. These labors of love allow me to witness suffering from many different perspectives and to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in an attempt to ease that suffering. I cannot find words to express what a gift that is for me. Easing    someone    else’s   suffering brings deep meaning and purpose to my life and in turn, helps ease my own suffering. Though I wish l had learned these lessons fifteen years ago, I see that today my life is dramatically different than it was in 1987. I am deeply grateful to all of the wonderful teachers I have met throughout my incarceration and for their willingness to show me true loving kindness. Thank you one and all!

Mark James Wilson lives in Oregon and practices with his Sangha inside the prison, with the support of the Sangha outside the prison.

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Book Reviews

Friends on the Path
Living Spiritual Communities

by Thich Nhat Hanh
Compiled by Jack Lawlor

Review by David Percival

This book is an invaluable resource on Sangha building for beginning and advanced practitioners around the world. We are told that even the smallest Sangha nurtures and continues the living tradition of Buddhism. For those of us who are shy or introverted and were brought up in the Western tradition of individualism, a Sangha is a powerful force that pulls us away from our ego to community, togetherness, and freedom.    As Jack Lawlor says, “we have to be willing to let go of a bit or our desire to be anonymous and private.” And it is so much easier to let go of our old self-centered baggage when we are with a group of loving friends. It has been a wonderful experience for me to feel the support of Sangha members as, from time to time, stumble along. The Sangha doesn’t let me fall. As Thay says, “The Sangha is there to support you in your practice.  So building the Sangha means building yourself.”


Part of the message of this book is to seek out a Sangha and if there is no Sangha in your community, to start one. Enter whole­ heartedly into a mindful practice with spiritual friends. Lawlor offers words of support to all of us plagued from time to time with doubts and discouragement.  His section on “Sharing the Path: An Overview of Lay Sangha Practice” is full of advice, instruction, ideas, and encouragement. And, most of all, be makes us realize that we can do it. We don’t need years of experience, a massive library of Buddhist texts, monastic or lay teachers or advisors-­we need just one friend who wants to practice in a community.

As I read this book, I thought back to the beginnings of the Rainbow Sangha here in Albuquerque. A few months after returning from my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1997 I got together with Greg Sever, another Albuquerque retreat attendee. We put up a few fliers around town, set a date, and met in one of our homes. We didn’t do much planning, we didn’t worry, and we didn’t have any guidelines or books on Sangha building. We just started. We structured our meetings based on our observations at the retreat. We invited a bell and began. Some of the advice in this book about starting a Sangha includes: start now, don’t put it off. Don’t get caught up with planning. Bring together one or more friends and begin.

The remainder of the book offers inspirational and practical chapters written by thirty-five monastic and lay practitioners including sections on Practicing in the Community, Sangha Building, Sangha Practice, Practicing with Young People, and Engaged Practice. Three Appendices include the Mindfulness Trainings, Contemplations, and various practices.

In Chapter Two, “Go as a Sangha,” Thay explains what a Sangha is, why we need a Sangha, and how to practice with a Sangha. Thay concludes by telling us that in building Sangha we are continuing the work of the Buddha. Our Sangha is the living Buddha. Even ordinary folks in a small Sangha “can achieve things the Buddha has not achieved, because there are many Dharma doors to be opened. There are teachings yet to be offered.” Thay has observed that our task is to invent new Dharma doors that address contemporary needs.

All of us individually, and as a Sangha, are the continuation of the Buddha. Sangha building is our task. Our Sanghas, built on a foundation of love, compassion, mindfulness, freedom, and wider-standing, are torches of inspiration, shining their light on the darkness of despair, and transforming the suffering of the world.   Treasure this book, but more important, use it. Let it inspire you to step into the joy and challenges of Sangha building. This is our practice, this is the way to healing and transformation, this is the way out of despair.

Printed by Parallax Press: To order www.parallax.org

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives and practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Under the Rose Apple Tree

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Review by Barbara Casey

Reading this book I realized that a primary reason I am so attracted to Thay ‘s teaching is that he speaks directly to the child within me. Though the material found here is a compilation of talks he has given to young people over the years, for me it is a comprehensive explanation of the Dharma, in the simple and clear style I have grown accustomed to from Thay. Though he may use some different words and longer explanations when speaking to adults, I see from reading this book that all the wisdom, all the stories that help us understand with our hearts and not just our minds, are right here.

