Dharma Talk: Sitting in the Wind of Spring

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Here is the first Dharma talk that Thich Nhat Hanh gave on his recent tour of Vietnam, at Phap Van Temple in Ho Chi Minh City on February 22, 2007. This excerpt presents the last part of the talk, including questions from the audience and Thay’s answers. Later in this issue we offer a story of that day along with photos from the journey. To hear this talk in full, go to www.dpcast.org and look for “Mindfulness and Healing in Vietnam.” 

Thich Nhat Hanh

While we’re sitting still, sitting peacefully, there are three elements that we need to harmonize. The first is the body, the second is the mind, the third is the breath — mind, body, and breath.

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Sometimes our body’s there but the mind has run off somewhere else. It runs off to the future, to the past. It is caught in worries, sadness, anger, jealousy, fear. There is no peace, no stillness. If we want to sit still we have to bring the mind back to the body.

How can we bring the mind back to the body? The Buddha taught in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing that we need to know how to use the breath. When we breathe in, we bring the mind back to the breath. I am breathing in, and I am aware that I am breathing in. Instead of paying attention to things that happened in the past, things that might happen in the future, we bring the mind back so that it can pay attention to the breath.

This sutra has been available in Vietnam since the third century. Zen master Tang Hoi was the forefather of Vietnamese Zen and this is one of the most basic sutras in meditation practice. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out. This is the first exercise of the sixteen exercises in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing, which I have translated from Pali to Vietnamese and from Chinese to Vietnamese; it has been published in many languages.

The day I discovered the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing I was so happy! It is a wonderful sutra for our practice of meditation. If we practice wholeheartedly, in a few weeks we can bring peace and happiness back to our bodies and to our minds.

The Practices of the Buddha

In Plum Village we have a gatha, a short poem that we memorize. It has only a few words.

In, out.
Deep, slow.
Calm, ease.
Smile, release.
Present moment, wonderful moment!
The first one, “in, out,” means breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out.

The second one is “deep, slow.” Breathing in, I see that my inbreath has become deeper. Breathing out, I see that my out-breath has become slower. In the beginning our breath is very short, but if we continue to follow our breathing for a while, naturally our in-breath becomes slower, deeper, and our out-breath also becomes slower, more relaxed.

This is our practice. Just as when we want to play the guitar, we have to practice every day, or if we want to learn to play tennis, we have to practice to be a good tennis player, we also have to practice our breathing. After one hour of practice we already feel better. Then slowly we’ll be able to sit still like the Buddha, and be worthy to be his disciples.

Perhaps for a long time we have been going to the temple only to do offerings. But that’s not enough. We have to learn the teachings of the Buddha, the practices that the Buddha wanted to transmit to us.

Breathing for Our Mothers and Fathers

We practice not to be happy in the future; we practice to be happy right in the present moment. When we’re sitting, we should have happiness as we are sitting. When we are walking, we should have happiness as we are walking. We sit with our breath so that the body can be calm and the mind can be calm; that is called sitting meditation. When we know how to walk, to take steps in lightness and gentleness, that’s called walking meditation.

In practice centers that practice in the Plum Village tradition, we walk peacefully as if we were walking in the Buddha Land. We do not talk as we are walking. If we need to say something, we stop to say it, and then we continue walking. If you visit Plum Village or Deer Park or Green Mountain or Prajna or Tu Hieu, you will see that the monks and the nuns in these centers do not talk when they walk. They pay attention to each of their steps, and the steps always follow the breath.

When you come to live with the monks and the nuns, even for just twenty-four hours, you can learn how to walk and sit like the monks and nuns. Peace and happiness radiate as we are sitting, as we are walking. When we practice correctly, there’s peace and happiness today; we don’t have to wait until tomorrow. Lay practitioners who attend our retreats learn to breathe, to sit, and how to pay attention to their steps right in the first hour of orientation.

While we are here in Vietnam we will also offer these teachings during the monastic retreats and retreats for lay friends. So everybody will learn about sitting meditation, walking meditation, breathing meditation.

“In, out, deep, slow. Calm, ease, smile, release.” That’s the fourth exercise: “Smile, release.”

Breathing in, I feel calm, I feel such a sense of well-being. Breathing out, I feel light. This is what we call the element of ease — one of the seven factors of enlightenment. When we practice through the third exercise we feel calm and ease. When we breathe like that it’s not just for us, but we are continuing the career of the Buddha. We are breathing for our fathers, our mothers in us. When we practice like that it’s so joyful.

I often write these statements so that the young monks and nuns can send home a calligraphy as gifts to their parents. “I am taking each step in freedom for you, Father.” “I am breathing gently, peacefully for you, Mother.” When we practice like that we practice for our whole family, for our own ancestral lines, and for our whole country, not just for ourselves alone.

The Healing Power of Total Relaxation

We accumulate so much stress! This can bring a lot of illnesses if we do not know how to practice total relaxation. That is why the Buddha taught us: breathing in, I relax my whole body; breathing out, I smile to my whole body.

In Plum Village we have the Dharma practice called “total relaxation.” We can do total relaxation as we are sitting or as we are lying down. I ask you to learn this practice. If you practice total relaxation each day for about twenty minutes, you can avoid a lot of illnesses. If you hold in too much tension and stress in your body or your mind, it can generate illnesses in the future, such as high blood pressure, cardiac diseases, or stroke.

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If we can practice as a family each day, with a time allotted so that the parents, the children, can lie down and practice, that is a very civilized family. In Plum Village we have produced CDs that can help people to practice total relaxation, available in English, French, Vietnamese, and German. At first when we don’t know how to lead total relaxation, we can listen to the CD and the whole family can practice. After a while we can take turns leading total relaxation for our family.

In the West there are hospitals that apply these breathing exercises to save patients when there are no other ways to help them. In an article in the Plum Village magazine, Brother Phap Lieu [a former physician] wrote about a doctor who learned about the sutra and the practices of Plum Village and then applied what he learned to help his patients.

Peace and Freedom in Each Step 

There are people in the West who are from the Christian tradition yet they know how to take advantage of Buddhist wisdom to help themselves. We call ourselves a Buddhist country, but many of us only know how to worship and make offerings. We do not yet know how to apply the very effective teachings transmitted to us by the Buddha through the sutras such as The Four Establishments of Mindfulness or Mindfulness of Breathing.

We have this temple — Phap Van (Dharma Cloud) — as well as Prajna, Tu Hieu, An Quang, and other temples. We can go to these temples to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha. We learn about breathing meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, total relaxation meditation, so that we can apply them into our daily lives.

At the retreat for businesspeople in Ho Chi Minh City, they will also learn breathing meditation, sitting meditation, and walking meditation. We have organized a retreat like that for congressmen and –women in the United States. Presently in Washington D.C. there are congress people who know how to do walking meditation, how to coordinate their breath and their steps. A congressman wrote a letter to me, and he said, “Dear Thay, from my room to the voting chamber I always do walking meditation. I come back to my breath and my steps on my way to this place. My relationship with the voting process and with my co-workers has improved so much because I know how to apply walking meditation practice.”

We have also organized retreats to teach these practices to police officers in the United States. Imagine all these big police officers who now take steps in peace, in gentleness. Do you know that in the United States there are more police officers who commit suicide than are shot by criminals? They witness so much suffering and they cause so much suffering to themselves and to their families; they feel they had no way out. That’s why a retreat like ours benefited them so much and they suffer much less.

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In prisons there are those who know how to organize sitting meditation. Last month an American prisoner wrote to me, “Dear Thay, even though I am in prison, I’m very happy, and I see that sometimes being in prison is good for me. This is an advantageous condition for me to do a lot of sitting and walking meditation. If I were outside right now, maybe I would never have learned this practice. I am not a monastic, but I see that I am living in prison and I live according to the mindful manners and precepts in the book Stepping Into Freedom. Stepping Into Freedom is a revision of the book written for the monastics; it contains the essential practices for the novices.

Over the centuries when people have been in deep despair and have come in touch with the wonderful teachings of the Buddha, they have been able to transform their lives. We are children of the Buddha — for many generations. Buddhism has been in our country for over two thousand years. If we have not learned these basic practices of meditation, it is a shame.

That is why I very much hope that those of you who are present today are determined to learn these basic practices. We have to be able to sit still. We have to know how to breathe in such a way that we feel comfortable, peaceful, and we need to know how to walk so that there is peace and freedom in each step. We’re not doing this for ourselves only, but for our fathers, for our mothers, for our children, and for our country.

In the Anapanasati Sutra on mindfulness of breathing, the Buddha taught us to use the mindfulness of our breathing to heal our body and our mind. When there is relaxation in the body, our body has the capacity to heal itself and medication becomes secondary. When stress is so great, we can take a lot of medication, but it’s very difficult to heal. So while we’re taking medication, the most important thing is to relax the body. When the nurse is about to give us an injection we tense our body because we are afraid there’ll be pain. When we tense up the muscles like that, if she gives an injection it will be very painful. So she says, “Now take a deep breath!” And when we’re breathing out and we’re thinking of the out-breath, then she sticks the needle into our arm.

While we’re driving, while we are cooking, while we are sweeping the floor of the house, while we are using the computer, we can also practice total relaxation. Do not think that the monks and the nuns do not work a lot. They also work a lot, but they while we’re driving, while we are cooking, while we are sweeping the floor of the house, while we are using the computer, we can also practice total relaxation. Do not think that the monks and the nuns do not work a lot. They also work a lot, but they practice to work in a spirit of relaxation. That is why they’re able to maintain their freshness, their smile, their happiness. We can do the same as the monastics.

The Secret of Zen

After we bring our mind back to take care of the body, we can bring our mind back to take care of the mind. In our mind there’s suffering, fear, worry, irritation, anger. Often we want to suppress these feelings but each day the tension and stress grow greater and greater. Eventually they cause us illnesses of the body and mind. The Buddha teaches us to bring the mind back to the body to take care of the body and to bring the mind back to take care of the mind.

Among the sixteen exercises of breathing, there is one exercise that aims to relax negative mental formations, such as anger and worry. Breathing in, I am aware that there’s irritation in me. Breathing out, I smile to my irritation. Breathing in, I am aware that there are worries in me. Breathing out, I take care of my worries. Our irritation or worries are like our baby. We use our breathing to generate the energy of mindfulness in order to embrace our worries and our fear.

Right mindfulness means we know what’s going on. For example, I am breathing in, and I know that I am breathing in. That is right mindfulness of the breath. When we take a step and we know that we are taking the step, that is right mindfulness of the step. When we drink a cup of coconut juice, in that moment we have mindfulness of drinking. We bring the mind back to the body so that it’s present as we are sitting, standing, lying down, putting on our robe, taking off our robe, brushing our teeth. Our mind is always present. That is the secret of Zen.

When the body and mind are relaxed, we have the capacity to listen to the other person and to speak gentle words. Then we can re-establish communication between us. The other person may be our spouse, our partner, our daughter or our son, our friend, or our parents. That practice is deep listening and loving speech. If there is no peace in the body and the mind, we cannot practice loving speech and deep listening. When we are able to practice deep listening and loving speech, we can help the other person to suffer less. Joy can be re-established in the family.

I’d like to inform you that Western practitioners, after just five days of practice, can reconcile with their families, with their parents. If they practice, they invest a hundred percent into their practice because they want to succeed and not practice just for form.

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Children of the Buddha

We organize retreats for Westerners to practice with Vietnamese. In these retreats the Vietnamese see the Western practitioners practicing diligently and correctly.

We have been children of the Buddha for two thousand years. We cannot do worse than Westerners. We can do just as well or even better. We have to have deep faith in the teachings and practices of the Buddha. Buddhism is not a devotional religion, it is a treasure of great wisdom.

It’s just like a jackfruit. The devotional part is only the shell outside. When you cut it open and go deeply into it there are parts that are very sweet, very fragrant and soft. Many of us have been practicing just on the outside of the jackfruit, but when we go into it we can enjoy it very deeply. We need to learn — not in order to accumulate Buddhist knowledge, but so that we can apply it in our daily lives.

First of all, we learn to practice in such a way that we can sit still and relax our body and mind. We learn so that we can listen deeply and speak lovingly. Perhaps in only one or two weeks we can change our whole lives. We can bring happiness into our family. Many people have been able to do it. If we want to we can also do that.

This is the first dharma talk. I don’t want to speak very long, so I will leave a little time so that you can ask questions.

Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment 

Woman from audience: First of all I would like to wish Thay and the monks and nuns good health so that you can continue to transmit the teachings to us and to future generations. When we practice we can come back to the present moment and dwell happily and peacefully in the present moment, and in order to do that we have to bring together the three factors of body, mind, and breath. But what if one of these three factors, for example, my foot, has a problem and I cannot keep it still. So then would my practice yield peace or ease?

Thay: Very good! [audience applause] First of all, do not wait until you have pain in your foot, then say, “I cannot practice!” Practice when you don’t have pain in your foot. When there’s pain in the leg, first of all we take care, we try to find treatment for the leg and at the same time we find a way to sit so that there’s comfort. There are people who have problems. Instead of using one cushion, they use two cushions. Instead of sitting in a lotus position they sit in a half-lotus, or they sit on a stool or in a chair. People may sit in a chair but they can still bring their mind back to their body.

As for the breath, for example, it may be very difficult when we have asthma. So we should practice when we are not having an asthma attack, and then when we have an asthma attack we can still practice with that.

Do not use the excuse that I have this particular difficulty with my body or my mind or my breath. There are people who are victims of vehicle accidents, who were artists and now they cannot draw with their hands, so they use their feet to draw — beautiful paintings. So if we have a little pain in our feet or we have difficulties with our breath, we can still practice. We don’t use that excuse to be too lax in the practice.

Invoking the Buddha’s Name 

Man from audience: When we use the breath to invoke the name of Amitaba Buddha, breathing in, we say “Namo” [“praise”]; breathing out we say, “Amitaba Buddha.” “Namo, Amitaba Buddha.” This is the Buddha of the Pure Land, and so when you teach us, “Breathing in, I feel calm, breathing out, I feel ease,” I can say it’s somewhat equivalent to my practice. Slowly it brings me to this concentration of the breath at a higher level. When there’s concentration on the breath and on invocation of the Buddha, it can help heal us. So I would like to share that with you, and I would like to express my gratitude of your teaching today.

Thay: Very good. We can combine the practice of invoking the name of Amitaba Buddha with the practice of breathing meditation. But tonight we talk about the sutra Anapanasati, Mindfulness of Breathing, which was taught by the Buddha himself. We can use this original sutra in all different Buddhist traditions, whether Pure Land or Zen or other traditions. We did not say that this is the only method of practice, because there are many other practices. We just brought up a few exercises that the Buddha suggested to us. It does not mean that we do not affirm or recognize other practices.

mb45-dharma6Whatever Dharma practices bring us to relaxation, freedom, and peace of body, they are all best practices. We don’t want to waste time saying that this practice is better than other practices.

