Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

mb42-dharma1Good afternoon, dear Sangha. In the teachings of Christianity and Judaism there is the Kingdom of God. In Buddhism we speak about Buddha Land, the Buddha Field. You might like to call it the Kingdom of the Buddha. In Plum Village we say that the Kingdom of God is now or never, and this is our practice.

In Plum Village the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, is not just an idea. It’s something you can taste, you can touch, you can live in your daily life. It is possible to recognize the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, when it is there.

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In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Land or the Pure Land is a practice center where the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas are teachers and all of us are practitioners.

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

To practice is to bring about more understanding and compassion. Happiness would not be possible without understanding and compassion.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding, there is compassion, and where all of us can learn to be more understanding and more compassionate. On this we agree.

But there is something else that we should agree about also—whether there is suffering in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

If we take the time to look deeply, we see that understanding and compassion arise from suffering. Understanding is the understanding of suffering, and compassion is the kind of energy that can transform suffering. If suffering is not there, we have no means to cultivate our understanding and our compassion. This is something quite simple to see.

If you come to Plum Village in the summertime, you see many lotus flowers. Without the mud the lotus flowers cannot grow. You cannot separate lotus flowers from the mud. It is the same with understanding and love. These are two kinds of flowers that grow on the ground of suffering.

I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because I know that in such a place my children will have no chance to develop their compassion and understanding. I don’t know whether my friends who come from the background of Christianity or Judaism can accept this—that in the Kingdom of God there is suffering—but in Buddhist teaching it is clear that suffering and happiness inter-are. Where there is no suffering there is no happiness either. We know from our own experiences that it is impossible to cultivate more understanding and compassion if suffering isn’t there. It is with the mud that we can make flowers. It is with the suffering that we can make compassion and understanding.

A Logical Proposition

I can accept, and many friends of mine can accept, that there is suffering in the Pure Land, in the Buddha Field, because we need suffering in order to cultivate our understanding and compassion, which is very essential for the Pure Land, for the Kingdom of God. We learn from suffering. If we are capable of cultivating understanding, that’s because of suffering. If you are able to cultivate compassion, that is because of the existence of suffering.

I think it is very important to re-examine our notion of the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, and no longer think that it is a place where there is absolutely no suffering. Logically, it is impossible.

Many of us think of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, as something that belongs to the future, after this life. In terms of time and space, the Kingdom of God is far away.

I remember about forty years ago when I first went to the United States to speak about the war in Vietnam. I was invited by many groups, and I remember speaking in a church in the vicinity of Philadelphia where the majority of practitioners were black people. I said that the Kingdom of God is right now, right here, and you don’t have to die in order to step into the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be very alive in order to step into it. For me being alive is to be mindful, to be concentrated, to be free. That is the kind of passport you need to be allowed into the Kingdom of God: mindfulness, concentration, freedom.

If you belong to the population of the Kingdom of God, you are a practitioner because you are producing understanding and love in your daily life. That makes the Kingdom of God continue to be the Kingdom of God. If the population of the Kingdom does not practice understanding and love, they lose the Kingdom in two seconds because the essence of the Kingdom is understanding and love.

It’s very easy to visualize the Kingdom of the Buddha as a practice center where there are dharma teachers teaching us, helping us to cultivate understanding and compassion. Everyone enjoys the practice, because as they produce more understanding and compassion, they suffer less. They are capable of transforming suffering into compassion, into understanding, into happiness. The practice in Plum Village is to experience the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, in our daily life.

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

Of course, you can say that the Kingdom is now, it is here, but that’s not enough. We have to help the Kingdom to manifest. Without mindfulness, concentration, and a little bit of freedom we cannot do so.

The Kingdom of God is situated in our cerebral cortex, in our mind.

Most of us have a computer, a Microsoft PC or Apple Macintosh, and many of us just use our computer to do some work like word-processing or checking the stock market. But the average PC or Macintosh can do much more than that. We use only about ten percent of that capacity. If we know how to make use of the other capacities of the computer, we can do a lot of things.

The same is true with our cerebral cortex, with our mind and our spirit. If you know how to use the powerful energy of understanding and compassion, you can process many difficult problems of daily life. There is a very powerful computer within, and we should learn how to use that computer properly for us to be able to deal with the daily situations that make us suffer.

The Buddha proposed that we practice according to the Noble Eightfold Path. If we follow his instructions to practice right view, right thinking, right speech, and right action, we’ll be able to explore the vast territory of our mind and allow these wonderful powers to come and rescue us. In fact, we limit ourselves in a very small circle. Our thinking is very narrow, and that is why we suffer much more than a Buddha or a bodhisattva.

The Power of Right Thinking

We think all the time, and many of our thoughts are not very positive; they make us into a victim of negative thinking. When you say, “I’m good for nothing,” that is the kind of thought that has the power to make you suffer. “I can never finish that. I cannot meditate. I cannot forgive. I am in despair. I will never succeed in doing that.” Or, “He wants to destroy me. I am not loved by anyone.” This kind of thinking is not what the Buddha called right thinking.

In us there is the capacity of understanding and of loving. Because we are not accustomed to touching the ground of understanding and compassion, we cannot produce wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

Suppose your friend, or your brother or sister does not understand you. Suppose you think that your teacher does not love you. When you entertain that kind of thought, you suffer. That thought may not correspond at all to reality. You continue to ruminate upon that thought and other thoughts of the same kind, and very soon you fall into a state of depression because you are not practicing right thinking.

“My brother must have said something about me to my teacher. That is why this morning he did not look at me.” Your thinking may be totally wrong, and you have to be aware of the fact that your thought is just a thought. It is not the reality.

If you think, “My teacher doesn’t understand me, but I am capable of helping him to understand me,” that is a positive thought. You are no longer a victim.

The Buddha proposed the practice of right thinking. During sitting meditation or during the time of working, thoughts like that might arise, but you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of negative thoughts. You just allow them to come and you recognize them. This is a thought, and this thought is just a thought; it’s not reality. Later on you might write it down on a piece of paper, and you have a look at it. When you are capable of recognizing your thought, you are no longer a victim of it. You are yourself, even if these thoughts are negative.

The Territories of the Mind

A thought does not arise from nothing. There is a ground from which it arises. In our mind there is fear, anger, worry, misunderstanding. And a thought might arise from these territories.

But in our mind there is also the vast territory of compassion, of understanding. You might get in touch with the Kingdom of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in your mind. Then these territories will give rise to many wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

When you recognize a thought, you may like to smile to it and ask the question, on what ground has this thought been produced? You don’t have to work hard. You just smile to your thought, and you now recognize that the thought has arisen from the territory of wrong perception, fear, anger, or jealousy. When you are able to produce a thought that goes in the direction of understanding and love, in the direction of right thinking, that thought will have an immediate effect on your physical and mental health. And at the same time it has an effect on the health of the world.

When you produce a negative thought that has arisen from your fear, anger, or pessimism, such as, “I’m not worth anything, I cannot do anything, my life is a failure,” that kind of thought will have a very bad effect on your mental and physical health. The practice offered by the Buddha is not to suppress this negative thought, but to be aware. “This is a negative thought. I allow it to be recognized.” When you are able to recognize that thought you reach a degree of freedom because you are no longer a victim of that thought.

But if you are not a practitioner, you continue to ruminate about the negative situation and that will make you fall into a state of depression.

To recognize the presence of a thought or feeling is very important. That is the basic practice of a practitioner of meditation. You do not try to suppress the feelings and the thoughts. You allow your feelings and your thoughts to manifest. But you have to be there in order to recognize their presence. In so doing, you are cultivating your freedom.

In our daily life we may allow these thoughts and feelings to appear, and we are not capable of recognizing their presence. Because of that we become the victim of these thoughts and feelings and emotions. We get lost in the realm of feelings and thoughts and perceptions because we are not truly present. The practice is to stay present in the here and the now and to witness what is going on, to examine it, to be aware. That is the practice of freedom.

Being on Automatic Pilot

We are accustomed to allowing our mind to chase after the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. Our thoughts follow this habit pattern: running, following, searching for the pleasant; and trying to run away, to avoid the unpleasant. Because of that we lose all our freedom. We do not know that we are running after something and trying to avoid something. We are carried away by our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.

Imagine an airplane on automatic pilot. The plane can reach its destination, can do the things that it has been asked to do, with no need for any human being on the plane. Very often we behave like that. We are on automatic pilot. We are not present to witness what is happening. The practice that is proposed by the Buddha is to be there, to stay present, to be truly alive. You know the value of each thought, of each feeling, of all your perceptions. You know that there are territories you have not discovered within yourself. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. You want to be yourself. You don’t want to be on automatic pilot.

Every time a thought, feeling, or emotion arises, you want to be there to control the situation. You don’t want to be carried away. You smile to your thinking, to your feelings, to your emotions. You don’t want to react right away because the habit energy in you pushes you to respond right away to the feelings, to the emotions, to the thought that just arose. This is extremely important.

You tell yourself: “Well, this is a thought, this is a feeling, this is an emotion. I know they are in me, but I am not just that thought, that feeling, that emotion. I’m much more than that. I have a treasure of understanding, compassion, love, wisdom in me, and I want these elements to come forward to help me to sort out this situation, to help me to be on the right path.”

You give yourself the time to breathe in and out. You don’t hurry to react or take action. And while you are breathing in and out you give the wonderful positive elements within yourself a chance to intervene.

There is a computer within us, and this computer has a lot of power. If you know how to make use of this power you can transform the situation. You can bring a lot of light, joy, and compassion into the situation. By not allowing yourself to be carried away, you give yourself an alternative perspective from which you can see things more clearly. You are not in a hurry to react, to jump to a conclusion. You just become aware of the situation, what is manifesting in you and around you. The practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking gives you space, which allows the positive elements to intervene. You allow the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in you to have a chance.

Within us there is a territory of depression, a territory of hell, and our negative thinking and emotions spin out from these territories. But we know that in us there is also the territory of the Kingdom of God, of the Buddha Land. There is the powerful seed of compassion and wisdom in us. If we give them a chance, they can come and rescue us.

The Way Out of Depression

We have the power to recognize our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions. We don’t have to suppress them. But we want to have the time and space to look at them and recognize them as they are. This is the basic practice. To do that we have to stay present in the here and the now. Very often our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere. Our children do not feel that we are truly present.

Whenmb42-dharma3 you come to a house and you want to meet someone in the house, you ask, “Is anyone home?” And if someone said, “Yes,” then you’d be happy. You don’t want to go to a house where there is no one.

Very often we are not home. We are lost in our thinking, our worries, our projects, our anxiety, our fear. We are completely lost. We are not there to be aware of what is going on. The practice offered to us by the Buddha is not to be on automatic pilot, but the practice of conscious, mindful living.

If you are depressed or if you are afraid that you will fall back into depression, this is the way out. If you can stay present, if you can identify the kind of feelings and thoughts that are responsible for your depression, you can be free. You know that this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling will cause a relapse, and that awareness is the beginning of the healing, of your freedom. You are not afraid. If you are truly present, you can allow the difficult materials to come for you to recognize them. And you can do something to invite the wonderful materials to come and to stay with you, to help you to process the materials that you need to process.

The Kingdom of God is not an idea. It is a reality. Every time we are mindful, every time we are concentrated, we can get in touch with the Kingdom of God for our transformation and healing. Of course, hell is there in the present moment, but the Kingdom of God is also there in the present moment, and we have to choose between the two.

A few days ago I said that many people who are born in France have not had a chance to see all the beauties of France as a country. But many of us who come from other countries, we have the chance to enjoy the beauty of France. The fact is that the territory of wisdom and compassion, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha, is available. But we are too concerned with our narrow territory of success and failure, with our daily life and our anger, worries, despair. So we have not had a chance to unlock the door of the Kingdom of God.

The Key to the Door of Happiness

In order to unlock the door of happiness, the door of the Kingdom, the door of compassion and love, we need a key. That key, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the triple training on mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Kingdom of God is a place where we can cultivate insight and compassion.

When you grow corn, you have corn to eat. When you grow wheat, you have wheat to eat. When you grow understanding and compassion, you have compassion and understanding, the ground of your own peace and freedom and happiness. And in order to grow understanding and compassion, we have to be there. Understanding our suffering, anger, and depression is very important. Being aware of suffering and understanding our suffering is the door into the domain of happiness. Unless you understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, you see no path leading to the transformation of suffering into happiness.

The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths. The first one is to be aware of ill-being. By looking deeply into the nature of ill-being, you find the second Noble Truth: the lack of understanding, the lack of compassion.

There is a path leading to suffering: the ignoble path of wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action. There is a path that leads to happiness, the cessation of suffering: the path of right thinking, right view, right speech and right action. We are capable of stopping, of leaving the path of suffering and beginning to take up the path of happiness. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

A New Year’s Resolution

Suppose you look at a brother or a sister and you just had the thought that maybe this brother or sister has said something to Thay, which is why Thay does not look at you this morning. You know that this kind of thinking brings suffering because it is wrong thinking. But if you are aware that this kind of thinking can lead to anger, despair, and hate, you are free. You tell yourself: “I have to produce another thought that is worthy of a practitioner. Thay might have a wrong perception of me, but because he is my teacher I need to help him.”

The truth may be that the teacher has not misunderstood you, but in case he does misunderstand you, you don’t mind because he is your teacher. You can help him to correct his misperception. And with that you have peace, you have love. That kind of thinking brings you happiness. You are not a victim of your thinking.

If you learn to look at people and think like that, you will suffer less right away. You look at your partner, your son, your daughter, your father, with eyes of compassion and understanding. Even if you see a shortcoming in that person, even if that person has said something or has done something that makes you suffer, you’ll say that he or she is a victim of wrong perceptions and you need to help him or her. That kind of thinking will free you from your suffering. You know that with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, you can help him or her to correct the wrong perception.

At the beginning of the talk I said that right thinking—thinking in the direction of understanding and compassion—has a good effect on your physical and mental health and a good effect on the health of the world. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

Maybe the resolution that you would like to make today on the last day of the year 2005 is: “I decide that next year, starting tomorrow, I will learn to produce positive thoughts and practice right thinking. I want my thinking to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Even if the person in front of me is not happy, is acting and speaking from the ground of suffering, I am still capable of producing thoughts in the line of right thinking.”

And when you make such a resolution you are making it on the ground of right view, because right view is the foundation of right thinking.

What Is Right View?

Right view is that everyone has suffering. And if people do not know how to handle their suffering, they will say things or do things that make people around them suffer. As a practitioner, however, you don’t have to suffer, even if the action or speech of another person is negative. If you are capable of touching compassion and right view in yourself, you won’t suffer. You say: “Well, I have to help him. I don’t want to punish him, I want to help him.” That is right thinking. And right thinking makes you feel much, much better. It has a positive effect on your health and the health of the world.

So I make the vow, “I have decided that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2006, I will do my best to practice right thinking.” Right thinking consolidates your right view. Right speech also helps you consolidate right view.

What is right view? When you are fully present in the here and the now, and observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you recognize that they are thoughts, feelings, and emotions; they are not reality. You are not sucked into it. You retain your freedom, and that is very important. Even if a negative thought arises, you are fully present in the here and the now. If you remember that your thought is just a thought, this will allow your wisdom, your compassion to come into action to help you. This will keep you free.

The Buddha is someone made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight bring you freedom. The practice of mindfulness helps you to live your life. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the negative things and to touch the positive things, and we can open the door of the Kingdom of God in us. It is possible for us to touch the wonders of the Kingdom of God all day. The key to the Kingdom is to stay present in the here and the now, and to allow ourselves the time to get in touch deeply with what is going on and not to react right away the way we did in the past.

Tasting the Wonders of Life

There are very concrete things that we like to do that might bring us a lot of happiness and freedom. Whenever I walk, I walk in such a way that each step can bring me freedom. I don’t lose myself in walking. I don’t lose myself in the past or in the future or in my projects while walking. While walking, I want to taste the wonders of life, the wonders of the Kingdom of God. There are those of us who are capable of walking like that.

While breathing, whether in a sitting position or standing position, we may breathe in such a way that we recognize that we are alive, we are present. We can get in touch with the wonders of life.

While eating, we know that we are fully present. It is us who do the work of eating and not the machine. We are not on automatic pilot. We are on conscious living. We are on mindful living.

The greatest success, the most meaningful kind of success is freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. It’s not by going somewhere, or in the future, that we have freedom; it is right here and now. The way to begin is to stay present, to stay alive, to be yourself in every moment.

When you brush your teeth, for instance, you may choose to brush your teeth in such a way that freedom, joy, and happiness are possible. You can be in the Kingdom of God brushing your teeth, or you can be in hell brushing your teeth. It depends on how you live your life.

