Dharma Talk: Our Environment: Touching the Gift of Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh

At the Buell Theater in Denver, Colorado on August 29, 2007, Thich Nhat Hanh delivered a provocative talk on the effects of humanity’s lack of mindfulness toward the planet we call home. Thay later elaborated on this theme — and proposed an elegant course of action — in a letter to the sangha.

Thich Nhat HanhWhen we produce a thought that is full of anger, fear, or despair, that thought has an immediate effect on our health and on the health of the world. We may like to arrange our life in such a way that we will not produce thoughts of that kind very often. Producing a thought is already karma or action, and that is our continuation into the future.

mb47-dharma2Our speech may be an expression of right speech as recommended by the Buddha. Something we say may manifest our loving- kindness, our nondiscrimination, and our willingness to bring relief. After having uttered such a word we feel better in our body and mind. We receive healing and everyone in the world benefits from our speech of loving-kindness, forgiveness, and compassion. It is possible for us to say such things several times a day, bringing healing and transformation to ourselves and the world.

And when we perform a physical act that has the power to protect, save, support, or bring relief, that also brings an element of healing to us and to the world. When you are full of compassion, even if you don’t take action, action will take you. We may repeat such actions several times a day because that kind of love and compassion calls for action.

When we look at an orange tree we see it is producing beautiful leaves, blossoms, and oranges. These are the best things that an orange tree can produce and offer to the world. If we are human beings we also make offerings to the world every moment of our daily life — our thoughts, our speech, and our actions. We want to offer the best kind of thoughts, the best kind of speech, and the best kind of action; these are our continuation whether we want it or not. Karmahetu, action as cause, will bring about karmaphala, action as fruit. We are continued into the future through our own actions.

A Beautiful Continuation

When this body disintegrates we cannot bring along anything like diplomas or fame or wealth. We have to give up everything. The only thing that follows us is our actions, the fruit of our thinking, of our speech, and of our acts during our lifetime.

Of course we can assure a beautiful continuation. If we have manifested one time it means that we have manifested several times already. This can be described as past lives. And if we have manifested in the past and in the present moment we shall be manifested in the future in one way or another.

To think that after the disintegration of this body there will be nothing left is a naïve way of thinking. With deep observation we know that nothing is really born and nothing can die. Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Those of us who have tried Buddhist meditation have seen that. Before the cloud manifested as a cloud she was something else — the water in the ocean, the heat produced by the sun, water vapor. The cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from something, from many things. The moment of the so-called birth of the cloud is only a moment of continuation.

Many of us have learned from the Buddha about the Middle Way, a path that transcends pairs of opposites like birth and death, being and nonbeing. Reality is free from these notions.

When we say that God is the ground of being, you may ask, who is the ground of nonbeing? Theologians like Paul Tillich say that God is the ground of being. But looking deeply we see that the notions of being and nonbeing cannot be applied to reality. The truth is that reality transcends both the notions of being and nonbeing. To be or not to be, that is not the question [laughter].

God cannot be described in terms of being and nonbeing. In Buddhism we have the expression nirvana or suchness, which means reality-in-itself. That kind of reality-in-itself cannot be described in terms of birth and death, being and nonbeing.

If your beloved has abandoned the form in which you used to see him or her, follow the advice of the Buddha and look deeply. Your beloved is still there, maybe much closer than you had thought.mb47-dharma3

Double Retribution

Our karma, our actions, continue us. And they will manifest in two aspects. That manifestation has already started.

In Buddhism the term “retribution” refers to the fruit of your actions in the future. Retribution has two meanings: the first is our five skandhas — form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness; the other side of retribution is the environment. Retribution should be seen in its double nature. You are your environment; your environment is what you have created personally and collectively. That is why there is another step for us to take — to transcend the duality between our five skandhas and our environment.

When you look at the stars, the moon, you know that you are the stars, the moon. And when you look at the mountain, the forest, you know that you are the mountain, the forest. There is always interaction between the two forms of retribution. In fact elements like air, water, earth, fire are always going in and going out. When we breathe out, something goes out to the environment. When we breathe in, something goes into our body. So you are not only here but there.

Cognitive science and neuroscience ask about the relationship between the “in here” and the “out there.” We perceive reality subjectively and we ask the question whether the external reality is exactly the same as the subjective reality. If you pursue meditation deeply you will be able to transcend the duality of in here and out there.

You may believe that this flower is out there, but I am not sure of that at all. Whether the flower that you see there is something in your consciousness or outside of your consciousness, that is not an easy question to answer. In quantum physics or neuroscience or cognitive science it is a very hard question. But the Buddha has given us all kinds of hints so that we can touch reality as it is.