Some people feel comfortable with certain practices; other people may not feel that they succeed in a practice, so they try another practice. Whatever practice we do, we want to reach the fruits of that practice — freshness, happiness, calmness. There is peace and happiness right away, and we don’t have to wait until three, four months later or three, four years later to taste that fruit. It’s the same way in the practice of invoking the name of the Buddha. We invoke the name of the Buddha in such a way that there is peace and happiness right in the moment while invoking the name. If we feel fear or anxiety, it is not in the spirit of the teachings of the Buddha. So that’s what it means, dwelling peacefully and happily in the present moment.

Being in Touch with the Departed

Man in audience: In a magazine they said that today Thay would give a Dharma talk about being with my loved one, and how to practice to bring peace to myself. When you gave the Dharma talk tonight, you said that when you are able to be in touch with your breath, you have peace and happiness. Do you mean that when we have peace and happiness, we can be in touch with our loved ones who are dead?

Thay: We will go slowly, step by step. There are many different topics. We will have the three ceremonies to pray for the people who passed away during the Vietnam war, and we can pose the question: “My loved ones have died in the war. How can I bring them peace? How can I help them to be liberated?” These topics need a lot of time to understand because they are very deep.

Just like any scientific field, Buddhism needs to take steps. When we cannot take the first step and the second step, it’s very difficult for us to take further steps. That is why we should not hurry too much or be pulled away by the theoretical realm. We need to grasp the basic practices first.

When we have enough peace in the body and the mind, we have the capacity to listen. Then we can take care of more difficult situations. In us there are certain preconceptions that we have accumulated from the past. When we listen to something new, we have a tendency to fight against it. Maybe there’s this structure inside us when we first listen to a teaching. That is why the Buddha taught us how to break through these views, whatever we learned yesterday. If we cannot let go of what we studied in the past, we cannot go on to the next step. If you don’t let go of the fifth step, you cannot take the sixth step. If you want to go to the seventh step, you have to let go of the sixth step.

In this past century many scientists have found that Buddhism is very inspiring. Einstein said that Buddhism is the only religion that can go in tandem with science. That is the spirit of breaking through knowledge, through views that we have accumulated from the past.

‘To Sit in the Wind of Spring’

We should end the dharma talk now. We will see each other tomorrow. This morning our delegation had a chance to visit An Quang Temple. We offered to the abbot of An Quang a calligraphy that said, “To sit in the wind of the spring.”

I explained to the abbot that in the old teaching, when the brothers and sisters sit together in this love on the path, when the teacher and the students sit together and exchange their experiences in the practice and teach each other and support each other, there is this happiness as if we were sitting in the spring. We benefit from the wind of the spring that is like a nourishing breeze. So that’s why this morning I wrote the calligraphy, “To sit in the wind of the spring.”

I have a feeling that tonight as the teacher and students sit here together, we also sit in the wind of the spring. We have the good fortune to meet each other to exchange our knowledge and experiences. This is a great happiness that I would like all of us to be aware of.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem;
transcribed by Greg Sever;
edited by Janelle Combelic
with help from Barbara Casey
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

mb45-LetterFromEditor1Dear Thây, dear Sangha,

The Buddha taught the nature of interbeing. In our own time scientists have discovered the non-local nature of elementary particles. We feel in our daily lives that one nation is deeply connected to all nations of the world — we call this globalization. As Thay travels the world we feel the appropriateness of this way of teaching.

Thay goes to Vietnam and whether we stay behind in the U.S. or buy an air ticket to join the Plum Village delegation in Vietnam, we share in the karma of Thay and Vietnam.

The Grand Offering Ceremonies Bringing Relief without Discrimination from Past Injustice taking place in Vietnam during Thay’s visit are certainly very grand and powerful. Here at home we can set up our own little altar and gather as a family or sangha to read the Five Mindfulness Trainings for the souls of those who laid down their lives willingly and unwillingly during, or as a result of, the war in Vietnam four decades ago. The souls find relief in our own home although it may be far from Vietnam because they are non-local and our commitment to practice sila, the mindfulness trainings, is strengthened. As we gather before the altar our compassion is aroused for beings who are visible or invisible, already born or yet to be born, alive or departed. Here in the U.S. we have our role to play in practicing the mindfulness trainings, so that the tremendous inequity that lies between developing countries like Vietnam and over-developed countries can be redressed.

Still, in developing countries material development is already damaging the spiritual and moral dimension of life as it has done in the overdeveloped countries. With the destruction of this dimension the family breaks up because communication breaks down. Sila no longer has its place. The three spiritual powers — putting an end to the mental poisons, understanding, and love — give way to worldly and material power. Globally we need a practice of redeeming the three spiritual powers; this is what Thay is teaching in Vietnam and teaching the whole world.

We are praying that in August we shall have enough good merit to receive Thay in the U.S. so that Thay can encourage us and show us how to develop the spiritual and moral dimensions and powers in our own lives.

On a local level the Maple Forest Monastery of Vermont will move to the Blue Cliff Monastery of New York at the beginning of May. We hope to see you there in a spacious, beautiful, and comfortable setting at our opening (June 2), Wesak (June 3), OI Retreat (June 29, if you are an ordained OI member), or at our Summer Opening (July 6-20, for anyone who cares to come). Thay has given us the name Blue Cliff, so that we can work on the koan of our life: the koan that has practical meaning in terms of our everyday suffering and obstacles. (The Blue Cliff Monastery in China is the monastery where the most famous record of koans was compiled in the 12th century.)

May the monks and nuns of Maple Forest take this opportunity to thank all of you who are so generously supporting the purchase of this monastery with your material and spiritual support.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Letters

Thank you so much for sending me the Winter/Spring 2007 issue of the Bell, which had my poem “No Windows” inside.

I’m in a very difficult state because my mother passed away from cancer on March 3rd. I was devastated and in shock. My mother recently had major surgery to remove the cancer from her spine, and we all thought that she was doing fine. Well, that was not the case. The cancer came back and spread very rapidly.

I am utterly devastated! The pain of her passing was so intense that I’m surprised to still be here. She was my biggest supporter and a solid friend. She was silent whenever I did bad things, but was quick to applaud my good actions. And most of all, my mother was so patient. She had uncanny patience and suffered the wounds of life in calm silence.

That evening [after I got the sad news] I received in the mail a postcard from Editor Janelle Combelic in which she encouraged me to keep writing. Well, that little postcard really meant a lot to me because I really felt like dying, just giving up.

My mother’s passing from cancer has awakened me spiritually. I can see life, its depth and meaning, so clearly now. Life is sacred, all life, and know that I’ll never harm another person or living thing ever again. This world is so deceptive and most of us take so much for granted: our families, our bodies and intellect, the air and vegetation — all existence! Hearing that my beautiful mother had died caused me to be “convicted” in the court of life. I saw how selfish I’ve been all these years. How inconsiderate and insensitive to the sanctity of others. I grieved on my prison bunk and saw how special it is to be a human being and the responsibility it entails. Yes, we should smile and laugh, but life is not a meaningless game. It is dear, to be cherished.

The most difficult thing for me to deal with is all the pain and worry I caused my mother. I silently blamed her for when I was hit by a car when I was five years old, which left me with a permanent facial disfigurement. I never verbally told her that I did, but mothers just know, and I think that what happened to me also weighed heavily upon her heart. I would give anything in the world right now to be able to put my arms around her and to tell her: “Mom, what happened to me was not your fault, and I was so wrong to lay the blame at your feet. I love you so much, Mom!”

I hope that she is free from all suffering and pain. And I believe that she is!

I am so grateful to the Mindfulness Bell, and yes I’ll continue to write and send my poetry. I read every word and I love the pictures! Thank you!

I send you peace and love.

Malachi Ephraim
Arizona State Prison
Florence, Arizona, U.S.A.

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I was wandering my way through the river of life that is the world wide web on a journey of serenity when I found the uniqueness and personal liberation that is your site and magazine. I enjoyed your creative and supportive environment. Your pages are a gateway to the self that allow the viewer to experience your genuine heart and indelible presence.

There is an honesty and truth that radiates throughout your pages. I found everything interesting and appealing and I celebrate your journey. I enjoy absorbing the environments I explore and after exploring yours I am enriched by its imagination and creation. I wish you the healing power of mindfulness and a realm of infinite possibilities where your spirit can roam freely.

Micheal Teal
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

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Words from the Sanghas

“Generosity is contagious,” writes Susan Hadler in response to Leonardo’s message, below. The sangha liaison project that she helped initiate last fall continues to grow and bear surprising fruit. If your sangha doesn’t have someone serving as liaison to the Mindfulness Bell, please contact Susan at wondc@aol.com. Here are a couple messages she received recently.

I’d like to thank you again. I’m doing what I promised. I’m talking about the magazine, sending texts  translated into Portuguese to 200 people every week and encouraging them to subscribe to the magazine. It was a precious gift and I decide I’ll do the same. I’ll choose some people of our Sangha and give them a one-year subscription to help them the way you did to me. The magazine it is a refuge to me where I can be in touch with all Thay’s students worldwide. It gives me strength to deepen my practice.

Leonardo Dobbin
(True Peace of the Heart)
Verdadeira Paz do Coracao
Brazil

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Just to let you know that Singing Bird Sangha is alive and well in Tucson, AZ. We are currently taking time each week to focus on the study of sangha and, as part of that, to include the articles from the Mindfulness Bell. On Sunday, March 11th, we will spend our entire study time inviting individuals to relate to the larger group something from an issue that has caught their attention. Following that I am hoping to encourage our members to contribute photos, poems,or articles about practice and about how sangha particularly has shaped their lives. With this in mind it would help if I could include upcoming submission dates.

Barbara Rose Gaynor
Resourceful Calm of the Heart
Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.

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Editor’s reply: We read submissions all the time and try to get back to writers quickly.  Deadlines for our three issues per year are July 1, November 1, and March 1. We’re especially looking for submissions to the Heart to Heart section — 500 words on the Third Mindfulness Training (July 1) or the Fourth (November 1). We also need essays and photos from the Vietnam trip — or anything else that moves you and deepens your practice. Send to editor@ mindfulnessbell.org. Thanks for writing!

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We love to receive your letters! We enjoy compliments and we benefit from constructive suggestions. Please e-mail editor@ mindfulnessbell.org or write to Mindfulness Bell, c/o David Percival, 745 Cagua S.E., Albuquerque NM 87108, U.S.A.

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Healing in Vietnam

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In early 2007 Thich Nhat Hanh led a ninety-day pilgrimage to Vietnam. Fifty monks and nuns from the monasteries in the U.S. and France accompanied him, along with a hundred lay Westerners, in each of four three-week segments. On this second historic visit to his homeland, Thay was also accompanied by Vietnamese monks and nuns numbering in the hundreds, from the three monasteries in Vietnam that practice in the tradition of Plum Village.

As of this writing, Thay has offered two Great Ceremonies of Healing, also called Grand Requiem Masses, for the souls of those who perished during the Vietnam War. Never before has Vietnam seen such ceremonies. In the first ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City, as many as ten thousand people participated.

Here are writings and photos from two lay participants. David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, recently retired after eighteen years working in public health on Indian reservations in the southwestern U.S. He now practices with the Organic Garden and Ripening Sanghas in southern California. Madeline Dangerfield-Cha from Cleveland, Ohio, will enter Columbia University next fall; she has four half-brothers and one half-sister under the age of seven. Look for more about this historic trip in the next issue of the Mindfulness Bell, and view additional photos by David Nelson at www.flickr.com/photos/rezdog/. Hear Dharma talks and interviews from the Vietnam trip at www.dpcast.org.

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Arrival Day in Ho Chi Minh City

At the Quang Duc Temple, there was a great welcoming ceremony for Thay and the sangha. After a long formal procession, Touching the Earth was offered to the temple’s venerables for a long life to the patriarch that may continue to benefit many. The most venerable offered warm greetings and wishes for a successful trip. Next we took buses to An Quang temple. Thay shared that at this temple he became a Dharma teacher, giving hundreds of Dharma talks in that hall. Afterwards our procession slowly passed by smiling and bowing crowds and made its way to a most delicious Vietnamese feast. We dined to the sounds of up-beat popular music. That night at Phap Van, Thay gave his first talk of the trip. We in the lay sangha were fortunate to witness the talk from directly behind Thay, and to see the faces in the audience. Thay encouraged us to practice coming back to our breath as taught by the Buddha in the Anapanasati Sutra on mindful breathing. [Read part of this Dharma talk on page 4.]

—David Nelson

All photos in this section by David Nelson and Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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Thousands on a Few Green Acres

The five-day lay retreat at Prajna Temple near Bao Loc was a wonderful gift. I hardly expected such intense practice! And so many people! Upwards of seven thousand Vietnamese retreatants came. You’d think it would be chaos, thousands of people on a few green acres. How on earth could seven thousand people remain meditative and quiet for five days in 90-degree heat? But these people are truly devoted: three thousand could cram into the meditation hall for Thay’s Dharma talks, the rest sprawling on the steps and lawn outside. Thay was so inspiring, so down to earth.

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For Dharma discussion, I was lucky enough to be included in a bilingual, multi-cultural, youth exchange extravaganza! A large group of monks, nuns, Vietnamese, and young Westerners, we discussed our experiences and challenges. The Vietnamese young people were slow to share, really hesitant, since “sharing,” they explained, is not a part of their culture. Yet after just a few minutes on the first day they began to share their suffering so we could join their journey. We played high energy games and goofy challenges. Everyone could shout and laugh, Vietnamese or English!

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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Jungle School Adventure

Ha! I can’t even begin to describe the joy from yesterday’s adventure! The plan for the day was to visit schools in the central highlands around Bao Loc. Plum Village funds the construction, staff, and supplies of over a thousand schools in the whole of Vietnam, a million-dollar charity organization. Yesterday, we visited nine of them, real schools with real kids and real teachers. Just single room, no-frills buildings. Some have desks, some have chalkboards. No books, no toys. But they’re clean, and they’re built! The kids get one well-rounded, nutritious meal per day. Our first stop was a tribal village where most of the inhabitants spoke the local dialect. I played tag with more than forty six- and seven-year-olds. I felt like I was playing with my little brothers. You should have seen their smiles!

But the real adventure began in the jungle. No more plumbing, no more pavement, no more cars of any kind. A nun turned to me and said, “You know, this road gets completely unpassable when it rains. Turns into nothing but mud. The tires can’t move at all. Hey, look it’s raining in the distance!” It did rain cats and dogs — torrential, tropical, southeast-Asian rain, for thirty-five minutes. We were completely frozen, stuck in a muddy river the whole time, twelve of us tucked in our little monastic van. We passed around boiled peanuts and rice cakes and purified water. It was a beautiful storm, like a fever breaking, as the heat and humidity dropped.

