Dharma Talk: Our Vietnamese Spiritual Ancestors

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh Speaks to Communist Party Officials at the Ho Chi Minh Political Institute, Hanoi March 17 and 18, 2005

Thich Nhat Hanh

Buddhism can help us see the truth, reestablish communication, and bring happiness to ourselves and our families. The religious element of Buddhism is hope, faith, and prayer. But Buddhism is not just a religion. Buddhism has insight and concrete methods to help us resolve our difficulties, calm our emotions, transform our suffering, reestablish communication with others, and bring happiness. Methods like breathing mindfully and walking mindfully produce the energy of mindfulness. With that energy we recognize the pain that is coming up in us, and embrace it and calm it down. With mindfulness, we can look deeply and see the roots of our suffering. We are able to shine the light of understanding and transform our suffering.

In us we have anger, sadness, anxiety, and we also have love and understanding. We are like an organic garden. When flowers die they become compost, and from that compost, beautiful new flowers grow. Our suffering is our compost—our sadness, our grief, our despair, our jealousy, our discrimination. But we also have flowers—understanding, love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice – and both things are organic.

Buddhism teaches that the afflictions are the awakening. Awakening means happiness. We use the rubbish to make compost and then to grow flowers. If we know how to embrace and transform, we can turn anger into happiness and wisdom. This is called the insight of non-duality. Afflictions can become awakening. And awakening, if we do not look after it properly, will become afflictions. If we are not afraid of the rubbish, we will know how to turn it into flowers.

Hungry Ghosts 

When children cannot trust their parents, then they cannot trust their ancestors, and that is why each day our society creates thousands of hungry ghosts. These hungry ghosts feel lonely and alienated. They have suffered because of their family, school, church, temple, and society, so they deny the basic structures of society.

There are a lot of hungry ghosts both in the West and in the East. What are they hungry for? They are hungry for understanding; they feel no one understands them. They are hungry for love; they feel no one can love them. But even if we offer them love and understanding, they cannot receive it, because they have great doubt and great suspicion. So in order to help them, we have to be very patient. Hungry ghosts are not spirits in the clouds, they are people of flesh and bone around us. We have helped many hungry ghosts to return to their home and their tradition.

In Touch with My Father

One day I talked to my father and said, “Father, the two of us have succeeded.” I was successful because in that moment of sitting meditation, I felt completely free. I didn’t have any more dreams or wishes, any more projects I wanted to pursue. I felt completely free, completely relaxed; there was nothing that could pull me anymore.

When I talked with my father, I knew that he is not separate from me. Please understand that if someone who prays does not yet have the wisdom to know that the object of prayer and the subject of prayer are one, that person still has a good chance of deepening their understanding in the future. And what they are doing is valuable because communicating with their ancestors keeps them from feeling rootless.

How to Connect with Our Ancestors

Based on the treasury of Buddhist literature, in Plum Village we have developed practices that can help people to reestablish their connection with their ancestors. The practices of the Five Touchings of the Earth and the Three Touchings of the Earth have helped Westerners to heal a lot of their loneliness and agitation. Imagine five thousand Westerners touching the earth, guided to understand that all the characteristics of their ancestors are circulating in their body. When they stand up, they are different people, because they have let go of their despair, their hatred, and their anger. I would like to suggest that you look further into these practices.

We have also written a prayer for the New Year, vowing to our blood and spiritual ancestors to love, forgive, and accept each other in the coming year. If every Vietnamese family would maintain an ancestral altar, and each day take one minute to come together and light a stick of incense in silence, that moment would be enough to help us not fall into alienation. We are the trees that have their roots, we are the river that has its source, and we carry our ancestors into the future. Anyone can do this, including a businessman or a politician. In the West people have begun to do this.

Our parents have transmitted to us their whole self, according to genetic science. We cannot remove our parents and ancestors from us, because every cell contains in completion all the previous generations of ancestors. You cannot take your father or your mother out of yourself, because you are your father, you are your mother. If you are angry with your father or your mother, you are angry with yourself. If you are angry with your children, you are angry with yourself. Our children are our continuation and they are taking us into the future. If we want to be beautifully continued, we have to do the most beautiful things that our life can produce.

mb39-dharma2When a father is not happy, he will make his whole family suffer. If the children can look deeply, they will see that their father is the victim of his own suffering. Maybe when he was a child, he was not cared for, so he was wounded. When he was growing up he had no teacher to help him transform his suffering. He passed on all his suffering to his children, so they are angry with their father, and blame him. They are determined that they will not be like him, but if they do not practice, they will be just like him, because they are his continuation. Therefore, the intervention in our life of the spiritual and moral dimension is absolutely essential.

We all have received transmission from both our blood family and our spiritual family. Our teacher is our spiritual father; he gives birth to our spiritual life and transmits the whole of himself to his disciples. If we do not have a spiritual lineage transmitted to us, we have no means to recognize our suffering, or ways to transform it. We will pass on our suffering to our children, and that is a great shame. Only by having a spiritual life can we become a free person, free from our suffering.

A Question of Superstition

Question: Worshipping the ancestors is very good for our country. But when people make an offering and then make a prayer asking for something, it’s a kind of exchange: if I make an offering, then you will give me something. That is superstition.

Thay: The key to this very important question is education. The superstition of today can become the non-superstition of tomorrow. When we go to the temple, we light the incense and bow before the statue of Buddha. It may look like superstition, but Buddhist insight tells us that Buddha is the capabil­ity of under­standing, of compassion, of love. Of course that statue is just a representa­tion, a sym­bol. When people start practicing, they think that Buddha is outside of them. But when they become good practitioners, they see that they have Buddha nature within them, and they see it in others. We have to help people go to a higher level of understanding. We also have to see the cultural value in this practice and that our love for the deceased is our motivation.

Lighting Incense on the Ancestral Altar

We accept that the tree has its roots and the water has its source. The ancestral altar shows us that the value of our life comes from its source. Every day you light a stick of incense at your ancestral altar. While we are lighting the incense, we can be in touch with the ancestors in each cell of our body. My teacher taught me to put the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight into lighting the incense. When your body and mind are together fully in the moment, that is the energy of mindfulness. And when you are completely attentive to what you are doing, that is the energy of concentration. Then there will be communication between you and your ancestors in every cell in your body. Saluting the flag is not superstitious, because you know that the flag is a symbol for your country. If you say lighting incense is superstition, then you are also saying that the flag is superstition.

Our ancestors have the right to know what’s going on in our lives. When we have child who is sick, we can light a stick of incense and ask the ancestors to help the child. We say, “Oh, the child is so sick, I ask the ancestors to protect the child,” and wake up the presence of our ancestors in each of our cells and in the cells of our child. If we listen deeply, we will hear a response from the ancestors in each of our cells.


Whatever has insight and understanding is scientific; whatever doesn’t is superstition. In cloning, you take a cell from one body and you make another body. We can take any cell, starve it for two or three days, and it will become a germ cell. Then you can remove the contents of an ovum from a woman, put it with the germ cell and insert it in the womb of a woman. After nine months the child born will be the exact replica of the cell donor. That is called clon­ing. This works because every cell of our body contains all the other cells. The teachings of the Avatamsaka Sutra are now being proved by science. According to Buddhism, religion and science are complementary.

King Tran Thai Tong 

When King Tran Thai Tong was twenty years old, his uncle declared that his nineteen-year-old queen was too old to give birth. The uncle wanted a successor to the king, so he forced Tran Thai Tong to divorce his wife and marry his wife’s pregnant elder sister, who was already married to Tran Thai Tong’s brother. The king was forced to abandon his beloved wife, so he decided to abdicate, and he went to Yen Tu Mountain. What suffering for a twenty-year-old man to go through! His elder brother also suffered a lot from losing his wife, so he tried to organize opposition to the regime. This could have created a lot of conflict within the family. But when King Tran Thai Tong went to Yen Tu Mountain, he met the National Teacher living there, who showed him how to overcome his suffering. The teacher taught the king to be a politician and a practitioner at the same time.

The king went back and continued his duties, and he also practiced sitting meditation and beginning anew six times a day. Thanks to his moral virtue he was able to be persuasive with the kings of adjacent countries who wanted to invade. He became a very important king, the first king of the Tran dynasty.

When King Tran Thai Tong’s older brother was dying, he asked his three children to take revenge against the king, but the compassionate king dissuaded them. The eldest child was Tue Trung Thuong Si, a layman who became a great Zen master. His younger brother Tran Hung Dao was important in driving the Mongol invad­ers out of the country. Their younger sister married the second Tran king. King Tran Thai Tong’s practice of Buddhism transformed his family, and they all cooperated to build the country. If King Tran Thai Tong had not had a teacher to help him develop a spiritual and moral dimension, he would never have become a great politician. On both the material side and the spiritual side, we have to take root in a lineage.

Deep Listening and Loving Speech 

In the past forty years Thay has taught many young people and intellectuals in America and Europe to understand that we are the continuation of our father and mother. Once children understand that, they can forgive their parents and transform their suffering, and then go back and help their parents to do the same.

Listening deeply and loving speech are wonderful practices of transformation. When the child knows how to practice loving speech and deep listening, he will say, “Father, I know that in the past few years, you’ve been suffering a great deal. I’m sorry that I haven’t helped; instead I’ve made things worse. I want you to tell me all your difficulties so I can understand you better, and then I won’t do or say things that make you suffer. It’s only because I am stupid that I made you suffer. Please help me.” When you have opened your father’s heart and he has begun to tell you his suffer­ing then you have to practice deep listening, like the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

We listen with compassion, with only one aim: to give that person a chance to say everything that is in their heart so they will suffer less. Even when the other person uses words of blame and bitterness, we just listen with an open heart. These two methods are very important. Loving speech: to speak using words that express everything in our heart in a way that the other person can hear and accept. Listening deeply: to listen with the heart of compassion.

At retreats in the West, everyone learns these practices. We have helped numberless parents and children to resolve their dif­ficulties through these concrete methods. Restoring communication and bringing happiness to our family is done through concrete, scientific methods. 

Conditions for Happiness

Buddhism is a source of insight that can bring us happiness right away. When I bring my body and mind together through con­scious breathing or walking, I’m able to be in touch with so many wonders of life that are in the present moment: the sky, the clouds, the birdsong, the sound of the wind in the trees. These wonders of life nourish us and make us see that life is worth living.

According to Buddhism, our basic error is believing that hap­piness is only possible in the future. We think, “Oh no, there’s not enough here for me to be happy. I need a couple more conditions to be happy.” And so I sacrifice the present for the future. But when we are fully in the present moment we see that we have far more conditions than we need to be happy. Sit at the foot of a tree and write down all the conditions for happiness you presently have. You will be surprised; you will need five or six pages.

When we are nourished by dwelling happily in the present moment, then we can begin to recognize the difficulties that are manifesting in our lives, and we can embrace and calm them. We have turned our community into a happy spiritual family. Each summer 2,000 or 3,000 laypeople come to practice with us, from at least forty countries. Everyone learns the methods of deep listening and loving speech to reestablish communication. Every retreat has miracles of reconciliation among couples, parents, and children.

This is What We Do 

We are monastics and laypeople trained in this way of practice, offering retreats and teachings so people can transform their suf­fering into happiness. Each day we learn more, because we only do this one thing.

The monk or nun in the local temple has to help families rees­tablish communication and become happy again. The monks should practice living together harmoniously, developing brotherhood. Then they can help the families in that area to do the same thing through offering retreats and teachings. The temple should have a file on each family; the Buddhist families, the families that are not yet Buddhist, and the families that are not Buddhist at all, but who can still benefit from Buddhist practices. I believe that within six months or a year the situation in that district will change.

Without a spiritual direction, our path of modernizing the nation will fail. People fall into drug addiction, gangs, crime, or sexual misconduct because they are not happy and they don’t have good communication with their parents. They are hungry ghosts, without roots in their family or in their culture. We have to take care of the problem at the roots by helping families reestablish communication and share love and happiness. This is the work that Buddhism can do.


Meeting with the Buddhist community in the past two months, I see that at all levels, our learning is still too theoretical. We have to be practical, to know how to immediately apply what we learn. That is my advice to the leaders in different areas of study and training. In Plum Village our learning is very practical. If we are not able to practice reconciliation ourselves, then how can we help others do these things? We need to establish an institute where we can learn and practice at the same time, where we can train monastic and lay people who will help build beautiful, harmonious, and loving communities.

We are the Communists 

mb39-dharma4Wrong perceptions are the cause of ninety percent of our suffering; in Buddhism we call this ignorance. Ignorance in the Vietnamese language is vo minh, meaning lack of light, without the light. We all love our nation, but we suspect each other: “Does he really love the nation, the people? Or does he want to eliminate me?” These thoughts come about because we have a lot of fear and suspicion. The practice of dissipating wrong perceptions and establishing happiness and communication is not religious. When we suffer, we can go to the church or the temple to pray, but that only soothes some of our pain. If we want to heal, then we have to use concrete practices like those that Buddhism offers.

We are those who are truly without possessions, we are the true Communists. I think if you can generate brotherhood, then you will not want to eliminate each other or compete with each other anymore, and you can truly have that paradise of Communism right now. We already have it if we know how to generate brotherhood and sisterhood, and if we can understand and love each other. The practice of Buddhism is to recognize and acknowledge the pres­ence of suffering, such as poverty, sickness, illiteracy, and lack of organization, and then to eradicate it. If our foundation is based not on individual power, but on brotherhood and sisterhood in a community, then we can overcome these four difficulties.