The book begins with explaining that we are all Buddhas to be, and how we can touch the Buddha inside us. Specific mindfulness practices of stopping, hugging, looking deeply to identify our habit energy and planting seeds of happiness are offered. We are taught in detail how to invite the bell. Sitting meditation is explained through the story of Siddhartha sitting in meditation for the first time under the rose apple tree swing the ceremony of plowing the fields. The concept of interbeing is taught through the story of the Buddha and Mara, followed by practices to help when “things get difficult, “including how to deal with anger and how to practice when family members are unhappy. The two promises are offered as a way to learn to love, followed by a frank discussion of how to treat our bodies with respect when making choices about sexual activity and consuming drugs, alcohol, and food.

Filled with hints and reminders of simple and effective ways to practice, two of my favorites are, “the secret of the practice is to do one thing at a time,” and the last line of the book, “each of us is a river.”

The last chapter, “Chasing Clouds” is a beautiful story of a stream that at one point wants to commit suicide after losing the clouds that she has been chasing. But as she looks deeply, she sees what she has been doing:

“It was strange. She had been chasing after clouds, thinking that she could not be happy without clouds, yet she herself was made of clouds. What she was seeking was already in her. Happiness can be like that. If you know how to go back to the here and now, you will realize that the elements of your happiness are already available to you. You don’t need to chase them anymore.” If there were just one book on the Dharma I could offer someone, this is the book I would choose.  I hope that every young person will have the opportunity to become friends with this book. I encourage each of us to make Under the Rose Apple Tree a gift to every young person we know, and perhaps we can create a way to offer it through organizations as a gift to many children.

For its simple beauty, lightness and depth, of all of Thay’s books, Under the Rose Apple Tree is my favorite.

Printed by Parallax Press: To order www.parallax.org

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, lives with her husband in Santa Rosa, California, where she practices with the Fragrant Rose Sangha. She is an editor of the Mindfulness Bell and loves to practice hugging meditation with her two young nieces, Natalie and Dru.


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Ask the Dharmacharaya

Playing Sports? Is it Mindful?

By Richard Brady and Peggy Rowe

Dear Dharmacharyas,

My name is Ethan Flint. I am nine and 3/4 years old. My dad is in the Sangha in New York City. I wanted to know your opinion about playing in a sports league, like soccer or baseball. Do you think it is just a way of occupying myself or is it a good thing because I have a lot of fun in it.

My dad and I are reading Old Path, White Clouds and that got me thinking about what things could occupy my mind in a bad way.Sincerely, Ethan Flint

Understanding What Makes Sports Fun

Dear Ethan Flint,

Thank you for the important question you raise about participating in sports leagues. It is clearly stated and, I believe, contains the beginning of an answer in your last sentence. You don’t want to occupy your mind in a bad way. How can you tell if sports or anything else is a bad way to occupy your mind? One thing to look at is how you feel while you are doing the activity. You have fun playing sports. But don’t stop here. Why do you have fun? For some people sports are fun because it gives them a chance to show off or to win. Their fun is based on the impressions they make or the results they achieve, and it depends on their doing or their team doing better than others. All the players involved cannot share this kind of fun. On the other hand, some people like the connection they feel with friends on their teams, or they like physical exercise, or they like to develop their skills. This kind of fun is always available to them and to all the other players. So I’m saying that having fun isn’t reason enough to play on sports teams. Understand that fun and be sure that you feel good about it!

Fun may be an immediate effect of playing sports. There are also long-term effects. Your question makes me wonder whether you may be thinking of them. Perhaps you and your dad have already talked about karma, the principle that everything you think, say, and do now will affect the future. Playing sports affects the future. So does doing schoolwork and spending time with your family. Doing these things affects your future and the future of others. It is impossible to know what the effects will be. The main thing you have to go on is what is happening right now. Playing sports is providing you fun. What kind of challenges and opportunities for growth is it providing? How is it affecting your relationships with other kids? With your family? Very likely there are other important questions about sports participation to ask yourself. These questions may be as difficult to answer as ones about the future. But you do not seem to be a young person who shies away from difficult questions.