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As soon as the rain slowed, Sister Chan Khong (the one and only! this woman has lived!) said “Alright, let’s go. The kids are waiting for us!” Our poor driver got us as far as he could, which was about a kilometer down the road. We left the other two vans behind. Sister said, “Can’t drive any further. We walk!” and jumped out of the van. The sky had cleared by this time, and all the dusty vegetation had been rinsed clean and was glowing with color. Muddy red earth, big gray sky.

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The walk was long and sticky. I almost lost a shoe at one point, so ended up barefoot in red mud — cool and fresh. Local kids in blue and red uniforms whizzed by us on motorbikes. A man on a motorbike stopped by, asking us if we needed a hand. Sister Chan Khong was all about it! This seventy-year old Vietnamese rock star just tucked up her robes and was off.

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The rest of us walked up and down muddy hills through the brush. Coffee plants taller than men. Little kids joining us, then peeling off on tiny paths, presumably to their homes hidden among the plantlife and mist.

At the school, since we couldn’t bring the gifts, a few people offered crackers. Someone had a brick of cheese. We dumped what we had into a cone hat and passed it around to the children, who ate with joy. In one of the poorest areas that Plum Village supports, these people are happy, functioning. They don’t need plumbing or cars in order to live.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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Powerful and Jubilant Alms Round

In Bao Loc today, the alms round led by Thay in a black Highlander — the Buddha-mobile — was powerful, jubilant! Two thousand monks and nuns passed through streets mobbed by old women, children, and families offering toothpaste, medicine, sweet treats, yogurt, fruit, and the traditional boiled rice wrapped in a banana leaf with sesame salt. The Western lay delegation stood on the sidelines with Vietnamese locals; we helped collect the unbelievable excess of food, stuffing it into army sacks for later donations.

Playing with small children, we had our pictures taken by the locals, who love taking photos of us. My friends Brant and Ray are both six feet four inches — giants here in Asia. People run up to them and measure themselves, waving their hands over their heads and matching them up with the middle of Brant’s forearm. It’s hilarious.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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The First Great Requiem Ceremony

Thich Nhat Hanh declares during his Dharma talk at Vinh Nghiem Temple on this second day of ceremony that we will continue to open the throats of hungry ghosts. Along with powerful chants led by a chant master specializing in inviting spirits, the souls of those who died during the war, whether as heroes, in prison, of sickness, on land or sea, will be purified by the compassion and energy of the Dharma.

Day two begins with chants from the discourse on love, to detach the souls from the bodies. Everyone is requested to bring themselves wholeheartedly into the chants and not disturb the energy by moving around and taking pictures. First there is the Beginning Anew gatha of forgiveness, lightness and freedom. From the depths of understanding, with great emotion and steadfastness, the chants roar and pulsate throughout this huge temple. In the afternoon there is chanting to invoke the presence of the Medicine King, a previous incarnation of the Buddha. Led by the chant master, local traditional chants flow like a mighty river of heart-felt sound, non-stop for nearly two hours, echoing inside and outside among thousands in the courtyard. So many thousands of voices giving energy to the healing! Thay declares that as Beginning Anew transforms our hearts and those of the loved ones departed, the nightmare of the Vietnam War is over. The squash and the pumpkin co-exist peacefully on the same vine.

In the evening we in the lay sangha are amazed to become part of the lotus lamp ceremony. The procession line forms, with colorful umbrellas, flags, and other ceremonial poles. I stand near the beginning with my palms together to show respect to the monastics as they file by. As Thay arrives, looking over at me, he smiles. Raising his hand, he waves, wiggling his fingers in a cute gesture. I return the wave and smile. As our lay sangha follows, filing through a narrow opening, we pass shrines and a wishing well altar. The people offer us lotus bows and big smiles.

This evening is lit with spotlights, colored lanterns, the booming sounds of a big drum, cymbals, and bells, accompanying chants from the monastics and crowd. After a half-hour of waiting, our line is ushered quickly past attendants who offer us hand-made paper lotuses containing candles. Circling the temple, we glow, a beautiful candle-lit lane awaiting the chant master. More monastics, an entourage of musicians and traditionally dressed young women pass, smiling. We follow them to the Saigon River behind the temple, passing by big, bowing crowds. We place our glowing lotuses into the river where they float like beacons to light the souls lost in darkness — that they may join us during this transformative healing and reconciliation ceremony.

The dead have been invited to the temple to begin anew with us. On day three Thay states that this is the largest such ceremony ever in Vietnam — an action of love to bring individuals, families, and the nation into harmony and peace. We join in untying knots of injustice for all beings. Thay offers prayers for those who lost their precious bodies, that through our consciouness, they might be healed. Thay helps the audience understand how to walk and breathe as he does, with the energy of lightness and freedom.

Sister Chan Khong sings a song of Beginning Anew, teaching it to the audience. With tears in their eyes, they sing along. Greed, anger, passion, and ignorance are offered a chance to transform. People comfort one another. A large indoor screen projects the crowd’s faces of regret, forgiveness, and hope. Thay tells us that even the Communist party has admitted their mistakes of taking land and killing so many, although they refer to it as a correction rather than Beginning Anew. Everyone learns that once the mind is purified there is no trace of past unskillfulness, no guilt, no sin. Sitting in the spring breeze, teacher and students are happy as a family.

—David Nelson

Thank God for Thich Nhat Hanh’

Hue is the closest city to the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which remains the most heavily bombed piece of earth on this planet. Slowly, I’m formulating a sense of the real devastation of this war and all wars. Agent Orange is still wreaking havoc. Even today, babies are born with terrible deformities due to exposure. Many older Agent Orange victims beg here on the streets of Hue and in the temples where we go to practice. The suffering, I see, is enormous, continuous.

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The response that keeps re-surfacing is “Thank God for Thich Nhat Hanh” — a leader, a visionary. He’s fighting the bureaucracy with peace and love and compassion and understanding. Without resentment or cynicism or demand. He is fighting and he will win. It may take many more generations, but his message is true. Love all beings. Prevent all possible suffering. Act with compassion. Do not kill. Do not discriminate. The Communist officials here breathe down his neck. For thirty years, they repressed him and killed his supporters. Yet he is here, now, and he will not stop fighting with love and grace and dedication.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

Coming Home to Hue

When we arrived at Tu Hieu, Thay was just finishing an impromptu tour of the grounds, explaining his activities as a young novice. Walking through the front gate, he motioned to the left-most of three stone arches and recounted the details of his first entrance when he was only 16 years old. His older brother was already a novice, and had brought Thay to study with him. His brother instructed Thay to walk through the arch in full awareness of every step and of every breath, invoking the name of the Buddha. Right, I am breathing in. Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya. Left, I am breathing out. Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya. Those, he said, were his first steps on the path of mindfulness. He invited each of us to do as he had done.

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Sitting together on the shady grass, monastics and international lay friends, we are all smiling as a great family. Thay is cupping a flower in his left hand, which he brings up to his face every so often, breathing in with great joy. He motions to a young monk, maybe ten or eleven years old, to sit close to him, extending the flower to the boy, sharing its beautiful fragrance. The young novice is nervous and smiling, his legs curled beneath him, his back upright and erect. Thay puts an arm around his shoulders, and invites another young monastic to share a song. Many have been singing traditional folk songs or older Buddhist chants. This young monk sings a popular Vietnamese love song. His voice is warbling and full of laughter. His Vietnamese brothers and sisters laugh through the whole song. Our teacher is bright with joy and humor.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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Explaining the Reasons for the Grand Offering Ceremonies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Preparations for these ceremonies were being made at least three months before Thay left for Vietnam. The full text of this letter is available on the Plum Village website in Vietnamese; it gives specific instructions as well on how to set up the altar. I imagine it was down-loaded and widely distributed in Vietnam. –Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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During the war, our country had to bear the pain of thirteen million tons of bombs and seventy-two million liters of toxic chemicals. So many of our compatriots have died because of the war. So many living beings — humans, birds, wild animals, vegetation, earth, and rocks — have been wounded, crippled, or devastated by these bombs and poisonous chemicals. At present, the number of unexploded bombs and grenades lying on the earth is still more than three hundred thousand and on average once a week someone will lose his or her life or be crippled by stepping on one of them. The number of warriors killed or wounded in action on both sides numbered one million two hundred fifty thousand.

The huge amounts of weapons used by both sides to kill each other were wholly provided by countries outside of Vietnam. The number of compatriots killed and wounded in North and South Vietnam is more than four million. The number of killed and wounded by bombs and weapons in the war has risen to five and a half million. Not only foreigners slaughtered, tortured, removed and constrained us by force, we ourselves were pushed into opposing and hating each other so that we also tortured, slaughtered, eliminated, constrained each other by force. The battlefields of Vietnam in the last war were the bloodiest Vietnam has ever known. Millions became boat people. Nearly half a million compatriots lost their lives escaping from Vietnam by boat. Thousands died because they wasted away while unjustly held in prison camps. Our land and our people bore the burden of so many wounds and injustices, which we have not yet had the chance to talk about.

Any victims of war are our ill-fated compatriots. Together with one mind we shall pray for all those who have died, in the Buddhist spirit of inclusiveness and non-discrimination. According to the teachings of the Buddha and according to the principles of psychotherapy if we keep holding down our wounds and pain in the unconscious we shall not have an opportunity to heal the wounds in our heart. To bring this pain up into our conscious mind, to recognize it, to embrace it with compassion, to pray, and to accept is an essential practice. This is the practice of the Grand Offering Ceremony to undo past injustice. This ceremony is realized in a spirit of brotherhood, when hatred is put aside, resentment, blaming and assigning guilt are absent, where we accept and forgive each other. This is what is meant by the Pure Nectar of Compassion, a wonderful teaching of the Buddha.

All our compatriots, whether old, young or middle-aged, love our country and our people. Everyone aspires to strive for independence, freedom, unity, and peace in our country. However, when our country found itself in a difficult situation many of us had to oppose each other and become the victims of a cruel and long-lasting struggle. Many of us have had to go through sad situations of enormous tragedy and maltreatment, feelings of injustice that we had never known before.

Now our country has been unified, is at peace, and has been rebuilt. It is our chance to come back together, hold each other’s hands, accept each other so that together we can pray for each other, whether the object of our prayer has died or is still alive and continues to bear the burden of cruel injustice. Together we shall have a chance to heal the wounds that are still bleeding and have been bleeding for a long time. The reason we dared to undertake this task for the Buddha is because we have seen these wounds. Respectfully we request the Upadhyaya, the Venerable elders, all our compatriots, and the Buddhists in our country and abroad, along with politicians of all persuasions, to understand this matter deeply and to give wholehearted spiritual support so that this task for the Buddha can be realized.

Translated from the Vietnamese by Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Still Mind, Peaceful Heart Retreat

mb45-Still1From August 13 to 18, 2006, over eighty lay people from all over North America attended the first large retreat outside a monastery in which our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was not physically present. Eighteen monks and nuns from Deer Park, Green Mountain, and Maple Forest monasteries came to the beautiful YMCA conference center in Estes Park, Colorado. Situated on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, the location is magnificent and a favorite for Thay and the monastics.

The monastic contingent was led by the incomparable Thay Phap Dung, abbot of Deer Park. Happy to be reunited with distant brothers and sisters, the monastics manifested a bubbling happiness that spread to all the retreatants. Their playful joy did not dampen the depth of their wisdom, as we experienced during the question and answer session (see page 18).

For the first time the sangha went on a long mindful walk into the high country, led by the intrepid Thay Phap Luu (Brother Stream), taking most of a day to hike, picnic, and even — for the daring ones — dip in a refreshing pool. The tea ceremony on the last evening filled us with laughter and delights, such as the song “YMCA” with surprising new words, written and performed by one of the “families.” (see page 21).

As a gift for Thay, the monks and nuns created a video of the retreat. You may see it at www.deerparkmonastery. org/dharma_talks/video/stillmind_documentary.html.

We can only hope to enjoy many more such retreats in the future.

—Janelle Combelic,
True Lotus Meditation,
Longmont, Colorado

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Dharma Rain in the Rocky Mountains

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The monks and nuns who answered our questions during the panel discussion at the retreat astonished us with their wisdom and enlightened us with their insight. This heavily edited version gives you a taste; we hope to publish more excerpts in future issues.

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Question 1 (from a lay man): How can we practice with the current political situation, in particular America’s role in the world, and how do we judge and understand what we’re being told by the media? How do we maintain optimism and remain agents of change, without feeling confusion and despair?

Question 2 (lay woman): A lot of my family loves the military; they draw their support and livelihood from it. When they tell their war stories, I feel aversion and don’t want to be there, but I love them and want to connect with them in other ways. Do you have suggestions for my practice around this?

Brother Phap Ho — Watering Positive Seeds

When I lived back home in Stockholm, Sweden, I really wanted to make a difference and contribute to a more beautiful world. Problems felt so overwhelming, so big; how can I ever understand? There’s so much suffering everywhere.

We’re all different. We talk about seeds, the different tendencies or qualities we have inside — despair, joy, hope, confidence, being judgmental. Some might have a very strong seed of joy and hope in them, and their seed of despair is not so strong; maybe they can consume a lot of news and still see clearly a path of light and beauty. For some of us when we consume even a little, we are heavy and discouraged.

When suffering arises in me due to causes around me or just inside, I think they’re real. I think it’s something that needs to be solved. I think it’s a matter of life-and-death urgency. And in those moments, I very easily forget that there are things going well, too. The sun is shining on my face. The wind is coming in, a gentle breeze. Sometimes my brothers, they see that I get a bit heavy and they try to make me laugh. Sometimes I feel like, Oh, what are you doing? I’m trying to do something serious, I’m practicing! Don’t distract me! [laughter] Little by little I’m getting better.

We have a wonderful practice of nourishing the positive elements in us. There is the teaching of changing the peg, changing the CD. When we see that our minds go in a way that makes us feel heavy and we keep having irritation against someone, the world, the government or whatever, we can change the CD.

It’s not that I ignore the suffering, it’s not that I ignore the difficulties inside or outside. But I see them in a little bit bigger light. I don’t forget that the sky is there and that the earth is still here. There might be some suffering but still there’s a lot of solidity in you.

We learn from our practice. We stumble a little here and pick ourselves up; it’s a bit like trial and error. We have to know ourselves. Little by little we become more aware, we see more clearly, we know how to deal with difficulties and how to nourish ourselves. But we have to practice.