The Environment Is You

There are two kinds of environment: the social environment and the natural environment. In Buddhist practice you should take care of your five skandhas but you should also take care of your environment because the environment is you. You help create that environment, whether that is the social environment or the natural environment.mb47-dharma4

A long time ago I wrote a small book on meditation with the title The Sun My Heart. In one sitting meditation, when I focused my attention on my heart — breathing in, I am aware of my heart, breathing out, I smile to my heart — suddenly I realized that this is not the only heart that I have. I have many other hearts. Suppose that I look at the sun in the sky. I know that it is also another heart of mine. If this heart failed I would die right away. But if the other heart, the sun, explodes or stops functioning as the sun, I would also die right away. So there is a heart inside my body and a heart outside my body; the sun is one of my hearts.

When you see things like that you are no longer sure that you are only inside of your skin, and you can transcend very easily the duality of self and non-self.

In Buddhist psychology we learn that there are many seeds, called bijas, in the depth of our consciousness. We have the seed of fear, anger, and despair deep down in our consciousness. As these seeds are watered they manifest in the upper realm of our consciousness in the form of energy. We call them mental formations. If the seed of fear sleeps quietly down there we are somehow peaceful, but if the seed of fear is touched it manifests as the mental formation of fear and we suffer. The practice is to keep the seeds down there and not give them the chance to manifest.

Neuroscientists and biologists tell us that the genes in our cells cannot turn on by themselves; they need the environment. That is why it is very important to assure that you are in a good environment, that you do something to improve the quality of your environment, to ensure that only the good genes, the good seeds are turned on each day. That is the practice of protecting ourselves, our children, our family, and our society so as not to allow the negative seeds to be watered so much.

In Buddhist psychology we speak of contact between the sense organs and the objects of perception. Suppose Sister Pine invites the bell to sound, and the sound stimulates our ear. The mental formation called touch or contact will bring about another mental formation called feeling, whether that feeling is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If that feeling is not something unusual, if it is of no importance, then store consciousness ignores it. We have many kinds of these feelings throughout the day. If the feeling is strong enough there is a mental formation called attention. If the feeling is deep enough in us it crosses a certain threshold and then there is attention — manaskara in Sanskrit.

The Practice of Appropriate Attention

The environment touches a seed in us, drawing our attention to that particular point, and turns on a mental formation. That seed may be the seed of mindfulness or the seed of craving, anger, or confusion. If you live in a practice center the sound of the bell has a special meaning because you train yourself to understand it in a particular way. The sound of the bell means “please go home to yourself, enjoy your breathing and be fully present in the here and the now.” Our store consciousness has learned it well. Every time we hear the sound of the bell, without making any effort, any decision, we go back to our breath and we breathe at least three times, in out, in out, in out. This brings us peace and joy, and the insight that we are alive — what a miracle!

The sound of the bell brings about appropriate attention, the kind of attention that turns on good things like mindfulness and joy. But there are other sounds and sights that bring our attention to negative things like craving, fear, anger, distress. We have to organize our environment to have elements that are conducive to appropriate attention, otherwise it will bring about inappropriate attention. For instance, television programs might contain elements that can turn on the worst things in our children. When a child finishes elementary school she has seen 100,000 acts of violence and 8,000 murders on television. That is too much! In the name of freedom we continue to produce films that are full of violence, anger, fear, and craving.

Looking deeply if you see that your social environment is not conducive to peace, joy, compassion, and non-violence, you have to do something to change it or seek ways to move toward another environment that is safer to us and our children. Even if we have to take another job that will bring us a meager salary, live in a smaller house, or use a smaller car, we have to accept that in order for us and our children to be better protected.

If you are depressed you may have consumed sights, sounds, touch, and so on, that have stimulated the negative seeds in you and made them manifest in your daily life. That is why the practice includes taking care of the five skandhas but also the social environment.

According to the teachings of Buddhism everything is impermanent. Therefore it is possible for us to change our environment for the better. As a sangha we may want to sit down and have a Dharma discussion to find ways to improve the quality of our social environment. We can practice as a family, as a neighborhood, as a city, or as a nation. The social environment is crucial in determining our future.

Mindful Consumption in the Kingdom of God

The fifth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings in Buddhism is about mindful consumption. We have to consume in such a way so as not to bring toxins like fear and anger into ourselves.

The difficult situation in which we find ourselves has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We have created an environment that is conducive to violence, hate, discrimination, and despair. Violence is now everywhere; in the family there is domestic violence. Our young people have become too violent and their teachers don’t know how to help them deal with their anger and fear.