What I am trying to describe here is mindfulness of the present moment. As you ask questions and become more aware of what your present moment holds, you will probably find that your sports participation has both positive and negative aspects. The better you understand what these are, the better you will be able to choose how much and how you will participate, and what you learn from investigating this question about sports will serve you well as you encounter similar questions throughout your life.  Good luck.

Many smiles, Richard Brady

What Seeds Are Being Watered?

Dear Ethan,

Thanks for asking this great question. This is important. I am impressed that you have the courage to ask brave questions like this one. One thing I heard in your question was “is this the best use of my time in the precious gift of a human lifetime?” The only person who can ask and respond to this question is you, so that is good news.

Your question also addresses how you occupy your mind while you play. What is important is not whether to play or not play sports. What is important is how you occupy your mind while playing sports. It is about how you practice being human while you play.

If you practice soccer or baseball and water seeds of anger, frustration, jealousy, and violence, then this is not a good use of your time. If you use the team experience to practice with these seeds and to water seeds of mindfulness, support, caring, and Sangha building, then this is a good use of your time and your mind.

A soccer team and a baseball team are forms of Sangha. Being on a team is a wonderful opportunity to practice community building and to practice creating harmony and awareness.  At Plum Village there are volleyball nets, basketball hoops and soccer balls.  Many of the brothers and sisters enjoy playing together, exercising their bodies and sharing happiness in this way.

Thay has said there is no way to happiness–happiness is the way. It is good to know what you like. It is good to know what makes you happy.

Peggy Rowe

Peggy Rowe, True Original Vow, lives at the Clear View Practice Center in Santa Barbara, CA. An artist, author, and educator, she finds joy in swimming, dancing, and playing with her dog, Reggae.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community and the Mindfulness in Education Network. He teaches high school math in Washington, D.C.

Please send us your question for “Ask the Dharmacharya.” We will feature different Dharmacharyas each issue. Send questions to: mindfulnessbell@sbcglobal.net

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The Mindful School Bell

By Ed Glauser

I am an elementary school counselor in a conservative town in Georgia, which is part of the “Bible belt.” This year I have been bringing my bell of mindfulness into the classrooms and listening to the sound of the bell as we mindfully breathe in and out I saw signs throughout the year that the students and teachers were enjoying the sound of the bell and that it was improving the lives of the schoolchildren and teachers, and enriching the community.

I knew I was on the right track when a second grade student   told me that she had taught her two-year-old brother to breathe mindfully and think of the bell during conflicts at his daycare center. She told me proudly that her brother practiced breathing mindfully when another child bit him on the nose, and her brother chose to think of the bell instead of retaliating. On another occasion a fourth grader told me that he was upset and just wanted to invite the bell to sound in my office, breathe in and out, and go back to class to resume learning. It worked beautifully for him he invited the bell three times, said, “Thank you, I feel much better,” and went back to class.

In the last weeks before the end of the school year there were several occurrences of the bell changing the emotional climate of the school. First, teachers began to ask me to download the bell sound from the Washington, D.C.’s Mindfulness Practice Center Webpage, to sound periodically throughout the school day so students could pause, breathe in and out, and be refreshed to help their learning ability.

Next, during a very heated parent-teacher conference in my office, the bell sound from the computer saved the conference as all parties in conflict paused to breathe and be more mindful of expressing their displeasure with the other in a more respectful way. Last, my Principal, who is also a southern Baptist preacher, asked me to down load the bell on his computer. He brought the bell to a faculty meeting to sound so all the teachers could breathe together; he also reminded me to remember the bell and to breathe while I was in a stressful situation.

It was beautiful to see how the bell of mindful ness and conscious breathing could transform the atmosphere of a public school into a more mindful and respectful environment for everyone, even in a small southern “Bible belt” town in Georgia. I say, “Amen!”

Ed Glauser; True Virtuous Loyalty, practices with the Breathing Heart Sangha and the Unitarian Universalist Meditation Group of Athens, Georgia.  Married with four children, Ed is a primary school counselor and private counselor: He also offers Mindfulness and Counseling workshops with his wife for the American Counseling Association.


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Gatha for Listening to the Bell

Listening to the bell,
I feel the afflictions in me begin to dissolve.
My mind becomes calm, my body relaxed.
A smile is born on my lips.
Following the sound of the bell,
my breath guides  me back
to the safe island of mindfulness.
In the garden of my heart,
the flower of peace blooms beautifully.

found in Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.