Before returning to Vietnam, we heard that corruption in the Communist Party in Vietnam is severe, and that the government wants to fight this corruption. In Buddhism it is said that no animal can kill the lion, the most powerful animal. The only killer of the lion is the bacteria that reproduce themselves within the body of the lion. We can fight difficulties and obstacles outside of us, but if we let bacteria manifest within us, then we will die. That is why we agreed not to participate in corruption in order for things to go easily for us. For example, if we wanted to get our books through customs at the airport, we might need to bribe someone. We told the Vietnamese embassy in France that we didn’t want to feed the system of bribery and corruption; that we have come to Vietnam to offer our contributions, and if we use these methods, we go opposite to our intention. They agreed with us completely. During the past two months we have not practiced bribery, even though we have met many difficulties. If we engage in bribery, then we cause the bacteria within to grow and we will die. If we choose the easy way out, then we betray the people who have sacrificed their lives before us.

Engaged Buddhism

If the Communist Party supports this work, then we can change the situation in our country quickly. If a young person fails in the family, he still has a chance to succeed in school; so the teachers should learn these methods of practice too. Temple, the family, and the school need to work together to help the young people. If we can do this we can move thirty years ahead of China on this path of modernization. I have taught in several Asian countries, and I see that we have a chance. Our practice is engaged Buddhism––it takes care of the things that are actually happening in life. It’s not the Buddhism that floats in the clouds.

I know that Vo Nguyen Giap led the army in the war, and now he’s doing sitting meditation each day. I also know that Prime Minister Pham Van Dong has taken the Three Refuges. I hope that if you in the government, in the Communist Party, wish to go in a spiritual direction then you will do it. If a politician cannot communicate with his or her own family then we cannot trust that politician. Vietnamese history proves the importance of the spiritual dimension. Whether we are business or political leaders, by living a spiritual life, a moral life, we are actively, positively contributing to the fight against the problems in the society, such as corruption. We teach not with our words, but with our daily life.

In Buddhism our tradition is to live simply and know that we have enough. In the developed countries, even though they consume a lot, the suffering is great. So, if we think that happi­ness lies in the direction of power, of sex, of fame, of money, then we are mistaken. There are people who are going in that direction who suffer so much in their body and in their mind. It is only love that brings happiness. Without love, without time to be present for our loved ones, how can we be happy? Buddhism is only to teach people to love in such a way that we can offer happiness to each other each day.


Question: How can we establish a dialogue between Marxists and religious people? I agree that Buddhist humanist philosophy contains a lot of deep understanding. Marx and Engels were very scientific, and I agree that the Buddha taught what are seen as modern developments in science. Now we need a dialogue between religion and Marxism. Marxists see that the nature of religion can be very destructive, but we also see the valuable aspect of religion which you have talked about today.

According to my understanding of Marxism, material strength is important, but spiritual strength is the strength of our people, so it is also very important. We have to create conditions to encourage the spiritual aspect. I hope there will be many dialogues like today, in this open spirit between the Party and the government and the religious leaders. 

Thay: These are very interesting points. Thay sees that Marx had a deep spiritual dimension. Buddhists are a continuation of Buddha, and must develop the wisdom of Buddha to satisfy the needs of the people of today. And you are the continuation of Marx, so you have to keep developing what Marx taught. If that doesn’t happen, Marxism will die. That is true of all traditions, not only Buddhism and Marxism.

In Buddhism, there is the expression namarupa, name and form, that means body and mind together. Sometimes things manifest as body, sometimes as mind. It is the same thing, but it manifests in two different ways. Just like when physicists look at an elementary particle of matter, they sometimes see it manifesting as a wave and sometimes as a particle. So is it a wave or is it a particle? Now scientists are agreed that they will call it a wavicle. The same is true with material and spiritual. We could think that spirit is one thing and matter is another thing. But in fact matter does not exist outside of spirit, and spirit does not exist outside of matter. 

The Heart of the Practice 

Meditation is the capacity to recognize suffering, to look deeply into it, and to use the wisdom of interdependence, of non-self, and impermanence to transform it. The purpose of Zen is to generate mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so we can live deeply each moment. Mindfulness is to be aware of what’s hap­pening in the present moment. For example, when we are aware of our in-breath, that is called mindfulness of breathing. When we are aware that we are taking a step on this planet Earth, that is mindful­ness of our step. When we drink tea with our mind and body completely present, then we are drinking tea in mindfulness. When we live each mo­ment of our life deeply in that way, that is meditation.

Concentration is present when we focus on one thing and our mind is not dispersed. With mindfulness and concentration, we can discover the insight that can transform our suffer­ing. This insight can completely cut off the roots of ignorance and wrong perceptions.


The past has gone, the future has not yet come, life is only truly available in the present moment. So we let go of regrets about the past and worries about the future, and we come back to live deeply in the present moment. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look of our eyes can help us to live deeply and bring happiness to ourselves and our loved ones. If we train like this, within just a few days we can begin to see the fruits and the joy of Zen practice.

Buddhism is inclusive, not dogmatic. In the old days Buddhism was able to live with Confucianism and Tao­ism, and Buddhism can now live with Marxism. Buddhism and Marxism both have to develop to respond to the people now. If we can do that, then what difficulties do we have?

The Vietnamese culture has a great capacity to transform. The word metabolize means that whatever we ingest we take in and transform so it becomes a usable part of us. We can metabolize cultures we have received from other countries, so they become Vietnamese. Buddhism has to become Vietnamese Buddhism, Confucianism has to become Vietnamese Confucianism, Taoism has to become Vietnamese Taoism, and Marxism has to become Vietnamese Marxism. Then we can hold hands and walk in harmony, in brotherhood and solidarity. We can be happy right now if we can have this inclusive attitude, this open-minded view.

Our Vietnamese Spiritual Ancestors 

All the traditions that came before combined to become the Bamboo Forest tradition. When we can go together as a river, when we have brotherhood, then every person is our body. We see that each person’s suffering is our suffering. Instead of individualism, we have common views and a common direction. Bamboo Forest tradition is also engaged. Imagine King Tran Nhan Tong abdicating the throne in favor of his son, Tran Anh Tong, so he could become a monk. As a monk, he called for the building of brotherhood with foreign countries, and went to the neighboring country of Champa (now a part of Vietnam), and called for a cessation of war. When he was a king he called for peace, and when he became a monk he continued to call for peace. He was the Bamboo Forest Master.

I also want to remind you of the Zen Master Tang Hoi. His father came from Sogdia, north of India, to Vietnam as a young businessman. He loved Vietnam and he married a Vietnamese woman. Zen Master Tang Hoi lived in the beginning of the third century A.D. He was the first monk to go to China to transmit the teachings and the practice of Zen, three hundred years before Zen Master Bodhidharma. Zen Master Tang Hoi organized monks comprising the council of ordination, who went from Vietnam to witness the first monastic ordination ceremony held in China.

In the process of building a beautiful society in Vietnam, Bud­dhism can play a great role if we have the courage to go beyond theoretical learning, and adopt concrete practices of transformation. We can train Dharma teachers, both monastic and lay, who have the capacity to bring Buddhism into life, to help society, to reestablish communication, and to rebuild the roots of the family. 

Transcribed by Terry Barber, Edited by Barbara Casey.

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Letter from the Editor

mb39-LetterFromEditorIf you were one of the lucky few hundred people to join Thich Nhat Hanh in his return to Vietnam after thirty-nine years in exile, this issue will spark fond memories of that journey. If, like most, you were not able to join the pilgrimage, then this issue is a way for you to participate in that adventure, to engage your senses in the deep pleasure of walking as a Sangha in the land of our spiritual ancestors.

During the three-month visit, Thay spoke to many different groups: to Vietnamese monastics, young and old; to lay people who had been his students when he left Vietnam in 1966, and to students who had never seen him; to families, to scholars and artists, and to government officials. We have chosen to share with you a compilation of two remarkable days of teaching at the Ho Chi Minh Political Institute in Hanoi, where Thay spoke to Communist party leaders about the place of Buddhist practice in the daily life of Vietnamese people. I was fortunate to be there when Thay, bold as a lion, suggested that we all stop thinking in terms of religion and instead focus on cultivating a spiritual dimension in our lives. A spiritual dimension is needed by everyone, Thay told us, because that is where our happiness comes from.

With the help of many of the travelers, we have created a chronological journal of photos and stories. As you journey through these pages, I hope you can see the beauty of the red earth and dancing palm trees, feel the joyful welcoming in the faces of our Vietnamese friends, and feast on a small sample of the temples and stupas that generously dot the landscape.

As we anchor in the Dharma seal of impermanence, we embody the reality that we are all connected at our deepest roots, and that those who went on the journey went for all of us. Their stories are our stories; their smiles rest in all of our hearts.

Also in this issue is a special section called Spoken Like a Buddha. These stories of personal transformation come from a collection edited by Sharron Mendel and Carolyn Cleveland Schena, and were originally to be made into a book. They have generously offered to share this work with the Sangha here; you will see more of these rich and personal stories in future issues. In addition, several of our lay Dharma teachers offer concrete ways to nourish our daily practice and to question our closely held perceptions and habits. And for those of you embarking on your first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh this summer, you may find wisdom in the words of Haven Tobias, as she shares her experiences of her first retreat.

As I listened to Thay’s teachings in Vietnam, I was reminded that our path is a simple and practical one. He encouraged us all to listen deeply, to learn to communicate lovingly, to connect with our families and our ancestors, to heal our relationships, and to live an ethical life. We are fortunate beyond measure to have a teacher who embodies these teachings. May we all be teachers for one another, living in happiness and freedom, walking with our ancestors in our true spiritual home––this breath, this moment.


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Vietnam Journal

When Thich Nhat Hanh left Vietnam in 1966 to teach in the United States, he told his friends that he would be back in three months. Thirty-nine years later, he has finally returned. As Thay said in the letter he wrote to the Sangha before the trip, he left as a single cell and returned as a Sangha body. Along with the one hundred monks and nuns from Plum Village, approximately three hundred lay people from dozens of countries had the privilege of accompanying Thay.

Many of them generously shared their writings and photos with the Mindfulness Bell—we wish we had room to print everything! Look for more impressions in prose, poetry, and pictures in the fall issue.

In a Dharma talk upon his return to Plum Village, Thay said that anyone who was on the journey, especially for the whole three months, was transformed. Each day was packed full of activities, even though Thay reported that he had to turn down ninety-five percent of the invitations he received. Like a delicious, heavy meal, it takes time to digest. “We need to give ourselves at least six months,” he says.

Time will tell what miraculous transformations take place—within each participant in the journey, in the people of Vietnam, in Buddhism worldwide, in our Sangha. Brother Phap Luu has called the journey “Thay’s Magical Mindfulness Tour.” The miracle of mindfulness continues to unfold.


A Letter from Thay to the Sang­ha Members Going to Vietnam

January, 2005

As the date of our departure to Vietnam approaches, I would like to express my joy and gratitude to all of you for joining me on this historic trip. Our three-month visit will be an offering to the land and people in Vietnam; therefore as a Sangha we would like to offer our best.

When I left Vietnam thirty-nine years ago to come to the West to call for a ces­sation of the hostilities in my country, I was like a cell of the Sangha body, taken out of that body. If I did not dry up after a few years of being in exile, that is because my practice was to carry the Sangha body in myself. And there was not one day when I did not try to build a Sangha.

While talking and working with friends in Europe and America, I naturally shared the practice, and we always tried to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in our work. I have been able to regenerate a full fourfold Sangha from a single cell. I am therefore going home not as a Sangha cell any more, but as a whole Sangha body. And you are my body.

Vietnam is a beautiful land and a beautiful people, and we shall have the opportunity to contemplate many beautiful things. These will include walking meditation by the Ho Guom lake (Lake of the Returning Sword), climbing Yen Tu Mountain where King Nhan Tong practiced as a monk, and visiting Halong Bay which is considered to be the most fantastic landscape in Asia. Wherever we go, we will practice dwelling happily in the present moment, radiating peace and loving kindness around us. Those of us who stay in hotels will consider our hotel as a practice center, walking, talking, sitting, and eating in mindfulness. All of us will be closely observed, especially by secret agents, who will be able to appreciate our wholesome energy and certainly will profit from it.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the most concrete expression of our practice. There will be no consumption of tobacco, meat, or alcohol; no talking while walking; etc. As we practice to be the Sangha body of the Buddha, we are also the body of Thay at the same time. Those of us who are Dharma teachers or Dharma teachers in training will make sure that the practice of the Sangha body is solid, fresh, and joyful. We shall certainly make many people happy with our presence and practice.

When I left Vietnam thirty-nine years ago to come to the West to call for a ces­sation of the hostilities in my country, I was like a cell of the Sangha body, taken out of that body. If I did not dry up after a few years of being in exile, that is because my practice was to carry the Sangha body in myself. And there was not one day when I did not try to build a Sangha.

While talking and working with friends in Europe and America, I naturally shared the practice, and we always tried to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in our work. I have been able to regenerate a full fourfold Sangha from a single cell. I am therefore going home not as a Sangha cell any more, but as a whole Sangha body. And you are my body.

We’ll be together in a few days


January 12 to January 22


Thay’s Arrival in Hanoi

We all got up at four a.m. to meet Thay and the Plum Village Sangha at Hanoi airport. We arrived to crowds, and more and more people kept coming: monks in bright yellow robes, lots of people with cameras, old men and women wearing amazing regional costumes.

When Thay entered the arrivals hall total mayhem ensued: everyone surged forward, trying to get a glimpse of Thay, who was tightly surrounded by a pair of monks to keep him from being trampled. People threw flowers, climbed on chairs, pushed and pulled, while three film crews tried to get their footage, and countless cameras flashed.