Freedom is the ground of happiness, and the way of freedom is the way of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness as it is presented in Plum Village is to learn how to live mindfully each moment of our daily life. That kind of training should be continued if you don’t want to fall into the abyss of suffering and depression.

Because we have a Sangha that is practicing mindful living, we are supported by the Sangha. The Sangha that is practicing mindfulness, concentration, and freedom carries within itself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God.

As we gather together on this New Year’s Eve, we become aware that the Sangha is always there for us. We can take refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Sangha means taking refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma. It means to live always in the Pure Land of Buddha, in the Kingdom of God.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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

Letter From the Editor

mb42-Editor1Dear Readers,

Hué, Vietnam, March 2005: I am sitting in the rooftop restaurant of our lovely hotel overlooking the Perfume River, enjoying the decadent breakfast buffet. (Once I snuck a few of the freshly made crèpes to a French nun in the Plum Village delegation, much to her delight.) Today I am visiting with Delores Nims, a Sangha friend from Oregon. We talk of my desire to write about the trip and I remind her that she offered to introduce me to the editor of the Mindfulness Bell, Barbara Casey. “But, you were just having breakfast with her!” says a bemused Delores. “Oh, that Barbara!”

Thus began a new friendship and a marvelous working relationship. I started by editing the sections about the Vietnam trip in the summer and autumn 2005 issues; then, much to my surprise, Barbara asked me if I would take over editing the magazine. I’ll never forget the shock I felt, reading her emailed proposition, as

I sat at my computer in the farmhouse near Plum Village where I spent that summer; but it didn’t take me long to accept. Back on U.S. soil, I worked with Barbara on the winter issue, and then took over as editor in February when Barbara’s mother suddenly died. Please hold her and her family in your prayers, as they journey through this challenging transition time.

The daily practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight yields surprising and miraculous fruits. The blessings that have come my way since I devoted myself wholly to the practice are too numerous to be counted. Editing the Mindfulness Bell is one of the best. I am deeply grateful to my teacher, my friends and mentors in the fourfold Sangha, Barbara and all those who have worked so hard on this magazine, and the worldwide community of practice.

It is a privilege to serve the sangha in this way. Not only do I get to do the work that I love—editing and writing—but I am meeting extraordinary people all over the world. On top of that, I get to read many beautiful and inspiring accounts of the practice; I only wish we had space to print them all! That is one of the hardest aspects of an editor’s job.

One way to publish more of your wonderful writing is to solicit shorter pieces. I am inspired by one of my favorite magazines, The Sun, to introduce a new feature into the next issue of the Mindfulness Bell: a “Readers Write” section. The topic will be the First Mindfulness Training. Write from your own experience, simply and sincerely, about how this Training has changed the way you live or view the world. Feel free to comment on all facets of the Training as Thay has rewritten it. Please keep it short (under 500 words) and submit it to mindfulness.bell@yahoo.com by July 1.

May our collective mindfulness—the healing power of love—bring peace to a world much in need. May the joyful expression of creativity inspire more and more hearts to dance!

Blessings of peace,

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Coming Home

By Alexa Singer-Telles

The following stories were shared at the Jewish Roots dharma discussion group at the October 2005 Deer Park Monastery retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The richness of the sharing of this Jewish sangha touched us deeply and inspired us to share a few of our stories with the wider community. As we explored the ways that we feel connected to—or disconnected from—our Jewish roots, our practice supported us to see each other with greater understanding, and to embrace our experiences of both suffering and joy. With deep gratitude we hope to continue this kind of sharing in special affinity dharma discussion groups at retreats in our tradition.

Lyn Fine, True Goodness, Dharma Teacher

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This morning, a friend and I stopped at a bridge while walking along the Sacramento River Trail. The small creek had just filled with water from several days of autumn rain. As we quietly reflected on the moving water and the colorful falling leaves, I heard a loud splash. Three large salmon were working their way up the shallow creek. Two had succeeded in getting to a fairly deep pool while the third was turning its body sideways and undulating to make its way through a shallow rocky channel. I experienced both wonder and determination in the way that salmon travel far into the ocean and then turn and return home to the place of their birth to spawn and die.

Witnessing the salmon, I contemplated the mystery of how one finds the way home.

I had such a homecoming experience at the Deer Park retreat in September. I chose to be in the Jewish Roots dharma discussion group. That first evening, I made my way in the dark to a long picnic table, candlelit, filled with “family,” initially strangers yet at the same time Sangha friends and mishpucha (Yiddish for family). Here were Jews from all over the globe, with different life experiences and relationships to Judaism, yet our connection was palpable. I found the group to be a touchstone, as we gathered around the table, nourishing the deep root of our Jewish heritage. The particularity of the Jewish stories that we told reflected a collective history of suffering, exile, chutzpah, love, tradition, and wisdom. I felt a deep respect for both the challenge and the gift of being Jewish in this world.

Enjoying the Interplay of Traditions

The topic dear to my heart was how people integrated their Jewish roots and Buddhist practice, since that has been a challenge for me. In 1991 when I met Thich Nhat Hanh and began practicing mindfulness, I also met an open-hearted rabbi and began my first exploration of Jewish spirituality. Fortunately, both teachers encouraged embracing both traditions. Though it was complicated at times trying to decide when to keep them separate or weave them together, I eventually let go and learned to enjoy their interplay as it manifested in my teachings and sharings. I drew comfort from the words of Natalie Goldberg, a Jewish Buddhist writer, who explained that the longer she meditated, the more Jewish she became.

Two recent experiences have brought me peace and a sense of integration. This spring our Sangha held a retreat at our tiny local synagogue; temple members who saw the sanctuary transformed into a zendo were inspired to begin a beautification project. I explored the property and discovered a grassy creekside area for walking meditation that I hadn’t seen before. Sangha eyes transformed my perception of the synagogue I have attended for more than twelve years.

The Jewish Roots group completed my journey home. Both a rabbi and a Buddhist monastic from a Jewish background were in the dharma discussion group; their presence and deep wisdom were my vehicle for witnessing interbeing and letting go of any perceived separation. I experienced the mystery and wonder of knowing how to find my way home, just like the salmon.

Alexa Singer-Telles, True Silent Action, co-founded the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California in 1991. She has been creating rituals that weave Buddhist practice together with the cycle of the seasons.

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Jewish Roots, Outstretched Branches, & Buddhist Leaves

By Laureen Lazarovici

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One of the most satisfying aspects of my retreat at Deer Park in September was taking part in the Jewish Roots discussion group. I knew they were my dharma brothers and sisters and at the same time my tribesmen and women, connected to me by 6000 years of Jewish history and heritage. I heard tales of ambivalence, inner conflict, pain, and also joy, liberation, and compassion. We were all struggling with integrating two moral systems and two sets of spiritual practices into our lives in authentic and meaningful ways.

I’m now realizing how much I saw and experienced the entire retreat through Jewish eyes. For instance, I had great resistance to having meals in silence. In Jewish cultures, and many others as well, meals are times for family and friends to gather, discuss, argue, debate—in short, to be noisy. Jewish holidays are often organized around festive meals and special dishes: the Passover seder features symbolic foods to commemorate the Exodus from slavery to liberation, or we break the fast together after Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. So to be silent while eating when there were other people around was a challenge.

As if to rebel, I made inane small talk in my head and ate my meals as mindlessly as if I were making inane small talk with my friends. I know this was a lost opportunity to practice with gratitude, but it was an eye-opener in its own way.

A Buddhist Bar Mitzvah

During the retreat, I had the privilege of witnessing the transmission ceremonies for the Fourteen and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My reaction was, “We should do this instead of bar mitzvahs.” A bar mitzvah is the coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish thirteen-year-old boys; for girls, the ceremony is called a bat mitzvah. The translation is “son or daughter of the commandments.” For the first time a young person reads from the Torah publicly in synagogue and—ostensibly—takes on the moral responsibility of adulthood.

But in our society, thirteen-year-olds aren’t really on the cusp of adulthood, and many bar and bat mitzvahs simply involve big parties and awkward teenagers trying to pretend they are having a good time. Watching the transmission ceremonies, I thought about how much more powerful it would be if our coming-of-age rituals allowed people—at whatever time in their lives they felt ready—to proclaim publicly and in front of their communities a commitment to live by a set of guiding precepts that bring harmony and happiness to our hearts, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.

Segregating the Sexes

The night before one of the transmission ceremonies, the monks and nuns told the Sangha that for the following morning’s ritual men would sit on one side of the room and women on the other. I’m emphatically not a morning person, so the next morning I dashed to the meditation hall barely awake. In my foggy-headedness, I sat on the men’s side of the hall by mistake. A man sitting in front of me leaned back and tapped me on the knee in what felt like an unnecessarily harsh way. “The women sit on that side,” he hissed.

I skulked to the back of the hall and examined my emotions. I felt humiliated and angry, but out of proportion to the incident. It took me a few days to realize why this experience touched a soft spot. Much more than a rough tap on the knee, what bothered me was the ongoing struggle for equality within Judaism.

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For their prayer services, very religious Jews segregate the men from the women. The two genders sit on separate sides of the prayer space, usually divided by a mechitzah, a screen or curtain. Sometimes the women’s section is even in the back or upstairs. More liberal branches of Judaism do not follow this practice.

The issue of separate seating divides the Jewish community because it is an indicator of separate and often unequal gender roles in the religion and culture. So for me to be shooed off to the women’s section in a Buddhist context was jarring. [See Sister Annabel’s commentary on “Sitting Separately” in the sidebar.]

What To Keep and What To Let Go Of

Another powerful experience for me during the retreat was the practice of touching the earth. As we lay prostrate on the ground, our teacher instructed us to hold on to what we valued about our ancestors and let go of what caused us pain.

My rigid mind resisted this instruction at first. “No, it’s all or nothing. You have to take the bad parts if you want the good parts.” But then a voice of compassion arose: “Who made up that rule? Just try and see how it feels.” I took a deep breath and let some of the negative legacies from my ancestors flow downward and seep out of my body and into the earth. I felt cleansed and liberated.

Those of us exploring and embracing Buddhism who also want the richness of our root tradition in our spiritual lives can do the same thing. We can experiment with what we keep and what we let go of. These might shift over time, re-assembling themselves in new and perhaps surprising ways. As we work to integrate our practice of Judaism with our practice of Buddhism, we are honoring our roots while letting our branches reach upwards to bring forth new leaves.

Laureen Lazarovici, an “alumna” of the Weeping Cherry Sangha in Arlington, Virginia, now sits with the Malibu Sangha in Los Angeles, California.

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Dreaming with My Dad

Growing closer to those we love who have already passed away

By Sister Hanh Nghiem

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How many of us have suffering from our past, especially when it comes to relationships and how we live our life? Many people ask how we can fix mistakes or heal deep wounds we carry with us in our daily life. The Buddha teaches us that impermanence is life. We like impermanence when it benefits us and gives us what we want, but when it takes us away from our loved ones or causes us to suffer, we don’t know how to accept it. We want to be with our loved ones forever. We want to make our life meaningful and precious.

I was raised Jewish and went to synagogue for all the High Holidays; we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover at home with the family. Every once in a while we went to minyan (prayer service) on Friday night, but still I felt a sense of emptiness and a lack of spirituality and guidance. I did enjoy the Jewish traditions and how the Jewish observances were so family oriented. When it was time for the family to gather for holidays, it wasn’t about gifts; we came together to remember our ancestors and to let go of regular daily routine, to reflect on our lives.

A Heart-Breaking Loss

Actually it was my dad, Barry Allen Brodey, who had the Jewish roots. My dad passed away ten years ago, when I was sixteen years old. Some teenagers shot him in order to get into a gang. I remember the day my mom had to break the news to us. She wanted to do it as skillfully as possible and took us to a beautiful wooded area near our house, where we sat on a log surrounded by trees in the early summer sunshine. The news was so shocking that I didn’t even cry. I didn’t know how or what to feel. I thought you only heard this news on the TV. I just turned into a frozen block of ice, filled with disbelief and despair. A part of me wanted to believe that he just went on a vacation. But he wasn’t on a vacation, and he would never come home. I never got to say good-bye or I love you one last time. He had to die alone and far away from home.

My father was like the summer sun, making everything around him vibrant and alive. There was no way any person could have a dull moment with him. He was the life of the party. He not only called me his little princess but also treated me like a princess. My dad was always more than happy to take me out with him, but like most kids I took it all for granted. He gave me all I needed to be happy—life and his love. But while he was still alive, I focused so much on wanting to understand his suffering, the part of him that was closed to the world and simply untouchable.

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I was stuck on a weed rather than enjoying his garden. I didn’t feel it was my place to pry into his life and open up wounds, but it made me feel hopeless because I didn’t know how to connect with him. I couldn’t help him for fear that the family would deny what I saw, and I felt like a fool for saying anything. If my dad did share his sadness with me, I was afraid of having to truly face it and deal with it.

Looking back now, I know what I was doing at the moment was just perfect. I was there with him and in my heart I was happy to have him as my dad.

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A Gift of Healing

After I was ordained, I started having dreams of my dad. They are such a refl    of how I was and how I have been transformed. The first happened five years after his death. I had been ordained only a few months. In this dream, I was in my bedroom—there were no colors. My dad walked in with a melancholic look, his head bent, his shoulders slumped. He gave no hint that he might be harboring a childlike hope to receive love by coming into his daughter’s room. I just sat there on my bed unmoved by his presence, nor did it dawn on me to show my love to him.

The second dream occurred about a year later. My dad came to visit me still very sad and depressed, oblivious to the world around him. This time I acknowledged his presence happily. The atmosphere was still somewhat gloomy, but there was love present. I took him on a tour of the monastery grounds and brought him up to a room to rest. I carried with me a photo album to show my dad the special events that had taken place in the past years. Many sisters came along with us to make both of us feel supported and loved. Then we parted company as he lay down on the bed and peacefully sank into it for a much needed rest.

In the last dream, which took place a year later, I was together with my dad, my sister, and my brother at some kind of celebration. There were lots of colored round balloons, red, yellow and blue ones, and many green trees under a clear sunny blue sky. We sat around a white table with a floral centerpiece, laughing and giggling as Dad told us stories. My dad was so happy. He looked as if many of his burdens had been lifted from him and his heart was much lighter. I could see his joy and freedom as my own, which made my heart rejoice in a peaceful way. Over the course of my stay in Plum Village, I have learned how to take refuge in the Sangha and break down a few of the walls around my heart to allow the love and wisdom of the Sangha to embrace me. But it didn’t embrace only me, it embraced my dad.

The Faith and Obedience of Abraham

My dad was not a Buddhist nor would he have wanted me to be a Buddhist nun. But one thing is for sure, he always wanted me to be happy. I took to this path out of faith and in obedience to what I heard in my heart, I think much like our Father Abraham did with God. Thanks to the practice of non-fear and learning to open my eyes to the life around me, my dad and I have the chance to live together for a long time. I have no regrets about our past relationship. Nor do I feel that he is alone, because he still lives with me every day, just as our spiritual ancestors continue in us through our faith and obedience.

Each time I hug a person or share my pain with someone, I know that he too is loved and he too is cared for, and we smile together in peace.

Sister Hanh Nghiem lives at Deer Park Monastery.

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There and Back Again

Integrating My Buddhist Practice and Jewish Roots

By Louis Weiss

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In 1999, after many discussions about things most important to us, my wife Vicki invited me to read The Miracle of Mindfulness and to join her at Lakeside Buddhist Sangha for meditation. Thay’s teaching resonated strongly with my own emotional and spiritual experience. I became a regular on Sunday night for sitting and walking meditation and dharma talks. I participated in days of mindfulness and weekend retreats. As I read books by Thay and other contemporary Western Buddhists, I became aware of several things. One was that Thay’s teachings of engaged Buddhism felt much like the engaged Judaism I had been affiliated with for the past twenty years. Another was that Buddhist teachings were very supportive of and based in the principles of My roots in Conservative Judaism were established in the small Midwestern town I grew up in. It was a town that didn’t understand or tolerate “others.” The local parochial schools taught my neighbors that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus and were to be treated as outsiders. My days at school and playing in the streets always required a defensive awareness. So the synagogue became a true sanctuary for me. Each day after school I went to the synagogue, spread my homework out on the sanctuary floor, and found comfort in learning about the world beyond my daily experience from within the protective peace and quiet of that dim, musty space. I adhered to the ritual of Conservative Judaism because it worked for me. I learned, I recited, I prayed, and I hid out.