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By Richard Brady

During the 1996 Plum Village Summer Opening, l stayed in touch with my partner, Elisabeth, through weekly phone calls and regular letter writing. Towards the end of the retreat, I started feeling defensive of my sense of spaciousness on hearing Elisabeth’s plans for our time after my return home. Gratefully, I took advantage of an opportunity to share this experience with Sister Jina. After listening quietly to my angst, Sister Jina said, “Richard, in my experience defensiveness is a sign that you are not getting the love you need.” I nodded in reply, and she continued, “But, Richard, there is only one person who knows the love you need and can give it to you, and that is yourself. Furthermore, if you give yourself the love you need, you will be able to accept with gratitude the love that Elisabeth offers you.”

Sister Jina’s wisdom penetrated me but left me perplexed. “Are there practices for giving myself the love I need?” I asked her.  Sister Jina went on to describe a two-stage practice.  In the first stage I was to hold my five­year-old self in my lap as I meditated and shower him with all the love he needed. After several weeks of doing this, I was to switch and be that five-year-old, sitting on this large lap, and to receive all that love. I began right away. It was deeply satisfying for me to enfold my needy child with love. But when it came time to receive that love, I found it impossible. I tried this practice several more times, always with the same results.


During Thay’s twenty-one-day retreat in June, 2000, I experienced a great deal of negativity and self-doubt. This time it was my friend, Eveline, who came to my aid. Eveline described a meditation experience in which she had let her negative emotions swirl around her like a whirlwind. She had sat in the eye of this hurricane, its calm center, breathing and smiling. With Eveline holding my hand, l tried her practice. First I saw my recent distress. Then came pain I had experienced at many earlier times of my life. Finally l saw that times of suffering were not the only things swirling around me. They were interwoven with many other life experiences. After breathing and smiling to all my life for a while, I opened my eyes with a new sense of calm.

Returning home from Plum Village, I found myself constantly in the grips of a whirlwind of negative emotions. At times I would remember to find my way to its calm center. This would help, but only for a while.  Then, one night before going to sleep, I read Leslie Rawls’s Mindfulness Bell article about transforming her grief over her father’s death.  In her article she described experiencing her grief as a whirlwind with her little girl caught up in it. She told about repeatedly trying to bring her little girl down without success.  Finally, she understood that she had to embrace her child, whirlwind and all. As I read this, I realized that in sitting in my own hurricane’s eye, I was creating a false separation between myself and my emotions.  Calm was there but not transformation.

The next morning, as l meditated, Sister Jina’s self-loving practices came back to me. Suddenly I saw that in attempting to be the child on that big lap, my attention had been entirely on trying to receive love.  I had never felt my little boy’s fears and neediness. This time l climbed into my child’s skin, fears, neediness and all.  From that place I was able to feel love’s embrace for the first time.  Nevertheless, it did not become easy for me to invite up my childhood wounds. While meditating, I might think about my little boy’s emotions but not truly experience them. I have found two routes into accessing these emotions. When I have experienced a strong negative emotion such as anger, I have tried to remove myself from the situation in which it has arisen and go sit quietly with my feelings. When I have done this, I have been able to experience childhood emotions underlying my current experience. Also, on several occasions while meditating I have become aware of tensions in my body and, by simply watching these physical sensations have contacted with in them old fears and grief. I did not push away these emotions but accepted them unconditionally. This acceptance not only allowed them to remain present but to intensify. Whatever happened, I held with love and felt myself held with love.

This process is a slow one. I still get defensive, but now l can share this defensiveness with Elisabeth and work with it myself. I have become much better at communicating my relationship needs to Elisabeth and responding lovingly to hers, in part, because I am more able to see doing both as opportunities for growth. With gratitude I thank my Dharma Sisters Elisabeth, Jina, Evelyn, and Leslie for all you have given me.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge.