Arriving at Bo De Temple, where Thay and the monastics stayed, rows of people lined the road leading to the temple. As Thay passed they threw flowers, and chanted, and bowed deeply —not just for Thay, but also for us, which was a strange experience. So much devotion!

For me, the most moving moment happened a couple of hours later, when Thay was walking in the temple grounds with Sister Chan Khong and the abbot of Thay’s root temple in Hue. Thay squatted between the cabbages planted around the stupas, picked up some earth and let it flow through his hands, remarking that it was the first time in nearly forty years that he was able to touch the earth of his homeland. The abbot started to cry and I couldn’t stop myself from joining him.

—Evelyn Van de Veen, Shining Strength of the Heart, Amsterdam


mb39-Vietnam6Northern Vietnam

Vietnamese country scenes
Rice paddies and lakes
Big French style homes
And muddy shacks

In rain and cold
Unexpected weather
In farms and cities
People work so hard

Road construction
Buildings go up
In fortune of peace
Vietnam smiles

—Joy Magezis, True Wonderful Commitment, Cambridge, England


What It Means

Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam is about importing the Buddhism he built in the West. When Thay came to the U.S. to try to stop the war, he already had a record of developing practices and approaches that would revitalize Buddhism and meet the real needs of people, both spiritual and material. It was labeled engaged Buddhism, a term that has become synonymous with Thay and his teaching.

Thay started the Order of Interbeing and the School of Youth for Social Service, a kind of Buddhist domestic Peace Corps, where volunteers studied medicine and nursing, economics, agriculture, and architecture and construction. They then went to live in rural villages to help with grassroots development. Thay was not popular with the Buddhist establishment of the time, nor the government. Not taking sides, speaking out against injustice, calling for change got him thirty-nine years in exile, which ended when he landed in Hanoi on January 12.


Our job, one hundred monastics and ninety lay persons, was to display Thay’s Buddhism: gender equality; Sangha-centered decision making; lay persons who practice as well as support practice; close and happy relationships among lay and monastic Sangha members; engaged practice; enthusiastically embracing what can be learned from other traditions. These are all new and radical things in Vietnam. A Vietnamese member of the delegation told me, “You are the message. Educated westerners practicing and walking mindfully, that’s the news, that’s what gets the attention, that’s what gives Thay added credibility.”

—Rowan Conrad, True Dharma Strength, Missoula, Montana


First Days in Hanoi

The trip is starting to find its own rhythm: getting up around 4:30 a.m., having breakfast (sometimes on the bus), and visiting an average of four temples and shrines each day. We are met with exceptional warmth and kindness: people lining the streets, schoolchildren singing, women throwing flowers, followed by a sumptuous meal.

—Evelyn Van de Veen


Letting Love

The Vietnamese are giving us a profound teaching with the abundance of love that they offer so effortlessly. Accepting it is easier when we look deeply and see that each one of us represents the love and wisdom that Thay generated over his forty years in exile. To the people who have been without their master, we are a walking, breathing, smiling testament to his life’s work. When I think of myself as capable of being a vessel for peace and wisdom, I feel for the first time that I can receive what comes from other people’s hearts and be deserving of it.

I find myself moving with marked slowness after seeing Thay pass by, because his formless beauty awakens the same in me. At times I find myself moving like him, curling my lips with ease like him, speaking with gentleness like him, and it is in these moments that I have come home. I am not so distinctly me or him; I am a vessel of stillness that is as quiet as a boat on a waveless ocean. Perhaps this is what the Vietnamese see—so many offerings of peace flowing in a river to their temples, warm with burning incense, into their hearts and palms pressed together in prayer.

—Kate Cummings, Asheville, North Carolina


January 22 to February 18

A Sea of Monks and Nuns

There was a Day of Mindfulness at Vinh Nghiem Temple, an enormous, modern place with a grand stair­case leading up to a huge Buddha statue. The turnout in the south is even bigger than in the north, with a sea of grey robes and bare scalps, packed in knee to knee.


Thay’s tone today was light-hearted and informal. Addressing the Vietnamese monastics, he told about many of the practices at Plum Village, such as shining the light, using Sangha eyes, not going out alone, doing everything together, and working through a democratic system. “Our abbots are not so busy; mostly what they do is drink tea,” he said.

—Alissa Fleet, Boundless Transformation of the Heart, Berkeley, California

Sacred Ground

Thây told us that Dharma Cloud Temple (Chua Phâp Van) is on sacred ground. More than forty years ago Thây designed and built the original thatch-hut temple, and the first classes of the School of Youth for Social Service were held here in 1964. Two years later, the first members of the Order of Interbeing were or­dained here. “Phâp Van is the cradle of engaged Buddhism,” says Thây. He describes the beautiful memorial garden where victims of war-time violence are honored: Nhat Chi Mai, one of the original members of the Order of Interbeing, who immolated herself for peace; the two people killed in a grenade attack on the temple; the eight social workers who disappeared, presumed dead; and the four social workers who were shot. “I could no longer cry. I had engaged them and now they were killed.” Thây then reads the letter that Nhat Chi Mai wrote to him before her death; he tells us that Nhat Chi Mai’s sister is in the audience, and even he does not keep the tears from his voice. Then he reads some of his poems.

—Janelle Combelic, Sweet Wisdom of the Heart, Loubès-Bernac, France


My Teacher Is In Me

In the Dharma talk today, Thay spoke at length about how our parents and grandparents are in us, in every cell of our body, that all our ancestral teachers are in us, as well as our teacher in this lifetime. Afterwards, wandering among the people in the temple courtyard, I was approached by a woman who bowed and offered me a book of Thay’s to sign. (A few of his books are being published, legally, in Vietnamese for the first time). It was open at the title page, and with pen in hand, she insisted that I sign the book! I laughingly resisted, until I remembered–– Thay is in me. This woman understood that, and was happy for me to sign the title page, since he could not. So, I happily signed my Vietnamese Dharma name, Chan An Dinh, True Concentration on Peace.

—Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace

Heaven on Earth

We took a bus out of Saigon and visited Bat Nha (Prajna Temple). This was among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. To get there, we drove for two hours through wild, green mountains that rose up dramatically on either side of the winding, two-lane road. Arriving at the temple, we stepped into a utopia deep in tea and coffee plantations. Sloping fields full of tea bushes drop on all sides of this gorgeous refuge, making an almost flat, lush, waist-high green carpet of landscape. The air smelled like jasmine, and red earth paths circled in and around the grounds. From a speaker somewhere, voices were chanting with bells, the effect being nothing short of celestial.

We spent one day and night here, sleeping on the floor in buildings ringing the main temple. I awoke before sunrise to the steady, deep sound of a single drum heartbeat, then heard male voices chanting. I walked outside into the warm air following the sound and entered the temple. Twenty saffron-robed Theravadan monks visiting from Thailand were greeting the day. I sat in back on the smooth marble floor for almost an hour, listening, breath­ing, absorbing the sense of unity that voice, drum, and quiet early morning created among us. This place, Prajna Temple, deep in Vietnam’s tea fields, is a bit of heaven on earth.

—Lisa Haufschild


Love Food

I have never had such delicious, sim­ple, lovingly prepared food.

At Phap Van, our main temple in Sai­gon, food was prepared by the nuns. On temple visits, the women prepare beautiful things. We have had banana leaves folded origami style into octagon shaped boxes holding a coconut tapioca square. Sesame squares are in handmade packets wrapped in colorful gift-wrapped cellophane. Tan­gerines, the sweetest I’ve ever had, are stacked and wrapped. This is not restaurant food. It is love food.

—Lisa Haufschild



By the last evening, people know that Phap Van is no longer an ordinary neighborhood temple where you smoke cigarettes and offer a cursory handful of in­cense. You can now hear children singing “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “Here Is the Pure Land.” When something wonderful happens on stage, people know to wave their hands in the air rather than applaud. And when the bell is invited, there is a long moment of settling and quieting. A transformation has clearly happened here: people are listening to the talks with a deeper stillness now.


The local practitioners sit beautifully, some with their eyes closed, their hands folded before them. They listen peacefully as Thay delivers his farewell: teach­ings on interbeing; no coming, no going; no birth, no death. He holds up a sheet of paper, he strikes a match, he watches as the flame goes out. Where did it go? With deep intimacy, Thay speaks directly to each person: some day you might hear that I am deceased. And you might think I am gone. But all you need to do is look deeply to see that I am still here.

—Alissa Fleet

February 18 to March 15

Thay’s Return to Tu Hieu Pagoda

Walking in long lines in silence we made our way towards the temple entrance. We heard drums in the distance, and tradi­tional Vietnamese music. We were surrounded by trees, the leaves glistening in the damp late morning air. The route was lined with people holding Buddhist flags, flowers, and paper lotuses contain­ing candles. Some cried silently; no one said a word. After fifteen minutes we arrived at an archway, above which a sign said, ‘The Tu Hieu Temple Welcomes the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and the International Delegation from Plum Village’.


Ahead of me I could see the Half Moon Pond. As Thay stood opposite me, he turned, looked at the pond and said to one of the monastics, “Am I dreaming or is this real?” “It is real, dear Thay,” came the reply.

—Sita Ramamurthy, Compassionate Understanding of the Heart, London



Tu Hieu Temple, set in the forest a few miles from town, is where Thay became a monk at the age of sixteen. Our ancestral teacher, Master Nhat Dinh built the hermitage which served as the starting point of this temple in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was a highly respected abbot at a larger temple, but when his mother became ill he decided to find a place to build a small hermitage and take care of her. He found this place, crawling with tigers and thick with forest. Undaunted, he made a little hut for himself and another for his mother. Despite his intentional isolation, disciples found him and eventually it expanded into a monastery.


Returning to his childhood home and learning more about his teacher, we are all beginning to understand Thay in a wonderful new way. A remarkable thing is happening — he is looking younger each time I see him. We were told his teacher also began to look markedly younger during the last years of his life. The happiness on Thay’s face makes us all glow.

—Kate Cummings


Releasing the Fish

One day the delegation piled into seven boats painted red and yellow with dragon-headed prows. For two hours we floated up the wide and languorous Perfume River, through a landscape of brilliant green forest dotted with the occasional pagoda, vil­lage, or cornfield. On the way back, we stopped in the middle of the river across from Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the most famous landmarks in Vietnam. The dragon boat captains maneuvered to face upstream all in a row, anchored, and roped their boats together side by side. From the prow of the central boat, a senior monk led the Ceremony Releasing the Fish. After the monastics chanted the ritual, a monk took a fish out of a tub bubbling with big catfish and ceremoniously released it into the river. Then dozens of squirm­ing fish were given their freedom, more and more, finally whole buckets of them dumped into the water. Such joy!

—Janelle Combelic



Walking Meditation

Thay and the fourfold Sangha practiced walking meditation through central Hue, Hanoi, and Saigon. In Hue, the traffic was confined to the left side of the busy streets as we walked on the right half. The pavements were lined with people with palms joined. Hundreds more joined the walking meditation along the way until we were a body of many hundreds. This, for me, was a powerful expression of Thay’s teaching that society cannot thrive on economic advancement alone, but needs to have a spiritual dimension.

—Barbara Hickling, True Wonderful Land, Plymouth, Devon, England

mb39-Vietnam23Engaged Buddhism

While the monastics held a one-week retreat at Tu Hieu Tem­ple thirteen lay Dharma teachers led us in a lay retreat. Every day ninety of us came to the Dieu Nghiem nunnery next to Tu Hieu, for sitting and walking meditation, Dharma talks and discussions. The week was a sweet respite from the sometimes befuddling intensity of the pilgrimage. One afternoon we were joined by a dozen Vietnamese members of the Order of Interbeing, including some who had been part of the School of Youth for Social Service, founded by Thay in 1965, as a helping arm of Van Hanh University. Through the war, through the brutal years of communist rule since 1975, often working underground, they have continued feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, educating the poor.


Describing their work over the past forty years and continuing today, they told us: There are many people not cared for by anyone so we build schools and hospitals to care for them. After 1972, lots of people in the South were evacuated so those who remained grew crops to help feed the rest. A lot of blood and sweat was shed on those lands to grow crops. After 1975 all operations were terminated by the government so we stopped officially for several years but continued working underground. In 1985 we received from Plum Village, packages of medicine to sell so we could buy rice to give to people in poor areas.


Thay has taught us not to be attached to the political system, so when the government officials ask us to stop, I tell them that we only work in the spirit of loving our people and our country. We can continue because of the nurturing support of the Buddha, of all of you and of the energy of streams of all our ancestors.


“Thây left us when I was twenty,” said a dignified gentleman with tears in his eyes, “and now we’re all in our sixties. We have missed Thây very much, always hoping and praying that he could return. When he came to Phâp Van temple (in Saigon,where the school was located) and touched our hands we were very emo­tional, very moved. Having Thay here for the past two months has nurtured us tremendously and we do not wish for him to leave.”