Then in the 1960s I left town and went to college; there I learned that God had died while I was en route. Those years allowed me to develop a social consciousness, an awareness of spirituality, and a glimpse at the diversity of the world. Conservative Judaism didn’t work for me anymore.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s my kids came along. I wanted them to have a religious identity and education, so I became a “pediatric” Jew. I did it for the sake of the kids. The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation was in my neighborhood and I knew a number of other families who sent their kids to the religious school there. So I joined.

All Things That Breathe

I had stumbled into a community that would become a central part of my life, my identity, and my spiritual well-being. Reconstructionism is a new sect of Judaism that recognizes that ritual must be preserved to maintain an identity as a Jew but it must not segregate us from the world. In Reconstructionism, egalitarianism replaces the paternalistic focus of Jewish practice. More important to me, it emphasizes the need to be engaged in socially relevant activities in the broader community. In Reconstructionist Judaism God is understood as the life force, in fact, the very breath that sustains life in all forms on this planet—and probably the universe. The prayer book we use is called in Hebrew “Kol Haneshamah” or “All living things” (literally, all things that breathe).
psychology I use in my professional and personal life. And many of the Western Buddhist teachers I was reading were Jews!

My Neighbor Is Myself

Regular attendance at the Sangha made me yearn for more of an engagement in my Jewish practice as well. I had worked on Saturdays for all of my professional life, but began to feel strongly about having a regular day of mindfulness. I decided to stop work on Saturdays and to attend Shabbat services and Torah study each week at the synagogue. Now I have two spiritual communities to share and support my meditation practice and my engagement in the larger world.

Having taken and retaken the Five Mindfulness Trainings, received a dharma name, and read and chanted sutras with my wonderful Sangha community, I began to think about the principles of Judaism that Reconstructionism asserts in the context of mindfulness, breath practice, the concept of oneness and no-self, and the immeasurable value of belonging to a spiritual community. I have learned to read the Old Testament from a perspective of faith in community, right speech, right livelihood, right thinking, and other aspects of the Eightfold Path. To me the admonition of Deuteronomy to “Love your neighbor as yourself ” isn’t about loving another person in the way you love yourself. Rather it is a reminder that my neighbor is myself.

The central prayer of all Jewish practice is “Shema Yisroel. Adonay Elohenu Adonay Echad.” or “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One.” When understood in Reconstructionist terms—God as the life force in us and in the universe—this doesn’t just put a stamp on monotheism, it is a reminder that we are all one with each other, the natural world, and the spirit that sustains life.
Now where have I heard that before?

Louis Weiss, Diligent Inclusiveness of the Heart, is a member of Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois and a clinical psychologist.

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Poem: I Ate the Cosmos for Lunch

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I ate the cosmos for lunch
And then again for dinner
What will I tell my friends?

I noticed that I am bigger now too—
More to me than I thought.

Not only is my Mom inside me,
And that would be enough.
I also have my Dad, blood ancestors and
Spiritual ancestors.
The Sangha, mindfulness trainings,
Thay and the Buddha.

There’s more too.

Like the Forest I lived in for five years,
Walking home on a dirt road in the moonlight,
Or moonless night, to a ring of redwoods
Where I made my home.

And freight trains, as they creak and groan
Like monsters waking up,
As they start moving down the tracks,
Taking my friends and me on adventures across the country.

And my feline friend who started sleeping over on his own
And stayed with me for four years.

The list is quite endless.

But let me get this straight—I’m empty,
Yet I have the entire cosmos inside me.

I’m sure my friends will notice this,
And how much bigger I’ve become.
More solid, more joyous.
More compassionate and loving.

More able to live how I truly want—
Joyfully working for the care, respect
And dignity of all beings.

And my friends will want to know my secret.
I guess I’ll start with:
Breathing in, and
Breathing out…

—Caroline Nicola

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Healing All Moments

A Retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh

By Jill Siler

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The Vietnamese monk seemed to float onto the stage. He put his palms together and bowed his head. Then smiling, he folded his legs, effortlessly sank to the floor, and settled on a small round cushion.

“Dear friends,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, “this moment heals all moments.” I didn’t understand that at all, but I loved listening to the gentle, earnest way in which he spoke. The dharma talks, or teachings, were being given in a huge tent where hundreds of people sat on the floor in front of him; some sat on little cushions called zafus, some sat wrapped in blankets, and some sat on chairs further towards the back. We’d gathered here for a five-day, silent retreat to study with this world-renowned Zen teacher.

“The Buddha often taught about the importance of slowing down,” he continued in his beautifully accented voice, “of stopping all thoughts so that we might enjoy present moment awareness.”

Whatever. I have things to do and places to go. I have a staggering list of things that must get accomplished for me to even keep afloat, let alone make progress.

“This wonderful present moment,” he said again, smiling like he was really happy about it.

Present moment, my foot. That’s not going to solve my problems.

My husband was pouring our retirement savings into his boat and in denial about it. I was taking radioactive medication and my hair was falling out. I felt like throwing up all the time, my knees hurt, and my teenage daughters were careening through the hellrealm years of their adolescence. These were the elements creating my present moment.

But then he said that by practicing this simple idea, this sutra—and a sutra is a sacred teaching—suffering could be relieved and we could experience a greater capacity for joy. Well, I’m all for less suffering and greater joy, so my interest was sparked. He said that it takes practice to bring ourselves into the here and now, but that we should try it when we find that anguish or discomfort has risen in us. He said if we become mindful of our thinking and look deeply at the nature of what caused our personal sorrow we can begin to heal or unravel it.

Whatever. I could not unravel ill health or my husband’s boat.

Thich Nhat Hanh put his palms together and closed his eyes. He took a breath: slow, slow, in and out, and the room got quiet as a night sky. He asked us again to remember this simple teaching, from the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone”: Do not pursue the past, for the past no longer is. Do not chase the future, for the future is yet to come. By looking deeply at life as it is in the here and now, happiness is attainable.

Well that was it. I had personally hoped for something with a little more kick to it.

At the end of his two-hour talk, he asked us to take our cushions and blankets back to our rooms because it might rain and the tent leaked. I really liked where my zafu was placed. I was very close to Thay and knew chances were slim that I’d get this close tomorrow. The retreat was being held on the side of a mountain in Vermont and it seemed senseless to drag my cushion back down the mountain and haul it up again in the morning. I peeked out at the cloudless evening sky and decided to just push my cushion against the tent pole behind me and leave it there. When almost everyone was gone, I furtively arranged my cushion and slipped out of the tent.

People were scattered over the mountain, moving with mindful attention; walking with slow deliberate steps. The whole scene was so reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead that it struck me as ridiculous. I felt no reverence for any of it and I thought I might leave early.

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Giving It a Try

That night, back in my room, it was time for me to take more medicine. I dreaded it because I knew it kept me feeling sick. As I stood at the sink, filling my glass with water, I began to notice that I felt really uncomfortable. This is what happens to me when there’s no TV, no one talking, and no distractions. I become more aware of what’s going on inside. I considered what Thay had said about looking deeply at our suffering instead of running away from it. The discomfort, I found, was fear. I got so sad, that I believed I could feel my heart aching. I was really scared the medicine wouldn’t work and I might die. I wanted to see my daughters find happiness. I wanted to be an old woman. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends or be brave. I wanted to be alive and figure it all out.

This is suffering, I decided, so maybe I should try that present moment thing.

I considered the sutra; look at life as it is in the here and now. Don’t chase the future.

I took a breath and tried.

The present moment sucks, I thought. I’m really depressed. I took another breath and tried again.

In this moment, I discovered, I’m okay. Actually, I’m good. I’m not nauseous. I’m not dead. I’m okay. Actually, as I thought about it some more, just right now in this moment, I’m getting well. I’m good.

It worked! This little monk might be onto something. Reality was still reality, but the suffering part, the mental anguish had passed. Very cool, I decided. Maybe I’ll stay.

All Is Lost

Two o’clock in the morning: thunder is cracking over the mountains so loudly that the window shakes. The rain pours down with such shocking intensity that as I stand by my window weeping, I can’t see five inches into the lightning-illumined night.

All is lost.

The retreat is ruined for me. My blanket and my zafu are in the tent getting soaked. What is wrong with me? Why am I such a mess? I came a thousand miles to listen to this guy and when he tells me to take my cushion, I think I know better. It’s too cold to sit in the tent with no blanket and I don’t want to sit with the tourists on chairs in the back. I hate myself. I hate this retreat. I want my zafu and blanket dry: I want to do this night over.

I get back in my bed and listen to the rain pound against the roof. I kick the blankets, moan, and blow my nose. I roll over, kick the blankets, and roll over again. I think of Thay’s words… life as it is in the here and now. Right now my zafu and blankets are getting soaked, I wail to myself, the soul of misery. Tomorrow will be ruined and the next day. I bet it takes a month to dry out a zafu.

Practice not chasing the future, I remind myself. I take a breath and try again.

In this exact moment, I am here in this bed; nothing hurts. I am not hot or cold or dirty or hungry. Though the heavens are crashing over me and rain is pouring down on everything, I am dry and warm and safely inside. Tomorrow will bring what tomorrow will bring. Right now there is absolutely nothing I can do about that.

I did this for a while and began noticing that I felt downright cozy. I slept peacefully till the br-r-ron-n-nng of the morning bell called us to meditation.

In the tent again, my zafu and blanket were waiting for me, dry and warm. I wondered how much of my life I’d spent worrying about things that wouldn’t even happen. I wondered how many times I’d traded a moment of peace for a moment of suffering.

Vacuum Meditation

A few months later, I was vacuuming my house. A huge mirror hangs on one of the walls. As I worked, I whined and grumbled to no one. “Geez! Look at this. Gross! Stupid dog. Why do I even bother? Sheez!” I was bent over, sucking up some dog hair, and I happened to glance at myself in the mirror. I saw how I’d aged and as I looked at my face, I saw my mother looking back at me. I saw how like her I’d become, not just physically, but the same style of complaining and negativity. In that instant, I saw how I carried my mother and my grandmother’s habits into my daughters’ lives. I saw how I could change that and suddenly, I knew that in that specific moment, I was healing all moments. I was healing the past of my ancestors and the future of my daughters and granddaughters.

I turned off the vacuum cleaner and set it down.

With palms pressed together, following my breath, I touched the present moment and thanked my teacher.

Jill Siler, Calm Calling of the Heart, founded the Miami Beach Sangha after this retreat with Thay as a direct result of Thay’s request that she either find a sangha or center to practice in, or start one.

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The Better Way to Live Alone in the Jungle

By Terry Masters

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The Buddha taught:

“…I want to tell you that there is a wonderful way to be alone. It is the way of deep observation to see that the past no longer exists and the future has not yet come, and to dwell at ease in the present moment, free from desire. When a person lives in this way, she has no hesitation in her heart. She gives up all anxieties and regrets, lets go of all binding desires, and cuts the fetters which prevent her from being free. This is called ‘the better way to live alone.’There is no more wonderful way of being alone than this.”

from the “Elder Sutra”*

Last spring I lived alone deep in the jungle of Peru in a hut near the Amazon River. My hut sat on stilts and had screen walls, hand-hewn plank floors, and a thatched roof. There was no electricity so I had no refrigerator, no lights, no radio, no fan, no telephone. No washing machine, sink or toilet; no running water at all unless you count the Yanomono River which ran a few yards from my hut.

It was the Yanomono River that taught me the better way to live alone.

During the day I gave reading lessons to children in a little jungle library, and in exchange for my dinner, at night I taught English to the mozos—the guys who worked at the tourist lodge about forty minutes by dugout canoe from my hut.

The first evening, after working at the library, I gathered the supplies for my English class, put on my rubber boots, got my paddle, and walked through the jungle to the muddy riverbank where my dugout was tied to a tree root. I began paddling to the lodge just as the sun was setting. The river, and even the air around the river, was gold and pink, purple and orange and red. It is a wonderful thing to be in––not under, but inside––a sunset in the jungle in Peru.

I paddled slowly under a tree of sweet-smelling, lilac-colored flowers. Many of the flowers had fallen into the river, so I was gliding in golden, lavender-petaled water. The air was soft and warm and smelled green.

Women and men bathed on the riverbank. They smiled and waved at me as I passed.

“Hola Señorita!”

“Hola amigos!” I called back. “Buena noche, ¿no?”

As I paddled around a curve, naked children from the village swam out to play “Sharks Attack the Gringa.” They splashed me––as sharks will do when confronted with a gringa in a dugout canoe––and I cried out, “Ayudame! Ayudame!” (“Help me! Help me!”)—as gringas will do when confronted with a river full of ferocious fish.

When I arrived at the lodge, I was still smiling. I ate my dinner and gave an English lesson to my new Peruvian friends. At 9:00, when I was ready to paddle home, the darkness in the jungle was so thick that I could only see the top of my paddle and the front of my dugout canoe.

There was no moon. The stars filled the sky; a few were reflected in the river. I smiled, anticipating gliding back home through a dark peaceful river of silver starlight and purple flowers.

But as I left the lodge, I realized that although I could see the starry sky above and specks of starlight in the river, I could not see the riverbank, nor could I see where I was in the river. I peered into the darkness. I saw nothing.

My Peruvian friends had told me to stay in the middle of the river–– if I got too close to the bank, things in the trees could get into my canoe. I didn’t ask what things. I imagined them, though: fifty-foot anacondas, canoe-sized caiman, monkeys, bats, frogs, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, snakes—I imagined every jungle critter known to man or woman jumping, flying, falling, crawling, or slithering into my canoe.

I got lost: the river “S”ed and I “Y”ed into a tangle of tree roots and vines. I had to paddle my way backward out of a little creek, back into the Yanomono again. I stared into the darkness trying to see where I was and what was around me. I saw nothing.

My heart began to race. I couldn’t get my breath. I began to paddle frantically through the river, bumping into the right bank, then the left.

A bat flew past, brushing my face with its wings. I squealed.

Mosquitoes buzzed my ears, bit my arms.

The sounds from the rainforest grew louder: frogs especially, but birds too, and other jungle animals I couldn’t name. I had to get home!

I peered anxiously into the darkness, trying to see what was out there, looking for the bank of mud in front of the path to my hut, looking for the tree root that was my port, looking for anything familiar. I could see nothing.

I passed under a low hanging branch and something fell from the tree into my hair. A tarantula! A huge tarantula! A huge hairy jungle tarantula!

I paddled fast, desperately slapping the water with my paddle. My arms, my shoulders, my whole body was tense. I gasped for a breath.

And then a voice from somewhere inside whispered, “Stop.”

I stopped. I took a slow breath.

I lifted my paddle from the water and let my canoe drift.

I stopped telling myself jungle stories. I stopped my Tarzan drama. I just stopped. Stopped and took a long slow breath.

Then another. And another. And another.

Finally, I forced a little smile.

“Hola, rio.” I whispered. Took a breath. Let it out.

“Buena noche, ¿no?”

The sounds of the jungle softened. The stars brightened. The river slowed.

I lifted my paddle and gently dipped it into the soft starsparkled river. I pulled it slowly through the calm waters.

Breathing in, I know that I am here, now. (Dip the paddle, pull the water, glide.) Breathing out, I know that I am now here. (No longer inventing scary jungle stories.) In…. here.

(Not thinking about the English lessons I just gave; not planning how to get up the muddy slope when I get home.)

Out….here. (Dip, pull, glide.)

Here in this present moment.

(New trees above me, new stars. New water below, new fish and mud and snakes. The air I now breathe is not the air of my last breath.)

Here in this wonderful moment. (Dip, pull, glide.)

After a while I saw some white tree trunks that looked familiar and dipping my paddle in, pulling back easily, I glided slowly toward them. I had arrived. I was home.

“Try living like that,” the Yanomono River said. “Thanks for the dharma talk,” I smiled.

The next day it rained most of the day. About an hour before sunset, when the rain had stopped, I took a small bucket to my canoe to bail out the rainwater. I also expected to bail out that huge tarantula that I had shook from my hair the night before.

There was no tarantula. In the rainwater, in the bottom of my dugout canoe, a small purple flower floated.

During the months I lived in the jungle, I became friends with the trees that lined the banks of the Yanomono River and familiar with its “S” turns. I came to know the sounds of the jungle and its smells. I recognized the reeds on the left that meant the river was going to wind to the right; the wide space overhead that meant I was to go straight; the cluster of white-barked trees that meant I was getting close to home; the hoarse frogs that meant I had arrived.

Aware that I was surrounded by friends—the river, the stars, the trees, the sounds, the smells—I was no longer so afraid. In fact, most of the time I was awed by the majesty—by the miracle—of it all.