We are doing violence to our environment and to nature. We are now facing global warming and weather changes. Even the Kingdom of God is impermanent. Even the Pure Land of the Buddha is impermanent.

When we look deeply into ourselves we can identify elements of the Kingdom of God that are available in the here and the now. That pine tree standing on the mountain is so beautiful, solid, and green. To me the pine tree belongs to the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha. To me the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha is not a vague idea, it is a reality. And your beautiful child with her fresh smile, she belongs to the Kingdom of God and you also, you belong to the Kingdom of God. But because you don’t know how to handle the Kingdom of God you are doing harm. The Kingdom of God is such a gift. If you are filled with mindfulness and concentration you can touch the Pure Land of the Buddha right in the here and the now.

In the Gospel there is the story of a farmer who discovers a treasure in a small piece of land [Matthew 13:44-46]. After the discovery he distributed all the other lands that he owned and kept just the land with the treasure. When you have such a treasure you do not need other belongings. With the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, we may realize that happiness.

When you are inhabited by the energy of mindfulness and concentration, every step you make takes you into the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha. The practice taught by our teacher should lead us to the treasure; we don’t have to run after fame, wealth, power, or sex.

mb47-dharma5If we are capable of recognizing that beautiful river as something that belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will do our best to preserve it and not allow it to be polluted. If we recognize that this planet belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will cherish and protect it so that we can enjoy it for a long time. And our children and their children will have a chance to enjoy it.

Mindfulness helps us to be aware of what is going on. Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent. We are eating our mother, our father, our children. We are eating the earth. Scientists tell us that if we can reduce the eating of meat by fifty percent it will be enough to change the situation of our planet.

The Buddha on Global Warming

I have sat with the Buddha for long periods and consulted him about the situation of global warming. The teaching of the Buddha on this is very clear. It is a very strong teaching. The Buddha said that when someone realizes that he or she has to die, that person will first of all revolt against the diagnosis. The fear of dying is always there deep down in our store consciousness. And the Buddha advises us not to run away from that fear. Instead, we should bring it up in order to recognize it.

Breathing in, I know I am of the nature to grow old.
Breathing out, I know I cannot escape old age.

Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to getsick, terminally ill.
Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape sickness.

Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to die.
Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape dying.

Breathing in, I know that one day I will have to let goof everything and everyone I cherish.
Breathing out, there is no way to bring them along.

This practice helps you to accept old age, sickness, and death as realities, facts that you cannot escape. After you have accepted this you feel much better. Those of us who have been diagnosed as having AIDS or cancer react the same way. We cannot accept it, we struggle with ourselves for a long time. Finally we accept it and in that moment we find peace. And when we find peace, we are more relaxed, and we have a chance to overcome the sickness.

I have known people with cancer able to survive ten, twenty, even thirty years, because of their capacity to accept and to live peacefully. The Buddha told me that the same thing is true with our civilization. If we continue like this our civilization will come to an end. Before this civilization the earth has known other civilizations. Many civilizations have died because mankind was not wise enough. And the same thing will be true for ours. If we continue to consume like this, if we don’t care about protecting this wonderful planet, we will allow it to be burned with global warming. Maybe seventy percent of mankind will die. The ecosystem will be destroyed to a very large extent and we will need millions of years to start a new civilization. Everything is impermanent.

mb47-dharma6Many of us do not accept this. Oh no! God has created this world and God will not allow things like that to happen. But the fact is that we are not only our five skandhas but we are our environment, which is in a process of self-destruction. Many of us who see this course of destruction become victims of despair and fear. Before global warming brings death and destruction we will already have died of fear and despair. We will have died of mental illness before we die from the results of climate changes.

The End of Our Civilization

Breathing in, I know that this civilization is going to die.
Breathing out, this civilization cannot escape dying.

We have to learn to accept the end of our civilization. Just as we accept our own death, we accept the death of our civilization. We know that another civilization will be born later on, maybe one or two million years later. We touch the truth of impermanence and then we have peace. When we have peace there will be hope again. With this kind of peace we can make use of the technology that is available to us to save this planet of ours. With fear and despair we are not going to be able to save our planet, even if we have the technology to do it.

Scientists tell us that we have enough technology to save our planet, but psychologically, we are not capable. We are not peaceful, enlightened, or awake enough to do it. That is why, while scientists are trying to discover ways to improve our technology, we as members of the human race have to practice so that we can transcend our fear, despair, forgetfulness, and irresponsibility. A collective change of consciousness will bring about a new way of life, a mindful way of living. The technology that is available to us will be enough to help us save this planet.