—Contributed by Sozan Schellin, Wild Rivers of the Source, Austin, Texas; Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, Washington, D.C.; and Janelle Combelic

March 15 to March 30


Halong and Yen Tu

Gliding past islands
Stretching up from green water
With tree topped hair
At Halong Bay

What peace
Steaming along
No sign of mines
Long past

mb39-Vietnam27Atop small mountain
Red pagoda
Against grey sky
fog hovering at base

Yesterday Yen Tu Mount
Crowds gathered for fest
Climbing muddy rock steps
To Zen King’s home

I climb with Nyu
74 year old pilgrim
Holding hands I support her
Others come past and help

With my grey robe, brown jacket
I’m less an outsider
Myu translated comments
I smile, laugh with Viets

At heart of island
There wondrous cave
Stalactites drip beauty
Into silent pond

Sangha walk through cave
Stand chanting to Avalokita
Feeling old water energy
Releasing mind to touch joy

—Joy Magezis


And just how do I step into this beginningless flow? This I am taught by the flow of traffic in Hanoi. I stop and watch, and when I begin to feel myself slow down inside, when trust arises that the flow is there for me to tap into, the fear dissipates and I can see the openings in the traffic. Only after I am aware of this slowness in and outside of myself, have stopped and concentrated on what is flowing right before my eyes, am I ready to step into the traffic. And once I step in, it must be without hesitation; any hesitation separates me from the flow and actually causes danger to others. If I am tired, or shaky, as I often have been in Hanoi, I take the arm of a Sangha sister or brother, and let them lead me into and through. If I am alone, it’s harder. I will wait until someone else is crossing; it could be an old woman or someone carrying large bundles on either end of a bamboo pole, or even a bicycle or motor scooter crossing in my direction. The guide across the river will always come if I am patient, just as the opening in the throngs climbing Yen Tu mountain always came, if I waited and watched.

—Roberta Wall, True Insight of Peace, New York



Binh Dinh Province
March 30 to April 10

Monks and Nuns on the Beach

Now we near the sea
Beyond salt drying fields
Sister tells of old home
Then white waves, clear sand

 Off the bus we go
Onto peace time beach
Old bunker behind
Young monks jump into sea

Others follow joyfully
Soon half the Sangha’s wet
Brown robes bob in blue sea
Laughter fills the air

—Joy Magezis


How Was It?

It was exhausting. It was pivotal, I think, for Buddhism in Vietnam. It was a floating celebration. It was a reunion and a triumphal return. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life. Every night I dream about the trip and the Sangha; a different person every night. The night before I wrote this it was about Chuck, the twelve-year-old. The night before that about Terry Barber. Tonight, who knows. Maybe I’ll sleep through the night and won’t remember dreams. But the dreams will be there as Thay lives his dream—returning home and retooling Vietnamese Buddhism for the twenty-first century.

—Rowan Conrad


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How to Instantly Drop Feelings of Shyness, Loneliness, & Separateness

A Dharma Lamp Talk Plum Village November 13, 2004

by Annabelle Zinser


Often it is specific, concrete suggestions for practice that help us most in our process of transformation. In this section, practitioners, both experienced and beginner, share ways to incorporate a deeper awareness of mindfulness into our daily lives. We hear about the fears and joys of walking meditation from a new Dharma teacher; about how the practice of shining the light can be used in a Sangha setting; how one Sangha responded to a person in need; the courage it took to attend a first retreat; and some suggestions on how we can reduce our need for consuming a little bit more each day.

I first came to Plum Village in the summer, one year after the death of my mother. I had a feeling that there was something I needed to learn, and it seemed important to come and discover what that was.

When I look back now, I see that what I needed to learn was how to practice skillful and loving communication. I needed to learn not just the theory, but how to get the practice into my flesh and bones. It is the key to manifesting interbeing and emptiness in reality and to transforming suffering into freedom and happiness.

The practice which touched me most was to walk hand in hand with someone during walking meditation. Normally in life, people only hold hands with someone who is near and dear to them; but here in Plum Village, the process of becoming close to people is sometimes accelerated. At first I just watched others walking hand in hand, too shy to practice it myself. Sometimes even a feeling of loneliness came up when I saw so many people holding hands.

My background includes many years of practice in the Thera­vada Vipassana tradition. During those silent retreats instructions are given to avoid eye contact and any direct physical contact. This method of staying completely with your own process helps you to experience impermanence and no-self, as you witness the constant changes in bodily sensations, feelings, and mental formations. So for me the practice of holding hands with a stranger was something new and special.

At that retreat we had a Rose Festival, where I shared about being with my mother during the months before she died. Af­terwards, one nun came to me and talked about the death of her mother, and later, when the walking meditation started, she came to me again, bowed and smiled, and took my hand. She was very clear-eyed and trusting and I experienced a great ease and comfort walking with her and the Sangha around the lotus pond in the Lower Hamlet.

I did not know this nun very well, and there had even been an incident where she had behaved in a way which had brought up feelings of disapproval in me. But now she had come to me and taken my hand, and we walked together as if we had always been each other’s best friend. Feeling the warmness of her hand, and arriving carefully in each step together, I could let go of all judgments about her and feel at home with this hand and this step.

The clarity and firmness with which she had bowed and taken my hand was a great teaching for me. It showed me how simple it can be to drop shyness and the feeling of being separate and lonely. This teaching of instant connecting encouraged me to do the same with other friends.

I found that the easiest people to approach for holding hands are the children and the nuns. Even children who are normally quite wild can develop stability and trust and a kind of calm joy when I smile to them, take their hands firmly, and invite them: “Let’s go together and try to be aware of every step.” In Berlin I like to join hands with Than Thu, the daughter of a Vietnamese couple who has Downs Syndrome. I know that she is sometimes a great challenge to her mother’s patience, and I am happy that Than Thu trusts me and allows me to take her hand.

I also began to practice walking with my mother, after she had passed away. Whenever I thought of my mother—and often these thoughts were accompanied by regrets of having not spent enough time with her or not expressing my love enough—I would speak to her: “Dearest mother, I love you. It is so wonderful that we can go hand in hand together now. You are always with me.” When I practice this way, I can see her smiling face and feel her happiness, which gives me great relief for all my shortcomings.

When I go to visit her at the cemetery I am aware of every step, so my mind can go into a deep concentration. I start with this mantra as I open the door of the cemetery: “Dearest mother I love you so,” repeating it as I arrive at her place and staying with it as I drive home in the car. Instead of nourishing sad thoughts of regret, my walk in the cemetery is very joyous, uplifting, and nourishing for my mind, and I feel very near to my mother.

When the nuns came to Berlin to start the Source of Compas­sion Practice Center, I often joined them for walking meditation around eleven o`clock in the morning. At first it was difficult for me and the other lay people who joined in the walk, as our feelings of insecurity arose. People who passed by on the street would stare at us, walking and holding hands with these brown-robed women. We imagined they were wondering what kind of strange sect we were. But soon I developed a good relationship with the neighbors and talked to them about our practice of mindfulness, so they became more comfortable with us.

To hold hands with the nuns during walking meditation in Plum village or Berlin feels very safe and free for me. It feels like:

No coming, no going, no after, no before

Just holding hands together and there is nothing more.

mb39-How2Annabelle Zinser, True Fragrance of the Mindfulness Trainings, was given the lamp transmission in the winter of 2004.

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Rowan Conrad’s Lamp Transmission Gathas

Rowan Conrad, True Dharma Strength, of Montana, was given the lamp transmission in November, 2004. Here is his insight gatha and Thay’s response.


Rowan’s Insight Gatha
Lovely lights of the Sangha jewel
glow in, grow in, expand my heart.
Light the timeless path appearing
with each mindful breath and step
Steps to destinations dimly seen
but confidently known.

Thay’s Responding Gatha
Using the true Dharma energy of this beginner’s mind
Receive and deliver all lost beings of the six realms.
The bright pearl in the palm steadily shining far and wide
Can make the place of darkness turn toward the illuminating mind

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Poem: Only See The Face Before You

mb39-Only1To see the face before you,
To only see this face,
And nothing more,
And not to be in a dream,
Or drowning in an ocean
Of thinking and thoughts,
Or in your rivers of feelings, desires, perceptions;
To see clearly with all the senses,
To have pure recognition,
Pure awareness of what is
And nothing more—is to meditate
Each time you see with pure awareness
The more you see the wonders of life
And they become you;
And the more deeply you connect with life,
You vibrate with all its wonderfulness.
You just hear, see, taste, smell.

You see the unclear mind too
With its likes and dislikes,
Attachments, aversions,
Analyses, plans, judgments, criticisms.
All its imaginations, illusions,
Which block and suffocate understanding,
Compassion and love.

Just see your feelings, desires, perceptions,
Both good and not-good.
Just see their face and nothing more.
So you are not tricked and deceived,
Becoming identified with them,
Caught and imprisoned in them.
Just let these rivers flow by themselves.

Do not add or take away anything,
But simply see things as they are
With interest and wonder,
And a smile.

—By Bill Menza

Dharma teacher Bill Menza was inspired to write this poem from a Dharma talk by Thay Phap Dang.

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Ask the Dharmacarya

Shining the Light Ceremony: Order of Interbeing Aspirant Process

By Lyn Fine


What is the Shining the Light practice, and how can we use it in our Sangha?

In northern California, we have been experimenting with in­cluding a formal Shining the Light practice as part of the process of laypeople applying to join the core community of the Order of Interbeing and receive the Fourteen Mindfulness trainings in a formal ceremony. Including this practice as part of regular Sangha activity is also being encouraged, as we have come to realize how precious is the connection and open communication that is fostered through this form. The form of the ceremony we use is inspired by and adapted from the monastic practice at Plum Village and is grounded in the description in Friends on the Path, by Thich Nhat Hanh, compiled by Jack Lawlor. However, the form which follows has evolved from our experience, and differs from the written de­scriptions mentioned. The form continues to change, as we adapt the ceremony to the particular people and needs of the situation.

Aspirant Shining The Light Ceremony

When an aspirant wishes to organize a Shining the Light ceremony, she invites six to eight friends to be present. If the as­pirant is applying to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and join the Order of Interbeing at a particular time, the aspirant is encouraged to organize the ceremony several months before, and to invite people from her or his family and workplace as well as Sangha friends. In this way, people who know the aspirant well in various areas of her life can be included in the circle of support as she or he contemplates taking this next step of commitment. If practitioners who are not aspirants would enjoy receiving guidance in a Shining the Light ceremony, the participants are generally only Sangha friends. Allow two hours or so for the ceremony. The facilitator is usually a Dharma teacher or an Order of Interbeing member.

The Ceremony

Bell: Sound the bell three times.

Welcome: Facilitator welcomes everyone and gives a brief state­ment of the purpose of the gathering. A copy of the description in Friends on the Path can be made available to all participants. Everyone is invited to share their name and their connection with the aspirant.

Sitting Meditation: Five to twenty minutes. Participants may enjoy silently offering lovingkindness meditation and flower-wa­tering to the aspirant during the sitting, noticing where they have seen wholesome seeds arising. Begin and end the sitting by sounding the bell.

Aspirant Sharing: Facilitator invites everyone to follow their breathing and enjoy deep listening, then invites the aspirant to share for about ten minutes. Topics for sharing could include: the joys and aspirations of her practice, how she sees wholesome seeds manifesting, what suffering has been transformed, and one or two current growing edges or challenges in relationship to practice with the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. After the aspirant has finished speaking and the bell is invited, participants sit in silence, following their breathing for two or three minutes, to receive with full awareness the aspirant’s sharing.

Participants’ Sharing: The facilitator invites the participants to shine light on the aspirant’s practice. Practices which encourage deep listening and loving speech are explained, such as: bowing in and out to signal the desire to start and finish speaking; enjoying the sound of the bell at the end of each sharing; and conscious breathing throughout.

To encourage and support the aspirant, the participants share any nourishing and beneficial impact the aspirant has had on them. In addition, they can mention several growing edges they see in the aspirant, one or two seeds they would like to water and encourage to grow even more. The aspirant receives what is said with an open heart, in silence.

Sit: After everyone who wants to has spoken, there are a few minutes of sitting meditation.

Dialogue: The facilitator may then invite the aspirant and par­ticipants to share with each other questions that have arisen or responses to something that has been said.

Seek Consensus: If the practitioner is an aspirant applying to receive the trainings, and support of the participants by consen­sus is requested, the facilitator states: ________has requested to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and join the core community of the Order of Interbeing at ____________on ______date________.

Are there any questions, concerns, or doubts that anyone would like to put into the circle at this time? If someone speaks, discussion of the concern or question follows, after which the fa­cilitator again poses the statement. If no one speaks, the facilitator makes the statement again. After the facilitator has repeated the statement three times with no one choosing to speak, the facilitator acknowledges with joy that the group has reached consensus to support the aspirant’s application. If there is not yet consensus, it is acknowledged that more reflection would be appropriate and this is scheduled.

If the practitioner is not an aspirant, the group may enjoy a few minutes of sitting meditation, and offer gratitude to each other.

Bell: Followed by informal conversation, hugging meditation, and tea.

Lyn Fine, True Goodness, is a Dharma teacher guiding several Sanghas in the San Francisco bay area.

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Poem: ghosts

mb39-Ghosts1i watched a woman die tonight

a forty-nine-year-old woman
with a sudden, massive stroke
we did everything quickly
we did everything right
and still, she didn’t make it

my day in the emergency room
was a twelve-hour-long adrenaline rush
it was only later, after,
that i realized:

this woman wasn’t ready to die

a lively african-american woman
just forty-nine years old
with a loving husband and children
she wasn’t ready to die

death is a daily event
in the san francisco general hospital’s
emergency room

i spent the rest of the evening in meditation

walking the mission district meditation
staring out over the bay meditation
tears meditation
sitting meditation
breathing meditation
hot milk and croissants meditation
angel song meditation
reading Buddhist poetry meditation

writing meditation

tonight i go to sleep
wondering if ghosts will be visiting me
in my dreams

— By Dzung Vo

Dzung Vo,Tam Lien Ban, Healing Root of the Source, is a Vietnamese-American, pursuing his residency training in pediatrics in San Francisco

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A Knock on the Door

A Sangha Christmas Story

By Jerry Braza

It was three days before Christmas and twenty-seven Sangha members were nestled in chairs and on cushions in our Woodland Chapel practice center. The warmth of the building coupled with the energy of the Sangha, offered us a refuge on this cool first day of winter.