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Sister Lang Nghiem — A Ghost in a Hammock

When I was about to move from Lower Hamlet to Deep Park — Lower Hamlet is in Plum Village in France, and Deer Park is in California — I wanted to write a letter to my sisters and to express my gratitude for each of them in a concrete way, recollecting a positive experience I had with each of them. This would nourish those seeds in myself and also in my sisters. Everyone got a really good paragraph, and when I got to this sister, absolutely nothing came up! [laughter] I tried. I picked up my pen and said, Okay, Dear Sister — and then I would wait, and nothing came up. But I continued to try, and several days later suddenly I remembered an experience that I’d had with her.

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One night I couldn’t sleep, there was a storm raging in me, so I went out and sat in the hammock. In Lower Hamlet there’s a hammock next to the bookshop in a cluster of trees, and you can overlook the lotus pond and see the plum orchard. That night it was a full moon, and I could see the path like sand around the lotus pond, and the plum orchard, and the shadows of the trees. I sat there for a while and inside the storm was still raging. I was just trying to calm it down.

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Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me and someone asked, “Who is it?” I didn’t want to answer, I was focused on me, and I just sat still, swinging in my hammock. So I guess I was moving in and out of light and darkness, between the shadows from the tree and the moonlight. She asked, “Who is it?” several times. And I didn’t answer. Suddenly I felt pebbles at my feet, I was continuously being pelted with things. I realized what she was thinking and I just started smiling to myself. In Vietnam and in many cultures, ghosts don’t have feet.

I knew she thought I was a ghost or something. At one point I just turned around and stared at her as she continued to throws things at me. Then she came up and she recognized that it was me. “Oh, it’s you.” She sat next to me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I was really closed so I said nothing. So that night she just sat there, and she said she was determined to sit there, too, and I was wishing she’d go away! I kept telling her I was fine but finally it was too much for me so I got up and said, “Okay, we’ll both go to bed.”

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I didn’t think much of that moment, but when I was writing the letter to her I was able to acknowledge that her presence that night helped to change the storm in me. That letter nourished me so much because as soon as I was able to acknowledge some goodness in her, my views completely changed about her. I didn’t look at her the same anymore, and I came to care for her in a way that I had never been able to care for her before.

If you’re having difficulties with someone, sit down and think of something really good that came of that person. It may change your perspective of the situation, the person, or the organization, and the government, too. If we look closely we’ll be able to identify people with wisdom, insight, and compassion, and we can find ways to support them. Even those whom we feel we really disagree with, we can look a little bit more and see that they’re not just that, they’re much more. We can look again to pick out these things, and then we can act from there.

Brother Phap Luu — No Fear, No View

So much of the suffering that we experience in the world, in America today, is because of fear. It comes from a sense of being a victim, a sense that we are not in control, a sense that there are outside forces that somehow have power over us. So the question is, how do we bring the Dharma into this moment, into our lives, so that we generate non-fear in ourselves and in those around us?

If we ask ourselves that question, moment to moment, we’re really asking ourselves, how am I generating non-fear for myself, for my family, for my community? That way we’re no longer prisoners to any government, to our society, to the fear of someone coming and shooting our young son, whatever fear we might have.

Our fears are irrational. We get in cars and drive around every day, and it’s much more likely that we’re going to die in a car accident than we’re ever going to be hijacked in an airplane. Global warming is something to be afraid of — we’re talking about all of our successive generations.

In my practice, when I look at what I’m to do in every moment, I’m careful not to base what I’m doing in a view. I feel this is a lot of why we are ineffective in transforming the way society functions. I was in activist groups before I became a monk, so I have experienced what it means to base your actions on a view. This is clear, these people are killing, they’re destroying the environment, right? Thus, I need to do this.

In his teachings on the Eightfold Path the Buddha said everything is based on right view. If we don’t have right view, how can we talk about right thinking? How can we talk about right concentration? We need to have a clear view.

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Ultimately right view is the absence of any view. It’s only a matter of whether we’re clear or not clear. It’s not a matter of good or bad, of judging, punishing, or even statistics. Those are all just views, ways of looking at the world. Avidya is ignorance; one way you can translate it is the absence of light.

How can we keep this mind clear moment to moment? There’s not fear, because in clarity there’s no birth, there’s no death. It’s just manifestation, and the absence of manifestation.

What we’re doing now, ten thousand years ago it was the same thing. At the time of the Buddha, there was a prince who killed his father and terrorized the countryside. The Buddha didn’t go out and protest. This is what they did at that time. Now we have elections. [laughter]

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When we do walking meditations with Thay, we call it a peace walk, but what’s going on there? I’ve walked with banners, it’s very boring. But when you see Thay walking, it’s really interesting! You’re not quite sure what it is he’s doing. And we’re not quite sure either! We’re walking. No, we’re following our breathing, we’re following our steps. But is this about Iraq?

It’s for a reason that Thay is not saying this or that. What’s happening now, the seeds were planted hundreds of years ago. But if we want to change, we have to have a clear view right now, to affect what’s happening to our children, to successive generations.

Brother Wayne — Connection Beyond Words

I am also from a military family. On my paternal side, all the males have been in the military for at least four generations. All my five uncles were in the Navy or in the Air Force or in the Army. At a very young age I was against war, against the military.

A couple of years ago my grandmother passed away. She was the only remaining parent of my father, and it struck my father very strongly. Although I wasn’t there at the time — I was in China accompanying my teacher — I got some phone calls and my relatives were really concerned over my father. When I got back to America, I called my father, and we had the strangest conversation ever. His mother had just passed away, and he spoke to me about his Navy career. And that’s all he could say. For the first half an hour listening to military stories over the phone, I was kind of scratching my head. I thought, my grandmother, his mother, just passed away, and he’s talking about the Navy.

When we practice deep listening, when we listen from that place of stillness, with our body and not with our brain, we can listen to what is not being said. Underneath I could hear his sense of loss, his confusion, becoming an orphan, and also wanting to make amends in our own relationship, because when I was about a year old my mother and my father separated, and he wasn’t there for me. So I knew, when I listened, he was trying to make it up, and he didn’t know how.

In the case of your family, when you have to listen to all of these military stories, that may not be what they really wanted to talk about. They may not know how to talk about anything else.

Yesterday in our dharma discussions we were talking about the mindfulness trainings and a sister shared how she used alcohol as an ice-breaker, a tool to let go and to be able to talk from the heart and connect with people. This touched me very deeply, because the reason I’m a monk and the reason I practice is because I see so much of the suffering that comes from our disconnection.

I was struck in my first year coming to Plum Village as a novice monk how I was able to connect with people at the heart level. Ordinarily we connect with people because we have things in common. We talk about work, the kids, or movies, music, art, whatever. With the practice we don’t have to have the same background, the same taste in music or sports or philosophy. Because I am practicing to open my heart, and you are practicing to open your heart, I can connect with you. If I didn’t have the practice there’d be no chance I would connect with all these different types of people. In the case of our family, with the practice, we find our own creative way to do that.

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With my father, I was finally able to say, “Father, how are you? How do you feel?” I was able to make a connection. It’s different for each one of us. We have our own style, our own way, and we find that with our rootedness, with our stability.

Sister Susan — Mountain Love

You just can’t say enough about how important it is to get nourishment. You can’t say enough about what looking at a few good mountains can do for you.

I look at these mountains around here and what they say to me is, I’ve been around here for a billion years, and I can tell you a thing or two — not just about stability and rocks, but about beauty. There’s a lot of beauty in a billion years, and it touches my heart over and over again. It fills my heart to the brim, and that does a lot to pour a balm over what I hear about Lebanon and Israel, and to know that suffering there. I helps me to know that there is beauty in the world, that things are all right somewhere.

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It’s so crucial to look daily and to let yourself be free. For me it helps me let go of the complexities. People get in knots with government leaders, they can’t solve their problems, there are conflicting ideas and conflicting pains. People don’t know how to figure them out.

I can’t criticize without looking deeply. I need all the calm I can muster, all the mindfulness, looking carefully at both sides, staying calm, and knowing how it feels to be in those shoes — what would it be like to suffer.

Everyone has an amount of media that they can take. I take as much as I can, and then I know I can’t take any more. I look at a lot of mountains! Then I need to see the suffering, and there is so much suffering I don’t see, obviously. When I find myself feeling despair, I know I need to be outside.

We don’t look at our earth nearly enough. We have so little clue of our connection to the outside world, to our physical world. We get stuck in four walls and in personalities. The more we can connect with the world we live in, the more we can see the bigger picture and grow our calm. Our government leaders need all of our wisdom and calm, and the more that our views change, as our brother said, it will become so obvious. But we need to have all that calm and clarity and happiness. Our happiness comes from our nourishment level and our compassion level; they go together.

We need to make our families our intimacy. Bonding needs to be really strong. We need to let go of things like military, which political side our families are on. Families need to be intimate. I remember this wonderful story of Thay giving questions and answers; this lady was going on and on about how her daughter was into computers too much and it just drove her crazy. She was saying over and over how destructive it was and finally Thay interrupted her, saying, “You really need to learn how to play the computer with your daughter.” [laughter]

I get into this with my son. Sometimes we get on opposite sides, but that bond with our loved ones is so important. You need love so much. Ninety percent of the time it is about love anyway. We need it so much.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic.

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YMCA Dharma Song

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Sung to the tune “YMCA”
Young monk, lace up your hiking shoes
I said, young monk, weighed down by the blues
Go there, you will breathe in clean air
With those moun-tains all a-round you

Breathe in, Sangha, you’re on your way
I said, breathe out, toss your dark thoughts away
Blossom like a well-watered seed, you can
Walk the path mind-ful-ly

Chorus:
It’s fun to hike at the YMCA
It’s fun to hike at the YMCA
You can hike with the crowd
But please don’t be loud
Brother Stream, is that a storm cloud?

Young nun, you’re at the end of the line
I said, young nun, don’t let yourself lag behind
Walk fast, or you may find yourself
Alone with moun-tain li-ons

It’s fun to hike at the YMCA
It’s fun to hike at the YMCA
You can hike with the crowd
But please don’t be loud
Brother Stream, is that a storm cloud?

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On the Way Home (part 4)

 

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Sister Annabel has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986; this is the fourth installment in her autobiography.

Walking and Relaxing

Plum Village emphasizes two aspects of the practice that Buddha Shakyamuni taught 2,500 years ago and that the descendants of the Buddha have continued to practice until now. They are mindful walking and relaxation. Some of the old-fashioned translations of the Pali suttas refer to the Buddha pacing up and down in the monastery. What we understand by this is walking meditation.

The Buddha Shakyamuni compared the Dharma to the ocean. Just as the ocean floor steps down gradually in shelves, so do the wonderful teachings and practices. First we hear the teachings, then we give thought to them, and then we practice them. As a teenager I saw a film about Sri Lanka. I saw for the first time a monk making the alms round. His walking made me feel peaceful and the image stayed with me, although I did not imagine myself walking that way.

Years later I was instructed to walk slowly by a Tibetan teacher. This teacher only knew one sentence in English that went: “Now we are walking slowly.” When a Tibetan nun who was in our party heard this, she would take hold of my hand so that I had no choice but to walk slowly. I had walked slowly in Piccadilly Circus thanks to this hand and on the Acropolis in Athens. Even amidst throngs of tourists our little party of Buddhist practitioners was able to wend its slow and relaxed way.

Go Very Gently

After that I went to India. It was not possible to walk in India the way I had walked in Europe. Just the collective consciousness and the heat made me walk more slowly. Being in India was like putting your car in a different gear — more slow and more relaxed. All the same I did not have in the continuum of my own mind the way to practice mindful walking. I walked more slowly but my mind was often searching and not at rest as I walked.

In Himachal Pradesh we had many little paths to walk on in the forest, carrying building materials, water, or firewood or just going from one place to another. It was very beautiful: there was the fragrance of the pine needles, the singing of the birds, the chanting from the monastery across the valley; the view of the rice fields down below and the towering snow-capped peaks above. The air was very clean and fresh. There were no roads nearer than eight kilometres. The paths were just for the walking of humans, cows, and the occasional horse with two sacks strung over its back. Sometimes the beauty of that place was enough to bring me into the wonderful present moment.

In India I appreciated above all that I could live in the spiritual environment of a monastery. I could appreciate what it meant to live more simply than I had experienced before in my life: no running water, no electricity, little to eat and sometimes cold but always the knowledge that the sun would come back and make us warm. The beauty of nature embraced and surrounded us and I felt safe.

Walking with the nuns in the forests I learned how to sing songs about meditation practice in Tibetan and when the sisters asked me to sing a meditation song in English, since I could not think of any, faute de mieux I had to make one up:

Go very gently, going nowhere,
Go very softly, stopping nowhere
Like a river deep and wide,
Always moving, still inside

This was inspired by the river at Tilokpur in Himachal Pradesh at the foot of the mountain on which the monastery stood. In the rainy season the sound of the rushing water would climb the mountainside and we could hear it day and night.

Touching Nirvana with the Body

There was one particular path that I walked on many times every day; as many times as we might go up and down the stairs in our house. This little path led the way from our hut to the building site where we were building a retreat center. It was my aspiration to walk this path as a meditation practice but I did not know how. So I tried to remind myself to keep my thinking very simple as I walked, but that was difficult because I was trying to practice with my mind without involving my body.

When I first met Thay and Sister True Emptiness [Sister Chan Khong] it was at the airport in London. Thay walked slowly in mindfulness. It was difficult for me not to overtake Thay without realizing it. Thay did not say anything and just enjoyed walking until we came to the car park. There Thay stopped and put a hand gently on the side of the car. This gesture alone helped my body and mind to come back together. I felt as if the hand of Thay were the mind and the car the body. In the excitement of Thay’s arrival I had forgotten all I had ever learned about slow walking.

Some days later when we came to the place where Thay was to lead the retreat, I still had the tendency to run everywhere. Thay asked me to go upstairs to check whether there was a room suitable for tea meditation. As I started out in haste to please Thay, Thay called me back and said very gently: “There is no need to hurry. You can go slowly.” As I walked up the stairs I tried to remember that; pulling each step reluctantly back into the present moment. After all I was someone who was used to going up and down stairs two steps at a time.

The beauty was the next day when Thay gave instruction on how to walk mindfully. Of course you have to involve your body. In any mindfulness or meditation practice your body practices along with your mind. Thay told us that the Buddha had said: “You can touch nirvana with your body.” You invest your whole person in mindful breathing, mindful footsteps, and the contact between the soles of your feet and the earth. Then you can touch nirvana with your feet on this planet earth. Even after we left the retreat Sister True Emptiness had to remind me to practice mindfulness as we walked on the street or in the railway station.

In 1989 Thay took his disciples from Plum Village on a pilgrimage to the Fleurs de Cactus meditation center in Paris and Thay’s former hermitage called Sweet Potatoes at Fontvannes in the forest of Ote. As we walked on the paths by the Marne River or in the fields around Sweet Potatoes, I began to feel that my steps could bring me back home. Steps alone could settle my mind and body and bring them back together again. I had watched Thay walking and my feet wanted to imitate that way. It was as if Thay had blessed my feet.