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Honoring My Brother

By Sister Tenzin Namdrol

It was acute generational family dysfunction that led my brother to alcoholism, marginality, schizoid spells, total paralysis and eventually the loss to gangrene of one leg and then of the other. We were born less than one year apart and separated at birth by sex, parents’ preferences, grandmothers, different nannies, temperaments, boarding schools, and eventually continents. Memories of him are vague. He was kind and generous but unable to measure the consequences of his acts. He practiced a daily rosary of misdeeds for which he received a daily rosary of punishments. Towards the end of his life I asked him, “Bruce, was there ever a happy day in your life?”  And he replied, ”No.” “Surely there were birthdays, Christmases, graduations… there must have been some.” Again he said, “No, they always had a bad ending.” Towards the fifth and sixth decade of my own life, I began to focus on the family as a whole, more than on individual members. I researched parts of our family tree and realized that ostracism was a constant from both the paternal and maternal lineages. Bruce became a mere link between his ancestors and his unfortunate issue.


He was neglected and bedridden for eight years, yet there was grace in the acceptance of his condition; to some extent he was practicing the Paramitas and even when oscillating between psychic clarity and delusion he was a teacher to many of us. On occasion, I saw a certain aura around the remains of his devastated and minute body. Bruce chose to give his body for study to the University Hospital in Florianopolis, Brazil, hence his remains would not receive a formal burial. However, on the forty-ninth day following his death, in the evening, in Upper Hamlet, there was a magnificent double funeral ceremony for Thay Giac Thanh and for the brother of Thay Phap Thanh. Visually and musically it was the most beautiful I had ever attended and l dedicated it to my brother.

After the ceremony forty monks in their bright yellow sanghati robes walked in procession to the Buddha Garden carrying the urns containing the ashes of the dead as well as, symbolically, the remains of my brother. Much moved and the only nun present, I followed the monks to the Buddha Garden and visualized his ashes  being spread in that peaceful and holy place when Thay Phap Thanh offered me the urn containing his brother ‘s ashes.  In deep gratitude, I took a handful and looking around for a proper tombstone, found a large and beautiful stone around which I spread the ashes of both brothers, Thay Phap Thanh’s and my own.


It is said that the ordination of a monk or a nun will liberate seven prior and seven subsequent generations. It is my sincere prayer that, through monastics everywhere, all families can liberate ancestors and future issue from such insidious and long­lasting habit energies.

Sister Tenzin Namdrol is a nun in the Tibetan tradition. She received full ordination from Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in 1998 and periodically comes to Plum Village to practice. She lives and supports Sanghas in Brazil, her native country.  She attended the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in June 2002 accompanied by a delegation of practitioners from Brazil.

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Stair Step Meditation

By Carole Baker

The day I arrived in New Hamlet, I started to cry, and I didn’t stop for two weeks. I’m a pretty stable person, no astronomical highs, no bottomless lows, and the last one in the room to panic. I had  no  idea  why  I was crying, as I didn’t feel sad; and, after several days of waterworks, I  became embarrassed by my behavior. But I couldn’t stop the tears, so I let them flow. Sometimes I spoke through my tears, hoping the other people would bear my words.


I felt as if I were among family, as if l had been in New Hamlet all of my life. I felt comfortable, loved, and safe. I had never meditated before.   Sitting on a cushion was new to me. So, when Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) described in his Dharma talks to the children how to do pebble meditation, I took their lesson for my own. During walking meditation, I gathered pebbles on the path and put them in a small cloth bag and used them to support the lessons he was teaching about compassion and solidity.

One day, Thay explained how to do what he called Stair Step Meditation. It was a way to practice transforming what he called habit energy. He said each of us inherits the habits of our ancestors. Our grandfather may have been lonely; our great-grandmother may have lived in pain; an ancestor may have lived a violent, hate-filled, embattled life. All of the actions, emotions, and conditions of each of our ancestors down through history are passed to each of us.  It is our responsibility and our joy  to conduct our lives in such a way as to relieve the negative aspects of our inherited habit energy and to enjoy and pass on to our children the positive aspects of their ancestors’ character and experiences.

Thay  described Stair Step Meditation as he teaches everything, clearly and simply. He said, if you want to cease the pain of your ancestors and reverse the effect  of their  negative  actions, just find a staircase. Decide which ancestor you wish to connect with. Put one foot on the first step, as you breathe in say, “Father, I am here for you.” (You can substitute the name of whichever ancestor you choose.) When you breathe out, lift the other foot and place it on the next step.  Say, “Father, I am here for you.” That’s it.  That’s all you do.   Breathe in, step; breathe out, step.