The evening began with a guided meditation in preparation for our Dharma discussion on true love. “Breathing in, I am aware of the presence of the Sangha. Breathing out, I am embraced by Sangha love. Breathing in, I recognize the presence of the other. Breathing out, I am here for you. Breathing in, I am aware of the suffering in others; breathing out, I embrace your suffering.”

Following our practice session, I began to offer a Dharma dis­cussion on the four mantras which Thay recommends we practice in our relationships. The first mantra is, “I am here for you.” One way to be here for another is to practice mindful breathing in order to bring body, mind, and spirit together. The second mantra is to truly recognize the other. We often do this through our eyes, our hugs, and words of affirmation which we selectively choose for loved ones. As I began to explain the third mantra, “Dear friend, I know you are suffering,” a loud knock on the locked side door stirred the Sangha. The door was opened and a man in his fifties appeared, “Can you help me?” he said.

Welcoming a New Friend

A Sangha member asked him to go to the main entrance where he was welcomed into our circle. As he introduced himself, it was clear that he was suffering from the cold and from emotional exhaustion. He said he was a Vietnam veteran and that he lived under the bridge. “Please help me. I don’t know where to turn and I felt the energy of this group as I went by this building. Will you pray for me?”

Instead of just talking about the concept of suffering, in this moment we had a wonderful opportunity to learn this practice experientially. I asked him, “How can we help you?” He told us he needed some money for lodging and food. We listened deeply to his suffering as he told his story. As the formal session ended we offered him a metta meditation. “May you be free from suffering. May you be well. May you find peace.” The evening’s dana was given to him as a parting gift.

The Action of True Love

That night we had a chance to open our hearts and water the seeds of understanding, compassion, and generosity. Homeless­ness and the scars of the Vietnam War came alive for us, and we will not easily forget the face of our suffering friend. We learned that embracing suffering in another will help us embrace our own suffering. I suspect we left with many unanswered questions: What is the best way to help? Is money always the answer? What if he drinks it away?

Every day we have opportunities to learn how to offer true love, sometimes in unexpected ways. It happens whenever our heart opens and we are truly present with another. In that moment, our breath and our practice enable us to be present with the suffering or joy of the moment. In that space, our mindfulness helps us to respond in the most appropriate way.

Several years ago I heard a story about the glove man. Each year at Christmas he walked the streets where the homeless resided and gave away gloves, which he had collected during the year. He never asked, “Should I give?” He just gave. In each moment his heart was open and he watered the seeds of generosity and compassion.

May you find ways to practice the mantras on true love as you connect with your suffering and the suffering of the world. “I am here for you. I recognize you by connecting with you. Dear one, I know you are suffering and that is why I am here for you.”

mb39-AKnock1Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a Dharma teacher living in Salem, Oregon and practicing with the River Sangha

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Always at the Beginning

My First Retreat Experience

By Haven Tobias


A friend and I set out from Oklahoma, bound for the Rocky Mountains, and my first mindfulness retreat. Two years before I knew nothing of Buddhism or Thich Nhat Hanh. Now, I still feel uninformed, but trust my friend, Marla, and my well-intentioned beginner’s mind to carry me through.

Well, okay, part of me trusts my own mind. The other part of me can’t decide what to worry about first.

Meals are high on the list of frets. What is mindful eating? At home, breakfast is whatever I can slice into a baggie and eat while driving. Lunch is at my desk, with the phone, computer, and files. I eat dinner in four and a half minutes in front of the TV, with a fork in one hand, remote in the other, and the day’s mail and newspaper spread out on the coffee table. Silent meals, I know how to do. I live alone. But, for precisely that reason, when two conditions arise together, food and people, I turn into a chatterbox. Could I be quiet?

When I’ve exhausted the subject of meals, worrying about room arrangements is another diversion. How can I share one room with four other women? I’ve had ten rooms to myself for a dozen years.

I didn’t want to bother Marla with these worries, but every once in a while when she’d hear me sigh a deep sigh, she’d say, “Breathe and smile. This is going to be fun.”

We arrive at the retreat and learn we’ve been assigned different rooms. I’ve lost my guide! I’m on my own! PANIC!

But it’s evening, and I decide against thumbing a ride home. Instead, I make my way to the cafeteria. The food is plentiful and looks good. I’m hungry. I’ve got to try a little of this, and this, and that. I make my way to a table, plop down, and look around. Hundreds of people are eating in silence. I notice people bow­ing and smiling when they sit down or get up. I also notice that not everyone does this and realize I don’t know when to bow, to whom, or why.

Suddenly, a bell sounds. Is it a fire drill? No, nobody’s moving. In fact, everybody has stopped. If it were possible for this room full of people to be quieter, it is. Then, everybody starts slowly chewing again.

Marla comes to my table. What luck! She bows and smiles, so I bow and smile back. But we don’t speak, of course. I remember she told me to chew everything thirty times. I eat. Suddenly it occurs to me that I have been chewing and smiling and bowing for a long time. So how come there is still such a pile of food on my plate? Marla was done long ago and waits patiently. I write a note on my napkin. Do I have to stay until I have eaten every­thing on my plate? I slip it to Marla. She smiles and shakes her head. As I bus my tray, I feel I’ve failed my first test. I am a glutton, and not even a successful one. I didn’t eat everything. I just took it, then threw it away.

After dinner there’s an orientation. Hundreds of people pour into the meditation hall. People are milling about, greeting each other, finding places to sit. Then it is still and there he is, just one of the people on the stage, dressed like the other monastics. He sits off to the side by a large bell. I recognize Thich Hanh, not because anything is said or done to call attention to him, but because he looks like his picture on the book Marla had in the car.

The orientation, introducing us to the theme “I have arrived, I am home,” is wonderful, but when it concludes I am tired. I go to my room and crawl gratefully into my upper bunk bed.

My eyes are just shutting, when, bang, they are suddenly wide open and my mind has started in again. I never heard Thich Nhat Hanh introduced. I could swear I heard people refer to him as “Thai.” I still don’t know much, but I thought he was from Vietnam, not Thailand. What if I run into him tomorrow? What do I call him? Your Holiness? Mr. Thich Nhat Hanh? Mr. Thich? Or Mr. Hanh?

We waken at five a. m. I let my roommates get ready first, while seriously contemplating staying in bed to avoid embarrassing myself. But I realize I probably can’t stay in bed for five days. I’m too shy to go to the meditation hall, so I dress warmly and sit outside as the darkness rolls away and light outlines the mountains. I walk alone to breakfast and when I get brave enough to look up, I see a nun with a kind face coming towards me. I decide to trust. I stop her and ask whether it is appropriate to bother her with a question, especially a really stupid question.

I am so agitated over polite forms of address, I have com­pletely forgotten we are still within the period of noble silence. Despite this, the nun smiles and nods encouragement, so I ask, “What is the name of Thich Nhat Hanh and why do some people call him Thai?”

Her smile grows, turning what is already a lovely face into the face of an angel. “That,” she says, “is a very good question.” “Thank you for asking.” Then she explains that his students call him the Vietnamese word for teacher, “Thay.” Her sweetness is like wings on my heels, and I float off. I can’t get over it. She THANKED me for my question! That morning I decide I want to be his student too.

At breakfast, I resolve to be reasonable in the presence of all this wonderful food, and take less than I am tempted to. An hour passes, and after much chewing: twenty-six, chew; twenty-seven, chew; twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. I have finished! I have wasted nothing. I smile.

I am learning. But I have bigger lessons ahead of me.

Doing it All

On that first day, I want to do everything. I plan it all out. I can rush lunch, run back to the room, grab my bathing suit, run by the bookstore on the way to the pool, get to the pool in time to do some laps, dress again, then make it back for the slide show, and hurry to join my Dharma discussion group.

I am on the brink of jumping into the water, when I hear a shrill whistle. “Evacuate the pool,” the lifeguard orders. “There is heavy lightning in the vicinity. There will be no swimming for at least an hour.” Well, phooey! I could have eaten lunch prop­erly and enjoyed it. I could have passed an enjoyable half-hour in the bookstore, instead of barreling through. I could have sat quietly and…

Come to think of it, I can sit quietly now. I can just sit down and take stock. Let’s see. What’s the bad news? I’m worrying. Just like home. I’m over-planning. Just like home. I’m frustrated I can’t do it all and have it all, just like home.

The good news? If I had left my worrying, planning, frus­trated self behind, I might not have come to this moment, when, after making mistakes, I realize I can learn from them. In fact, if I can learn from a mistake, can it be a mistake? Does a person who never makes a mistake learn anything? After all, it’s not called mindfulness perfection; it’s called mindfulness practice.

If everything one does and says is an opportunity to practice, then a beginner is not less worthy than an old hand. In fact, it is good to be a beginner, to have the opportunity to start over in every moment.

The last morning of the retreat, Marla and I and many others commit to the five mindfulness trainings and learn our Dharma names. The monks who guided my discussion group chose the name Embracing Freshness of the Heart for me. How could they have known me so well in such a short time? My Dharma name is one of the best gifts I have ever received. Every day, I begin by smiling to my name, and vow to embrace freshness.

At my first retreat, I learned it does not matter if my last step was a misstep, because the last step leads to the next. Each can be a mindful step toward patience and compassion, for myself, and others.

mb39-Always2Haven Tobias, Embracing Freshness of the Heart, lives in Norman, Oklahoma and practices with the Norman Meditation Group Sangha. She has practiced law for thirty-two years, and she is happy practicing mindfulness now

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The Practice of Subtracting

Learning to Let Go of Material Possessions

By David Percival


My mail today brought another pile of catalogs including the latest shiny, slick catalog of expensive Buddhist items. Everything I need is here: huge Buddhist statues, including one for my garden for only $998, the tea sets, the bells and wind chimes, jewelry, lamps, and furniture. I lose myself in the catalog briefly, then breathe and sit silently for a few minutes, and then move on. How easy it is to get caught up in the endless and relentless schemes to consume and acquire things of “value,” being persuaded that some purchases can enhance your practice, make your life better, or take you closer to enlightenment. We are regularly assaulted by an incredible array of catalogs, ads, ploys, and attempts to get us to spend and consume. There is nothing in today’s catalogs I want or need.


Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the freedom of monastic life, that you don’t own anything, that you don’t need anything. In Stepping Into Freedom, he says, “If you are caught in the net of attachments, you will not have time or energy to practice or to serve others.”

What a contrast to our consumer-oriented acquisitive life where we seem to want and need everything. Our capitalist system is fueled by out-of-control consumerism. Much of our economy is built on greed and on advertising designed to persuade us to buy things and services we don’t need. Entire sectors of our economy provide products or services that are useless, irrelevant, and some­times dangerous: from tobacco, liquor, and fast food, to tanning salons, cosmetics, and gaming. And, of course, all items related to the war industry have great potential for harming.

It seems to me that capitalism as I experience it and Buddhism as I understand it can barely co-exist. The Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa states that, “capitalism depends on greed, delusion, and hatred in order to become entrenched in society and in the individual and is thus, [an] anathema to the goals of Buddhism.” It is obvious to me that the benefits of capitalism are not passed down to the growing millions of the poor, so the poor get poorer and more oppressed. How, as engaged Buddhists, can we help to reverse this tide?

Contemplating Value

What do we value in our life and practice? For me the thing of greatest value is the practice itself, made possible by the Sangha and the four-fold Buddhist community; the Dharma; and the peace and available time that come with leading a simple life. Standing in front of my altar I see many things of inestimable value. I see the

four pebbles that Thay asked us to gather for pebble meditation, which I found on a beach walk in Santa Barbara, California. I see two tiny Buddhas that were given to me when I lived in Laos. I see the photograph of my son in the orange robes of a monk from when he spent some time in the Lao Buddhist Monastery in San Diego. I see the little Buddha figure, made from mud in India, given to me as a new member of the Order of Interbeing. I see my bronze bell. I see my small collection of Buddhist books. I see pictures of my family and my granddaughters. I see a leaf from a bodhi tree in India. I look out the window and see my quiet garden and the resting plants blowing gently in a winter wind. These priceless things define value for me.

While we may not be able to realize the monastic freedom of just having three robes and one bowl, we can, as lay Buddhists, encounter true freedom by reducing attachments and desires. Subtraction is not loss. As we subtract, vistas open up, our minds expand and freedom grows.

As Sulak Sivaraksa says, “…one learns from the Buddha to constantly reduce one’s attachments and to envision the good life as the successful overcoming of attachment to personal gains and possessions. Free from these attachments, one is endowed with sufficient time and energy to nurture the seeds of peace within.” To reduce our attachments is to reduce our suffering. How do we do this in our daily lives? What does it mean to practice subtracting? Following are some ways I have explored this practice.

Impermanence and Mindful Consuming

I try to meditate constantly on the impermanent nature of everything. I do this throughout the day as I am assaulted by the media, the signs, the catalogs in the mail, the shops in the malls. I attempt to live in awareness of the festering in the back of my mind to consume, which shoves me around, creating desires for worldly things I have absolutely no need for. I stop and breathe, and become aware of the impermanent nature of all these things. Through meditation and mindfulness practice, I am developing an immunity to consumerism.