With the practice of mindfulness the miracle is in every step. Walking along the corridor of a residence hall or a hospital is as deep a practice as walking on a mountain path. Sometimes the steps come first and then the mindfulness and insight follow effortlessly. Sometimes the practice needs a little support from meditation words or conscious breathing for mindfulness to flow. As children we walk in paradise without anything to worry about or regret. The only thing is that we do not recognize we are walking in paradise. Using meditation words such as “arrived, home” can help us realize that we have arrived and we are at home. “Solid, free” gives a chance to recognize the solidity and freedom that mindful walking is bringing us so that we do not lose it.

It is surprising how relaxing walking can be. All of the four poses that we adopt in our daily life can be relaxing: sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. Life in Europe and North America is generally full of stress. In Asia, Africa, and South and Central America life is becoming more stressful. There is stress in the environment or the collective consciousness as well as stress in the individual body and mind. Stress is a major cause of ill-health or disease. The way our society is organized creates stress for the individual and the individual is causing society to be as it is. The way out is the practice of relaxation.

Total Relaxation

A favorite practice in Plum Village is total relaxation; relaxing the body from head to foot. When I was working as a schoolteacher, after work I came home and, before I did anything else, I lay on the floor to let go of all the difficulties the workday had left in me.

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The main thing was to let go of perceptions and the unpleasant feelings associated with these perceptions. Since body and mind are inextricably interwoven, relaxing the body is immediately effective in relaxing the mind.

In the month of May 1989, during a retreat in the state of Virginia, I heard Thay lead the retreatants in guided total relaxation for the fi time. The relaxation stressed abdominal breathing and the lightness of our limbs as they relaxed like a piece of silk or duckweed floating on the water with the current. These images help us develop an attitude of non-resistance and effortlessness that is the ability to flow with what is happening. As the guidance ended, still lying down, we listened to a recording of waves breaking on the seashore. Sometimes Thay would read a poem of Thay’s in Vietnamese. It was never translated because the purpose was the musicality of the tonal language and the soothing rhythm of the verses.

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During the guided total relaxation an important instruction is to let go — let go of everything. I often use this practice of total surrender and acceptance when I am unwell and the practice of letting go in body and mind has an immediate effect of changing the situation for the better. When talking to someone who is sick in hospital, if we can help him or her let go, it can be very helpful.

The Determination to Relax

Walking and relaxation are experiences I enjoyed before I met the practice of mindfulness. So now do I have to make an effort to walk mindfully and to relax? It sounds like a contradiction to make an effort to relax. The practice lies in this: when you are not relaxed, know you are not relaxed. That is the simplest thought and relaxation can arise out of it. If not, take your thought a little bit further to know the causes for your not being relaxed and that will help remove the causes. When you are walking in “hell” or “purgatory,” know that you are walking there. That is the simplest thought and paradise can arise out of it.

When there is thinking that leads to fear and depression, know where the thinking is leading and you can come out of it without fear and depression. Just attention to breath or steps is wonderful. The Chinese word for thought, mind or intention is yi. In the word Anapanasati, sati or mindfulness is translated into Chinese as shouyi — holding or maintaining our mind. We hold our mind to our breath so that our mind does not need to wander into places of unnecessary suffering.

If someone is not able to sleep at night and she can practice total relaxation while lying awake, she can be refreshed and less tired the next day. As you lie in bed you can guide yourself or you can listen to a recording of a guided total relaxation so that you do not need to make any mental effort to remind yourself.

Relaxation, prashrabdhih, is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, as is effort, virya. We need them both. There needs to be a certain determination to be relaxed and that determination can be called effort. Without the determination, habit energies of thinking make us tense. Equally important is the ability to be quiet and at ease in the situation that presents itself. After a while the practitioner is able to relax and the result is energy rather than effort. Effort and relaxation are not opposing forces; they are complementary. So when we know how to relax we have the energy to make effort.

This year in Vietnam, Thay is teaching relaxation as one of the essential practices of the Anapanasati Sutta (the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing) where the exercise is: “breathing in I am aware of my whole body, breathing out I relax my body”. This is one of the most important practices I can do for myself and for everyone else at this time. When my body and mind are truly relaxed I have the freedom to be able to look deeply and see a little bit more of reality.

Nothing Is Wasted

Since I came to the practice of mindful walking and relaxation relatively late — I was 36 years old — I have sometimes asked myself whether I have not wasted a large part of my life. When I look deeply I see that no time has been wasted because now that I know how to practice mindfulness and concentration, I can make use of all that has happened — positive or negative. If I had this life again would I live it differently? To me that is just a hypothetical question. My blood ancestors needed to go through this with me. How could I force them to do it differently? They laid the bridges and asked me to continue, without looking back. They wish for me to take them forward in a different direction but always building on what had gone before, taking that as the essence, not as good or bad.

So the practice in India was necessary. Without it the practice in Plum Village would not have been possible. As I walked on the little forest paths carrying building materials, I was always asking myself: How can I make this a spiritual practice? It took time for the question to be answered. It took another ten years to come to Plum Village.

mb45-OnTheWay4Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, True Virtue, became a Dharma teacher in 1990 and was Director of  Practice at Plum Village for many years. Since 1998 she has been abbess at the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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The Wonderful World of Gathas

By David Percival

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The mind can go in a thousand directions,
But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, a cool wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.

If your path is like mine, you often find your mind jumping into the future, back to the past, fabricating ridiculous situations, and taking you to places you don’t want to go. Before you know it your path is littered with boulders of fear, anger, despair, frustration, and forgetfulness.

Thay tells us that the practice of Plum Village is to come back to the present moment and take care of the situation. Wherever we are — at home, at work, driving, gardening, at a meeting — we can use the energy of mindfulness to bring us back to ourselves, to the present moment. One powerful resource available to all of us is to make use of gathas throughout our day. Gathas are short poems or verses that we can recite, regardless of where we are, to help us return to the present moment and to dwell in mindfulness. Monastics in Thay’s tradition practice gathas throughout their day.

As Thay says, “when we practice well, the gathas are with us continuously and we live our whole lives in awareness.” Gathas allow us to focus our mind, making it possible to almost instantly return to ourselves. Gathas help us to stop our relentless running, to slow down, to enjoy life in the here and now. While we enjoy walking, sitting, washing the dishes, turning the compost, we can stop our wild thinking; then we see the wonders of life in the present moment.

At my first retreat in the late 1980s, Thay taught us the following gatha, strongly suggesting that we memorize it:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

I did what Thay suggested and I will carry this gatha with me always. It is a continuous source of peace and calm.

Dwelling in Mindfulness

In June 2006 at the Breath of the Buddha Retreat at Plum Village, Thay told us to use gathas and poetry to help us dwell in mindfulness throughout our day. For example, early in the morning, standing in front of my altar, I start every day as follows:

Waking this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Start by memorizing a few short gathas (see sidebar). Then add more, including longer ones. Notice the rhythm of the lines: recite the first line as you breathe in and recite the second line as you breathe out, and so on. When you are stuck in traffic, waiting in the queue at the bank, walking down a hallway at work, or going to the restroom, recite this gatha:

I have arrived (in-breath)
I am home (out-breath)
In the here (in)
And in the now (out) (repeat all four lines)

I am solid (in)
I am free (out) (repeat two lines)
In the ultimate I dwell (in)
In the Pure Land I dwell (out) (repeat two lines)

You will be able to sit, stand, or walk at ease. You can calm yourself, you can smile at the chaos around you, and you will be able to continue what you are doing in a focused mindful way. Then, when you find your mind going off in another direction, pull another gatha from your gatha storehouse.

If you do a lot of walking meditation, either slow or fast (for exercise), you will note the built-in rhythm of walking and the gatha adapts well to any kind of walking. For example, with fast walking, my rhythm is four steps to each stanza:

In (in breath, four steps)
Out (out breath, four steps)
Deep (in, four steps)
Slow (out, four steps)
Calm (in, four steps)
Ease (out, four steps)
Smile (in, four steps)
Release (out, four steps)
Present moment (in, four steps)
Wonderful moment (out, four steps)

Or, with slow walking use one step per line. For me, fast walking is a very mindful practice and I try to do it in the present moment, enjoying the blue sky, the flowers, the insects, the birds, and my faster breathing.

A gatha is a poem, a song (see A Basket of Plums), and a guided meditation. They are the same and used in different situations. For example, with “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” I sing or chant it to myself as I walk, as I drive, as I work in my garden. The rhythm of walking, weightlifting, and working adapts well to the stanzas.

A Gatha to Cool the Flames

How often anger creeps into my mind! What a pernicious little seed it is, suddenly sprouting at the slightest provocation. We need to recognize and embrace our anger. When anger arises, stop — do nothing. Let the flames cool. Use a gatha to come back to yourself. Smile at your anger.

Angry in the ultimate dimension
I close my eyes and look deeply.
Three hundred years from now
where will you be and where will I be?

Finally, we can take existing gathas and adapt them to our individual situations – change some words, add your own lines. And, as Thay instructs us, write your own gathas. Encourage your children to write gathas. Ask your sangha to write and share gathas.

Sitting by the Garlic

For example, gardening is a major part of my life, a true meditation, a place to dwell happily in the present moment, a practice of non-self, impermanence, and interbeing:

Walking in my garden
I touch the present moment.
I am the flower.
I am the cloud.
I am the butterfly.
I hold some compost in my hand
And touch the essence of the Buddha.

Sitting by the garlic
the turtle moves under the mulch.
The beauty of life surrounds me.
Breathing in, I sit with impermanence.
Breathing out, I smile at the flowers.
Breathing in, I enjoy this moment.
Breathing out, there is no place to go.

The bits and pieces of our lives may seem routine and mundane – getting up, bathing, going to the bathroom, cooking, eating, washing dishes, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, being with friends, gardening, working, driving, etc. The joy of the practice is doing everything in mindfulness, no matter how routine, because all these little things when put together equal our lives. This is what we do. The practice is now or never, with what we do and where we are. We can experience the joy of moving through our days in freedom and with equanimity, walking with peaceful steps and looking at all beings with our eyes of compassion.

The day is ending and our life is one day shorter.
Let us look carefully at what we have done.
Let us practice diligently, putting our whole heart into the path of meditation.
Let us live deeply each moment and in freedom, so the time doesn’t slip away meaninglessly.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he makes the desert bloom. He practices with the Rainbow Sangha and he keeps the Mindfulness Bell circulating.

Resources for Gatha Practice

All of these are by Thich Nhat Hanh unless otherwise noted, and all are available from Parallax Press (www.parallax.org).

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: A beautiful short book with 49 gathas, featuring Thay’s commentary on each one.

Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training: This book is not just for monastics but is for everyone. It begins in Part One with 68 gathas.

Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices: A basic resource for our personal and sangha practice. See the section on gathas, pp. 37-41.

A Basket of Plums (ed. Joseph Emet): Gathas as songs; songs as gathas.

The Blooming of a Lotus – Guided Meditation Exercises for Healing and Transformation: While some of the meditations are very long, others are shorter and consist of familiar gathas.

The Energy of Prayer – How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice: See Appendix 2, “Buddhist Prayers and Gathas,” pp.145-155.

Thay occasionally brings gathas into his other books. Some examples: Touching the  Earth– Intimate Conversations with the Buddha, pp. 23, 71, and 72; No Death, No Fear, pp. 43 and 80. In The Path of Emancipation there is a beautiful explanation of “I Have Arrived, I am Home,” pp. 28-31, as well as a discussion of “In/Out, Deep/Slow,” pp. 115-119, and comments on “Being an Island Unto Myself,” pp. 181182.

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Confined in Anger, Freed in Love

By Jacob Bowley

I was confined in the summer of 1999, twenty years old and more a prisoner of my own deep inner fears than the walls around me. Wrapped up in the great speed of the world, I had been able — with the help of drugs and alcohol — to maintain in my mind an impressive illusion of control. Here in prison the reins were clearly not in my hands; I knew no way to keep up my speed. Forced to stop, or at least slow down, I had to face the bitter truth: my will did not rule the world. This disappointment was too much for me to contend with day after day so I closed my eyes in anger. I would rage against the whole world until it consented to the perpetual gratification of my senses.

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By the beginning of 2001 the institution was not pleased with my method of seeking fulfillment. They expressed this sentiment by giving me an extended stay in segregation. I knew the stay would be for only five or six months, so I saw no reason to change and quickly got into more trouble. At this point they told me I would stay in the hole for three years. My party stopped. This was no game. I could feel the anger oozing out of me, reverberating in my little cell and gaining strength. We looked at each other, my anger and me, and I knew it would destroy me.

While in the depth of this personal hell I came across a few pages about Buddhism. Strangely, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find any ground on which to cut Buddhism down. What I read seemed to be simple common sense.

Truth Cuts to the Heart

I read that life contains suffering. I found this to be an insultingly obvious statement, and yet there it was, in black ink; I had no way to deny it. This was not metaphysical speculation or theological proofs, here was something which cut right to my heart. I could clearly experience this in my own life and see it in the lives of those around me.

I read that suffering has a cause. That cause is not the outside world but is within; it is ignorance and clinging. Not the outside world? This had my full attention. I was putting so much energy into the delusion that with enough effort I could bend the world to my will — could it be possible to just change myself? The prospect of putting this burden down gave me, for the first time, the courage to acknowledge how large the burden was.

I read that the burden could be put down: if the causes of suffering are not, the suffering is not.

Finally I read that there is a path leading out of suffering. I needed to learn more about this path.

That summer and fall I immersed myself in new and exciting Eastern philosophy, ideals of compassion, and graded paths to enlightenment. Amazed by the deep and lucid wisdom I found in these teachings I nurtured a whole-hearted intention to realize their virtue. Slowly I began to experience the strength, healing, and freedom found in kindness and love.

Gradual changes were noticed by the institution and they responded by allowing me to return to the general population early. It was November 2001, and despite the excitement of moving out of segregation I was scared. I knew that the true test of my resolve to change would come when I returned to my friends. I came out of the box strong in intention, but weak in appreciation of the importance of practice. I held on to my new ideas but did not continue to meditate or study. Compared with the solitude of the past year, all the new ways to spend time provided a rich and stimulating life.

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The sponsor of our Narcotics Anonymous group, Tyrone, says “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” The opposite is also true. I was acting my wholesome thinking and intentions into the back of my mind. My way of living systematically hardened my heart, but I didn’t notice the gradual loss of my freedom until I got into a fight over being called a name. How bitter it was to find myself bound once again in anger and rage! The anguish of this prison cut deeper now that I knew a small taste of peace.

Taking Refuge in the Practice

I turned for refuge to the practice, this time not in the isolation of the hole but right in the midst of my crazy world. I faced my habit of trying to maintain a certain image in front of my peers; I faced the deep fears at the root of this habit, and I chose instead to heal. The progress was slow and cautious, but there was peace in every step.