I thought about the people in my family who needed relief from pain and suffering. My folks were all working people, pioneers. My mother’s side of the family came from the British Isles and settled in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Ididn’t know my grandparents. My people were woodsmen, lumberjacks. My mother was the first in her family to gain a high school education. There were hard times, hard work, little food, much suffering. People had to be tough to survive. I come from good stock, a long line of stoic fatalists.  You take your lot in life, and you do the best you can with it. What’s the use of crying?

I chose to walk the stairs with my mother, Martha Holland Baker. Mom had a difficult life and in retrospect, I don’t think she was very happy, just dutiful. Mom and I never had any big conflicts, but we certainly were products of different eras. The first few days, because of the deep emotion of saying directly to my dead mother, “Mom, I’m here for you,” every step up, and down, the eighteen steps to my second floor room, I bawled!

Each day when I walked the eighteen stairs, it was just Mom and me. I found some reassurance in the routine of it.   Before I reached the stairs I stopped and took a few slow, soft breaths to get ready for Stair Step Meditation.  Regardless of my emotions, I made a clear effort to devote those stairs to that special meditation.

Stair Step Meditation converged with Touching the Earth meditation, led by Sister Chan Khong. This day, as I walked slowly towards the meditation hall with a group of nuns, I said to Sister Eleni, “I really don’t want to go to this meditation.”   She asked, “Why not?” I said, “I don’t know.” She said, “Well, just go ahead and try it.” So, I entered the meditation hall, bowed, and placed my mats for the meditation. As Sister Chan Khong led us through total relaxation and Touching the Earth, at one point all of my emotion welled up in my chest. I was encouraged to let all of the suffering of my ancestors flow into the earth. I felt an enormous release as profound sorrow and pain really did seem to flow into the earth. I think I went to sleep.

Walking slowly from the meditation hall to the farmhouse, suddenly, my mother’s voice stopped me. She said, “Hello, Carole. I am here for you. Thank you for walking with me and healing my pain.” I stopped still on the gravel path, causing a number of people to adjust their walking meditation, stood and declared, “Oh, these are your tears!”  My mom said, “Yes, it’s me.”

After lunch, I approached the eighteen stairs with my usual preparatory stopping. My mother took my hand! And she said, “Come walk with me; this is why you are here.” I walked the eighteen stairs with my mom beside me. Happiness overtook my initial nervousness. It was such a happy thing to be walking, hand in hand with my mother in complete spiritual communication, up and down those ordinary stairs. After a few days, my entire affect changed. My emotions began to settle and I began feeling the deep joy and satisfaction of helping my mother to heal her sorrows. My roommate, Kim Nguyen, said I blossomed and became a flower.

One day I felt lazy and thought I would skip Dharma discussion and have a nap. As I climbed the stairs to my room, in her own voice and phrasing, my mom said, “You’d better get to that Dharma discussion!” I laughed and mentally replied, “You can be a pain sometimes,” but I obeyed as when she was alive. I turned around and went down to the discussion group. We laughed together then, and many times since.  Now, I feel my mother is always with me, and she is happy.


Carole Baker; Healing Joy of the Heart, sits with her black kitty, M.B., curled up at her feet. His purring helps to keep her in the present moment.

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Poem: If You Long for Peace

By Pamela Overeynder, True Sun of Understanding

On September 11th, 2002, in Austin, Texas about sixty people walked in silence across the Colorado River on a beautiful footbridge at sunset. As we walked, I sensed a deep reverence, palpable, from the joggers and others out for their evening sunset walk — peace is contagious. After the walk we sat next to the lake on the grass and shared poetry, hopes, fears, prayers, songs, and metta, meditation on loving kindness, along with a sense of aliveness and possibility. I n my experience, sharing poetry with my community is so essential to my/our well-being. Here is my poem.