If you can get in touch with the treasure that is described in the Gospel according to Matthew, you don’t have to run after anything else. You have the Kingdom as your wealth; you have a beautiful planet as a great gift. Just enjoy it. Breathing in, you get in touch with the stars, the moon, the clouds, the mountain, the river. Taking a step you make a step in the Kingdom of God. This is possible with mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful dwelling in the present moment. And then you don’t need to consume, to run after these objects of craving in order to be happy.

The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, very strong, and not difficult to understand. We have the power to decide the destiny of our planet. Buddhism is the strongest form of humanism we have ever had. It is our actions and our way of life that will save us. If we awaken to our true situation there will be collective change in our consciousness. Then hope will be possible.

Transcribed and 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

mb47-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

At the beginning of the first Dharma talk of the retreat last summer in Estes Park, Colorado, Thay read a new gatha. With a glimmer in his eye and delight in his voice, he recited:

Let the Buddha breathe
Let the Buddha walk
I don’t have to breathe
I don’t have to walk

The Buddha is breathing
The Buddha is walking
I enjoy the breathing
I enjoy the walking

Buddha is the breathing
Buddha is the walking
I am the breathing
I am the walking

There is only breathing There is only walking There is no breather There is no walker

Peace while breathing Joy while walking Peace is the breathing Joy is the walking

Later I asked Sister Dang Nghiem to tell me the story behind the gatha. “The last time that Thay was in Korea, one day he was scheduled to lead a walking meditation. However, there were hundreds of people surrounding Thay with their cameras aiming right at him. Thay realized that there was no way he could lead the walk. Then suddenly Thay said to the Buddha, ‘Please lead the walk for me.’ Thay surrendered completely. To Thay’s own amazement, Thay felt the Buddha taking the first step, then the next step. Everyone stepped to the side and opened the way for… Thay? the Buddha?

“Thay gained deep insight into the experience of surrendering himself and letting the Buddha take over. The gatha ‘Let the Buddha breathe, Let the Buddha walk’ was inspired by that experience.”

May the Buddha walk with you through the turning of the seasons, in the darkness and in the light. May the Buddha breathe with your lungs, speak with your mouth, feel with your heart. And may the Buddha write with your pen (or keyboard)! Please continue sending me your wonderful contributions; they are the heart and soul of this publication. I’ve received only a few for the “Heart to Heart” section so do send me your thoughts on the Fifth Mindfulness Training for the next issue. And I always love to receive your letters and e-mails!

Blessings to you and your loved ones from the depth of Colorado winter, on this sunny snow-dappled Christmas Eve,


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Lightening Our Step on the Earth

Deer Park Transforms its Ecological Footprint

By Laura Hunter


“We do not have to sink into despair about global warming. We can act.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery and its lay supporters, led by Dennis Howard, have taken a significant step to engage the problem of global warming. On September 21, 2007, during a retreat at Deer Park Monastery, Thay and the sangha made a special dedication. The ground-breaking ceremony was attended by 1000 practitioners and marked the formal beginning of the solar effort at Deer Park.


“Every one of us can do something to protect and care for our planet,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. “We have to live in such a way that a future will be possible for our children and our grandchildren. Our own life has to be our message.” The ceremony was very moving and one of the practitioners remarked that the idea that Deer Park will be powered by the energy of the sun filled him with joy. Many people had tears of joy in their eyes as the moving dedication was given. Ron Forster attended the ceremony and said, “Feeling the warmth of the sun grow as the sun rose with the dedication seemed so obvious that this was right action for us. It really connected with me how much sense solar power makes.”


The sixty-six-kilowatt photovoltaic system will be completed by the end of the year and will prevent 120 tons of CO2 emissions each year. A significant portion of the project will be funded by the State of California (about $180,000 rebate) and the remaining $350,000 needs to be raised through donations. All donations are gratefully received. You can donate online at www.deerparkmonastery.org; post a check payable to ‘Deer Park Monastery’ (marked “Solar Project”) to 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido CA 92026; or telephone (760) 291-1003.

Other ecological initiatives at the monastery include a “CarFree Day” every Tuesday; conversion of three cars to run on waste vegetable oil; composting and recycling; planting native plants to reduce water use; and replacement of all lighting with energy efficient bulbs. During the most recent tour, the monastery promoted World Car-Free Day on September 22 and has raised almost 70,000 pledges from people worldwide on www.carfreedays.org.

If you are interested in the environmental initiatives of Deer Park please visit our website at http://www.deerparkmonastery.org/no car_day/greener_deerpark.html. You can also hear Thay’s Dharma talk on the environment on the Deer Park Dharmacast podcast at www.dpcast.net or access us through iTunes. If you would like to volunteer to help us with our environmental efforts, you can volunteer your skills by contacting Deer Park or through the Car-Free Days web site.