I met a wonderful spiritual friend early in 2004. Matthew Tenney is a living Dharma talk and he shared an infectious happiness with all of us here. He didn’t spend a lot of time engaging in the intellectual speculation and analysis regarding the practice that I wrapped myself in; rather, he introduced me to Thay’s teaching and to the true miracle of mindfulness in daily life. I had read about the importance of cultivating this obscure quality of mindfulness, and I was trying. But until now the methods appeared vague and overwhelming. Thay offered very concrete and simple ways that allowed practice to become a reality of my life.

One day, not long after meeting Matthew, I shared with him a yearning that had been percolating in my heart: I would like to be a monk after I was released. He asked “Why wait? Why not live that ideal right here, right now?” The aspiration to do just that has been the center of my life ever since, a center from which peace, stability, and freedom increase every day.

Witnessing the impact these qualities have on the emotional tone of this environment, and on the hearts of people who live here, gives me the strength to continue. It seems a long time ago that someone said of me, “Man, you can feel the hate radiate off that guy.” Today it is a quiet comfort for my heart to know that I no longer radiate pain and suffering to others, and that there is freedom in love.

Jacob Bowley received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, along with Matthew, long-distance from Brother Phap Bi on January 12, 2006, “a kindness,” writes Jacob, “ which brought tears to my eyes.”

Jacob is incarcerated in the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; this essay was written for the Mindfulness Bell and submitted by his father, Freeman Bowley.

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Hugging as Practice

By David Hughes

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I’ve always viewed myself as a hugger, a toucher. I hug my family members, and like to be hugged. I touch a lot — I’ll walk by my wife and touch her shoulder, or reach over and touch my daughter’s arm. My Dad was like this, too. Touching is good; hugging is better. In the workplace, I’m conscious of this tendency, and I have to pay attention to make sure that I curb the impulse to touch lest it be considered inappropriate. I know that many people don’t want to be touched, or at least don’t want to be touched except by a carefully chosen small group of people close to them. But I’ve always thought of myself as a person who likes hugging and touching.

So it should come as no surprise that I had a very positive reaction when I first encountered my spiritual leader’s teachings on hugging and hugging meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh has done for hugging what he has done for so many other activities of daily life — transformed the ordinary into the sacred. Thay tells a very funny story of his first visit to the United States, and being given a great big hug of welcome by a large woman. When he describes how truly “foreign” this experience was for him, you can actually feel it. In his culture, people don’t hug very much; people simply don’t hug Zen masters; women don’t even touch monks. Thay confesses to having been taken aback by this enthusiastic hug — but in typical Thich Nhat Hanh fashion, he doesn’t simply leave it at that. Looking deeply at the hugging experience, he recognized how wonderful and positive this practice was at its core. He developed Mindful Hugging as a means of deepening one’s dharma practice.

Three Simple Breaths

Thay suggests that before actually hugging, we take a couple of breaths to bring ourselves fully into the present moment, so that we can really be there for the person we are about to hug. As we then embrace, we breathe in deeply, and on the first in-breath we say to ourselves: breathing in, I am aware that you are alive and in my arms; breathing out, I am so happy. On the second in-breath, we say: breathing in, I know that I am alive and in your arms; breathing out, I am so happy. And finally, a third breath: breathing in, I am aware that we are both alive right now and embraced in each others’ arms; breathing out, I am very happy.

Three simple breaths, three simple gathas. A simple practice that anyone can do at any time. Sounds really easy, doesn’t it? But have you tried it? I have, and I have found that this practice brings up a whole lot of stuff from deep within me — stuff that may be hard-wired into me as a male, or acquired from the culture in which I have lived, or even cultivated by me over the years as a part of my professional and social persona. In short, it’s a deep and profound practice.

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Sitting here at my keyboard, I find that taking three long breaths takes a total of about thirty seconds. Standing around after a sangha hugging discussion and actually practicing a single three-breath hugging meditation, I found that it took about an hour! Or so it seemed. Ten seconds for a preparatory breath to be sure I am fully present, the arms around one another, and an hour later I finish with my third breath and release. What’s up with that? Of course, I am more used to the perfunctory tap on the arm, to the quickie social hugging that one gives and gets as a good-night or a good-bye, or a greeting for an old friend. This three-breath, mindful hug is intense! I truly am fully present, and the experience of it is powerful. The urge to break off after that first breath — or even sooner — is palpable. By the second breath, if I stick with it, I know that I am experiencing something very different. And as that third breath rises and falls, I feel the presence of myself and the presence of my friend, alive, real, physical, and very intimate.

Intimate, Intense, Physical

Ah, maybe that’s the real issue. Aside from being the longest thirty seconds in history, it is really intimate. So up comes all of my psychological conditioning about intimacy, about sexuality, about appearances and image. This experience doesn’t fit neatly into any of my pre-existing boxes; it’s out of my comfort zone. This is an intimate, intense, and physical experience with someone who is not my spouse, who is not my daughter or my mother. Do I ever hug my daughters or my mother in such an intense way? Is this sort of physicality reserved exclusively for my wife? Do we as mates even hug this intensely, this intimately?

The friend I hug at sangha is a male, as am I. Two heterosexual males both well over 50. Is this hugging sexual? Does he think it is? Do others, watching, see it as such? Intimate, intense, physical—does that make it sexual? Can I experience those three things all together without also being sexual? Can he? Is this what’s behind the urge to break off the hug prematurely?

Later that evening, after giving another sangha friend a ride, we give each other a hug in my car. I break it off fast. And she confronts me. What’s going on; what happened to the mindful hugging? Again, questions of conditioning, sexuality, and appearance come up strongly. Can I hug a woman so intimately, so meaningfully, without the stereotypical sexual overtones? I can almost hear Billy Crystal’s diatribe in When Harry Met Sally about all relations between a man and a woman being fundamentally sexual. But I have had female friends all of my life, non-sexual friends. I don’t restrict my contact with women, or my concept of women, to the realm of sexuality.

But there it is. I recoil from a deep, close, meaningful hug with a female friend even more abruptly than with my male friend.

The Gift of Being Fully Alive

To hug like this also demands trust. I am vulnerable in this openness. My intentions may be misconstrued. What are my intentions, really? Is this hug in any way in conflict with my commitments, with the third of the Five Mindfulness Trainings? Am I doing this for show? To prove my practice to myself or others? And what about him/her? Where is she coming from? What is his experience right now? Is he thinking something negative about me?

I now see hugging as a very powerful exercise in the context of a committed dharma practice. Mindful hugging, hugging that brings us fully into the present moment, is an extremely skillful means of focusing on our aliveness in all of its glory, with all its wrinkles, its hang-ups, its beauty. It is a practice, not a concept. To take 30 seconds to be fully and completely present with one another is to touch deeply our life right here and right now. We are fully alive. We have bodies. We have texture, we have smells, we have sounds.

Ultimately, it seems to me that this is a deep practice of letting go. Letting go of concepts, of conditioning. Letting go of fears, letting go of the impulse for security. Letting go and just experiencing — fully experiencing — the present moment, the wonder of this precious human birth.

Dmb45-Hugging3avid Hughes, Committed Direction of the Heart, is a member of Open Heart Sangha in Yarmouth, Maine, and an aspirant to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

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In Memoriam: Thay Giac Thanh

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1947-2001

Last fall marked the fifth anniversary of the passing of Thay Giac Thanh, the beloved former abbot of Deer Park Monastery. In his honor a beautiful stupa was built above Solidity Hamlet, and a ceremony of dedication brought together many of those who had known and loved the gentle monk. In this special section we feature several of Thay Giac Thanh’s poems from Scattered Memories, the complete collection of his poems published in 2006 by Parallax Press and excerpted here with permission.

Thay Giac Thanh was born in a quiet and remote hamlet in Rach Gia Province in southern Vietnam. Eventually his family moved to Rach Gia City where he learned to read and write and became an excellent student. Thay Giac Thanh expressed love for his country in his first poem, “Tears for my Homeland,” written when he was in the twelfth grade.

He became a novice monk in 1967 at Thanh Hoa Temple in Long Xuyen Province, where he received his Dharma name Giac Thanh (Awakening Sound) from his teacher, Venerable Pho Hue; in 1970 he was fully ordained in Giac Vien Temple. In 1971, he attended the University of Van Hanh in Saigon (co-founded by Thich Nhat Hanh several years before) to further his studies in Buddhism.

Although he was not a permanent resident there, Thay Giac Thanh spent several peaceful years at True Emptiness Monastery on the peak of Tao Phung Mountain. But all that changed in 1975 when the Communists took over all of Vietnam. Everybody now had to work hard in the fields under the hot, burning sun.

In July of 1981, he escaped out of Vietnam by boat, crossing the Gulf of Thailand. Like many other Vietnamese people enduring dangerous escapes, he was not able to avoid pirates. Seeing the cruel raping of women and grabbing of jewelry, angrily he asked, “Do you have a heart? How could you be so cruel to your fellow humans?” The pirates were angry and threw him into the ocean. Fortunately, the head pirate, in a flash of sympathy, tossed him a rope and pulled him up onto the boat.

After many months in a refugee camp in Indonesia, Thay Giac Thanh was sponsored by Venerable Thich Man Biac to come to Los Angeles. During Thay’s brief stay at Phat Biao Vietnam Temple, like a tender and caring mother the Venerable helped heal the wounds in the wanderer’s heart. In 1982, at the Venerable’s request, Thay moved to Nam Tuyen Temple in Virginia to help Thay Tri Tue; they lived happily together until 1989.
In 1986 he met Thich Nhat Hanh at one of his North American retreats; in 1990 Thay Giac Thanh attended the summer retreat at Plum Village and in 1991 began residing there. At the end of 1991, he received the Lamp Transmission to become a Dharma Teacher, for which he wrote the poem “Formless Samadhi.” Thich Nhat Hanh offered him a small wooden hut on the forest edge beside his own. There was a vast space in his heart; he walked freely and solidly, and his smiles and words carried a profound peace to people around him. Wherever he went — France, the U.S., Australia, Canada — from the beginning of his teaching to his last breath, all of us received his tender, fresh, and peaceful energy. He was respected and deeply loved by all of us.Thay Giac Thanh contracted tuberculosis in 1995 and his diabetes worsened. He took care of his illnesses like a mother loving her child, never complaining no matter how demanding the child was. In 1997 Thay Giac Thanh became Head of Practice at Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont, and in 2000 he became abbot of the new monastery in southern California. He knew that this place would be the last one of his life. He arrived at Deer Park Monastery in the summer of 2000 and left us in the autumn of 2001. A kind, gentle, and loving voice, a joyful smile until the end of his life, a deep and clear wisdom, great compassion, and peaceful steps, all revealed his profound understanding of no-coming, no-going.

The day before he died, he received a telephone call from his teacher in Beijing, China. Thich Nhat Hanh read him a poem he had just written, and added the second stanza later:

That you are a real gentleman is known by everyone
The work of a true practitioner has been accomplished
When your stupa has just been raised on the hillside
The sound of children’s laughter will already be heard

One maple leaf has fallen down and yet you continue to climb
The hill of the twenty-first century with us
Thousands of daffodils are beginning to bloom and the
Earth continues to be with the sky
Singing the song of no-birth and no-death

Adapted from “Biography of the Author” by Thich Puoch Tinh in Scattered Memories

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Poems by Thay Giac Thanh

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Tears for My Homeland
Oh my beloved homeland,
So many long quiet nights
I lay awake, crying tears of love for you.
Oh my beloved homeland,
What have you done to deserve this?
To let those demons torture you so,
Without remorse, compassion, or brotherly love.
They sold you to the Devil King.
Out of love for you
I buy you back with my own flesh and blood,
With my wisdom, my very heart,
And with my whole being.
Even if this body burns into ashes,
I vow to spread them along the road to peace.

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Dying
Poems will die.
Ten-thousand-year-long loves will also die.
Clouds swirl, obscuring the whole sky.
On life’s journey, there are ups and downs
But one day I will shake free from all my worldly debt.

Formless Samadhi
Clear water on one side, Urine on the other,
All will return to sky, clouds, oceans, and rivers.
There is sunlight during daytime
And moonlight at night
Shining my way.

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Being Sick
My skin and flesh are wasted,
My body is withered,
But my heart is still joyful as spring flowers.
Rivers, mountains are extensive.
Why hesitate to give up this tiny body?
I return it to the immense earth and sky.

Proclamation
As a wanderer who has no home
By chance I met you
While wandering from place to place.
My younger brothers and sisters from Vietnam,
You are green mountains, rivers,
Morning sunlight, and dewy flowers.
You are joyful, innocent, and light,
As white clouds drifting in the deep blue sky
Along with the first light of a new day.
If in youthful folly,
You lose your way, falling into steep gorges
Deep in the mountains,
All you need is a gentle breeze
Of understanding and love
To bring you back
To the lofty sky and vast oceans.
You do not need raging storms
Of anger and hatred.
Please do not scold or blame
My younger brothers and sisters
For I fear that the gray color of sadness
Would darken their pure hearts.

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Stupa Dedication

By Karen Hilsberg

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We arrived at Deer Park on a clear fall Friday morning last October to help the sangha prepare for the ceremony to dedicate Thay Giac Thanh’s stupa. Sunday would be the fifth anniversary of the continuation of the beloved former abbot of Deer Park. The weekend was particularly meaningful and special for me and my family as my beloved was carrying an engagement ring in his pocket; we had chosen the ring together earlier that week.

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Throughout the weekend everyone worked hard preparing for Sunday — cooking special foods deep into the night, washing hundreds of small bowls for the ancestral feast planned for Sunday, and laboring on the mountain to finish the installation of the stupa. Throughout all these activities and during intimate gatherings in the Solidity Hamlet classroom and meditation hall, members of the four-fold sangha mindfully recollected stories about the former abbot: recalling his beautiful teachings, reciting his poetry, and sharing personal memories about their meaningful and inspiring relationships with him. The feeling was one of a large family reunion, at once wistful and celebratory.

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Sunday arrived. It was a very warm and clear day with the sun shining bright. The morning began with a special ceremony led by the Venerable Phuoc Tinh honoring our ancestors in SinoVietnamese. We prostrated many times as he recited the ancient blessings and chanted the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese. The morning continued with a silent breakfast and walking meditation up the hill to overlook the stupa. The Venerable shared a line of poetry about how we are often able to see more clearly when we have a view of something from afar. Thus we gazed upon the stupa before proceeding down the freshly created steps; members of the sangha offered us their hands as we carefully stepped down to the dedication ceremony. We gathered very close together on the small steps around the stupa and after heartfelt chanting, the Venerable sprinkled water from a glass using yellow chrysanthemums and offered words of dedication. Some who loved the former abbot were in tears. We looked into the stupa after the ceremony to see it decorated beautifully with two cushions at a small table beneath a lovely altar.