It was the Yanomono River, deep in the jungle of Peru, that taught me The Better Way to Live Alone.

mb42-TheBetter2*The “Elder Sutra” as well as the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone” can be found beginning on page 234 of The Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book. Both are the subject of Our Appointment with Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, which also includes his beautiful commentary on them.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, lives in Austin, Texas where she practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha. She has just returned from another month teaching English in the jungle of Peru.

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Carts & Koans

By John Beaudry

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I was standing on a narrow sidewalk, bent over, putting a small bandage on a cut my sandal keeps making in the top of my right foot.

The bus that would take us the remaining distance to the island and the temple had not arrived yet. So I had bought some bandages from the small store next to the bus stop.

Standing on the sidewalk, I put my foot on the store step, bent forward and concentrated on ending the little pain that had been present since early that morning when we had begun our journey from the city to the island.

On the first part of the journey, I had been focused on the koan I always carry in my mind. The strain of pushing against the barrier of the koan, of trying to close the space between it and my mind, merged with the irritation of the cut. The pain intensified the always-present feeling that I lacked sufficient ability to break through the barrier of the koan, that breaking through was impossible. Still, I held onto the koan as fiercely as I could.

Now, I finished attaching the bandage to the foot, checked it—and then realized that there was a head next to mine that also seemed to be looking at my foot. I straightened up to see an old, weathered woman standing next to me, bent over forward past a ninety-degree angle, with her hands clasped behind her back. She was trying to pass through the space between the store wall and me and was bent over because she could no longer stand up straight. I took my foot off the step, opening the space wider for her to pass through.

As she walked slowly past and away, I watched her, trying to see the cause of her present condition. The effect of her past struggles had been to push her dangerously beyond the limit of her physical ability. Past suffering had led to present suffering.

Her hands were the highest point on her body, resting way down her lower back almost directly over her legs. Those hands, I speculated, had carried baskets of vegetables, or worked rice fields, or pulled loaded carts behind her. In that moment, though, the hands’ purpose was to provide balance for walking, and to keep the arms out of the way: If she unclasped her hands, her arms would hang down in front of her legs, dead weight with nothing to support them. So, she held her arms and hands as far back as she could and let her legs carry them.

She reminded me of the old men and women in Seoul, where I live, who pull rustic, wooden carts behind them, collecting loads of cardboard and other recyclables, often piling them high above their heads. To me, the weight of the load looks like a lot more than they can handle, pulling the carts up resistant hills, down obstacle-filled alleys, through dangerous street traffic.

When I’m out walking the back road in the mornings, pushing against the barrier of the koan, I pass the cart pullers, often walking in the opposite direction. As we approach each other, their physical struggle is obvious. But there is something else as well, something underneath or behind their suffering that eludes my perception. What is it? In the moment we pass each other I try to cross the space between my understanding and their experience, and I fail.

They walk bent forward, arms behind, hands holding on tightly to the metal bar.

Walking at a slow, determined pace, the cart pullers seem to be concentrating only on the essential: a firm grip, the next step. Looking straight ahead, apparently undistracted by sights and sounds around them, and appearing to rely on intuition to find what they are looking for, they pull against the weight of their load. Are they really that single-minded in their purpose?

To me, their work seems possible only for people of greater physical ability—stronger, younger people. Month after month, on hot days and cold days, they walk their path. It may be that some dare to pity them. But, looking closely at them and seeing what they do, in those fleeting moments, I rediscover compassion and renew awe in my life, the same experience I had upon seeing the old woman who seemed to be looking at my foot.

Connecting to the Source of Compassion

After the old woman passed out of sight the bus came. And soon after that we crossed over the bridge to the island and arrived at the bottom of the road that led up to the temple. We walked up the steep hill at a slow but determined pace, and I noticed as we walked that the bandage was holding, protecting the cut.

At the top of the hill we passed through the old stone temple gate, headed for the main Buddha Hall, went in, and as we always did upon first arriving at a temple, performed the bowing ritual. As I bowed before the statue of Buddha, the weight of the koan, the weakness of my ability, and the strength of the barrier all bowed with me.

After a last bow, I stepped out of the temple door, putting my left foot in my sandal. And as I bent down to check the condition of the bandage on my right foot, I thought of the old woman at the moment when she had passed between the store wall and me. But this time I saw the moment clearly; this time I could see into it as it expanded in my mind.

The moment deepened until it merged with my whole being. In that one moment that seemed to extend forever, I saw deeply into the simple and awesome truth of the moment when the old woman passed between the wall and me, and at the same time into the mystery of the cart pullers.

This moment merged with that moment in a birth of clarity, and I connected to the source of my compassion for them, and my awe. I understood: There are people all around me who are doing the impossible. And in that moment I shared their burden, their suffering and their strength. There was no space between us.

Intuitively, I turned my head from the bandage on my foot to the direction the old woman’s head had appeared from—and saw the smiling face of a monk who was walking toward the Buddha Hall to welcome us. I slid my right foot firmly into the sandal, stood up straight, clasped my hands behind my back, and walked slowly forward to meet him.

John Beaudry has taken the precepts but continues to search hermitages deep in the Korean mountains for an old master to take as a teacher. He lives in Seoul.

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On the Way Home

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

In response to a request from her teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Annabel is writing about her life. Thay suggested that her story be serialized in the Mindfulness Bell and then put together in a book. In this first installment, when the story begins she is in her early thirties.

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In 1984 I was in Cheshire, England, working in an organic garden. In the winter it was sometimes very cold. As the wet English snow fell and the bitter easterly wind blew, we picked spinach. What can be more painful than the blood trying to make its way through frozen fingertips? In the greenhouse the broccoli and Chinese cabbage flourished even in winter and if the mice did not come in and eat the seedlings, lettuce would grow too. It was wonderful how fine the vegetables looked without herbicides and artificial nitrates. I was happy to learn that cultivating organically is possible and I felt the vegetables were happy too.

The garden, however, did not completely fulfill me. Somewhere something very important was missing. I had not found my sangha. Because of this, Buddha and dharma or the spiritual life were lacking. I had not arrived, I was not at home. Still I was able to dream and one night I had a dream to show me there was a way ahead. In the dream I was walking up a green hill and I came to the top of the hill. There was a wall or fence along the top of the hill, stopping me from going down the other side. I walked up and down the fence, searching for a way to climb over. With difficulty, I did climb over. There was a farmer on the other side; it may have been my father. He showed me a gate in the fence and asked me why I had not used it. It would have been so much easier. These years of wandering without arriving had been like struggling over a fence and only now had I seen the gate. The gate had always been there, only I was not aware, I had not seen it. It

is not necessary to struggle, but because we cannot see, because we are ignorant, we struggle.

Now that I have arrived, is that not the happiest thing? “I have arrived” does not necessarily mean that I have realized the path. It just means that I know I am on the path and I do not need to be anywhere else.

The dream was a presage because the next day I received the newsletter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship U.K. and in the newsletter was the poem “Please Call Me By My True Names” with a photograph of the Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay was smiling and holding a teapot. Photographs of Thay were rare at that time and this teapot photograph appeared in many places. It was perhaps the only one available. I already had an idea of what Buddhist monks looked like because I had spent time in India, but Thay did not conform to that idea. Intellectually I did not understand the poem but the images were music to my soul: the caterpillar—whoever would look so deeply at caterpillars? Whoever would have the time to look deeply at caterpillars?

Finding Safe Anchorage

In that poem and that photograph I was beginning to arrive. I did not have the fruit of arrival but the fruit of going in the direction of arrival. There was a safe anchorage for my boat that had been sailing for so many years without a port of call. In 1980, I had gone to India to practice Buddhism with Tibetan nuns. Before that I had lived in a community along with practitioners of different faiths. I had even camped out around Greenham Common in order to resist any attempt to move nuclear missiles from that base. But in my heart I was not at home and I had not found the path I most wanted to tread.

As I became more involved with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I learned about the Vietnamese refugees detained in refugee camps in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a British protectorate at that time. So I met people who had been in those camps and I heard their stories. I learned that there was a place called Plum Village that opened its doors to guest practitioners for one month every year from July 15th until August 15th. A friend and I thought of going in the summer of 1985, but when I wrote I received a reply from Sister True Emptiness (Sister Chan Khong) saying all places were taken. It was not yet time for me to go.

I was still not sure if Plum Village was my true spiritual home. Indeed when I first read part of The Miracle of Mindfulness, I was not sure if it was for me. After the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism, its complex rituals, its teachings couched in descriptions of strange and distant scenes, something so homely and simple was a shock that was difficult to accept. When I could fully accept Plum Village teachings, Plum Village would accept me. To do that I had to meet Thay and Sister True Emptiness.

Fortunately Thay agreed to come to England in March 1986. It was still bitterly cold and I organized a retreat in Cumbria in a drafty old castle that some Tibetan monks had acquired and rented out for others to have their retreats. This castle had huge rooms that could never be heated. The fireplaces gave out heat to a space only one meter in front of them. One day it snowed and one day it was fine enough for us to walk to the sea. Thay did not complain. He ate the English food that the retreatants ate. He attended all activities on the schedule and led them all as well as giving the dharma talk. Gently he encouraged me to practice by saying “and you do not need to hurry, just take one step at a time,” because I wanted to run everywhere, doing everything. Before the retreat began, Thay invited me into his room to ask me what I thought of the daily schedule he proposed for the retreat. I was moved: why would Thay ask me? After all I was a complete beginner, I knew nothing. Still, I said the proposed schedule was very good.

Thay had someone bring a cloud bell from Plum Village to use to announce activities and summon us to mindfulness. A cloud bell is a flat piece of bronze molded in the shape of a cloud. It has a sharper sound than the round bowl-shaped bell. It was invited in the draughty corridor on the ground floor of that castle twenty years ago. Thay must have felt cold. When I looked at Thay’s bed it looked as if it had never been slept in. I imagined Thay sat in meditation all night long. Sister True Emptiness asked me to try to find an electric heater for Thay’s room. I do not remember that we paid Thay or Sister True Emptiness any honorarium.

The Door Opens

When we went to London Thay gave a talk in Friend House on Euston Road, the main center for Quakers in the United Kingdom. Again I was moved when Thay asked me to tell the audience about

the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, as if I had something worth saying. Thay treated others with that kind of respect. Everyone had something to offer and Thay gave them a chance to offer it.

How lucky I felt as I went to sleep! How lucky to have met Thay, although I was on my own again. I joined a Tibetan Sangha in London for a time and I was happy that having practiced with Thay I now knew how to prostrate. Before I met Thay I did not like to prostrate. It was just an outer form. Thay taught me the content of prostration—surrendering all idea of a separate self and touching the quality of great understanding, great action, and great compassion—not as mine and also not apart from me; real but neither inside or outside. My practice in that Tibetan-based Sangha was successful because of what I had learned in the fiveday retreat from Thay.

Before, Thay’s teachings had seemed too simple for me; now they were miraculously simple, real, and concrete. During that retreat I wore brown clothes, not intentionally; it was just that the warm clothes I had with me were brown. And sitting in front of Thay, who was wearing a brown robe, I felt we were one. The simple act of holding up a sheet of paper, as Thay did in the dharma talk on the last day of the retreat, touched me deeply. The talk was on the Heart Sutra. That sutra had been a closed door for me; the commentaries I had seen and heard on it had been complex and difficult to understand. Now it sufficed to look at a piece of paper and see the cloud floating in it. The piece of paper was truly empty of a separate self—that, the intellect could understand—but Thay transmitted something else. Thay’s own emptiness and my emptiness were in it.

How lucky to meet my enlightened teacher in my own country! The Tibetans had told me that that was where I would meet my teacher and he would not be Tibetan, but from Far East Asia. The prophecy came true. Prophecy comes not just from the mind of the one who prophesies but from the mind of the one who is prophesied to.

“Here Is India”

In Plum Village Thay sat on a hammock in a gray robe. He was preparing the Upper Hamlet for the summer opening. Thay’s first words to me were “Here is India, India is here.” I thought Thay meant it was very hot, as hot as in India. It was deeper than that. To me India was home, at least my spiritual home. I believed spiritual home could not be found anywhere else. I missed India with a kind of longing. “Here is India” meant you have arrived, you are home. My conscious mind did not realize it, but deep down, the seed was sown. One month later, in the Lower Hamlet, I realized I was home. It was a feeling of being at home that I had not felt since I was a child. Looking up at the hills of the Dordogne to the north of the Lower Hamlet, I was home. Contemplating the white knobbed stones that made the walls of the Red Candle Meditation Hall, I was home. These things had always been part of me and I had always been part of them.

At first Thay allowed me to dream of my Indian home, perhaps it was part of Thay’s dream too. Thay said: “Although you cannot be in India you can dream of being there. For instance there is the little hut you make of bamboo with its banana leaf roof and there is the little garden you plant with mustard greens. So simple is the ideal life.” Then later Thay would ask: “Have you ever felt that India is in London?” To which I answered a definite “No.” Somehow I know that India is not a place on the map. India is a place in my mind.

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The Upper Hamlet has its own enlightened ambience. This ambience comes from the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The ambience tells you that you are walking on holy ground. The old stone house had its musty odor as you came in on the ground floor. It had been built to be cool in the heat of the summer sun and not lose too much heat in the winter cold, so the stone walls were thick and the windows few and small. The half-cylindrical tiles of the roof were not cemented into place but cupped into each other so that they could slip and leave gaps that allowed the rain in. The people of the neighborhood climbed onto their roofs at least once a year and replaced the tiles that had slipped out of place. In the past not many tiles needed to be replaced but since the invention of the supersonic airplane this has changed. The airplane breaks the sound barrier just over Plum Village and the resulting boom shifts the tiles. Nowadays people prefer to cement their tiles into place.

When I first arrived in Plum Village that airplane had recently been invented. None of us knew about repairing roofs and we were subjected to numerous leaks. The attics were full of buckets and tubs to collect rain before it penetrated beneath, but we never covered all the leaks and if the rain was heavy enough it was sure to come into your bedroom. One night I moved my bed to the other side of the room but the leak followed me. Not only rain came in but snow too. In the first two years I was in Plum Village it snowed significantly and the snow stayed for many days. There was enough room between the tiles for powdery snow to blow into the attic. This could reach six inches and it was important to clear it because the weight could break the ceiling. Clearing snow in the attic was very cold work. We filled rubbish bins with snow and they were very heavy to move. There was no heat up there and the bitter wind blew in through the tiles. Soon my hands and feet were frozen stiff.

Each bedroom had a small ceramic and iron wood stove. We would buy these second-hand from local people who wanted to get rid of them. There was a hole in the wall for an aluminum pipe to take the smoke outside. The stove did not hold much wood so after an hour or so if you did not replenish it, it would go out. We found the wood on the Plum Village land. Lower Hamlet consisted of twenty-one hectares. I helped the four young Vietnamese refugees who lived in Plum Village at that time by splitting logs and sawing branches to put in the stoves. These young men went out and cut down trees for us. Our neighbor, M. Mounet Père, was a bodhisattva. One day he came into the kitchen and said that in France you cannot cut down trees on other people’s property. It seems that our young Vietnamese refugees did not know where our property ended. To put right this ignorance he took us to the Mairie (city hall) and showed us the plan of the different parcels of land that had been purchased for the Lower Hamlet. He then took us on a tour of the boundaries, showing us exactly where Lower Hamlet territory began and ended. M. Mounet Père was a good man. He promised Thay he would not go hunting when the annual summer retreat was held in Plum Village. He taught us many things about gardening and cultivation of the land. He baked tartes aux pommes (apple pies) and sold them and when his oven—which he had made himself—was hot he allowed us to bake our bread in it.

M. Mounet would visit us almost every day to find out how we were doing and to offer us any advice or help we might need. I was truly grateful for his presence in those early days. His home is now a part of Lower Hamlet. He died unexpectedly and we sent spiritual energy for him. Sister True Emptiness went to his house to send energy over the body. She had not witnessed undertakers working with a corpse before, since in Vietnam it is always the family that washes and clothes the body of a loved one. She was shocked by what she saw as a heartless way of treating the body. We went to the burial in the local cemetery where every year on All Souls’ Day we place flowers on his grave. Sister True Emptiness has always encouraged her younger monastic sisters to perform a ceremony of sending energy on that day to those who have passed away in the neighborhood and we do this in Vermont also. I was always moved when I saw how Thay and Sister True Emptiness included whoever they met, whether Buddhist or not, within the embrace of their spiritual concern.

Sister Annabel Laity, Chan Duc, True Virtue, was born in England, and studied Classics and Sanskrit before going to India to study and practice with Tibetan nuns. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986, became a Dharma Teacher in 1990, and was Director of Practice at Plum Village for many years. Since 1997, she has been director of the Maple Forest Monastery, Vermont, and was installed as abbess at the Green Mountain Dharma Center in 1998. In 2000, she was the first Western nun to teach the Dharma in China.