Laura Hunter, Boundless Perseverance of  the Heart, practices at home with her husband Ron and three dogs and at Deer Park Monastery. She works for an environmental justice organization as an environmental advocate.

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Offering to the Land Ancestors for the Dedication of Solar Electricity

mb47-Offering1We, your children of countless generations, respectfully request permission to make an offering to our Mother Earth, the ancestors of this land, and our descendants. Let us be aware that the ancestors of this land are present with us now and let us be aware of where we are, standing on this land with the mountains, plants, and all beings surrounding us. Dear Sangha, let us listen to the sound of the bell so that we may bring ourselves fully into the present moment. (bell)

We gather today to celebrate Deer Park Monastery converting to one hundred percent solar power this month. The installation of solar panels will provide for all the electricity needs of Deer Park. It is our sincere aspiration to live in harmony with this land, with all the vegetation and animals living here, and with all our brothers and sisters with whom we live and practice. When we are in harmony with each other, we are also in harmony with the land, with the plants and animals. We see our close relationship with every person and every species. The happiness and suffering of all humans and all other species is our own happiness and suffering. We inter-are. As practitioners we see we are part of and not separate from the whole of human civilization. As human beings we see that we are children of the Earth and not separate from the soil, the forests, rivers and sky. We share the same destiny.

We are aware that much harm has been done to the Earth out of ignorance, craving and arrogance. As children of this land we ask for your great compassion to forgive us for these shortcomings. Today we are determined to begin anew — to make all efforts, large and small, to collectively effect real change in our global ecological situation. We vow not to deplete the energy of the land and her resources with our careless actions, but rather to contribute to the regeneration of this beautiful land, bringing freshness, peace, and happiness to all who come here.

Deer Park’s conversion to solar energy is one way that we lighten our steps on the Earth and truly arrive as responsible and loving children of the Earth.

With great respect we call on all our spiritual and land ancestors to protect us and to nourish us with your insight, compassion, and liberation. Like young shoots of ancient trees we look to you to know our roots on this soil. We ask for your guidance and understanding to show us clearly how to proceed on our path — so that we may awaken together to restore our future.

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Letter from Thich Nhat Hanh

Before the retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in October, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) wrote a letter to the sangha. He describes an interview with a reporter from Time Magazine, in which he talked about the situation in Burma, the Iraq war, and the environment. Here is an excerpt about global warming. For the full letter, go to www.orderofinterbeing.org/docs/TNH_Letter_October_2007.pdf or the Plum Village website.


About global warming, Thay recounted to Time Magazine the story about the couple who ate their son’s flesh — the story told by the Buddha in the Son’s Flesh Sutra. This couple, with their little child, on their way seeking asylum had to cross the desert. Due to a lack of geographical knowledge, they ran out of food when they were only half-way through the desert. They realized that all three of them would die in the desert, and they had no hope to get to the country on the other end of the desert to seek asylum. Finally, they made the decision to kill their little son. Each day they ate a small morsel of his flesh, in order to have enough energy to move on, and they carried the rest of their son’s flesh on their shoulders, so that it could continue to dry in the sun. Each time when they finished eating a morsel of their son’s flesh, the couple looked at each other and asked: “Where is our beloved child now?”

Having told this tragic story, the Buddha looked at the monks and asked: “Do you think that this couple was happy to eat their son’s flesh?” “No, World Honored One. The couple suffered when they had to eat their son’s flesh,” the monks answered. The Buddha taught: “Dear friends, we have to practice eating in such a way that we can retain compassion in our hearts. We have to eat in mindfulness. If not, we may be eating the flesh of our own children.”

UNESCO reports that each day approximately 40,000 children die because of hunger or lack of nutrition. Meanwhile, corn and wheat are largely grown to feed livestock (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) or to produce alcohol. Over 80 percent of corn and over 95 percent of oats produced in the United States are for feeding livestock. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on earth.

Eating meat and drinking alcohol with mindfulness, we will realize that we are eating the flesh of our own children.

Report from the United Nations

In 2005, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began an in-depth assessment of the various significant impacts of the world’s livestock sector on the environment. Its report, titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, was released on November 29, 2006. In the executive summary, Henning Steinfeld, chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch, asserts that: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.”

Land Degradation

Presently, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet. Forests are cleared to create new pastures, and it is a major driver of deforestation. For example, in Latin America some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. From these figures, we can see that the livestock business has destroyed hundreds of millions of acres of forest all over the world to grow crops and to create pasture land for farm animals. Moreover, when the forests are destroyed, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide stored in trees are released into the atmosphere.