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Next the Venerable gave a moving dharma talk in the Ocean of Peace meditation hall. He shared about the name of the stupa, “Floating Cloud,” and likened the life and the practice of the former abbot to a “cloud floating in the vast sky.” He wove a tapestry with his talk utilizing the imagery of the floating cloud and the Buddha’s teachings on no-birth and no-death. He urged us all to practice as the clear blue sky, observing clouds coming and going, but with the understanding of impermanence. He reflected on the nature of a lifespan and noted that some people like the former abbot offer much joy to others and leave behind “a softness of the heart during this lifetime while others are unskillful and leave behind a great deal of pain.” He urged us to live in such as way that we leave behind something beautiful for people to remember.

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Thay Phuoc Tinh taught that suffering is essential in life; we can welcome and profit from it by overcoming it, growing, becoming stronger, and realizing grace and peace in our hearts. “If we can find peace and be kind to those who are difficult, we can recognize the Buddha in ourselves.” He shared the poems “Gentle Steps” and “Being Sick” by the former abbot noting how Thay Giac Thanh was able to have a heart at peace when he was healthy and able to give to others, as well as when he was ill and able to receive from others.

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After this talk, the meditation hall was prepared for the ancestral feast. Outside the hall, David and I sat on the steps overlooking the oak grove and mountains and shared our aspirations to be together; he presented me with the engagement ring. Smiling, we and the children joined our spiritual family in small groups. We ate delicious traditional Vietnamese foods while members of the sangha smiled, laughed, ate mindfully, and offered beautiful songs from the heart.

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Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, and David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, are engaged to be married; they practice with the Organic Garden Sangha and Ripening Sangha in Southern California. The Venerable’s Dharma talk was translated into English by Sister Dang Nghiem.

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Svein Myreng,True Door

Our dear brother and Dharma Teacher Svein Myreng, True Door, passed from this life on Monday morning, April 16, 2007. He had come to Boston for heart surgery.

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Svein’s whole life had been affected by congenital heart troubles. They were a door that brought him to the practice. Through the awareness of his beating heart, he learned to practice mindfulness and taught many others to share in the practice. He spent many summers at Plum Village with his wife Eevi and their son Kyrre. In 1994 he received the lamp transmission from Thay and became a Dharmacharya. In 1999 his book of poetry, Plum Poems, was published by Parallax Press. He also translated many of Thay’s books into Norwegian. He led Days of Mindfulness in the Netherlands and France as well as in Norway. Together Svein and Eevi gave special support to children in Vietnam who needed heart surgery. With some friends he wrote a story of the Buddha for children in Norway.

Svein had a very close relationship with his son Kyrre. When Kyrre was about one and a half years old, Svein and Eevi and Kyrre came to visit Boston. Svein explained that he was in no rush to teach Kyrre lots of words. He wanted him to experience life as it was without words getting in the way. One of Kyrre’s favorite words was “moo” which he used for all animal sounds. In Norwegian it sounds like “meu.” Kyrre took great pleasure in every animal he saw. We agreed that he was having a wonderful time living in the present “meu-ment.”

That was how Svein lived. His cardiologist, Dr. Michael Landzberg, commented that he had never seen a patient come to him with so little fear. Svein was ready to have an operation the next day if it would make things better. No fear, no worry. Only the present moment.

Svein knew how to have great joy in every moment. And he knew how to teach that through his poems and dharma talks, through his smile and his beaming eyes. Even now he is teaching us. We are blessed to have such a teacher in our lives.

Elizabeth Wood, True Good Birth, practices with Boston Old Path Sangha in Massachusetts.

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Tears
Your tears in my eyes
My tears in your eyes
On this path where
joy and sorrow merge —
amazing!
Each raindrop makes a
greener leaf.

Grace
There is a stillness
simpler than silence,
a peace deeper
than calm.
There is a shimmering
in the dark soil,
shades of trees,
in old moss, and the twisted
forms of branches,
that hold us, carry us
and nurture us.
In a flash of the eye,
laughter, or a tear.
No effort needed, no self to seek,
just grace remains.

–Svein Myreng, True Door

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Heart to Heart

 

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on the Second Mindfulness Training (of the Five). For the Autumn 2007 issue, we invite you to write on the Third; please send your submissions, under 500 words, to editor@mindfulnessbell.org by July 1, 2007.

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The Second Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

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Aware of the realities of today’s global economy, I realize that as a U.S. citizen it is impossible for me to live without stealing from and exploiting someone else somewhere in the world. Though I try to live and consume mindfully, I know that my own lifestyle rests on the exploitation of others. It is, for instance, almost impossible to buy clothes not made in sweatshops, where the workers (mostly young women of color) are treated mercilessly — forced to work twelve-to sixteen-hour days, six to seven days a week; paid a pittance that is sometimes not even enough to live on; sometimes forced to work unpaid overtime; subject to sexual harassment by their bosses; and forbidden to form labor unions that might empower them to work for better conditions. Most likely, the computer on which I write this was also made under such conditions, as were many of the other things I use in my daily life. In order to cultivate mindfulness of these grim realities, when I put on my clothes in the morning, I look at the tags on my clothing to see where they were made. Then I try to visualize the workers, while reciting this gatha: “As I get dressed, I remember with gratitude those who made my clothes, and with compassion, the conditions under which they work.”

I do try to consume mindfully and ethically where I can–buying recycled paper goods, ecologically friendly cleaning products, cage-free eggs, leather-free shoes — but there are limits to what I can do as an individual. Understanding interbeing, I see that many of my choices are conditioned by the larger global society of which we are all a part. I cannot buy products that were not made in sweatshops if they are not available to me when I go shopping — unavailable, because our economy is built on the principle of maximizing profits ahead of human and ecological needs. It is a race to the bottom, where corporations compete with each other, scouring the world for ever cheaper labor, and thirdworld governments compete with each other to attract business by providing this ever cheaper labor. Even my ability to buy those ethically sound products that I can rests on my own economic privilege, the fact that I can afford to spend a little extra money and such economic privilege inevitably rests on a system where others lack such privilege, living lives of poverty and exploitation. Understanding interbeing, I see that however mindful my actions, I still participate in a society based on theft and exploitation.

Understanding interbeing, I see that if I wish to live a life where I and others do not steal from and exploit others, it is not enough to look at my own individual choices when I go shopping. We must work together, collectively, to change the shape of our global society — to create an economy where, at the very least, everyone has a job where they are paid a living wage, treated with dignity, and allowed to form unions that can give collective voice to their concerns. The public good must be given greater priority than private profit. Only then will we all be able to live in a way that we do not have to steal from and exploit others.

Matthew S. Williams
Reverent Joy of the Heart
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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Thay often says that if you have never gone hungry, you won’t appreciate the value of food. You take your safety, your freedom to move around, for granted. When you live behind locked doors, and don’t feel safe on the streets or walking in the countryside alone, then you know how valuable is the freedom to move around safely. This is not a freedom that we enjoy in our country, South Africa.

I live in a country where it is not safe to leave your doors open. You normally lock your doors when you go out, but we have to keep them locked even when we are at home, because this is the best time for criminals — they don’t have to break and enter –they just enter. This is not a nice way to live — behind bars in a kind of private prison to keep you safe in your own home.

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We have one of the highest crime rates in the world, and much of it is violent crime. The situation in South Africa has come to be because of the past history and collective karma that we have created. Everybody knows the story of Apartheid. The past is past, but it is still with us in the present moment. We have to work very hard to change it and to create a better future. We have undergone major transformation in our country under the bodhisattva Nelson Mandela, but social change takes much longer than political change.

We live in a hard country, and it can make you a hard person, or it can soften you and make you more compassionate. I used to be hard and uncaring before I encountered the Dharma. Since then I am constantly trying to increase my compassion, open my heart wider, and become a bodhisattva. I think of the bodhisattvas who go to the darkest places in order to help, and sometimes it feels like this path was given to me by default. “Darkest Africa” is my home, and many bodhisattvas are needed on this continent, which is plagued by tribal wars, famine, AIDS, poverty, and crime.

As aspiring bodhisattvas, there are many teachings to help us cultivate our capacity to love:

  • The teaching on Buddha nature: All beings are the same, we all have the same potential, we all want happiness and don’t want suffering.
  • The teaching on cause and effect: We take responsibility for what we are experiencing without blaming others. It is our own karma; we are reaping what we sowed. Even if we personally did nothing in this particular lifetime, we may have contributed through our non-action, our apathy.
  • The teaching on dependent origination: Everything depends on causes and conditions. Nobody is inherently “bad” — people act in certain ways because of causes and conditions that are often beyond their control. This understanding helps us to cultivate compassion, to open the door of our heart so that we can love instead of hate. Thay’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names” about the sea pirate, helped me a lot. Here is an excerpt:

I am the 12 year< old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open
the door of compassion.

These wonderful teachings help us to transform our minds, our emotions, our ways of being. We do this for ourselves and for the world, to relieve ourselves of suffering and to create a better world in the future because happiness and suffering are universal. I know that if you suffer, you will make me suffer. We know that if we exploit people or take unfair advantage of them, oppress them, discriminate against them on grounds of race, culture, religion, gender, we are committing a kind of theft — we are stealing their dignity to be who they are. This will make them suffer and it will make us suffer, because one day their suffering will impact on our lives and become our suffering as well.

We are all creators. We are creating all the time. We are responsible for creating the kind of world that we live in, and this is why the Mindfulness Trainings are so important. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can create a better future based on love not fear, on giving not getting, on helping not harming, on supporting not exploiting, on building up not breaking down, on creating the conditions for happiness not suffering. Then we can all live in the Pure Land. The Buddha said:

If you want to know your past lives,
Look into your present condition.
If you want to know your future,
Look into your present actions.

Carol Leela Verity
True Stream of Light
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

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Retreat at Plum Village

By Cameron Barnett

Over the summer I went to a Buddhist retreat in Plum Village, France. Plum Village is a community of Buddhist monks and nuns located about an hour and a half from Bordeaux. The head of this community is a man named Thich Nhat Hanh. He is a Vietnamese monk who was forced to leave Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

He was forced to leave because he was opposed to the war and both sides wanted him to join them. He left Vietnam to come to the United States to speak out against the war and when he tried to return to Vietnam, the government refused to let him back in. He then moved to France where he remains today.

Plum Village is made up of four communities where the monks and nuns live during the year. At different times during the year Thich Nhat Hanh offers retreats where people can come and stay for one or two weeks. The community where I stayed was very peaceful with a meditation hall, dining room, and ceremonial bell located in the very center. I lived in a farm house which was about a ten-minute walk from the center. It was an eight-room house which held about twenty people. Altogether at the retreat there were about 700 people coming from fifty countries.

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Hearing Thich Nhat Hanh and visiting Plum Village were so important to me because it showed me the importance of being in the moment and taking things step by step. Thay taught me to feel sympathy for those who are mean to others or who picked on me because their souls were not better off for what they were doing. He is an extraordinary person. In his presence I felt that somehow anything that I had ever done wrong was OK, and I was happy.

When I returned home, I was much more relaxed and helped some new kids in the school dorm move in. One particular individual who before had picked on me came up to me the next day after I got back and made fun of me for going on this retreat. Although it was an extremely offensive remark, I thought back to what Thich Nhat Hanh had told me and simply replied, “How are you today?” He yelled at me again and I said, “I had a great break, how was yours?” It took about a week but by the next Monday, he no longer picked on me. Today we are good friends.

My teachers also noticed a change in me. From the second I got back to school I was much more relaxed, calm, and patient. I was also happier. Before when someone had done something I did not agree with, I put up a shell and refused to talk to that person. Thich Nhat Hanh taught me that shutting out the person was no better than picking on him and that if I shut someone out once it would become a habit. With this in mind I worked hard on becoming friendly to everyone and listening to what they were saying. It was a truly amazing experience and it has changed my life forever.

Cameron Barnett, age 13, and his mother JoAnn attended the family retreat at Plum Village in 2006, having previously attended a family retreat in Massachusetts

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Love Equals

By Emily Hilsberg

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What love means to me is I love spending time with my family and friends. What I love to do is going to Deer Park. It is a Buddhist monastery. It is very unusual. Deer Park has a Tea Room. The tea room is at Solidity Hamlet and Clarity Hamlet. You can also have bonfires. Dennis and his dog Smokey had a bonfire with us. It can be very cold at night. Trust me it gets super cold. That’s what love means to me, being with my family. Deer Park is where Monks and Nuns live. To live there you need to shave your head and wear brown and blue outfits. There is a koi fish pond.

Emily Hilsberg, age 10, lives with her family in Culver City, California. She received the  Two Promises at Deer Park and her Dharma name is Serenity Sunrise of the Heart.

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Deep Relaxation for Children

By Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

At the Family Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park, the children led the deep relaxation for the whole sangha. It was so sweet! Here are excerpts from that practice.

Deep relaxation is a wonderful chance to allow our bodies to rest. When our body is at ease and relaxed, our mind is also calm and at peace. The practice of deep relaxation helps our body and mind to heal. Please take the time to practice it often— for five or ten minutes when you wake up in the morning, before going to bed in the evening, or during the middle of the day. The most important thing is to enjoy it.

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Please lie down comfortably on your back. Close your eyes. Allow your arms to rest gently on either side of your body. Let your legs and feet relax, opening outwards.