I meditate regularly on Exercise Fourteen, “Looking Deeply, Letting Go,” in The Blooming of a Lotus, which helps me deal with my attachment to sensual pleasure and material objects by reveal­ing their impermanent nature. I follow with Exercise Fifteen, on the Five Remembrances, and Exercise Sixteen, on looking deeply into our feelings. I try to walk through the world, observing material objects as if I were in an art museum, passing by many pleasing objects. I acknowledge them and appreciate their beauty and the skill of the artist who created them, without any desire to acquire them. Sulak Sivaraksa states, “Freedom entails the unfettering of the consciousness from its attachments, values, judgments, etc.— of all its contents.” I practice learning to be satisfied, knowing I lack nothing, that it is all here, now, in this moment.

I occasionally do “mall meditation,” where I slowly and mind­fully walk the length of a huge mall and practice smiling while acknowledging everything I see and letting it all fall away behind me. In my travels, I love to walk mindfully in city neighborhoods, smiling at everything I see and letting it all pass by.

Each day I meditate on The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, which reminds me of the impermanence of all things, and that consuming, desiring, and attaching lead to more consuming, desiring, and attaching. The only result is more suffering. Desires can become insatiable and our descent into grief and suffering an endless experience.

Subtracting Every Day

I try to subtract something every day. Over the years I have stopped eating meat and fast food, put the TV in the trash, and have eliminated controlling and dominating tendencies from my life. I regularly recycle our excess books, clean out the garage and dispose of the endless clutter in the house. I practice letting go of attachment to ownership, put alcoholic beverages out of my life, and no longer have a second car. I forgot to buy a cell phone and have no interest in jewelry.

I have found that this practice of subtraction has led to free­dom and joy, an openness and clarity of mind. Thay says, “As you continue practicing, the flower of insight will blossom in you, along with the flowers of compassion, tolerance, happiness, and letting go. You can let go, because you do not need to keep anything for yourself.”

Thay tells us that living a simple life in peace, free from desire and craving, leads to freedom and the time to help others find their freedom. As we move away from material accumulation, we also move away from our infatuation with ourselves, our goals, our success, our views, our individual prosperity. We become more available to help others, from our family and our communities to the world. When we let go of our attachments and our grasping, we enjoy renewed energy, and our world expands. We are strong enough to become one with oppressed people everywhere. And we will know what to do.

1 From chapter forty-eight of Arthur Waley’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.
2 For information on books by Thich Nhat Hanh, see Parallax Press, www.parallax. org/
3 For more information on Sulak Sivaraksa, see www.sulak-sivaraksa.org

mb39-ThePractice3David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the subscription manager of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Being Home

By Susan O’Leary


Ours is an old house in the heart of a midwestern American city. This is where we daily breathe (not always in mindfulness), where we daily walk, where we daily sit. This is where our practice starts in the morning and ends at night. We do not always practice well, we don’t always remember we’re practicing. But this is the space where our mindfulness over years has grown. And as we quiet and settle, our house quiets and settles with us.

The kitchen reminds us we are home, and I love to stand in its silence. There are two windows in the kitchen–one above the sink looking over the back yard, one on the stairs that come down into the kitchen from the second floor. In the seasons when windows are open, you feel the breeze move with bare attention through the room. When I open the door in the back hall leading to the basement, and open the window on the landing, the breeze then moves differently. It comes together with fullness, entering from three di­rections. Inside and outside. In and out. Silence. Air.

Right now there are tomatoes on the windowsill from our younger son Tom’s garden. There has been little rain this year, and they have ripened unusually small, a lovely coral red. In the morning, when I’m making coffee, I watch our collie in the back yard through this window. He goes to the border of the garden and stands. Still. Then, after this pause, he walks around the edge of the garden fence (we put it up to keep him out), and makes his way in. Each day since they have ripened he goes to the tomato plants, slowly pulls a tomato off, then comes back out of the garden, sets the tomato on the ground, and begins to eat. He is a timid dog, and it is a surprise to see him be so bold.

And the dailiness of life here is just this: we stop more now, we see more slowly. My husband Jim notices a need, and answers it before anyone asks. Tom stops at the bell in passing, and in­vites it. I see the pleasure of a dog trespassing in a garden. The transformation is small and present. And it has changed our life.

No one has accused us yet of enlightenment. We still will argue. We still have days that start wrong and stay wrong, old hurts that get remembered and then nurtured. But this is the difference: we know more easily our way back now. Somewhere in old patterns of distance, we will be kind. Or stop and listen. We will decide out of love to understand, to open our heart just a little more, though instinct and pattern say to close it.

A presence, a sense, cannot help but change what surrounds it; I have seen that as a teacher. Being with children you learn how families nurture kinship, responsibility, and happiness. And also see how repeated disappointment and want in a family can turn to anger and despair. Each year some few children bring that anger to school, and you see how their anger affects other children, how it can change a room. It took me years of practice to understand this simple thing: mindfulness transforms not just the practitioner, but the place. If we all know that anger can suddenly change a room, change a space – doesn’t, too, love? Doesn’t, too, mindfulness?

The practice entered our house twelve years ago with the breath. With that simple, surprising awareness of now. Now our practice has become home. There is emptiness to sense in the house, to quiet in. The awareness of our two older children, Nate and Nora, both grown, both gone to lives beyond this house, and yet always returning. Difficulty, sorrow, illness; celebration, joy, all have passed here, all have found their way, some staying, some surely to come again. But moments of peace, of mindfulness, have grown over years, and settled in the rooms, too. The breath sent out and brought in. Presence becoming. This is our home, where we are.

We are here, a family. The walking of daily life takes us from room to room, from cupboard to table, from book to bed. The sitting of daily life brings the family together at meals, gets bills paid, offers the refuge of a favorite chair. The breath of daily life, often unnoticed, is life itself. Walk. Sit. Breathe. This is where we know our path. Footsteps repeat. The movement of the house becomes known parts of our life. The practice settles in our hearts here.

Susan O’Leary, Deep Confidence of the Heart, is a teacher and writer living in Madison, Wisconsin and practicing with the Snowflower Sangha.

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Smoking Buddha

Transforming an Addiction to Smoking

By Carolyn Cleveland Schena


At two o’clock in the morning I am wide awake and I really want to smoke a cigarette. I should be exhausted and sleeping soundly after being awake since five a.m. the day before, but I am not tired. I am thinking about everything under the sun, and yet nothing at all. The list of things that I need to do grows with each passing minute. I wonder how I will get it all done. I really want to smoke a cigarette.

For years, smoking was the best way to solve my sleeplessness. Some time after college, when I decided to be a more “spiritual” person, I became ashamed of my smoking habit –– after all, I had never seen any statues of a smoking Buddha. But instead of quitting I crept into the closet with my nasty habit and maintained a healthy image. At night I had the freedom to express the other half of my life that I kept safely hidden, an addiction that I still could not admit I had. Over the years I became quite stealthy at sneaking outside for a midnight smoke, even when I was living in a house with six people.

There were three spots on the stairs that let out an evil creak when absentmindedly stepped on. I knew all of them by heart even in the pitch dark. The cold of the flagstone hallway was a minor irritation, compared to the silence that was secured walking in bare feet. The sliding glass door could be opened with the usual clunk and thud, but over many desperate-to-smoke nights, I had learned to open it with out a sound.

The third step was my perch, far enough down to be away from the windows for invisibility and off the ground enough to protect my naked feet from all those things that crawl in the night. With each inhale and exhale I watched my thoughts and the smoke swirl around me. Sometimes I would notice the stillness of the night, the moonlight dancing off tree limbs. Mostly I tried unsuccessfully not to think, and when I was sufficiently high from the nicotine I stumbled my way back up the stairs to bed, leaving the shame of addiction in the darkness.

Aware of Difficult Emotions

That practice went on for years and years. As my meditation practice grew steadier, my ability to look more deeply at the root cause of my actions and emotions also grew. Eventually I noticed that I was deliberately creating a smoke screen, a way of buffering myself from deeper emotions I did not want to feel.

The number of cigarettes I smoked slowly decreased as my ability to be more present with all of the thoughts and feelings that arose in the stillness of the night increased. I began to see that the late night urges for smoking reflected the intensity of the day. At midnight, when the world was stopping and resting, my mind and body were racing and greeted the silence like a train wreck. I was trying to lessen the impact of the crash with a buffer of smoke.

Mindfulness has given me the tools to embrace difficult emotions. I learned that I didn’t have to run away from what I perceived as difficult or overwhelming. I began to see that what I most resisted never left; it just sat there waiting for my attention with great persistence and would still be there, even after the nicotine buzz had worn off.

The midnight secret smokes were a relief from the stresses of the day and they were my own secret pleasure. In the beginning, I enjoyed them, even though they fueled the conflict of who I was in the world. Was I the wholesome, hard-working spiritual type that people perceived me to be, or a just confused girl with a closet addiction? I could not humble myself to admit to friends and family that I did not have the strength to overcome a habit that I found disgusting. I chose instead to live in denial; if no one saw me smoke then I did not have to see myself as a smoker either.

Even in a metropolitan area of over a million people, loneli­ness permeated my existence. I could not be with anyone because I could not be who I really was. I was ashamed of my secret, so I kept myself away from others. I left parties early in order to sneak away to smoke. I walked home alone to indulge my habit. I was sure that I could not reveal who I really was, because I believed that the friends and colleagues who admired me would certainly abandon me if they knew. Even though I desired to live with my heart wide open and to have the kind of joy that is present when true intimacy is alive in relationship, I could not let go of the one thing that was stopping me from bringing that into my life.

The suffering of giving up my one or two cigarettes a day was greater than anything I could dream of replacing it with. So I continued smoking. And pretending not to.

When I was in environments where smoking was not the norm, I would begrudgingly let go of my midnight habit for the few days or weeks that were necessary to keep up my image. It was during those times that I began to see that the smoke-free me carried a more open and joyous heart that was not only attractive to me, but to those around me. However, once I was back at home, the habit of smoking and the relief that I perceived it brought me were too strong, so once again I would re-enter a cycle of shame and self deprecation when I lit up the next cigarette.

This cycle continued for years. And it took a few more years before I learned to have compassion for myself and be happy that I no longer smoked fifteen cigarettes a day, that one or two cigarettes was my only struggle. I began to be able to laugh about the absurdity of the need to have just one cigarette. I also shared openly with friends about my habit and was surprised each time my friends did not respond with criticism. I was laying more blame and shame on myself than anyone else ever could. Eventually I came to accept that I was a smoker, and once I did this I was able to stop smoking. After all, I could not give up a habit if I didn’t even admit that I had one.

Breathing to Let Go

At two-thirty a.m. my mind has been churning for a good thirty minutes. I laugh out loud with the wonderful realization that I have been thinking. As Sharon Salzburg says, “the miracle of mindfulness is the moment when we realize we are thinking.” And then I begin doing what worked at six a.m. earlier today day when the dog barked, and at noon when my boss demanded a meeting with me, and at four p.m. when I was cut off in traffic. I follow my breath.

Lying with my back flat on the mattress, I place my hand on my belly and drink in my in-breath, feeling every morsel of it as it enters in to my body through my nose. A thought arises, and I bring my mind back to my breath and slowly smile as I take in another deep breath. And then I watch the desire to smoke a cigarette dissolve.

Before practicing mindfulness, my idea about smoking was simple—it was bad, and I should quit. Mindfulness has given me the ability to see smoking not as bad or as good—it is just smoking. Looking deeper I can see all the reasons, all the causes and the conditions that I created in order to allow me to light up a cigarette. I can also see all the causes and conditions that now allow me not to. When I choose not to smoke, I am choosing to be fully present with life and every emotion and feeling it has to offer. Pleasant or not, I am grateful that I can experience them. And then it occurs to me: maybe that is why I have never seen any statues of a smoking Buddha.

mb39-Smoking2Carolyn Schena, Peaceful Flower of the Heart, practices with the Island Sangha in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. She and her husband Gary own Studio 12, where they create ceramic works of art and inspire others to do the same.

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Murder as a Call to Love

By Judith Toy


When I smoked cigarettes it was two packs, sometimes three, a day. My record for lit cigarettes simultaneously burning either in ashtrays or in my hand was four. Sometimes I chewed gum, too. Half cups of cold coffee were strewn about my office. I was skinny and nervous.

It was my habit to stay in constant motion. What bogey­man did I think would strike me if I stopped moving, watching television, listening to radio, eating, reading, writing, jogging, paying bills, talking on the phone? Maybe what was living inside of me following the trauma of the murders of three of my family was anger, even rage. I had no lack of confusion, doubt, greed, self-contempt, jealousy, and ego.

If I stopped, I would have to come face to face with my deeply inadequate self.

The murders of my sister-in-law Louise and my two teenage nephews, Dougie and Danny, brought me to my knees. It was October 15, 1990, and looking back, I see that for me and my family, it was the holocaust. Everything normal about our lives had been shattered; our shock and despair seemed too much to bear.

The DNA evidence proved that Louise, Dougie, and Danny’s lives had been cut short by the boy across the street. Eric was a friend of Dougie and Danny, and had ranked in the top two percent of his high school graduating class. Three weeks prior to grad­uation, Eric had dropped out of school and began prowling the neighborhood at night. A year later, he stabbed and bludgeoned my family to death.

Eric’s father was the only neighbor willing to be interviewed by the television reporters after the murders. He was like the movie character Rambo, telling reporters, “We’re going to get whoever did this; we have guns and dogs!” This air of retribution was carried out by a mob of people after Eric was arrested in Florida and extradited to Pennsylvania. When Eric was brought back in restraints in the middle of the night, a waiting crowd screamed, “kill him, kill him!”

Two months later, the trial ended with Eric’s confession. From the murder through the trial and confession, my family and I had lost so much hope, we felt like we were going through life wading under water.