Climate Change

The livestock sector has major impacts on the atmosphere and climate. It is responsible for “18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, which is a higher share than transport.” This means that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. The livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. It also emits 37 percent of anthropogenic methane, most of that from enteric fermentation by ruminants. This is an enormous amount, because every pound of methane is twenty-three times as effective as carbon dioxide is at trapping heat in our atmosphere. The meat, egg, and dairy industries are also responsible for the emission of 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, most of that from manure. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide (296 times the GWP of carbon dioxide). It is also responsible for about two-thirds (64 percent) of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute largely to acid rain and acidification of the ecosystem.

Water Scarcity and Water Pollution

More than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food. It requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. Meanwhile, it takes only 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of grain. Livestock in the United States produce an enormous amount of animal excrement, 130 times more than human excrement; each second the animals release 97,000 pounds of feces. “Most of the water used for livestock drinking and servicing returns to the environment in the form of manure and wastewater. Livestock excreta contain a considerable amount of nutrients [nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium], drug residues, heavy metals and pathogens.” These waste products enter streams and rivers, polluting water sources and causing disease outbreaks that affect all species.


The Solution Is Simple

Just as the Buddha cautioned us, we are eating the flesh of our children and grandchildren. We are eating the flesh of our mothers and our fathers. We are eating our own planet earth. The Son’s Flesh Sutra needs to be available for the whole human race to learn and practice. The U.N.’s recommendation is clear: “The environment impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level.” We need to reduce at least 50 percent of the meat industry products, and to do that we must consume 50 percent less meat. The U.N. also reports that even if cattle-rearing is reduced by 50 percent, we still need to use new technology to help the rest of cattle-rearing create less pollution, such as choosing animal diets that can reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, etc. Urgent action must be taken at the individual and collective levels. As a spiritual family and a human family, we can all help avert global warming with the practice of mindful eating.

Going vegetarian may be the most effective way to fight global warming.

With love and trust,

Steinfeld, et al., “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” (available at www.fao.org/docrep/010/ a0701e/a0701e00.htm)

“Rearing Cattle Produces More Greenhouse Gases than Driving Cars, UN Report Warns,” UN News Centre, 29 Nov. 2006.

“Fight Global Warming by Going Vegetarian,” article from www.goveg.com.

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Poem: Midwinter 2006


Though the seasons have gone awry
And we are out of sync with nature

Though glaciers and ice fields melt
And drought cuts swaths across Africa
Though waters rise in Bangla Desh

And obliterate Pacific islands
We lucky ones can still live on our sweet earth
And celebrate midwinter

Though we should buy less
And we are buying more

Though we should drive less
And the roads grow ever longer
We have begun to realize

The limits of our planet home
We have begun the huge turning

Back to a sustainable life

We have begun to find pleasure
Back in the simple things

The rosiness of dawn
The preciousness of bird song
The need for fertile soil

And seas teeming with diversity
The need to touch earth

And be around growing things


And so this winter
As humanity hovers at decision point As we, ourselves,
Pause between the old year and the new
We can make it a turning point
To commit to our sweet Mother Earth
Our time, energy and love

In actions that will give us
and our children’s children
a future.

—Kate Evans

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Another Crazy Cyclist for Clean Air

By Gary Richardson


Looking inward, I see that my grasping for speed and convenience fuels a part of the oil industry, which does its best to meet my needs as efficiently — and profitably — as possible. I try to control my appetite for convenient transport. For a dozen years I rode my bicycle in town and did not own a car. I would borrow my wife’s car for heavy hauling and occasionally rent a car for long trips. Yet I still buy food that travels thousands of miles to my table, and fly or drive to retreats and vacations.


Recently I succumbed to an atavistic urge and bought an ‘87 Vanagon — mainly for overnight trips away from home, for instance, to Deer Park in September. I still ride my bike in town but notice that with the van sitting there — insured, fueled, maintained — it’s much easier when the air is bad or the weather cold and wet to take the van and leave the bike.

Targeting oil companies is rather like going after Peruvian or Afghan farmers and their cartels to interdict the cocaine or heroin trade. It is users who drive both the petroleum and drug markets. Of course, it would be political suicide for our government to be too open with voters about the dire straits we have entered. Indications are that worldwide oil production peaked sometime in the past two years. Far too little attention has been placed on the tremendous change that this portends. There may not be enough fossil energy and time left to fuel the awesome technological and social transformations required to sustain current levels of convenience.