If You Long for Peace

If you long for peace . . .
If you long for peace between
Israel and Palestine
If you long for peace between
the US and Iraq
lf you long for peace in the middle of the night
If you wake up filled with longing, tears rolling
down the slope of your face, for an end
to the anger you feel inside, for an end
to the troubled confusion of words
and actions that can’t be recalled,

Come! Meet at the footbridge as the
full moon comes up, round and bright,
as the wolf begins to howl somewhere far away.
Come, feet padded with trust, eyes still moist
with longing, and Walk! Walk the footbridge.
Walk with fierceness straight across
your own lack of understanding,
across the bunkered, fear-frozen tundra
of your heart. Walk towards the

brightness of freedom.
Walk even as warm tears of compassion stream
down and down, till they roll off the footbridge
and join the dark river below, even now holding
the moon in its glance.  Walk till
your heart opens like a flower—
opens to everyone and everything.
Walk till your mind clears and opens,
releases its fragrance the fragrance of freedom,
and every being, seeing you, knows
the same freedom, the only freedom
that will yield peace.


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Touching and Helping: Hungry Children Project in Vietnam

Letter from School Teachers of an “Understanding and Love School” in Buong Dang Dung Village

July 12, 2002

Dear Venerable Teacher, Brothers and Sisters of Plum Village,

Today I am so happy to be able to with to you and share our news with you. We live in a remote region in the mountains and forests. Our life is like that of our ancestors before us and all those who live in such remote and dangerous areas: we cut wood and harvest tea and coffee all year round. That is the economy of our village.

To be able to have contact with the Sisters and Brothers of the Understanding and Love Program is a great honor for us. Thanks to our contact with the monastics and social workers from Saigon we have been supported in our practice of mindfulness and in the work of helping society.

We are 95 families living here, not knowing anything of the outside world. The families here only seek to work to survive from day to day and do not know the basics things of life, such as good hygiene and literacy. The support from the Understanding and Love program has brought us relief. Thanks to our contact with your program we have been able to build a bridge, open a school, saving children who were hungry and giving them education. Now we have a kindergarten class and a nursery called, “The Pink Lotus.”

As Buong Dang Dung Village is in a desolate area, the young children play with the earth and stay dirty because there is no well to get water from and the streams are far away. Today the Brothers from the Understanding and Love program have come to help us dig a well so the children can be bathed, cared for, and fed at lunchtime. This is very important for us in the village.

We don’t know how to thank you. Today the entire village can benefit from the cement bridge, the new well, the kindergarten, the nursery and also the teachings of mindfulness. We are so happy and grateful to our teachers, sisters and brothers from Plum Village and benefactors who have a big heart to relieve the difficulties of a poor village.


Your School Teachers, Dich and Ngot

(photo of school in Buong Dang Dung Village)

Touching and Helping Programs in Vietnam Sponsorship Form

Name                                     _

Address                  __             __             City                             _

State_                    _ Zip code ___ Country             Telephone           _       _ e-mail   ___

l wish to sponsor  (please circle and fill in appropriate lines):

  • for $6 a month or $72 a year

a preschool toddler in a daycare center or a 5-yr-old child in kindergarten to receive 2 cups of milk and lunch every day at school ___boy(s) ___girl(s)
a young college student ___ boy(s) __ girl(s)
or a destitute elderly or handicapped person _ male(s) _ female(s)

  • for $25 a month or $300 a year

a teacher(s) who goes to remote rural areas to teach children in kindergarten through grade school levels (ages 5-12) ___
a teenager(s) to receive vocational training in traditional Vietnamese crafts: woodworking, embroidery, or tailoring, carpentry, mechanics and electricity _ boy(s) _ girl(s)

  • donation amount ___(specified by you)

sponsor development programs in rural areas to build schools, build bridges, plant trees, dig wells, and make roads support victims of monsoon floods and tragedies to receive medical support and food and blankets

Please make your check payable to Unified Buddhist Church. All money will be given to the persons who need help.

No charge is deducted for administrative costs. Please send to or for more information contact Touching and Helping Committees

Europe: Plum Village, 13 Martineau 33580 Dieulivol, France

East Coast USA: Green Mountain Dharma Center, Box 182 , Hart land-Four-Corners, VT 05049

West Coast USA: Deer Park Monastery,2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026

You are helping many people to lessen their hunger, to feel the love of humanity mu/ to improve their lives. This act will continue its way to strengthen hope, understanding, and compassion in each of us. Our way of living and relating to the world in the present is the base for social changes. We look forward to receiving support from you.

A lotus for you, Sister Chan Khong and the Touching and Helping Committees

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