    • We begin by following our breathing. When we breathe in, we feel our tummy rise up. When we breathe out, we feel our tummy go down again. Our breathing comes in and out like waves on the ocean, very relaxed, very peaceful. Just notice the rise and fall of your belly.
    • As you breathe in and out, become aware of your whole body lying down. With each out-breath, feel yourself relax deeper and deeper into the floor, letting go of everything: worries, fear, or thoughts.
    • Breathing in, I feel my two hands. Breathing out, I completely relax all the muscles in my two hands. Breathing in, I feel lucky to have two good hands; breathing out, I smile to my two hands. My two hands are so precious! With my two hands, I can paint. I can draw.I can write. I can hold hands with my friend, and much, much more.
    • Breathing in, I feel my two arms. Breathing out, I allow my arms to completely relax. Breathing in, I feel happy to have two strong arms. Breathing out, I let go of any tight muscles and I feel joy and ease in my arms. With my arms I can hug Mom, Dad, Grandma, or Grandpa. Now I can say thank you to my two arms.
    • Breathing in, I feel my shoulders. Breathing out, I let my shoulders rest and give all their weight to the floor. Breathing in, I send my love to my shoulders and breathing out, I smile to my shoulders. Every time I breathe out, I feel them relax more and more deeply.
    • Breathing in, I feel my two feet. Breathing out, I smile to my feet. I wiggle my toes, all ten of them. How nice to have two feet! With my two feet, I can walk and run, play sports, dance, and ride a bike. And when I am tired, my two feet love to rest. Breathing in, I stretch out my feet. Breathing out, I let my feet relax. Thank you, feet!
    • Breathing in, I feel my legs. Breathing out, I enjoy my two legs. My legs help me stand up straight, each day a little taller. With my two legs, I can sit cross-legged or do the splits or walk back and forth to school. It feels so good to have my legs. Breathing in, I stretch out my legs. Breathing out, I let my legs relax.
    • Breathing in, I feel my two eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes. Breathing in, I let all the many muscles around my eyes relax. Breathing out, I send my two eyes my love and care. My two eyes are a gift! I can see birds flying in the bright blue sky. When I’m sad, I can cry and let the tears flow. Breathing in, I squeeze my eyes tight. Breathing out, I release them and let them relax.
    • Breathing in, I feel my lungs grow bigger. When I breathe out, I feel them shrink. Breathing in, I feel so happy to have two good lungs. Breathing out, I smile to them with kindness. They bring oxygen into my body and give me the power to speak, to sing, to shout, to laugh. When I was just born, the first thing I did was take a deep in-breath. I breathe the fresh air into my lungs and breathing out, let them rest and relax. Thank you, lungs for helping me breathe!
    • Breathing in, I know my heart is beating on the left side of my chest. Breathing out, I enjoy my heart and let it rest. With my in-breath, I send my love to my heart. With my out-breath, I smile to my heart. My heart keeps me alive and it is always there for me, every minute, every day. Breathing in, I know that my heart loves me. Breathing out, I promise to live in a way that will help my heart to be healthy and strong. With each exhalation, I feel my heart relaxing more and more, and I feel each cell in my heart smiling with ease and joy.
    • Now, I bring my attention to a place in my body that may be sick or in pain. Breathing in, I allow this area to rest, breathing out, I smile to it with kindness. I know that there are other parts of my body that are still strong and healthy. I feel the support, energy, and love of the healthy parts of my body penetrating the weak area, soothing and healing it. As I breathe in, I know my body is a miracle because it can heal when it gets sick. As I breathe out, I let go of any worry or fear I might hold in my body. Breathing in and out, I smile with love and confidence to the area of my body that is not well.
    • Breathing in and out, I enjoy the feeling of my whole body lying down, very relaxed and calm. I smile to my whole body and send my love and compassion to my whole body.Now the practice of deep relaxation is over. You can wiggle your hands and feet and slowly stretch. Then roll on to one side. When you are ready, you can open your eyes. Take your time to get up, calmly and lightly. Enjoy carrying the mindful energy you have generated into the rest of the day.

If you like, you can now sing a few relaxing songs or lullabies, or play soft music for a few minutes.

Now the practice of deep relaxation is over. You can wiggle your hands and feet and slowly stretch. Then roll on to one side. When you are ready, you can open your eyes. Take your time to get up, calmly and lightly. Enjoy carrying the mindful energy you have generated into the rest of the day.

Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem is a nun living at Deer Park Monastery.

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Brett Cook: Collaborative Artist

Imb45-Brett1dentity of Interbeing:
Recognizing Difference and Seeing Ourselves
A Social Collaboration by Brett Cook, Spring 2006

The Identity of Interbeing Project was a group exercise of looking deeply that culminated in a large public work and gallery exhibition at the Packer Collegiate Academy in Brooklyn, New York .A series of contemplative exercises with almost 1000 students, faculty, administrators, caregivers, parents, and residents of the community made up this social collaboration that included a variety of reflective artworks now permanently displayed in the school. Social collaboration is an interactive, multidisciplinary experience in the practice of peace that highlights interbeing. Through participatory models of creation, the making of music, dance, words, and visual art become vehicles of expression where the self and other can disappear. A collective bond is experienced when collaborators recognize what they make, in object and action, is bigger than any individual. The point of the work is the process, andtheprocessisthepointofthework.Bycreatingthespacesforparticipants to express their individual selves in an inclusive way, there is the manifestation of interbeing – recognition of difference in us that at the same time shows our interconnectedness.

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The school gallery space where they are sitting was transformed overnight. The walls, covered in red paper, were home to large scale drawings of participants coloring outside, documentation of the entire project, a video made by students and both written and audio reflections.

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Brett Cook, Bodhisattva Aspiration of the Heart, is a creative person who crafts objects, experiences, and feelings that defy classification in any singular discipline, to relieve suffering in the world. www.brett-cook.com

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Book Reviews

mb45-BookReviews1Journeying East
Conversations on Aging and Dying

By Victoria Jean Dimidjian
Parallax Press, 2004

Reviewed by William Menza

Journeying East is an extraordinary primer on the spiritual, psychological, and physical components of getting old and dying — and living a mindful life. Author Victoria Jean Dimidjian is a professor of education at Florida Gulf Coast University and founding member of the Naples, Florida Community of Mindfulness. She has assembled a profound and practical collection of insights from Ram Dass, Frank Ostaseski, Joan Halifax, Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Eigen, Rodney Smith, Sister Chan Khong, John Welwood, and Norman Fischer.

In interviews with Dimidjian these teachers transmit a remarkable blend of Eastern and Western wisdom. They tell us that to understand death or prepare for it we have to be deeply in touch with what is happening in the present moment, even as the body dissolves.

Thich Nhat Hanh says: “There is no journeying east, there is no journeying west. We live in the now.” Frank Ostaseski tells us: “You cannot go into the room where someone is dying and not pay attention. Everything is pulling you into the moment.” Norman Fischer says: “I think that death is our greatest teaching. Dying is a way of living, a meditation practice, the most fundamental and most profound of all meditation practices.”

We are cautioned by John Welwood to “be careful with what the death industry might be trying to package for us about knowing what death is all about.” If you have an idea about “a good death” you are creating expectations that will interfere with your unique experience of death. We each need to find our own individual death. “This is an important moment in your life — the final passage — and you don’t want to “live someone else’s version of that!”

The book has an appendix on Internet resources and another on suggested activities such as writing or videotaping a living will, an advance health directive, a durable power of attorney, a will, a good-bye letter. To demystify death and make it normal and natural Dimidjian suggests taking classes on aging and dying, visiting a local hospice, and talking about death with your family. This reminds me of the Meditation or Contemplation on Death, like the one detailed in Thay’s book The Blooming of a Lotus, where we envision the various stages of a decaying dead body — one day this is what we will be.

mb45-BookReviews2Understanding Our Mind

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2006
Softcover, 251 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

The first time I encountered the Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness was in Thich Nhat Hanh’s previous book on this subject, Transformation at the Base. About midway through the text, I got into trouble trying to intellectually grasp the teachings. While I did finish the book, it was with scant understanding. Now Thich Nhat Hanh has made these teachings from the Abhidharma (literally super-Dharma) more   accessible. In Understanding Our Mind, Thay provides an in-depth look at this primary text of original Buddhism on the nature of consciousness, applying it to modern life. The verses, and thus the book, are divided into six sections: store consciousness, or the seed bed; manas, or the mind root; mind  consciousness; sense consciousness; the nature of reality, or non-self; and the path of practice.

Breathing in, I approached this new book by first reading the Fifty Verses. Breathing out, I made some notes. For example, verse Ten refers to the five universal mental formations. For handy reference, I penciled them into the margin: 1) contact; 2) attention; 3) feeling; 4) perception or conceptualization; and 5) volition. I thought of how these work in succession: When we smell a tasty food, the odor commands our attention: contact and attention. Often, then, we feel hungry: feeling. Next we approach the stove and take the lid off the pan. We see the food: perception or conceptualization; and finally, we decide to taste it: volition.

Mind root, manas, the verses explain, has its interbeing with these five universals. In fact, manas inter-exists with all thinking and affliction. Further, all that stems from the mind root is indeterminate and obscured. In his commentary, the author uses the metaphor of the ocean to explain indeterminate and obscured: “The ocean is salty, so all drops of water in the ocean are salty at the same time.”

Verse Twenty-Two refers to the stages of the bodhisattva path. Many of us have experienced the first stage of the bodhisattva path, transforming afflictions. And perhaps when we are well focused, we enjoy a preview of the tenth stage, transforming our belief in a separate self, nirvana.

Understanding Our Mind contains the central illumination of Mahayana Buddhism — that we are all buddhas-to-be. Much more than an intellectual exercise, Thich Nhat Hanh’s discourse is a deep inspiration, underlining for those of us raised in the Christian tradition our early, child-like belief in resurrection. Afflictions, we learn, are none other than enlightenment! We can see how this great mirror wisdom works in our own lives.

When our beloved says something that hurts us, Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to practice by closing our eyes, breathing mindfully in and out, and imagining the two of us one hundred years from now. After three breaths, when we open our eyes, we’ll no longer feel hurt; instead, we’ll want to hug our beloved. What I find continually amazing is Thich Nhat Hanh’s ability to bring liberation into daily life. When we go from being hurt to being mindful and loving, he tells us we are touching nirvana!

“Samsara [the endless cycle of birth and death and its inherent suffering] and suchness [the nature of nirvana] are not two; they are one and the same.” Once we realize this, we can smile “the smile of non-fear.” Even in pain, when we are centered, we can give ourselves fully to peace.

mb45-BookReviews3First Buddhist Women
Poems and Stories of Awakening

By Susan Murcott
Parallax Press, 2006

Reviewed by Phillip Toy

“Why has Gautama come here? To take away our sons and make our daughters widows!” — The Mahavagga

This masterful re-issue of a 1991 original — ten years in the making, five of which it took to write — showcases Susan Murcott’s scholarship, coupled with considerable poetic sensitivities. This marriage of talents seamlessly brings to life a pivotal period for buddhadharma in general, but more specifi y, the religious, social, and political context for Buddhism’s first enlightened women. The common threads of loss, estrangement, marginalization, madness and, finally, liberation are eloquently and simply woven and illustrated in the enlightenment poetry (the Therigatha) of eight of the most important groups of women of that day.

Pajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and foster mother who raised him, and consequently lost him to “the homeless life,” became the first ordained woman and the first woman teacher. She founded the first order of nuns. She writes: “I have reached the state where everything stops.” Early in her nunhood she challenged her famed foster son, via his chief disciple, Ananda, on the first of The Eight Special Rules: even the most senior nun must bow down before the most novice monk.

The privileged Patacara (meaning “cloak walker”) having lost her son and entire prominent family in a fire, went mad and wandered in circles dragging her clothes to ribbons till they fell off her body. Townsfolk drove her off with sticks and rubbish. Gautama tracked her down: “Sister, recover your presence of mind!” She says, “I concentrated my mind the way you train a good horse.” Eventually Patacara’s following was second only to Pajapati’s.

The pabbajita, or wandering heretics and disciples, some of whom were forest-dwellers, write a curious mix of diligence and desperation. Frequently, as with the other groups portrayed, traumatic personal events were springboards for deep religious experiences and new beginnings — even, indeed, enlightenment: “I have ended the hunger of gods and humans, and I will not wander from birth to birth. I have no thought of becoming.”

Whether wise woman and teacher, mother, wife, old woman, prostitute, courtesan or beautiful woman — each role’s poetry describes its unique path to yet a common destination. Murcott’s ardent, scholarly grasp of her material is polished by an unspoken, intensely personal treatment that hints at her own journey — obviously similar in many ways to her book’s subjects’.

Supported as it is throughout by copious notes and footnotes, by an exhaustive bibliography including unpublished theses, an index of poems and poets, a pithy glossary, and a striking appendix of “The Rules of the Nun’s Sangha,” this volume belongs on every serious Buddhist student’s bookshelf. A compact and artful explication of the Therigatha, sixth century B.C.E. enlightenment poetry of the Buddhist nuns and the earliest known collection of women’s religious poetry, it delineates the way so many of us come to the Dharma — out of brokenness, irretrievable loss, confusion and sorrow.

These eloquent lines, which appear in some form in almost every poem, express it poignantly: “I remove my shoes/ wash my feet/ sit down beside the Buddha/ I am quenched, I am cool.”

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The Birth of Blue Cliff Monastery

An Opportunity to Support the New Retreat Center in New York

Dear Friends,

It is with great joy that we, the brothers and sisters of Plum Village with the support of Thay, announce to you that we have finally found a property for establishing our monastery near one of the biggest and most turbulent cities of the USA, New York City! Seventy miles from New York City and one hour’s drive from Newark, New Jersey, it is located in Walker Valley, Sullivan County, close enough for our lay sangha members on the East Coast to come practice regularly. We have been doing that successfully on the West Coast in Deer Park Monastery.

The deepest wish of Thay, our 81-year-old teacher, is to be able to offer effective Dharma doors to bring about the collective awakening that will produce much more peace and happiness and less violence in the world, and save our planet earth from destruction. We already have a center on the West Coast, we wish to be able to have a center on the East Coast. We can only do this with the cooperation of you, our lay friends.

During our summer family retreat and our Christmas holiday retreat on the East Coast, the monks and nuns of Green Mountain Dharma Center and Maple Forest Monastery are nourished by the presence of many hundreds of lay friends, among them many young adults, teens, and children. We can share and learn more about the practices of deep listening, loving speech, and reconciliation in order to bring them into the world. Our two above-mentioned East Coast centers are, as you may know, not allowed to offer retreats. When we have to rent a venue it makes a much greater expense than when we organize in our own practice center. Often there are lay friends who cannot afford this. This is why with the support of Thay, the Plum Village monastic sangha has decided to purchase a new property on the East Coast.

The property is 80 acres, 65 of which are forest. It is a former conference and retreat center (where we can receive guests) with forest, a creek, and two small ponds. It includes thirteen buildings with thirty-five rooms. Each room can accommodate four to six people, and has a private bathroom. The dining room holds about 200 people. The owner is selling it to us at the sum of $2,650,000. This new practice center is certainly much less rustic than Green Mountain Center! We have borrowed $1,442,000. Part of this is money with which the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village was planning to build its large meditation hall, part is from Deer Park, and part from kind friends. We need to raise the rest in cash and welcome your donation in any amount.

Thay has named this center Blue Cliff Monastery. On top of a hill, it has magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. We know that with our love, peace, and joy this place will become a Pure Land for the fourfold sangha. Thay and the Plum Village Sangha are calling on you to help this Pure Land manifest. We very much need your spiritual and financial support. We are going to organize our OI retreat and summer family retreat there in June— we hope to see you there!

Respectfully,

The Sangha of MFM & GMDC

For more information, please contact:
Green Mountain Dharma Center, P.O.Box 182, Hartland-Four Corners VT 05049
(802) 457-9442 (for Br. Phap Dang, Br. Vo Ngai)
(802) 436-1103 (for Sr. Annabel, Sr. Thieu Nghiem, Sr. Gioi Nghiem)

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