For instance, the liquid petroleum-based fuels consumed in the U.S. for transportation make up a bit more than a third of our consumption. To replace this with electrical or hydrogen-fueled power would require production of a new, one-gigawatt nuclear plant every month –or if you prefer, 105 one-megawatt wind turbines every day — for the rest of the century, beginning now. We do not even have a national notion about what direction to pursue.

Our appetite for fossil energy is partly responsible for the global climate changes we are beginning to see. At the same time, we are becoming aware that the supply of oil is running down. The concluding paragraphs in Thay’s October 12 encyclical [see page 13 for another excerpt] are a sobering call for reflection on all of this:

mb47-Another3The Buddha taught that all phenomena are impermanent; there is birth, then there is death. Our civilization is also like that. In the history of the earth, many civilizations have ended. If our modern civilization is destroyed, it also follows the law of impermanence. If our human race continues to live in ignorance and in the bottomless pit of greed as at present, then the destruction of this civilization is not very far away. We have to accept this truth, just like we accept our own death. Once we can accept it, we will not react with anger, denial, and despair anymore. We will have peace. Once we have peace, we will know how to live so that the earth has a future; so that we can come together in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood and apply the modern technology available to us, in order to save our beloved green planet. If not, we will die from mental anguish, before our civilization actually terminates.

Our mother, the Earth, the green planet has suffered from her children’s violent and ignorant ways of consuming. We have destroyed our Mother Earth like a type of bacterium or virus destroying the human body, because Mother Earth is also a body. Of course, there are bacteria that are beneficial to the human body. Trillions of these bacteria are present in us, especially in our digestive systems (known as intestinal normal flora). They protect the body and help generate enzymes necessary to us.

Similarly, the human species can also be a living organism that has the capacity to protect the body of Mother Earth, if the human species wakes up and knows how to live with responsibility, compassion and loving kindness. Buddhism came to life so that we can learn to live with responsibility and compassion and loving-kindness. We have to see that we inter-are with our Mother Earth, that we live with her and die with her.

Mother Earth has gone through re-birth many times. After the great flood caused by global warming takes place, perhaps only a very small portion of the human race will survive. The earth will need over a million years to recuperate and put on a whole new, beautiful green coat, and another human civilization will begin. That civilization will be the continuation of our civilization. To the human species, one million years is a very long time, but to the earth and in geological time, one million years is nothing at all; it is only a short period of time. Ultimately, all birth and death are only superficial phenomena. No-birth and no-death are the true nature of all things. This is the teaching of the Middle Way in Buddhism.

Commitment in Action

Last night, I faced the energy challenge again. The Boise City Council was holding an air quality summit at City Hall, a couple of miles from my home. The weather was cold and messy, but I could not in good conscience drive my van to a meeting on air quality.

As I hopped on my bike and rode down the drive, I noticed a few snowflakes in the air. As I cautiously descended the hill about a half-mile to the valley floor, the flakes got bigger and wetter. I arrived snow-covered and sopping wet at City Hall at the same time as a TV news crew. Astounded that someone would ride a bike to a meeting in such weather, and always eager for a strange visual photo opportunity, they interviewed me as I locked up my bike — another crazy cyclist for clean air!

Gary Richardson, True Wonderful Action, practices with Beginner’s Mind Sangha in Boise, Idaho.

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Sitting inthe Autumn Breeze

The 2007 American Tour




In August 2007, Thich Nhat Hanh and ninety of his monks and nuns began a three-month tour across North America. Thousands of adults and children attended retreats in Massachusetts, Colorado, California, Quebec, and New York. Thay received the Doshi Bridgebuilder Award at Loyola Marymount University and spoke at a UCLA-sponsored conference for psychologists.




The first large retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery filled the beautiful new facilities with people and blessed the land with peace and joy. While there, Thay wrote a long and provocative letter to the Sangha and in New York City, after speaking at the Asia Society, Thay gave a wide-ranging interview to Time Magazine.



Many of us were deeply moved by Thay’s call to awakening for the sake of our earth mother. At the public talk in Denver (excerpted earlier in this issue), to a hushed hall of two thousand people, Thay said, “We have the power to decide the destiny of our planet…. If we awaken to our true situation there will be collective change in our consciousness.” May each of us embody that hope for the world.