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The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai

This article is an excerpt from dharma talks given by Brother Phap Hai at Deer Park Monastery during 2005.

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Sisters and brothers, in the Chinese language they have a beautiful way of referring to a practitioner. They call practitioners “cultivators,” Cultivators of the Way. In English we tend to use the word “practitioner,” which is not as descriptive as the word cultivator, or cultivation.

Mindfulness practice is about cultivating the ground of our being, recognizing the seeds that we have in our consciousness, and creating the conditions that allow the positive seeds to come forth. It is about becoming fully who we are. Rather than being a practice of hard labor, through cultivating mindfulness we allow our innate wisdom to blossom, in its own time, in its own way.

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Meditation practice is about becoming a real human being, and becoming a real human being doesn’t mean that we push parts of ourselves away. It means rather that we draw parts of ourselves to us, in order to understand them.

We have a little organic garden here in Deer Park, and it’s interesting to watch how it gradually takes shape. We plant different seeds. There’s corn growing at the moment. There are tomatoes, there’s lettuce, and many other kinds of fruits and flowers growing in that organic garden. And each one of these blooms in their own time, in their own way. The corn is ripening now. It won’t ripen in winter. The tomatoes also are starting to come on now. They don’t usually ripen in December.

Nature is a wonderful teacher if we are listening. We would laugh if we walked past our organic garden in December and saw someone shouting at the tomatoes for not ripening at that time. They’re not going to grow any faster! We would feel sorry for such a person and yet we do the same thing to ourselves every day. We judge and criticize ourselves feeling that we are never quite good enough. Cultivating the ground of our being is a radical act, something that goes against many layers of conditioning, because we discover that everything that we are looking for is available right here, right now, within us. Flowers of real peace bloom when we give ourselves permission to be fully who we are.

There’s a beautiful poem by a Zen poet called Basho that sums this up perfectly:

Sitting quietly
Doing nothing
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In our Western tradition there’s a legend that’s coming up in popular culture right now—the legend of the Holy Grail. This myth is very deep in the Western consciousness; it just keeps coming up in different forms. Recently I listened to a lecture by Joseph Campbell on the Holy Grail called “The Forest Adventurous.” This teaching has something to say to us as practitioners.

King Arthur and the Knights are all sitting there at the Round Table. King Arthur stands up and says, “Okay! Before we eat our meal, who’s had an adventure this morning?”

(It seems that they had many more adventures in those days than we do now.)

None of the Knights of the Round Table had anything to share. They all just sat there.

So King Arthur said, “Well, until we have an adventure, we can’t sit down to our meal.”

They’re all thinking, now what kind of adventure could we have? What are we going to do so we can eat? And then the Holy Grail appears, beckoning them on a quest. They decide, all right then, we’re going to set out in search of the Holy Grail. They get onto their valiant steeds and tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch plod down to a forest, conveniently nearby, which just happens to be called the Forest of Adventure.

Interestingly, in this story of the Holy Grail, although you set out on a quest—you know, these valiant quests, with a big horse, a big sword, and everything—you do not find the Grail, it finds you. Here we have the same teaching as Master Linji, to stop our seeking, to stop running around, and come back to what is going on right here, because the path, the Holy Grail, the Forest of Adventure, is right underneath our feet. What is important is our willingness to undertake this journey, the journey of opening the heart.

So they arrive at the outskirts of the forest, where they realize that there are two possibilities. Either they all enter the forest together, in search of the Holy Grail, or they enter the forest separately. Bear in mind that up to this point they had traveled together to get to the Forest of Adventure, as a Sangha, as a community. When they got to the Forest of Adventure, they felt, oh, it would be a shame for us all to go down that very clear path through the forest, but rather each Knight should enter at a place of his own choosing. Only then would it be an adventure.

In our journey of practice, initially we are in search of something— peace, enlightenment, joy, a chocolate donut—that we think exists outside of ourself. We are carried by the energy of the Sangha. For the real adventure to begin, we need to discover and nourish our own aspiration. What is your Holy Grail? Why are you a practitioner? What brings you back to your Sangha each week?

To see this, to touch this very deep and profound longing in your heart is to touch your deepest aspiration. The Sangha is a place where we help each other to realize our deepest aspiration.

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

Many of the world’s myths and legends feature this image of the forest. In European fairy tales, to give just one example, we have Hansel and Gretel going into the forest to the witch’s house. In the spiritual traditions as well we have this image of this forest, this place of the unknown. In Buddhism, what happened to Siddhartha when he decided to leave home? Where did he go? He went into the forest.

There is a series of lovely teachings about Siddhartha, the future Buddha, entering the forest. When Siddhartha entered the wilderness, he experienced great fear and dread. Any little sound in the forest, like a stick cracking, he would imagine to be a tiger coming to eat him up.

In one sutra, called “Fear and Dread,” he shares his experience of entering the forest, this place of mystery. I invite you to enjoy this discourse in its entirety, as it has much to say to us. The Buddha shares about the intense fear and dread that overcame him when he entered the forest, the place of the unknown. Leaving behind the comfortable and familiar, he shares his practice of understanding fear. When the fear and dread came upon him he would continue doing whatever it was he was doing—sitting, lying, standing—until he understood where the fear was coming from.

Once we have a solid place of refuge within us, we need to stay with what is happening, not run away, not try to distract ourselves. We in the West have a great tendency to do this—anything to avoid what we’re calling here fear and dread. It might be our sadness, our depression. The Buddha is telling us to dwell with what is being brought up for us. Meditation practice is about understanding who we are, what is going on within us and transforming the experiences that we have into opportunities for insight to blossom.

Where is the Holy Grail? Where is the Forest of Adventure, for us as practitioners, for us as cultivators? Where is the place where we feel fear and dread the most? Where is the place of mystery? It’s within our heart. Meditation practice by its very nature brings us back to what’s going on within our body, within our mind. Mindfulness practice is about learning to dwell with whatever is present.

The Sutra on Inscriptions

There is a beautiful teaching on this called “Inscriptions” :

“Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

“These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

I would add that we can be all three; in certain situations we are like water, or like soil, or rock. It depends on our conditioning.

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

The first practice, and perhaps the most difficult, when we’re dealing with a strong emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, joy, hatred, sadness, jealousy—is to recognize it. We recognize what we have within our being. This is only possible if we’ve really practiced stopping, coming back to what’s going on in the present moment. As mindfulness develops, we see more clearly which experiences stimulate which seeds—joy, anger, jealousy. But mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance! It is essential to have a solid foundation, a solid place of refuge within us, but this doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from life. On the contrary, we begin to engage more fully in our lives.

If we’ve been able to practice stopping and coming back to ourselves, to understand a little bit more of what nourishes us and also what doesn’t nourish us, then we’re able to be open to what is happening. This is the second step: accepting.

The third aspect is embracing. Last week we had a family retreat, and I had the opportunity to see how parents embrace their children. Children are wonderful Zen masters, but they’re not always quiet, calm people sitting on cushions. They’re very active Zen masters, and sometimes very loud. I was watching how the parents were interacting with their children, how they embraced them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Whatever seed is manifesting, we recognize it, we accept it, and we hold it. If it’s a seed of anger, a seed of resentment, we allow it to be there. We don’t push it away. We want to understand. So we hold it close to ourselves, not with the idea that we need to fix something but rather to be available for wisdom.

Recently I have not been well; I’ve had a number of health challenges. Sometimes it’s a little bit like swimming through blackstrap molasses. I have to use my energy skillfully and really choose what is important. This has been a profound teaching for me. I was given a very stark choice: the doctor could prescribe heavy medication which would mask the symptoms, or I could continue to experience the pain and take a natural route, slowly coming more in contact with the rhythms of my own body and learning what it needed. I chose to go the natural route, and I have had to accept my limitations—being weak, asking for support, being vulnerable. These things were the very hardest things for me; so my body has become a teacher.

The fourth aspect is looking deeply. When a strong emotion of misperception has arisen, and we have practiced recognizing, accepting, and embracing, then we can practice looking deeply in order to understand. What watered that seed of anger in me? What need is that anger trying to tell me about? And then we have the insight. We begin to know, when that seed of anger arises in us, how to work with it. And very slowly, very gently, the seed of anger changes. The way it manifests begins to change, and it transforms from something that we used to see as entirely negative into something positive.

Creating Happiness

Our ability to create happiness within and around ourselves depends very much on our ability to be available to those conditions that we have in our heart, in our life. We need to transform those seeds that ordinarily we think are negative. In fact, our anger can be something very positive. It’s not that we want to water the seed of anger, but when the seed of anger arises, we begin to practice these things—to recognize it when it arises, to accept it, to embrace it, and then to start looking deeply.

We need to be really honest with ourselves. When we can embrace with attention the seeds that we call negative, then understanding will grow. I always like to say that the seeds that we think are negative are really just the positive seeds in disguise. With mindfulness practice we will see this.

We know, for example, what things touch the seed of anger within us. We know what things touch the seed of joy within us. So we cultivate the ground of our being for this transformation to take place. We begin to understand how to nourish the positive and healing elements within us, in the search for this Holy Grail—the Holy Grail of understanding, the freedom of the heart.

1 “Fear and Dread” Bhaya-bherava Sutta, Majjima Nikaya 4 2 “Inscriptions” Lekha Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.130

Thay Phap Hai is Australian by birth and is entering his tenth year of monastic life. He was ordained as a Dharma Teacher in January 2003.

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Fragrance of Tea Flowers

By Sister Dang Nghiem

Before she became a nun, Sister Dang Nghiem was a physician in the United States. She has been at Prajna Temple (Bat Nha) near Bao Loc since September and she wrote this letter to Thay on December 12, 2005.

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Beloved Thay,

I have wanted to write to you several times. However, the personal time that I have is extremely limited, and when I actually have some, the electricity is out for power conservation.

I am very happy here at Prajna Temple. I keep praising quietly, “The dharma is truly deep and lovely!”

The first night when I arrived in Prajna, at the Sisters’ Hamlet, Red Fireplace Hamlet, the monastery was in total silence. I was very surprised, because I had been informed that 170 people were there. Once I came in the room, so many sisters stopped by to greet me and we had a joyful moment.

How Many Share a Room?

After a while, I bowed deeply and smiled to the bright and friendly faces in sign of farewell, but I was surprised to see that there were still many sisters standing around my newly assigned bed. So I said to them, “Dear sisters, please return to your room to rest. I probably need to rest, too.” Do you know what their reply was? “Elder sister, we all live in this room!!!” Sixteen people live in a room five meters by five meters, which includes an indoor restroom with one toilet, a sink, and a showerhead. This restroom is divided into three sections by two curtains, so that one person can use the toilet, one to three people can use the sink, and one person can shower or wash clothes, simultaneously.

When I climbed onto my upper bunk bed for the first time, I hung my weight on it as I had often done in my dormitory in college. Unexpectedly, the whole bed tipped towards me, and I jumped down quickly to catch the bed. I have enough experience by now, and I can climb onto it skillfully like a cat.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Every morning I wake up at three to do my toilet, to avoid waiting in line. Then I come out to the balcony to enjoy sipping half a liter of warm water, before I do yoga. The wind blows wildly, howling in waves. The stream and waterfalls flow continuously and forcefully nearby. I do the exercise Sun Salutation and the headstand pose, as I quietly recite the Three Refuges. However tired I may feel some mornings, I still strive to wake up early to do yoga, and I also run in the evenings. I am aware that for me to continue on this life-long path of practice, I must take good care of this body. My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to the Three Jewels for giving me enough strength, faith, and every opportunity to practice.

A small bell is invited at 4:00 a.m. to wake up the Sangha. The Great Temple Bell is also invited at that time. The sounds of the Great Bell and the chants reverberate throughout the mountains. Local people also take these sounds to wake up and prepare for the new day. At 4:20 a.m., the activity bell is invited to announce exercise time. Everyone quietly does walking meditation to the meditation hall (on the upper level) and the dining hall (on the lower level) in the adjacent building, to do the Ten Mindfulness Movements. Every level is full of people. There are young aspirants who are still sleepy, standing like zombies and raising their arms only occasionally. Even though sitting meditation begins at 5:00 a.m., most are already at their cushions by 4:50 a.m.

Our sisters chant energetically and powerfully! In Plum Village, I often felt self-conscious of my loud chanting voice. I do not have to worry about this here, because my voice blends in with the Sangha’s like milk in water.

Stories About Food

We eat breakfast at 6 a.m. Everyone leaves her shoes outside and walks barefoot into the dining hall. The shoes are aligned neatly next to each other, and sometimes when I come out, I see my shoes have been moved closer to the door threshold; I am touched by these quiet kind gestures. There are three serving tables (for

170 people), narrow and only one meter long each, because our food is simple and without much variety. We usually have rice at all three meals, with a stir-fry dish and a vegetable dish. There is soup at lunch, but sometimes we have just one dish. The sisters ask to have rice, instead of noodle soup of some sorts, because they get hungry very quickly, and they cannot work or sleep well at night.

In the dining hall at Deer Park, there is a separate table full of bottles and containers of soy sauce, olive oil, chilies, peanuts, sesame seeds, and so on. Here in Prajna, food is flavored with enough salt, and only occasionally there is a bowl of soy sauce or tomato sauce on the serving table (tomatoes are too expensive for cooking). The shopping sisters also try to roast sesame for the Sangha, but the jar is emptied so quickly that only two or three days later we see another jar. In principle, we can talk after two sounds of the bell, but everyone remains silent throughout three meals; some whisper if it’s very necessary to exchange something. I am happy with this, because that little tiny dining hall would be like an open market place if everyone talked.

Before Sister Thoai Nghiem left Deer Park to return to Prajna this last October, she told us that the sisters in Prajna crave sweets. Upon hearing this, some sisters thought that this craving for sweets was due to them being teenagers. I myself thought it could be because they were malnourished. After a few days in Prajna, I found myself craving sweets as well! Sister Nhu Hieu shared that the other day she had a lollipop, and it tasted better than any candy she had ever had in France! We both laughed together, because we are far from being teenagers. Each time when our brothers and sisters from Plum Village are together for a meeting, we bring all our sweets, place them on the table, and eat together. The truth is that none of us has the heart to enjoy these sweets alone, if we don’t have enough to share with those in our room.

Last week we had a meeting with the Venerable Abbot of Prajna Temple, and he said he felt much love for us coming from Plum Village, because we all become darker and thinner here. “Even brother Pháp Kham, who was fair and round when he first arrived, now also looks so dark and thin!” (“He’s looking more like a mountain person [a montagnard, mountain tribesman] now,” a sister whispered, and all of us giggled). “Well, we have given seventy, eighty percent of ourselves, so we can give up to ninety, one hundred percent of ourselves. We just continue to stretch our arms a little longer. So many people desperately need our practice. Centers like ours must be present everywhere in Vietnam in order to rebuild our country….” The Venerable spoke with such enthusiasm, and with such a charismatic smile, we looked at each other and laughed, admiring the Venerable for his talent for giving us effective spiritual boosters.

Letting Go of Attachments

Before I came to Prajna Temple, I heard Sister Thoai Nghiem say that the biggest problem here is attachment. I reacted strongly, believing that people with that tendency should be expelled from the community. However, living together with the sisters and listening to them, I understand better the causes of their tendency for attachment.

I practice Noble Silence each Lazy Monday for at least half a day, because I conduct an anatomy class for our sisters later in the afternoon. Last Sunday evening, it was past 10 p.m. already when one of my mentees came to my room, asking me to help her with her insomnia because, she said, “I know you’ll be practicing Noble Silence tomorrow.” I told her to return to her bed, lie down, and follow her breathing. If she could not sleep that night, it would be okay; she’s had this problem several years, and we were not going to solve it that night. She walked away angry, and her steps were heavy. A few days later, I asked her if she was still mad at me, and she said her anger resolved after she had been following her breathing for a while. I asked if she knew why I sent her back to her room that night. “Because you want me to practice taking refuge in myself,” she replied.

Because all of us, monastics as well as aspirants, live in one building, the sisters have the tendency to “stop by” your room anytime they want. Some also tend to “hang out” nearby or at a distance, looking at you with curious and affectionate eyes. Sometimes I return to my room late, feeling exhausted, and I see some young aspirants knocking on my window, waving and smiling!!! I have requested a couple of my mentees to memorize the sutra “Taking Refuge in the Island of Self.” They are to recite it to me by memory, to contemplate on this sutra, and to apply this teaching in their daily lives.