Many months later I came face to face with a Soto Zen monk, Patricia Dai-En Bennage, who was to change my life in two im­portant ways: by teaching me how to stop and enjoy my breathing, and by introducing me to the teachings on mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. That was thirteen years ago.

The act of stopping took courage, because I came face to face with my deeply inadequate self. At first when I meditated, guilt and betrayal and rage floated to the surface. I learned that the only way out of my pain was to let it happen ––to go through it. And on the other side of the pain, I was welcomed into paradise through noticing my breath.

Forgiveness a Breath Away

The breath became the gateway to my heart. Because I have learned to stop, sometimes I have felt my heart as an orb of a moonflower on the garden arbor, opening to the sky. I listen to my heartbeat. I let my heart open like a bud, like a leaf unfurling.

I did not plan to forgive the boy who murdered my family. But after five years of stopping, enjoying my breathing, and re­laxing every day, I was able to look deeply and understand Eric. He was not a monster, but a boy who had temporarily become a beast when he murdered my family. When I forgave Eric, I felt such a surge of relief that I understood why Jesus said, “Before you enter the temple, forgive.”

Through this insight, I knew Eric was suffering intensely for his actions. And I began to understand that the seeds of violence in our society and in his family partly caused the murders. Eric was serving three consecutive life sentences in prison, with no chance of parole. I began to mentally place myself in his prison cell and hold him gently in my arms. I will never know if this helped him. One day he took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his cell. When I learned he was dead, I profoundly mourned his passing.

Gratefully, I turned to the refuge of the three jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Realizing that everything changes and that I will sooner or later lose those I love, I began to deeply appreciate the preciousness of each moment. I began washing the dishes as if each one were the baby Buddha, and looking deeply into the eyes of my grandchildren. I allowed my grief to be absorbed by the earth during walking meditation, and felt the earth give back to me, cool grasses soothing the soles of my sometimes weary feet.

During seated meditation, when emotions arise, I try to notice and stay with them. As a pain or an itch arises, instead of moving or scratching for relief, I try not giving in to the urge, but just notice the pain or the itch. How refreshing, not to move or scratch! One hot July evening while sitting, I felt a mosquito sink its proboscis into my scalp and feed. Welcome, my friend! I guess you deserve to live, too, I thought. There was never any swelling or itch from that bite.

The Voice of the Bell in Prison

My husband, Philip, and I take a bell to a medium security prison to share our practice with young inmates, some of whom had known Eric, the boy who murdered my family. The small bell with a beautiful sound is the centerpiece of our practice together. The noise of slamming metal doors and the prison public address system is the background even as we sit and walk in silence. Upon hearing the sound of the bell we breathe three times, returning to the moment. The men named themselves Fragrant Lotus Petal Sangha, a place of refuge.

Healing Both Families

I called and talked with Eric’s mother. We cried together over the four needless deaths in our two families. She said that in the thirteen years since the murders, mine was the first phone call regarding her son. She and her husband have been so shunned that they have become invisible to their family and neighbors and friends. She thanked me and asked God to bless me for making the call.

The first holy truth of the Buddha is that life constantly of­fers up suffering. Life offered me my deeply inadequate self for transformation. I no longer smoke cigarettes and pace the floors, afraid to stop. In fact, now that I’m walking mindfully on the path of joy, everything in the actual world— the rising sun, the sound of sirens, a crying child, the squealing of brakes, a Mozart sonata, even a war — reminds me to breathe, to breathe in a universe that while full of anguish, will always, always breathe with me.

mb39-Murder2Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, is co-founder of Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This story is excerpted from her forthcoming book, Sitting on Fire, the Zen of Forgiveness.

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Voices of Pain

By Sarah O’Brien


Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. While around me the feelings, unbelievable and large, saunter. Heavy elephants.

The voice tells me things you don’t want to know I am thinking. You don’t want to know, because you will realize that I am crouching in a wretched place full of shame and dirty waters and elephants of so many colors and tales that all becomes confusing.

The voice whispers to me that I do not belong here, that I am breathing too loudly, that I am undeserving of love, that I am unable to speak truthfully, that I am a rapist inside and a murderer. The voice believes itself, and it is loud.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. Around me the sitters are sitting, silently breathing. I emerge from the pool gasping for breath. Tears are silently flowing down my cheek. Thank god in this practice in this room we don’t look and measure one another. I face the wall, and draw from the silence around me, from the still sitters not judging, only breathing.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. The sound of the bell emanates through the room. I bow, and I know I am in the present moment. Still, that voice tells me I am not welcome in the here and now. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

I ask the voice, what do you want from me? Love, she an­swers. Only love.

How to love her? How to cherish her? I know I cannot do it alone. I need the support of Sangha. Sitting in the midst of those who meditate, a light grows as if from a seed inside of me. Hope arises like a small purple flame at the center of a candle, the kind that may stay lit and turn to a royal orange, or that may dampen and desist when untended.

I hear the sound of the bell and the flame is evoked; the voice is quiet. I wonder: is she listening? Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

At home I am overcome with the image of a downtrodden black boy, seven years old and angry. His name is Jerome. His arms are crossed, and his hands are creased with many lines.

I wonder to myself, is this she? Is this the voice I have been waiting to love?

A watercolor painting of Jerome shows his angry lines, his dejected pouting lips. I sit on the purple cushion to meditate and light a candle in front of the image. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. I soak in all of the aspects of Jerome, and create a space for love in my heart.

The voice is silent. I listen to the sound of my breathing. I see the candle flame, I see Jerome.

Angry voice arises, and the elephants come trampling in. They trample me. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

I am still alive, and the tears come again. This time the tears are not for me, they are for Jerome. They are for that small child inside of me that is so angry and unknown.

How many other suffering children are there? Which voices in my life do they come forth to represent? An angry father? A suffering relative? A buried ancestor coming back through my genetic structure to relay the message of pain?

How many times will I cry these tears? I don’t know. Some­times I can’t see their faces––I only hear the voice.

It is when I hear the voice that I know how much compassion and breath I need, and how much I need the Sangha, Buddha, and Dharma. They have brought me to a time and place where I can meet myself with love. They supplement the medications and therapy in which I invest for healing. They are my refuge and place of stillness. To sit with the Sangha is like drinking a balm of honey, lemon, and water. It is simplicity that spins around me like a cocoon.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. During Dharma discussion someone holds my hand. People raise voices to the question: Can you speak to the matter of holiness, practice, and depression?

This so that during individual practice Jerome and I become so much one that he and I both dissipate, and the voice comes and goes until all that is left is breath.

mb39-Voices2Sarah O’Brien practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC. She is a program coordinator for NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, of Montgomery County, Maryland, and enjoys playing Native American flute.

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Blowing Our Anger

By Marie Sheppard


Anger and I go back a long way. These seeds have been well fer­tilized, for generations, and I was doing my best to keep up the tradition until I began to practice mindfulness.

Being a parent has motivated me to work harder than I oth­erwise would have with anger. I didn’t want our children to be on the receiving end, as I had been. I knew that if they were, the cycle would continue and they would end up giving just as they had received. I hoped that they would have a different relation­ship with anger. I wanted to give them tools to help them to work with anger in ways that would deepen their understanding and compassion for themselves and those around them.

About three years ago we were visiting extended family when a huge fight erupted. Our three-year-old son Rowan and I were sitting at the far end of the picnic table as the voices escalated and the tears came. This was Rowan’s first exposure to such a heated argument, and my immediate impulse was to protect him. I wanted to distract him and, at the same time, give him something that would help him to be with this expe­rience. I started telling him a spontaneous story about looking deeply at our anger. The story introduced a practice we call “blowing our anger” that we are still using, three years later.

A little girl named Jess wakes up from her nap and becomes very cross that no one has come in to give her a cuddle. She stomps through the house and wreaks havoc on her family. She knocks down the block tower that her brother is carefully building. She yanks a ball out of her dog’s mouth, puts it in a drawer and slams it shut. She tells her Daddy (who had just told her that he was making her favorite dinner—sushi) that she hates sushi and that he is a dreadful cook!


She stomps out in the garden to find her Granny. Granny asks her how she is feeling, and Jess tries the same behavior with her. Granny observes that Jess seems upset and encourages Jess to blow her anger up to the sky. Granny explains that anger is sticky, and if you blow it at other people, it will stick to them and they will become angry. If you blow it to the sky, the wind will carry it away. Jess does this, and a scarlet red fireball of anger floats up into the sky and dissipates.

Granny explains that once the anger has blown away, Jess can look underneath it to see what is there. These are the feelings that caused the anger to come. If we share the feelings that fuel the anger, other people can understand what we are experiencing and try to help us. Jess does this and realizes that she felt hurt because no one seemed to care about her or give her any attention when she awoke from her nap. She tried to hurt her family because she was feeling hurt, and she understands that they are probably feeling angry with her. She guesses that under their anger, they are probably feeling hurt or frightened by the things that she did.

Granny encourages Jess to go back into the house and ex­plain what happened to her family. Jess brings her family to the garden and describes how she blew her anger and what she found underneath. Then, she invites them to practice in the same way. Jess holds their hands and as they blow, the colors fly up to the sky and float away.

We have used this story (with lots of rousing sound effects) to help us manage our anger and look at what is underneath it. By “managing,” I mean not blowing anger in hurtful ways at those around us. Blowing is really breathing and calming. Once we have released the force of anger, we can identify its cause.

After I first told the story, I began going outside to blow when I became angry. I would then return to the family and explore what was underneath my anger. Once he had seen me practice this way, I invited Rowan to go outside and blow when he became angry. It’s been important that it not be seen as a punishment, but as a way of helping.

The first time he did this, he was in the car. He rolled down his window and blew very hard (and noisily!). He described what his anger looked like, in vivid detail, as it flew up into the sky. As we continued this practice, he wondered whether it would stick to trees or birds, and we agreed that it dissipated in the air so that it couldn’t stick to anything. After he had finished his “blowing med­itation,” I would coax him to share the feelings that had caused the anger. Discussing these emotions, and the events leading to them, was a healing process, for both of us.

As he grows older, Rowan is more focused on looking into his anger. There have been several times where he will initiate, after having blown his anger at us (and then outside), a discussion about what is underneath his anger. While we still encourage him to practice blowing (and vice versa), he needs less help with the next steps then he did before. Just recently, a friend of his had an altercation with another playmate on the playground. Afterwards, his friend stood perfectly still and bellowed at the top of her lungs. She was furious. Rowan was perched on the slide and called down to her: “What’s underneath your anger, Leah? I think you might be embarrassed because of what happened, is that what’s under your anger?”

I stood to the side, listening as he gently tried to help her figure out why she was so upset.

I was deeply moved that he found this tool useful, and of his own volition, was using it to help a friend. It reminded me of one of the Buddha’s teachings that I treasure most: don’t practice because I tell you to. Only practice if it works for you.

mb39-Blowing3Marie Sheppard, Joyful Path of the Heart, practices with the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center and the Washington Mindfulness Community. Marie and her family (partner Scott, children, Rowan and Ela, and dog, Bicho) enjoy the outdoors.

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Peanut Butter Balls

Children’s Exercise on Interbeing

By Terry Masters


This activity can take one or two days, depending on the ages and interests of the children and how much time you have. Note: What you might say is in boldface. The answers to questions in parenthesis are the answers our children gave us.

Peanut butter
Dried Oatmeal
Sunflower seeds
Any or all of these: cinnamon, raisins, dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, chocolate chips, coconut flakes, dried date pieces, chopped almonds
Big bowl
Cookie sheets and/or trays
Napkin for each person being served
Refrigerator (optional)

Wash Your Hands

Our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has taught us two little poems to say when we wash our hands.

If children can read, one might read the gatha as the other turns on the water and washes her hands. If children cannot read, the guide can read the gatha while the children wash their hands.

Turning on the Water
Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
And sustains all life.
Washing your Hands
Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.

Prepare the Peanut Butter Balls

Combine all ingredients—the amounts are determined by the number of balls you want to make, how much of the various ingredients you have and how much you like each of the ingredi­ents. Add the dry oatmeal to thicken, the honey to make it thinner.

Taste to see if they’re delicious. Add more ingredients if you like.

When the dough is just right, pinch off a piece and roll it between your hands until it forms a ball about one half inch in diameter. (Wet hands to keep the dough from sticking.) Children might like to invent a gatha for doing this!

Place Each Ball on a Cookie Sheet

When all of the dough has been formed into balls, put the cookie sheet in the refrigerator to chill until served. The snacks can sit for a week in the refrigerator if covered.


Can you see a cloud in our peanut butter balls? Can you see a big truck? If you look deeply, you can see them both…. and everything else as well! Let me help you look. What is peanut butter made of?


Where do peanuts come from?


What do peanut plants need to grow?

(air, water, soil, light)

Where does the peanut plant get the water it needs to grow?


Where does rain come from?


Aha! So that means there are clouds in our peanut butter balls, right? We could not have peanut butter balls if we did not have clouds, could we? I can also see a big truck in our peanut butter balls. Do you see it, now, too?

Can you explain how it got there?

(Accept all responses that show interbeing, e.g., “Trucks have to bring the nuts from the farm to the grocery store”.)

What else do you see in our peanut butter balls?

(This should be a very lively discussion! There is, of course, nothing that is not in the peanut butter balls, so all answers are “right”! Our children said, “I see Brazil because the cocoa that our chocolate chips are made from comes from there.” “I see the sunshine because sunflowers need sun.” Continue the discussion until someone realizes that everything is in everything; that the all is in the one.)