Having lived with the sisters and listened to their life stories, I understand more why some of them are prone to attachment. Many of them do not receive love or positive communication in their families and in their previous temples. Therefore, when they happen to meet a person who has some freshness and who spends time to take care of them, they want to attach themselves to that person. They want to attach their hearts, fragile and full of sadness, to a person they think they can trust. I see clearly that as older brothers and sisters, we must practice to nourish stability and space within ourselves, so that we can understand others more deeply with time, and so that our love entails no “hook” that others can “attach” to.

Background of Our Monastics

These past three weeks our dharma teachers have begun to interview the aspirants and visiting nuns who request to stay and practice with us. I also participate in these interviews to help assess their health condition. Each day, we use the working period, an afternoon activity, and the evening sitting session to conduct interviews. I have learned a great deal from these sessions.

There are sisters who are so innocent and pure; they want to become monastics because they have seen how beautiful the monastics can be in their fine manners, behavior, and speech. There are also those who come from unhappy families; their parents abuse and neglect each other, and the young people do not want to repeat this cycle of suffering. There is one girl who spent most of her tender years caring for a mother with mental illness, begging for food, working as a maid, and defending her mother and herself from perverse men. There are those who came to live in a temple when they were only three or four years old. Yet their faces are somber, their hearts closed off, because they have witnessed such division and abuse in their root temples.

Dear Thay, it is very painful to hear all of these stories and more. In his last minutes before the Buddha died, he was so compassionate as to ordain Subhadda as his last disciple and to advise the new monk to practice diligently towards liberation. Suddenly, I touch the immense love in your heart, and I understand why it pains you when we have to turn someone away from our practice center here—though our facilities are stretched beyond limit. Our environment of practice has the capacity to nourish and enliven the faith and aspiration in people. I sincerely hope that my brothers and sisters, monastic as well as lay, will come and help build true practicing communities in Vietnam.

Beloved Teacher, you are here in every second and every minute. You are the tea flowers emitting fragrance throughout the mountains and valleys. You are the stream that flows through all paths. Even though our center is newly established, with your wisdom of Sangha building, the support of the Buddha and the patriarchs, the wholehearted care of lay friends, and the diligent practice of our brothers and sisters, Prajna is growing quickly and tremendously  strong.

Every late afternoon during the exercise period, some of us practice martial arts, some weed the tea hillsides, and some jog along the creeks. Our sisters’ clear laughter intertwines with the luscious green of the mountains. A chanting voice is heard nearby:

Now that I have entered this holy place
I must use the sacred medicine to enlighten my spirit
before I go out again.

mb42-Fragrance2To you our deepest gratitude.
Brothers and sisters at Prajna Temple,

Dang Nghiem

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Mindfulness in a State Psychiatric Hospital

By Bruce L. Hilsberg

Bruce Hilsberg passed away on March 29, 2005; you may read an essay by his wife Karen in issue 39 of the Mindfulness Bell.

When I first became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh over ten years ago, I never thought that my personal interest in meditation, mindfulness practice, and the dharma would become an essential part of my work as a psychologist at a state psychiatric hospital.

I had practiced mindfulness with my wife in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, attended days of mindfulness with Thay when he visited California, and participated in meditation classes and dharma discussions with a local Order of Interbeing teacher. Over time, I have taught mindfulness techniques to some of the patients in my private practice to help them find relief from symptoms including insomnia, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, manic depression, and anxiety. Still, my mindfulness practice felt compartmentalized. In the context of working at the state hospital, I still subscribed to the medical model of illness and disease in which I had been trained. During work, I contemplated curing mental illnesses and reducing symptoms rather than seeing individuals as people with strengths and a desire to build on these.

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But all that changed last year, when an outside consultant was brought in to help improve the state hospital where I had worked for over eleven years. It just so happened that this consultant, who served many state psychiatric hospitals in the United States, had cultivated a Soto Zen Buddhist practice and had integrated mindfulness training into his work. When the consultations with our hospital began, I found a door through which I could enter to begin integrating my personal and professional beliefs and practices. This is the story of my journey this past year and a half.

Our system at the state hospital has watered many seeds of negative habit energy over the past decades, resulting in problems that need new solutions. For example, the system encountered difficulties in accurately diagnosing and properly treating individuals with serious and persistent mental illnesses. With the help of our consultant we are moving in the direction of systemic change for the betterment of the people connected to the hospital: administrators, staff, individuals with psychiatric disabilities, family members and the community.

From the Medical Model to the Recovery Model

One of the first methods we are using is stopping and looking deeply at ourselves and each other. While we are well aware of changes that we would like to see, part of my practice has become to accept that I am where I need to be in this moment and the hospital too is where it needs to be. Sangha building has also been a very important part of the process. We are forming connections with each other to support mindfulness in our work environment so that we can embody the practice and then bring the fruits of our practice to the hospital and the people with whom we work. In this regard, we have struggled to get out of “automatic pilot” and instead to recognize our habits, realize what we are thinking and doing, and look deeply so that we can make better choices for ourselves. In turn, we can help others to make better choices for themselves. This forms the basis of a new model of treatment for mental disorders called the recovery model.

In the recovery model, we think about individuals—what helps them and what hinders them in their lives. We talk about choices and empowerment. In the same way that Thay talks about our store consciousness with our positive and healthy seeds as well as our negative and unhealthy seeds, the recovery model sees individuals as having seeds of strength and seeds of weakness. In the old medical model, we might have asked, “Why was the individual so ill? How can we treat and cure his illness?” Now with the recovery model, we ask, “How did the individual sustain herself in the face of her illness? How can I help support her strengths and help her to recognize and water her own seeds of health, growth and well-being?” We now focus on conducting strengths-based conversations with them instead of routine diagnostic work-ups (though accurate diagnoses are still considered very important).

The research that is now emerging in the field of psychology indicates that mindfulness training is an incredibly effective treatment for many people suffering from psychiatric disorders such as chronic depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The treatment does not necessarily make the disorder completely vanish, but it can empower individuals to manage their symptoms effectively, to discontinue negative cycles of thought and behavior, and to lead more adaptive and contented lives outside of hospitals and in the community. Furthermore, many individuals with psychiatric disabilities have benefited from mindfulness training as they learn to change the relationship they have with the symptoms of their illness and to feel a sense of control in their lives.

What Mindfulness Looks Like

Over the past year and a half, as I have been mentored by our consultant, my own mindfulness practice has deepened immensely. At work, I try not to operate on automatic pilot anymore. I don’t see events as meaningless. I see the importance of my speech and my actions, and I appreciate that all I have right now is the present moment and my own presence in the moment. I spend a great deal of time in meetings, and my behavior at meetings has changed. I’ve become more present in the meetings. I recognize that while there is a lot to do, what I am doing in the moment is what I need to be doing right now. I listen deeply to others’ speech, I don’t interrupt others, and I breathe mindfully. I realize that my list of things to do does not control me. I practice non-attachment to outcomes happening within a certain arbitrary period of time. I understand that I do not need to balance my time, but to find balance in my life. I realize that my list of things to do is there to assist me in seeing what needs to be done and what my priorities are, but that is all. I feel a sense of acceptance in my work of what is. Just as in my life, rather than feeling that I need to chase after a goal, buy something, or accomplish something to feel better, I am just being in acceptance of what is.

At work, I have begun to offer a weekly meditation group for members of the hospital staff. For the last couple of months, every Thursday at lunchtime we sit on chairs or on the floor in the administration building and meditate together for half an hour.

Though I have attended meetings in this room for many years, now that I meditate there, I am aware of new sounds that I never heard before. For example, I am aware of the sound the clock makes as it ticks. We have core members who are present almost every week, and we also have people who come and go. The energy of the group practice is becoming strong, and after the practice we discuss our experiences together in a spirit of acceptance, understanding, and lack of judgment.

One thing I dream of is a time when these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention for the meeting. This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

In my private life, my wife and I have made a new commitment to meditate together every morning before our young children wake up as a way to support each other in the practice. We also have had wonderful opportunities to spend time at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido and to practice breathing, sitting, walking, eating and working meditation as a family with the support of the monastic Sangha. We have come to see the truth for us in the Dharma Seal, “You have arrived, you are home.” We have also recently formed a Sangha in our area to offer the practice to our family, co-workers, neighbors, and friends on a weekly basis and to seek support for our Order of Interbeing aspirant training.

To some, the changes that have happened at our hospital are remarkable and inspiring. To others, it seems that change is moving at a snail’s pace. Many people within the hospital are struggling with the changes and feel angry, resentful, or helpless. Others are embracing the changes and feel the freshness of the new approaches as they are introduced. For me, some days are full of frustrations as more entrenched problems in the system emerge into the light of day. “Breathing in, I know I feel frustration. Breathing out, I smile to my frustration and am grateful that I am alive.” Other days are exciting as new standards of care for the individuals we serve are implemented. Overall, I can say that mindfulness is now a part of my daily work life as well as my personal life. Through mindfulness training we are working to improve our hospital, the treatment practices, and the quality of life of the individuals we serve, as well as staff, administrators and family members. It has not been easy to introduce these ideas into a bureaucratic system, but my work is enormously meaningful to me now in ways that it has never been before.

Bruce L. Hilsberg, True Commitment of the Heart, was Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. He and his wife practiced with the Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City, California and at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

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Thanksgiving

By Cathy Nason

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I wonder if he’ll see me after coming all this way. How could I have allowed two whole years to pass without even a card, a phone call?

This home seems better than the last. The women at the reception desk are warm and attractive. They call his social worker, Keith, to walk me to Andy’s ward. Keith is black and strong with an incredible warmth and cheerfulness. I am immediately grateful that he is in Andy’s life.

The Dementia Ward

He unlocks the first set of doors and a woman stands hopeless in her pee-drenched pants. He cheerfully yells at her to get to the bathroom and take care of herself. Slowly she moves toward the bathroom. He explains to me that this is the dementia ward.

After the second set of locked doors we are in Andy’s ward. The familiar sense of madness: one girl screaming obscenities, one man singing like Johnny Cash, a Middle Eastern-looking man bent into some contorted position on the floor.

Keith directs me to the desk where I am to sign in. They flip to Andy’s page and I see he has had no visitors, except for his conservator back in August, a person I have never met. My heart aches. Why do I stay so busy? Why is the rest of the family so busy? Possibly it is too painful for us—and that is why we keep so busy. I am so sorry, Andy.

Keith takes me to Andy’s room, which he shares with three men. One of them is pretending to be dead. The nurse and Keith stand over him trying to get him to respond. I walk by this chaos to Andy who is standing and smiling. Keith asks Andy if he knows who I am. Cheerfully he says, “Yes, it’s my sister Cathy.”

His hair is long and greasy, he is missing some teeth, he has a pot belly; but he looks really good to me. I give him a three-breath hug and he allows it. It feels so good to hold him, I can feel our mom’s sweet essence in him. He is very quiet.

Andy opens my present to him, a pen and one of Thay’s writing journals. He puts them in his drawer. He has absolutely nothing, except his radio. I tell him he is luckier than the rest of us with all our trappings of possessions, and he smiles. Then we just sit. I tell him a little bit about what the family is doing but he seems more interested in just now. I ask Keith if he will take our picture. Andy likes it when I hold him.

I am amazed that this time he is so happy to see me. Then in that instant he says, “You have to go now, it’s time for my cigarette break.” I am happy that at least this time he has seen me, after coming all this way.

A Walk in Heaven

He walks me to the door and then he does something that he has never done before. He takes my hand and smiles, and then adjusts it to his for a perfect fit. And he starts walking slowly around the circumference of the ward. I am doing walking meditation with my Bro, and it feels as if Thich Nhat Hanh, my mother, my father, brothers, sisters, all our ancestors are with us in this moment. I am experiencing heaven on earth, a smile on my face from ear to ear, walking slowly and mindfully with my brother, hand in hand. We get to his door after this lap around heaven, and I am expecting for the gift to be over. He passes his room for a second lap of walking and smiling, then a third. Finally he says, “Okay now, I really got to have my cigarette break.” I ask if I can join him and he says no.

Keith comes to lead me out of the ward. I feel peaceful and grateful for Andy’s gift to me—to walk amongst the chaos with such ease and grace.

One of the patients is grabbing at Keith and insisting on his attention. He firmly sets his boundaries and walks on with me. I tell him he is very good at what he does. He says, “After twenty years I am getting better!” Then he laughs and says, “That lady still pushes my buttons.”

I am grateful for Keith and the people who work with the mentally ill. I say goodbye to the receptionist with a feeling it is all perfect, just the way it is.

mb42-Thanksgiving2Cathy Nason, True Silent Path, lives in Truckee, California, where she practices interior design incorportating spirit, feng shui, and green design.

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Inner Therapy

Two scenarios for moving through a day of psychotherapy

By Ryan Niemiec

mb42-Inner1Several years ago I discovered the practice of mindfulness. This radically altered how I approach my work as a psychologist at the Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute and as a behavioral health consultant. Every client who seeks treatment is suffering from some kind of distress; it is difficult for the therapist to be of help if his or her mind is mirroring the same chaos. Here I describe a typical day before mindfulness, compared with how a typical day passes for me now…

Four Years Ago: Before Mindfulness

I speed into the fenced-in parking lot and skid into the parking space closest to the back door of the psychotherapy clinic. I balance a cup of coffee on some books and a lunch bag as I fumble out my keys. Picking up speed, I hurry down the narrow hallway to the waiting room where I ask my waiting client, Lisa, to follow me to my office. I have Lisa begin to tell me about her struggles while I hang up my coat, put my books and papers away, and prepare my notepad. I ruminate about the train that delayed me five minutes and the morning coffee I spilled on my shirt. Lisa is a talker so I sit back and let my mind wander while she rambles from topic to topic.

I wish Lisa a good week and call in my next appointment, Scott, a particularly challenging and defensive man. I find clever ways to avoid his challenges and work to out-smart his defensive speech. This seems to keep his anger at bay.

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At midday, I attend a meeting with various administrators and therapists where there is a tight agenda filled with tasks to accomplish. I make a couple of suggestions for improving clinic relations in the community. Nobody seems to hear them and we transition to the next topic of caring for clients. I make an observation and propose an idea for how to better work with a particularly difficult client. One team member, Dr. Christopher, voices strong disagreement with the idea and explains why it would not work. I nod my head and sit quietly through the remainder of the meeting.

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I leave the meeting irritated and call up my next client, Joe. For most of the session my mind wanders to Dr. Christopher’s critical comments and I begin to feel they were directed at me personally. This raises my anxiety level and my thoughts begin to scan my day. I evaluate my therapy work with Lisa, reflecting on other ideas I should have implemented in today’s meeting, and I quickly judge that I am not doing enough to help Scott. In the current session with Joe, I continue to nod and show facial expressions as if I am listening very closely and hanging on every word he is saying. With a vague idea of Joe’s conflict with his boss, I offer a general suggestion to journal more about this conflict and encourage him to sympathize more with his boss’s position. Joe thanks me for my suggestions as he leaves, leading me to believe I have done him some good.

I have five minutes between sessions to call a managed care (insurance) company to get authorization for more visits for a client. I dread making these calls. They never go smoothly. The workers transfer me to two different departments. I notice my frustration level rises and I begin to feel these people are inconveniencing me and wasting my time. A third voice comes on the line and tells me she is putting me on hold, and before I can respond the background music clicks on. Hearing the soft music further escalates my anger as I am forced to pause my busy day for a couple minutes. Realizing I cannot tolerate this injustice any longer, I count down from ten to one, curse at the music, and slam the phone down on the receiver.

I stomp off toward the waiting room to greet my next client, Sue. Along the way, I pass a colleague and I mumble something about how incompetent and insensitive all managed care workers are and how they prevent good therapists from doing their job. The colleague nods in acknowledgment and walks on.

Sue is very upset today. She is mourning some losses in her life. I don’t have much energy left after a ten-hour day of back-to-back clients, group sessions, and meetings. I listen for a while and drift off to planning what I will do next—my house needs some work, I could go to the store, and I deserve to relax with a beer and a movie. The session nears a close and I feel confused as to how I can help Sue today. I make a general and safe suggestion that she peruse her old photo albums and journal about her experience to manage her grief.

The day is finally over. I grab my coat and walk as fast as I can down the hallway, hoping no one will try to have a conversation with me. Leaving the clinic, I think about where I might stop for dinner.

Present Day: With Mindfulness

I listen to the engine transition from idle and click off. I have intentionally parked my car several rows back from the clinic’s back door so I can enjoy the walk. I feel the sensation of the sun’s rays on my right cheek as it makes its way through some cumulus clouds. As I open the clinic door, I see a dead cricket upside down on the ground. I allow this image to stay with me throughout the day.

Before meeting with my first client, Lisa, I prepare for the session with a brief meditation. I follow my breathing closely to bring about a concentrated awareness to start the therapy session. I feel a sense of clarity, which stays with me as I walk down the hallway. I feel very focused with Lisa. I challenge her verbosity and we explore the fears she hides with her words.

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Following the session, I return to my meditation chair and silently concentrate on my breath. I let go of Lisa and our work today. I smile to the image of Scott, my next client. I return my focus fully to my breathing. I slowly stand and begin to walk, coordinating every three steps with my inhale and every four steps with my exhale. Scott begins the session with apathy and disdain, verbalizing his disinterest in being in therapy. He complains of people mistreating him. After empathizing with his struggles my mind begins to wander. I hear the sound of people’s voices in the hallway. This distraction builds and threatens to throw me off balance, drawing me into Scott’s stories and emotion. I ask Scott if he minds if I close my eyes while I listen to him. This opens my ears in a new way. I begin to deeply listen to Scott, hearing the pain and fear behind his defensive speech of disclaimers, his masculine façade of having it all together. Somehow Scott begins to open up deeper. He associates my closed eyes with my full, undivided attention. In this exchange of deeper awareness, honesty, and connection, he and I become aware of insights reflected in the present experience.

At a midday administrative meeting, my stomach tightens when my suggestions seem to go unnoticed. I deepen my breath to my abdomen, repeating the phrases commonly used by Thich Nhat Hanh: “Breathing in, I calm my body; breathing out, I smile; dwelling in this present moment; I know this is a wonderful moment.” My thoughts become more focused. I assert myself to the team leader, asking for the group to reconsider my ideas. Later, one group member, Dr. Christopher, rejects and criticizes my suggestion for improving a client’s health. My shoulders tense, my heartbeat increases, and beliefs of “I’m not helping anybody” and “I never say the right things” blanket my view. I reconnect with my breathing and decide I will address Dr. Christopher’s approach with me after the meeting so as not to risk embarrassing him in front of the team and to not take up time from the busy agenda. I also resolve that if he is busy after the meeting I will set up a time to speak with him later.

Before seeing my next client, Joe, I close my office door to take a two-minute break in my meditation chair. I anchor my attention to my breath and scan my body. I relax the tension that was beginning to creep into my shoulders. I practice letting go of my last meeting and my morning clients. I slowly walk to the waiting room, feeling my body transition with each step. I greet Joe with a warm smile and firm handshake. Remembering that my mind tends to wander quite a bit with Joe, I practice mindful listening. When my mind trails off, I return the focus to my breath, not Joe. This anchors me to the present moment in the room and re-opens my ears to listen deeply.

Between sessions, I make some administrative phone calls, mostly to managed care companies. It is not surprising to me when I am put on hold several times, transferred to incorrect departments, and challenged over my professional opinion. During the final call, I am put on hold for several minutes. I had kept my balance up to this point, but this seems to dig at me in a deeper way. As I become aware of the rising bodily and emotional tension, I shift my attitude. I see this phone call as an opportunity—a space to befriend the breath once again. This keeps me focused on what is most important for me to say for my client and it keeps me fresh for the person that begins to speak on the other line.

I am running late for my session with Sue but knowing the importance of breathing through the transitions and creating space for each person, I return to my meditation chair for a few deep breaths. In my session with Sue, I soon begin to feel overwhelmed by the amount of stress, sadness, abuse, and shame she is reflecting and experiencing. I listen carefully and only speak of those things I know to be true about her condition and express them as my perceptions, thus fallible. We conclude this emotional work with five minutes of silent breathing to pay respect to Sue’s openness and vulnerability with another being.

My workday is coming to a conclusion, but much of the day remains. I stand in the middle of the office to appreciate the fullness of the work and respect the energy that was present. With careful awareness, I flick off the light-switch and pull the door closed behind me. Leaving the clinic, I again notice the cricket and its particular position, now slanted a bit to the right. I smile to it and slowly turn to walk to my car.

Ryan Niemiec, Fullest Breath of the Heart, is a clinical psychologist in St. Louis, Missouri. He works in the Program for Psychology & Religion, helping ministers, priests, and nuns with mental health problems, as well as the Headache & Pain Management Program; he also teaches mindfulness.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

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Joyful Purpose of the Heart

By Annie Mahon

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When I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha many years ago, I was given the dharma name “Joyful Purpose of the Heart.” At the time I didn’t think much about it. Frankly, the name didn’t mean much to me. Joyful Purpose? I had no idea what my joyful purpose might be. I had been practicing mindfulness in a personal way, meditating by myself and reading books on mindfulness. As a result, my life had been changing slowly. For example, I found myself having more patience for my kids and a sense of calm inside myself. But I did not feel there was any purpose to my life. I was living life aimlessly.

After the events of September 11, everything changed. As I listened to the coverage of the crashes, I felt a sense of compassion and courage growing inside of me. Suddenly, interbeing—the idea that every one of us is intimately connected to one another—was a concrete reality rather than an abstract concept.

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My own need for Sangha surfaced as I sought the support of other people who could see the interbeing in this event and find the connection between the victims and the terrorists. I began to sit regularly with the Stillwater Mindfulness Group in Maryland. I needed the support of other people for my growing mindfulness and to be in an emotionally safe place. By joining fully in the Sangha, I made the decision that mindfulness was my life path, and I began to live from this foundation.

Around the same time I began to understand that living life aimlessly was not about living with no aim, but rather about living without attachment to the outcome of our actions. In the

Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “Do thy work in the peace of yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure… In the bonds of works I am free, because in them I am free from desires.” I began to think that it might be okay to express my creativity through my work and even to do it with joy.

Teaching Peace

I knew there was something I could do to transform the growing anger and mutual misunderstanding that led to the events of September 11. I had a talent for teaching children, and my study and practice of mindfulness and my relationship with Thay gave me insights into peace and conflict resolution.

On September 14, I sent an e-mail to Coleman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist turned peace activist, asking how I could get involved in teaching peace and conflict resolution in the Washington, D.C. public schools. His organization got me in touch with Marsha Blakeway who works with the public schools’ peer mediation and conflict resolution programs. Marsha happily became my peace mentor, and I immediately began to assist her with peer mediation meetings at Alice Deal Junior High.

I also contacted my son’s third grade teacher and asked if she would be interested in having me teach a weekly conflict resolution class. I had no experience in this area, but I had books and I had my new mentor and I had my mindfulness practice. With these tools I was able to fabricate a wonderful class in which I used games, literature, discussion, and dramatization to help third graders learn how to resolve disputes peacefully.

At the end of my first month of teaching, I was approached by another third grade teacher to teach in her classroom. During the first year, I often wondered whether the kids were getting anything out of the class. Then one day, my son had a friend over to visit. Both of them were in my conflict class at the time. When my son did something that irritated me, I began to scold him. His friend said, “Annie, use your ‘I’ language.” I had taught them to do this in our conflict class, and he not only remembered it, but also applied it to real life. After that, I worried much less about the impact of my teaching.

Making Little Yoginis

In the fall of 2002, I saw a notice for a program training people how to teach yoga to kids. I had long been a yogini and had experience in the connection between the mind and the body. Kids especially live in and through their bodies and their ability to stay centered depends on this connection. As we teach children how to think rationally, they begin to lose this grounding, and I think this can cause children—and adults—to become physically and mentally ill.

During the last day of the training, I was asked to teach a free yoga class for children with two of my fellow students. We gave a forty-five minute class to seven kids, ages eight to twelve. What surprised me was that the students liked the relaxation part of class best. These kids really needed the time and space to relax. They are often busy all day at school and afterwards with activities, and then they usually watch TV or use the computer.

After the training, I approached the owner of a small exercise studio where I took classes and asked if I could teach a yoga class for kids. They were happy to try it. I also decided to offer an after-school class at the local elementary school. That class was so popular I ended up offering two classes after school, each class filled with twelve students.

After a while I realized that part of the experience for kids was having a kid-friendly, aesthetically pleasing space. So I decided to open a yoga studio for kids. In March, 2003 I opened Budding Yogis, Mindful Yoga Studio for Kids.

A Mindful Business

My practice is to stay open to what the world, my students, and coworkers need; to express my creativity without becoming attached to the outcome; to create a space for myself and the community; and to remember that the connections—interbeing—are what matter. The business supports the vision.

At long last my dharma name begins to make sense. Now I understand what it means to have—to be—Joyful Purpose of the Heart.

Annie Mahon, Joyful Purpose of the Heart, practices with the Stillwater Mindfulness Practice Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. She has four wonderful and sometimes stressed-out children of her own.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

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Presently Minding My Children

By Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner

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One of my core beliefs is that parenting, in and of itself, is a form of mindfulness. My experience of mindfulness in the family, however, recently underwent a metamorphosis. This happened after good seeds were watered at the 2005 Summer Family Retreat at Maple Forest Monastery. The catalyst for this change was a bacterial infection that dragged on for over three months.

Before taking ill, I felt I was mindfully parenting my four children: Maddie, 6, Patrick, 7, Nicole, 9, and Emily, 16. This included planning vacations, making plans with friends, keeping the children involved in activities, and driving children to play dates. I was busy keeping us busy. This busy-ness disappeared, not by choice but because of the infection. For three months, I was fatigued, sore, and unable to engage in our usual whirlwind of activities. Inertia ruled many of my days. Helplessness, frustration, and guilt became emotional themes. Being a single mother exacerbated the situation.

But I discovered, while often stuck in bed, a new repertoire of parenting skills: listening deeply, looking with compassion, and cuddling. Soon each child’s unique set of needs and strengths emerged, traits I had not noticed while I was busy parenting.

Children as Teachers

Now I was not busy making plans, running errands, scheduling events, talking to friends, logging on to the Internet, or tending to thousands of other things. I only had time to be with my children, who were quite happy having my undivided attention.

A deeper aspect of mindfulness had crystallized. I had learned to be present with my children without other people, events, or props. Sometimes my children were bored, but they were calmer, happier, and easier to be with.

I began to take to heart Thay’s teachings on watering good seeds so they can grow stronger and more available for use in our daily lives. I recalled how genuinely my children had enjoyed being with the monastics at the retreat. I realized it was because the monastics give their undivided attention to children: they are truly present whether baking chocolate bread, collecting flowers, picking tomatoes, playing a game, or singing a song.

I also learned from my children. Perhaps they were my best teachers. My six-year-old daughter, Maddie, found a dragonfly with an injured wing. I watched as she gently picked it up on a stick and tried to feed it grass. Many adults walked by; a few children also passed. They were too busy to stop. Then after a while a small group gathered around Maddie. The dragonfly had long lacy wings and big blue-green eyes. Its legs were long and graceful; they tickled Maddie’s little hand as it unsuccessfully struggled to take flight. Maddie carefully placed the dragonfly in a flower garden. What a gift to be truly present with my daughter and to see her joy and laughter in such a simple thing!

I played Lego with my son Patrick, which required me to pay close attention. I took time to understand my sixteen-year-old Emily’s push for autonomy, and her need to struggle against me, something that required patience and energy.

Breaking the High-Tech Habit

As a parent, it is hard to slow down and just be with my children in their world—not the world I created for them, which is all too often defined by schools, activities and events—but to be with them in their world. In this high-tech era it is hard to disconnect: to turn the cell phone off, to leave the Palm Pilot home, to not check my e-mail or voice mail several times a day, to even let the mail sit for a day. Research indicates many teenagers and adults experience distress even while on vacation if they do not have access to the technological world left at home.

Now, as I regain my health, I try to avoid a symbiotic relationship with these high-tech trappings. I have learned to say no to many opportunities that I would enjoy, even greatly benefit from professionally. I just want to focus on being a parent: being a parent in a simpler way.

Ajahn Chah said, “Everything is a hassle, everything is presenting obstacles—and everything is teaching you.” My intention is to be fully present, with undivided attention, to these moments in my daily life—and with my children.

Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner, Radiant Nourishment of the Source, lives in Troy, Michigan. In addition to being a mom, Cindi studies Tae Kwan Do, is learning to speak Thai, and is looking forward to finishing her Master’s Degree in Counseling later this year.

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Joleah’s Gift

I received this drawing from my eight-year-old granddaughter, Joleah McComb, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. Joleah attends days of mindfulness when we lead them in that city. She has recently been diagnosed with neural damage from toxic molds, and has been sick a lot over the past two years. Her family had to leave their home and all of their belongings because of the dangerous molds. She recently had to leave her school on the ocean as well, since toxic molds were discovered in her classroom. The family has suffered, as they have all been sick and now displaced.

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For her eighth birthday, because I know she likes to practice mindfulness and meditation, we gave Joleah a jolly Ho Tai statue and an incense burner so that she could set up an altar in her bedroom, which she did. Here’s what she wrote about meditation.

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain,  North Carolina.

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Poem: Why Not Meditate All the Time?

Since mindful awareness,
One-point concentration,
Daily sitting meditation,
Businesslessness seem impossible,
Most often always,
Why not meditate on the breath
All the time every moment?
Yes, just this in-breath,
Or this out-breath.
Nothing more, less, else.
So I am in my body
And not mind thinking
More useless thoughts.

Oh, how wonderful!
I’m meditating!

Bill Menza,
True Shore of Understanding

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Thich Nhat Hanh Receives Bridge of Peace Award

Five peacemakers honored at ceremony in Los Angeles

By Peggy Rowe

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The monks and nuns of Deer Park Monastery invited the bell to begin the celebration and offered the Five Contemplations for the banquet. The Bridge of Peace Award, a crystal globe on a crystal stand, was presented to Thay by Soto Zen priest Claude Anshin Thomas. Anshin shared how the Sangha and other veterans enabled him to travel to Plum Village where he experienced a time of profound healing and transformation. The award was accepted by the monastics of Deer Park, who read a statement from Thay: “I am very grateful and very touched to receive this award. We are at a critical point of history in the world. It is heartening to have so many people together to practice peace. Peace is available in every step.” Then they sang Thay’s poem “Recommendation,” accompanied by guitar.

Awards also went to Le Ly Hayslip, Marla Ruzicka, Dr. Waqar Al-Kubaisy, and Marshall Rosenberg. What the five remarkable honorees share is compassion for others, the courage to tell the truth, and the gift of unconditional love. All five took action to better the lives of others and to promote peace in the twenty-first century.

Le Ly Hayslip, a Woman of Ordinary Dreams

Le Ly left Vietnam when she was 13 years old. She describes herself as a “woman of ordinary dreams,” whose only life dream was to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. In 1985 she began her efforts to visit her homeland, but there were no diplomatic relations with Vietnam. She says, “I had a dream in my spirit to see us reunited again as people, if only I could break down the walls of fear and mistrust that divided us. I dreamed that I, a housewife with a third-grade education, could transform the hatred of war into a bridge of peace for all people.”

So Le Ly became a bridge builder. She received permission to travel to Vietnam in 1986, in 1987 she founded the East Meets West Foundation, and built schools, clinics, hospitals in Vietnam along with many other works to foster peace and reconciliation between the US and Vietnam. In 1999, she founded the Global Village Foundation. Her life is chronicled in the Oliver Stone film Heaven and Earth.

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A Posthumous Tribute to Marla Ruzicka

After leading a Global Exchange Reality Tour in opposition to the war in Afghanistan, Marla stayed behind to help. She arrived in Kabul only a few days after the Taliban was removed. The day after Saddam’s statue fell, Marla arrived in Iraq where she went door to door tallying the loss and injury of human life and seeing how she could serve. Did you know that in the twentieth century, ninety percent of the casualties of war were soldiers? Did you know that in the twenty-first century, ninety percent of the casualties of war are civilians? So Marla started counting.

In 2003, Marla formed the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). On April 16, 2005 Marla was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad on her way to visit an injured child. She was a lovely twenty-eight-year-old woman with an infectious laugh and warm smile. Before her death, she successfully lobbied the

U.S. government to provide medical and other assistance to Afghan and Iraqi families. To date, 25 million dollars have been appropriated and Marla’s work continues through CIVIC Worldwide.

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The Courage of Dr. Waqar Al-Kubaisy

A woman with a beautiful smile presented herself to me with a firm handshake. “Thank you for your presence of peace,” she said. I found out later that she was the Iraqi physician receiving the Bridge of Peace award for courage. In her acceptance speech she talked about the lives being lost; she described her relentless work to help all people by bringing medical services and supplies to where they are needed. She has had many family members killed, including six of her cousins who were bombed in a car. Most recently, in the dead of night, her husband was kidnapped; he was tortured for twenty-six days and suffered extreme injuries for which he is receiving medical care. She spoke of the pointlessness of war and its tragic impact in her homeland.