We saw a cloud and a big truck and a lot of other things in our peanut butter balls. Can we see ourselves in our peanut butter balls?

(Invite children to explain. “I’m in the peanut butter balls because I made them.” “I’m in the peanut butter balls because I’m in the sun and the sun is in them!”)

Can we also see the cloud and big truck in ourselves? Why? (“Yes, because they are in the peanut butter balls, and I am in the peanut butter balls; we are all in each other!” “I looked up at a cloud, so it is in me.” “I saw a truck once!”)

Why is it important to know that everything is a part of everything else? Why do we need to be able to see the cloud and big truck and all those other things, including ourselves, in our peanut butter balls and in ourselves?

(“So that we will remember to take care of all things.” “So we don’t feel lonely.”)

NOTE: You may want to complete this activity the next time you meet with the children. If so, cover and store the peanut butter balls in the refrigerator until you meet again. (They’ll be less sticky when they’re chilled.) You might want to review the previous discussion, using different examples, as a way of introducing the second day’s activity.

After the discussion, the children might like to practice serving each other before offering the snacks to the adult Sangha. They will need to know how and why to bow. A suggested way of serving follows.

Serve the Peanut Butter Balls

To serve the snacks, either place the peanut butter balls on pretty trays, or use the cookie sheets. Here is how we served our adult Sangha: Our grown-up friends are sitting in a big circle. There are places for us to sit, too. We enter the circle with our trays of peanut butter balls. We each go to a grown-up and kneel, placing our tray on the floor before him. We smile, put our hands together in the form of a flower and bow to the grown-up. The grown-up returns our bow, then chooses a snack and puts it on his napkin. We smile and bow to each other again. Then we stand and go to another grown-up until all the grown-ups have been served. We put a snack in front of the places where we kids will sit, too. Then we join the grown-ups sitting in the circle. The bell master invites the bell and we all enjoy our snacks together.

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Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

By Karen Hilsberg

BRUCE L. HILSBERG, Strong Commitment of the Heart and True Courageous Inspiration, passed away on March 29, 2005. He was forty-five years old. Bruce and his wife Karen met in graduate school, where they both received doctorates in clinical psychology. Bruce’s most recent employment was as Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital, a locked psychiatric facility where he brought mindfulness training to the staff and individuals served.

Partners for eighteen years, Bruce and Karen have two children, Emily and Ben. The Hilsbergs began the thriving Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City in 2003.

Numerous beings have provided invaluable friendships and spiritual support along the path, sharing the gifts of love and non-fear. In lieu of flowers, please offer support to the Touching and Helping Program, c/o Deer Park Monastery, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026.


Many people use the word “lemon” to refer to something that is no good. For example, a car that frequently breaks down is called “a lemon.” But a lemon is a beautiful fruit. The blossoms of our lemon tree fill our garden this very morning with an indescribably sweet fragrance. People have said many things to us during this past year and half of our experience with illness: “This is a trag­edy;” “What is happening to your family is terrible;” and “I hate cancer.” Our response has been to see this time as a wonderful opportunity to develop spiritually, to practice mindfulness, and to learn about true love and non-fear. The depth of closeness and trust that we have nurtured and developed in our marriage and our family this past year has been priceless.

It is one thing to study the teachings in the abstract, philosoph­ically, but quite another to live them day in and day out. For Bruce, that meant facing his own inescapable death; for me, it meant facing the inescapable death of my partner of eighteen years; and for our children, it meant facing the illness and loss of their daddy.

We have been taking refuge in the three jewels, practicing weekly with our Sangha, frequently visiting our teachers and broth­ers and sisters at Deer Park, and practicing with each other, with our family, and with friends. In the process, we have experienced letting go—letting go of our careers and professional personas, of our attachment to Bruce’s physical health, of our possessions, of our so-called independence, even of eating and drinking, and most important, of many long-held notions and beliefs.

In the letting go, remarkable things have been happening. We have touched deeply experiences we had only dreamed of—giving freely of ourselves to our loved ones, receiving the generosity of others, openly communicating with one another. For us, the real­ization that our spirit truly continues on, healthy and vital, even after our body has de-manifested “like a worn out, old shoe,” has been liberating.

Together, as a family, we have been able to transcend feelings of fear and despair and to touch the ultimate dimension when we enjoy simple pleasures like the garden, the flowers, the wind, the birds, the full moon, the laughter and tears of each other and our children, hugging, touching, breathing, moving our bodies sleeping peacefully. Simple pleasures mean everything when we realize that we are all “on death row.”

Just as we enjoy picking lemons from our lemon tree, squeezing them, adding sugar, then water, and tasting the fresh and delicious lemonade, we have taken this experience of cancer that has manifest­ed in our family and added our practice of mindfulness in order to touch the beautiful and refreshing truths taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago. In doing this, we transcend our suffering and touch peace, solidity, freedom, love, and non-fear in our everyday lives.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives with her children in southern California, near Deer Park Monastery


Letter to Bruce and Karen Hilsberg

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hilsberg,

Whether Easterners or Westerners, young or old, we are always very fearful when we are facing death. Even when we are so ill that our breath is irregular, we still don’t believe that we are facing death. We don’t accept that this physical body is disintegrating because of beliefs that lie deep in our consciousness.

But there is an ultimate truth, which you can understand with deep awareness. Life is a cycle of manifestation, and death is a cycle of de-manifestation. We are the awareness that is no birth, no death.

In the winter, the leaves fall from the trees and the branches are bare. But during that time the trees are not dead, because the living energy still exists. We know that in springtime the young shoots and new leaves will return and develop very fast. Our human life is a thousand times more miraculous than the cycle of the trees. As the trees use the cycle of rest to grow, human beings should look at the life and death of this physical body as a cycle, in which they can mature spiritually. When you look deeply into your own mind you won’t have any worry, fear, or despair.

I am not a good practitioner, and I have much suffering when I see that my loved ones are very sick and I cannot help them; when I have to face many of my friends leaving, and I do not have the power to hold them back. But because of the practice, eventually I can transform the fear and suffering in my heart. I have a strong faith that the life and death of this physical body is only a cycle of the manifestation and de-manifestation, while the nature of our true self, is no birth, no death.

Bodhisattvas and Zen masters come to this world and leave this world very peacefully and freely. They can say goodbye to this life with joy because they know that they are not truly gone. We are no different than these bodhisattvas and Zen masters, if we have a strong belief that our true self is never gone.

I sincerely hope that you have strong faith in your Buddha nature that is no birth no death, so you can overcome despair, worry, sadness, and suffering. And I pray that the Three Jewels in the Ten Direcitons will always protect you so that you will have strong faith in yourself.

Venerable Phouc Tinh

The Venerable Phouc Tinh of Deer Park, wrote this letter shortly before Bruce Hilsberg’s death. Translated by Van Khanh Ha.

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Caring for Those Who Are Dying

By Hope Lindsay

mb39-Caring1Patty, a Sangha friend, is a nurse for Mercy Medical Center Hospice in Roseburg, Oregon. Many people know that hospice is a cluster of care services for individuals in the last six months of life. When someone is diagnosed with a terminal condition, a team of health professionals and volunteers helps her or him and the family with palliative (comfort-giving) therapy rather than focusing on curative medical services. Treatment can include pain alleviating medications, feeding and bath care, music therapy, massage, spiritual comfort, and consoling the family.

Patty is a longtime student of Frank Ostaseski, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Hospice Project. The Zen Hospice Project has received national and international recognition for its unique Buddhist ministry to those who are alone and dying. Patty co-facilitates trainings with Frank as well as offers trainings for volunteers in our community. Recently she created a volunteer program called Anam Cara (spiritual companion), of which I am a member.

We Anam Cara volunteers were taught the common respons­es of mind and body in the final days, and that dying without a caring person beside us is a common fear for many people. At the same time, the moment of death frequently takes place in solitude by choice of the dying person. We learned that dying is often a laborious process not unlike birth. Although the dying person is often considered semi-comatose, there usually is some indicator of recognition of the companion’s presence. A squeeze of the hand, a smile, eye contact, or sometimes a word or two, may be all we, as companions, do. Most of our time is usually spent sit­ting beside the dying person in meditative silence. Sharing these profound moments with either a stranger or loved one can be a transcendent experience.

Both the Zen Hospice Project and Anam Cara began in facil­ities that once offered shelter and spiritual comfort to those dying of AIDS. They began by renovating a hospital skilled nursing unit and private home respectively, into facilities with a compassionate, healing atmosphere. Now both programs have become available to anyone who may have little or no support at the time of death. In 2005, Anam Cara will help hospitalized people who are dying without friends and family in attendance, as well as those in Mercy House.

A new project beginning in our community is called Wings of Hope, a program for grieving children. The child may have lost a parent or sibling by death or is in foster care or may have an incarcerated parent. It is a four to eight week curriculum modeled on the Dougy House in Portland, Oregon and created by Patty. I am coordinating it with a community mental health counselor who volunteered to help. Recently I discovered that, although she does not participate in our Sangha now, she plans to attend Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat at Deer Park this autumn.

I have recently realized that of the dozen most active members of our Sangha, six of us are employed by hospice and nine have had some form of training facilitated by Patty for end of life care. Another Sangha member, Patricia, is a nurse who now lives in a convent compound in South Africa and serves the nearby village whose members are ravaged by AIDS. Patricia’s primary focus is caring for the dying under extremely difficult circumstances. As well as offering medical care, she has been the mom for the dorm which shelters and educates girls whose entire families have perished and who are now responsible for raising even younger children. Our Sangha often gives our dana to Pa­tricia’s work. Without a conscious intention to do so, our Sangha has found its particular focus of social action.

mb39-Caring2Hope Lindsay, True Flow of the Heart, is a member of the Umpqua Area Mindfulness Sangha. She is a part time medical social worker for Mercy Medical Center Hospice, and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing.

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Book Reviews

mb39-BookReview1Peace Begins Here
Palestinians and Israelis Listening to Each Other

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Reviewed by Lois Schlegel

Peace, it’s something all human beings want. Yet, when most of us think about the painful conflicts in the world, we feel helpless and full of despair. The problems seem far too big and our resources inadequate.

In this new book by Thich Nhat Hanh, however, we discover ways of creating peace that seem within reach. We learn practical, day-to-day processes that bring peace first to our own lives and communities and then offer the possibility of peace in places like the Middle East.

Nhat Hanh says, “Reconciliation needs to take place in yourself, then with your beloved, and then with your group. We usually begin by going to our beloved and asking her to change, trying to force her to change. This is not the real peace process. The real peace process is to go home to yourself, be reconciled with yourself, and know how to handle your difficulties: how to deal with despair, suspicion, fear and anger.”

Peace Begins Here is a guide. It offers instruction in core practices such as mindful eating, walking, and speaking and in the more challenging processes such as deep listening, taking care of our feelings, beginning anew, and use of a personal peace treaty.

Sprinkled throughout this hope-filled book are the voices of Palestinians and Israelis who have chosen to take steps toward their own peace, who have chosen to listen and speak with compassion, who have stopped watering the seeds of despair and anger and stepped instead toward reconciliation.

mb39-BookReview2Still the Mind
An Introduction to Meditation

by Alan Watts

CD review by C.K. Richards

An icon of the Beat Generation, Alan Watts became interested in Buddhism in the early 1930’s when he was only sixteen. This wonderful reproduction of a classroom lecture, in his own words, takes the listener on a simple journey down the river of thinking about reality to experiencing reality through meditation.

His understanding of the meditative process is conveyed clearly and concisely, coming from his own daily practice experience. He describes how our “chatter in the skull” has caused us to lose touch with reality. We are encouraged to see this not as a blind alley but as a very important communication that “this is not the way to go.”

Watts guides the listener through our personal perception about reality into a guided meditation where we can experience reality without thought, without past or future. First through drumming, then a ringing bell, and finally using breath as an instrument of sound, you are gently guided into free mantra chanting. He encourages us to notice our experience while meditating, to watch without judging what is going on both inside and outside ourselves.

Alan Watts reminds us that like the acorn, sapling, oak tree, or snag, we are perfect at every stage, whether new or seasoned in the practice of meditation. Anyone interested in meditation can find benefits from his clarity of thought and simple presentation of meditation in daily life. His guided mediation gives the listener a good idea of what the meditative state is.

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SOS: Help for Hungry People in Tay Nguyen

 In the West Highlands of Vietnam


Dear Friends,

Eight thousand, seven hundred people living in the west highlands of Vietnam, 200 km west of Dalat, are starving from an extended drought. The farmers and their families watch their crops dry up and die, and the family rice container empties until not even a handful of rice is left. With broken hearts, they have to leave the highlands to walk down to the cities to find work or beg for food.

mb39-SOS2We would like to thank the twenty-seven friends who have sent donations to help these people. Even though so many of us have been focusing our donations on victims of the tsunami, still we have received during the last three months $1,005 US dollars.

Together with funds from the Plum Village bookshop and sales of calligraphies of Thay, we are sending $9,000 USD to them.

mb39-SOS3Our friends living in cities near this drought-stricken area report that they are trying to help those who cannot even walk to the cities. They have selected 870 of the poorest families, who will die without our help. Each family with five weak members (for example, with four children and one aged mother) will receive $10 USD to purchase thirty-five kilograms of rice to keep them from starving.

They need to continue receiving our help, so please write a check now for whatever you can donate, even if only $5.00.

Make checks payable to:
UBC Deer Park
earmarked SOS West Highlands Hungry People

Mail to: Deer Park Monastery
2496 Melru Lane
Escondido, CA 92026

Thanks a lot.

Sr. Chan Khong

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