Pete Peterson, from POW to Ambassador

In 1966, U.S. Air Force Captain Pete Peterson was shot down over North Vietnam. He spent over six years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war. On his return, he placed his attention on reconciliation and peace. “After the war I had two choices,” he said. “I could go home angry, disenchanted, depressed… or I could get on with my life. I woke up one morning and realized I had no control over yesterday. But I had full control over and responsibility for tomorrow.” After serving as a member of the U.S. Congress, Pete was appointed by President Clinton as ambassador to Vietnam, a post he held until 2001. He set about to reopen diplomatic and economic ties between the U.S. and Vietnam. Today hundreds of American companies have offices and factories in Vietnam. In 1998 he married Vi Le at the Hanoi Cathedral just a few blocks from the Hanoi Hilton. He continues to further ties between the two nations through his foundation, The Alliance for Safe Children, Vietnam.

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To Be a Bridge of Peace

Marshall Rosenberg, renowned developer of a method of conflict resolution called Nonviolent Communication (NVC), was there to receive the Nonviolence award. “What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart,” he said, and shared stories from his experiences of offering NVC around the world.

Larry Ward and I sat with Ron Kovic in the VIP room. Ron was the 2005 recipient of the Bridge of Peace award, and he was portrayed by Tom Cruise in the Oliver Stone film Born on the Fourth of July. Ron has twinkling eyes and infectious positive energy. He wheeled his chair to me and held my hand, commenting on my peaceful energy. I, in turn, asked him his secret. “Life is precious,” he said. “I woke up in the hospital in Vietnam with part of my body gone, and in incredible pain and deep despair. But I should have been dead. This is a miracle, that I am alive. I get my energy from people and from life. I love people. I am alive. What a miracle!”

This evening was a wake-up call for me. I am grateful to have been touched by these people, to have the opportunity to be called into a bigger story. What is my dream for peace? How can I be a bridge of peace? How can I grow my heart larger for this world?

Peggy Rowe, True Original Source, is a Dharma Teacher and gourd artist practicing with the Bright Path Sangha in Asheville, North Carolina.

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There Is No Way to Community, Community Is the Way

Progetto Essere Pace: the practice of the Italian Order of Interbeing

By Silvia Lomardi

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I am smiling while I drive on the southbound highway to reach Pomaia, an Italian Tibetan community located in Tuscany. This is the place where in 1992 Thay came to teach for the fi time in Italy and where we regularly hold our sangha meetings for the project. The project, called “Essere Pace” (Being Peace), is to create a mindfulness practice center in the Plum Village tradition.

On my way, I will pick up Giuseppe, Claudio and Paolo in Genoa and we will get there in two hours. In Pomaia we will meet with Stefano and Viviana coming from Rome; Vanda from Milan; Amedeo, Nongluck, and Andrea coming from the northeast and Emanuela coming all the way down from Bolzano (Bozen), near the Austrian border.

Our Italian community has been expanding a lot during these last years. We have regular monthly retreats with 50 people, we have a retreat with Thay and 800 participants every other year, and we have annual retreats with Helga and Karl Riedl with 120 participants. Now we are ready to create our own center and grow in the direction of offering our well-rooted stability and our joyful practice to others all year long.

What inspired us is the experience of the lay mindfulness practice center in Germany, Intersein Zentrum. Every time we visit them we find the genuine spirit of Thay’s teachings and the flavor of the Plum Village atmosphere. In the last few years we have been developing a special relationship based on esteem and friendship with the two dharmacharyas guiding the center, Helga and Karl Riedl. The Italian Order of Interbeing asked them to be the spiritual guides of the future Italian center. Although they are very busy taking care of the Intersein community, Helga and Karl have accepted our invitation with generosity and enthusiasm, and have offered us their support all along the process, step by step.

A Three-Phase Project

In the last two years we have been meeting regularly every other month to focus our attention on the aspects involved in setting up the project. In phase one, we elaborated our vision: a place where we can go back to inner calm and peace, in a natural setting; located in a central region of Italy; large enough for a resident community and at least forty retreatants; and with space for families.

In the present phase two, some Italian sangha members are currently spending training periods with the German community, where they are learning ways to support community life, run a retreat center, solve conflicts, and so on. We feel now that our project is no longer a dream but it has gained a sense of reality, being already alive in our actions, in our thoughts and in our daily mindful breathing.

At the same time, phase three has started. As you can imagine we have to raise a considerable amount of money; we have already been collecting donations in the last two years through a Trust and we are confident that more donations will come. Sister Chan Khong said: “If you are happy, money will come,” and I am sure she is a real expert in fund raising! So we are practicing as a happy sangha and creating the right conditions for the center to manifest.

In the meantime, we are looking into the real estate market and trying to get to know it better. “We cannot go shopping without money,” Karl once said, but we are building up awareness about what is available: large bed and breakfast houses in the countryside, or village ruins that we could restore or, even better, a green field with a building license. The first two options are more likely to happen, because building from scratch in Italy means taking the risk that the place is full of archaeological remains and you have to stop building!

How We Have Cultivated It

When we started working on the project we were full of enthusiasm, but “empty” of everything else! We needed to learn how to work together bringing the practice into our thoughts and actions. What a wonderful and surprising experience!

We were supported by Helga and Karl in putting the right emphasis on our meetings: “If we are peace, if we practice as if we are a community, the peaceful community is already alive! When the center manifests, the community is ready to step in and live harmoniously.”

And every time we come to the end of the working weekend, we realize the effects of such a process: we had arrived as individuals and we leave as community members. What an experience every time! Now we know that it will happen next time too, but each time we repeat the experience again and again, to our surprise and joy.

We feel “there is no way to community: community is the way.”

And it is along that way that my smile becomes brighter and my heart full of gratitude.

Silvia Lombardi, True Wonderful Mind, invites you to learn more about Progetto Essere Pace by visiting www.centrovitaconsapevole.org (follow the link to pages in English). Or contact Silvia Lombardi, gioiadelcuore. silvia@tin.it or Stefano Carboni, stefaning@fastwebnet.it.

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Sitting Separately

When in the meditation hall men and women sit on different sides, we could call this “sitting separately,” but if you look deeply, you will see that there is no segregation. In other words, one group is not being excluded from the principal group. Clearly there is no discrimination. Both sides of the meditation hall are equally peaceful, have equally beautiful cushions, and an equal access to the altar.

In Mindfulness Training recitations and transmissions and in formal meals and ceremonies where monks and nuns wear the yellow formal robe, we sit separately. There are several reasons for this. The first is purely formal. The monks have their order of ordination and the nuns have their order of ordination; in these ceremonies we sit in order of ordination to be aware of who is our elder and who is our younger brother or sister.

The second reason is a matter of energy. A man’s and a woman’s energy differ in certain significant aspects. This is something physiological and psychological. For all of its benefits, the movement for equality of the sexes has very often meant a woman has had to push her way into a man’s world and compete with men on the terms of a man’s world. This has been very stressful for many women.

Personally, I am very happy to be a Buddhist nun where I can be truly enlightened as a woman and do not have to try to fulfill the enlightenment of a man. When we sit separately, I look over to my brothers and my heart is filled with appreciation. I know they support my practice and I wholeheartedly support theirs.

During sitting meditation and at any time when deep concentration is needed, our being is very finely tuned. Sexual feelings can be very disturbing both to the person who has them and to the person who is the object of the feelings. That is another reason for sitting separately. Our physical proximity can water the seeds of these sexual feelings.

In more traditional Buddhism, sitting separately is always de rigueur. Thay has loosened this considerably by allowing the Thursday mindfulness lunch to take place without sitting separately. There are retreats in which practitioners practice sitting meditation with men and women sitting next to each other. We have the right to enjoy both ways and feel the different energies for ourselves, so that in our local sangha we can choose how we want to organize ourselves. Many of us are very happy to have the best of both worlds.

—Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Book Reviews

mb42-Book1This Tender Place
The Story of a Wetland Year

By Laurie Lawlor
University of Wisconsin Press, 2005
Hardcover, 166 pages, $26.95

Reviewed by Janice Rubin

In a volume of fewer than 200 pages, Laurie Lawlor, author of thirty-three books for children and adults, writes the story of a love affair with a swamp that is ultimately a clarion call to preserve our wetlands if we wish to ensure adequate supplies of potable water. Lawlor and her husband, Jack, bought the eleven-acre property in southeast Wisconsin as a way to “reconstruct” themselves following the deaths of their fathers within months of each other. In spring they planted a pin oak, beneath which were placed her father’s ashes.

This Tender Place is permeated with Lawlor’s deep practice of mindfulness in nature. As a Dharma teacher who has received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh, her stories reflect her ten-year intimacy with the vegetation, animal life, and minerals in this 14,000-year-old fen. In an enchanting tableau of the four seasons of the year, beginning with winter and going back to the start of the Ice Age, she chronicles the gradual formation of the current wetlands landscape and its seasonal changes.

We are with her as she travels by kayak or canoe along the streams and passageways of the fen to the lake, or walks the paths and slogs through mud, observing the changes in water quality, vegetation, and animal life at each season of the year. We note the coming of spring in the water bubbling up through cracks in the ice on the marshes as winter ends, the incipience of summer in the return of mated pairs of cranes in early spring, the crackling of the drying water-lily pads and the presence of scum, white swan feathers, and dead insects on the pond foretelling the coming autumn and “the long slide into the beginning of silence.” On her last kayaking trip of the year, she finds herself cutting through a thin film of ice; the turtles and frogs are gone, vegetation is floating loose, and snow begins to fall.

Unrestricted hunting led to the extinction in the area of elk, white-tail deer, black bear, wild turkey, sandhill cranes, and massasauga rattlesnakes by 1850. Past practices of draining wet areas to create land that can be farmed or developed for housing, shopping centers, or industrial uses have resulted in the diminished availability of fresh water as the population grows. Grassroots conservancy groups are now involved in promoting the reclamation and preservation of watersheds, prairies, woodlands, shorelines, and other sensitive areas from human indifference.

We feel, with Lawlor, a growing sense of oneness with the environment as she makes her way. Twenty-two photographs, most of them taken by her, reflect the peaceful aspect of this tender place even when animal and plant life are most abundant. For this, if for no other reason, wetlands areas must be preserved as places where people can find refuge from the hurly-burly of everyday life.

mb42-Book2Little Pilgrim

By Ko Un
Parallax Press, 2005
Softcover, 381 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by Judith Toy

A novel twenty-two years in the writing by celebrated Korean poet and former Buddhist monk Ko Un (pronounced ‘Go Oon’), this book is a Dharma treasure brought to us by translators Brother Anthony of Taizé and Young-Moo Kim. The protagonist is a tenyear-old boy, Sudhana, who during his life’s fantastical journey, morphs more than once into an adult and even once into a leper.

He encounters fifty-three teachers in all, sometimes in dreams, from gods to singing snails to a boy who becomes a girl, to bums and bodhisattvas (sometimes the bums are bodhisattvas), a giant, an underworld, heavenly realms, vanishing beings, and a kite that points the way on his travels.

Ko Un’s fiction without a plot is based on the thirty-ninth, the last and longest section of the Avatamsaka Sutra, known as the Garland Sutra––a teaching that’s had an extraordinary impact on East Asian Buddhism since its introduction into China in the sixth century.

Supposedly derived from a series of sermons by the historical Gautama Buddha––or possibly by his disciple, the bodhisattva of Great Action, Samantabhadra, Ko Un’s poetic rendering of the pilgrim’s journey is like a string of wisdom pearls.

Like St. Exupery’s Little Prince, who always felt he was at home, the little pilgrim Sudhana teaches us two crucial lessons: how to see the signposts that show us where to go next on our life’s pilgrimage; and how to let go. At each stop, someone or something directs the boy to his next destination. He only hears them because this child without parents or roots is able to move through the universe with an open heart. He simply allows each teaching to enter him, and then the young pilgrim moves on.

The setting is India in the Gautama Buddha era, and some place names are familiar to us from the life of the Buddha. While the Buddha is not a character in the novel, there are increasingly frequent references to his teachings as the boy’s journey unfolds. To fully receive the sweep of Ko Un’s novel as a metaphor for our lives, it’s probably best to read it through at once, rather than piecemeal. Readers will want to linger at the striking papercut illustrations by Jason DeAntonis that pepper the text.

As a sangha body we can apply these two lessons––trusting the way enough to be available to the teachings that abound in every moment and becoming still enough to know where as a sangha our path is leading us next; and allowing ourselves to let go of the many people who come and go in a sangha, loving them in a nonattached way. Allowing the comings and goings to happen without any resistance, without clinging. With the Buddha, Ko Un shows how to let go and join the dance!

mb42-Book3The Wonder of the Tao
A Meditation on Spirituality and Ecological Balance

By James Eggert
Published by Humanics, Lake Worth, Florida
Hardcover; 90 pages; $14.95

Reviewed by Hope Lindsay and Barbara Casey

James Eggert is an emeritus faculty member of the University of Wisconsin. As both economist and ecologist, Eggert offers a singular perspective on the workings of our world and our relationships in it. For example, he suggests that we consider the concept of market capitalism as a flawed gemstone. Inspecting it for defects from the viewpoint of an economist and then an ecologist, Eggert offers a vision to bring balance and harmony back into our economic system.

Eggert’s simple stories offer a wise view of life and practical methods for deepening our understanding of interbeing. To help develop balance and an increased awareness of other species, he describes simple t’ai chi exercises that embody qualities of bear, crane, monkey, deer, and tiger. Opening our eyes to a larger view of the world, Eggert describes the unfolding of the universe, through stellar contractions and expansions, the origin of water, the moon’s influence, and the development of life forms.

Each chapter begins with a verse from the Tao Te Ching, a slim volume written by Lao Tzu 2,400 years ago, and woven into the heart of Buddhist teachings. The wisdom of simplicity, balance, and letting go show us a way through the complexities of modern life and the confusion of searching for happiness outside ourselves. The last chapter, “The Wonder of the Tao,” begins with the verse:

“If you don’t realize the source,
You stumble in confusion and sorrow…
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
You can deal with whatever life brings you,
And when death comes, you are ready.”

Eggert gently leads us back to the source of true happiness, through his stories of connecting with nature and seeing the world in all its remarkable beauty. In the book’s foreword, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Please enjoy this offering of our friend, James Eggert, as an invitation to enter into a deep relationship with our home the earth and all her creatures, to cultivate our awakened wisdom to find harmony and balance.”

The Wonder of the Tao is generously illustrated with calligraphy and brush paintings by Li-chin Crystal Huang. A lovely snapshot of one man’s walk in mindfulness through our world, this book reflects the simplicity and fullness of which it speaks.

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Please Help to Support Our Two Monasteries in Vietnam

mb42-PleasePlum Village, 27 March 2006
Dear friends,

We urgently need a car for Tu Hieu Temple in Hué, the root temple where Thay grew up as a novice. It may cost 15,000 US dollars for a second-hand Toyota van with twelve seats. The monks and nuns need to go teach in many sanghas about 50 to 200 km from the Root Temple. They also need to shop daily for food for 100 monastics and for the 300 lay practitioners who come every Saturday. For the last nine months, they can only shop for 100 persons, riding on their motobikes and carrying big bags of vegetables.

We also need to provide a new bed, mattress, and blanket for each monastic aspirant, at a cost of 45 dollars. Each new practitioner is a new spiritual worker to continue the work of Thay to alleviate suffering caused by misunderstanding, violence and abuse in families, etc.

More and more aspirants want to study in the tradition of Plum Village at Tu Hieu and at our other monastery, Prajna near Bao Loc. [See Sister Dang Nghiem’s letter from Prajna Temple on page 28.] We are in great need of your help to continue this work.

Please send your donation to one of the addresses below. We depend on you to continue this beautiful and noble service. Yours truly,

Sister Chan Khong

United States
Make check payable to: UBC Deer Park
Mail to: Deer Park Monastery
2499 Melru Lane Escondido CA 92026, USA.
or transfer funds directly to account of :
Deer Park Monastery,
Wells Fargo Bank,
145 North Escondido Blvd.
Escondido CA 92025
Account # 029-1314078
Routing transit # 121-04-28-82.

France
Make check payable to:
EBU Village des Pruniers Mail to:
Loving Kindness Temple
13 Martineau
33580 Dieulivol
France
Attn: Sister Chan Khong

Europe and Asia
Transfer funds directly to:
UBS Bank Aeschenvorstadt 1
CH Basel, Switzerland
Account of Sister CAO N.P.F. Chan Khong
for the Unified Buddhist Church
Attn: Mr. Guy Forster;
0233-405 317 60 D in USD,
405 317 01 N in Swiss Francs, and
405 317 61 F in Euros;

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