Photos by Jonathan Cardozo and Tricia Garcia

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Musings on the Retreat at Deer Park From a Complete Novice

By Jim Dudley

I have been a Police Officer for over twenty-seven years with the San Francisco Police Department. It is a fulfilling, challenging, rewarding, but sometimes difficult job. I have seen more than my share of violence and human tragedies. I worked two decades of patrol work with time spent in investigations and at our special operations division. I enjoy my off-duty time by playing softball and golf, kayaking, and cycling. I work hard when I am at work, but I take time to enjoy my time off. Sometimes my neck or shoulder would ache, maybe from tension, perhaps just from old age. Sometimes work would pile up faster than I could get to it. Maybe, I thought, my off time was not as relaxing as it should have been.

When my partner, Susan, suggested that I accompany her to the Awakening Together to Restore our Future retreat in September, I readily agreed. Susan is a physician in San Francisco, with a lifestyle similar to mine — work is important, valuable and rewarding but also very stressful. She has been a follower of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and owns and reads several of his books.

We made our way through registration, set up our tent, and took a walk on the grounds. Initially I was a bit apprehensive about the coming days, but I loosened up as we strolled up the mountain and looked out onto the canyon below. The view is calming. Over the next four days, we ended up hiking around the canyon during the day and once in the evening. We climbed to the deck that overlooks the canyon and just above to the pagoda. The trees circle the complex like silent sentries. The smell of the pepper trees is still with me. The sweet smell of the tree leaves belies the aroma you get when you rub the dry peppercorns between your palms.

Susan and I are both about a chicken wing away from being vegetarians already, so the change in diet was not difficult for either of us. The meals were great and it was obvious that a lot of care and thought went into each meal that was prepared for us. Our Dharma discussion group, “True Names,” had clean-up duty, making the pots and pans clean again. It was good, clean, mindful work that we enjoyed as a team.

When the Dharma group first convened, on our second day, my first impressions got the best of me. I was too quick to judge people, annoyed when some asked to move the group from one location to another or when some of them spoke much more often than the others. We did introductions around our circle but that was all too brief. It was apparent that we were all from the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay Area. We discussed Thay’s Dharma talk, and what it meant to us. At least, some of us spoke. It seemed to me that those already in their own sanghas back home had the most to say. I was not sure of the protocol and kept quiet, choosing to listen and learn instead. I left the group feeling a little frustrated, thinking I may be in for a long week of experiencing the retreat as an outsider. I felt like I was sitting in a club meeting that I was not a member of.

It didn’t help that at dinner and afterwards we maintained our silence. I couldn’t express some of my frustration and ignorance to Susan until after lunch the next day. Of course, that next afternoon, Susan disarmed me with her usual, calming reason. Her soothing voice was a warm welcome after the unfamiliar extended silence. She encouraged me to remain an open book, to experience the teachings and to listen and learn from our Dharma Sister and others in the group. I followed her advice with renewed determination. I was mindful of my breathing. I slowed my pace during walking meditation. I felt my usually tight neck begin to loosen a little.

I was skeptical at fi regarding the Dharma talks. That changed as I listened to Thay’s teachings and realized that it was not rhetoric, but reason. He spoke of sharing and sacrifice, of hope and inspiration. When he answered questions from both children and adults, he spoke in easily understandable terms. There was no ambiguity. He responded to the questions directly. He did not say what people wanted to hear. Sometimes he asked the questioner to look within. Best of all, he did not judge others.

At omb47-Musings1ne point Thay seemed to be speaking to me when he spoke of how important law enforcement officers are in our community and how he has held retreats just for them. At times I have been torn, attempting to reconcile being mindful in a job that requires us to be vigilant, assessing others and reacting quickly with instinct in some situations. Sometimes my job requires us to use force, sometimes deadly force. He mentioned his book, Keeping the Peace: Mindfulness and Public Service [Parallax Press]. I thought it would be good to read about how to be more mindful in my profession.

When I read the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I wondered if I could abide by them. Susan had already indicated that she would take the vow on our last day of the retreat. I truly struggled with the thought. I could have easily said that I would try, that as some had said in our Dharma group, they were really “only guidelines.” Some of the others in our True Names group struggled with the thought, as I had. Some spoke of taking the Trainings and strictly abiding, while others gave their versions of true commitment, with some failure mixed in.

As we talked, the group transformed before my eyes. Individuals who had previously annoyed me and that I saw as caricatures, spoke with compassion and insight. One couple spoke of personal tragedies that drove them to a deeper commitment to the Trainings. Others spoke of their past religious upbringing and the conflict that it caused within them. Still others spoke of moral and ethical conflicts with what they had previously known. It occurred to me that the choice is indeed a personal commitment that one can only make for oneself. In the end, I found new respect for everyone in my group and wished that we had had this talk earlier in the week. I wanted to get to know them better and to tell more about myself.

That next morning, I sat and watched as Susan and several others in our Dharma group committed to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The Meditation Hall was brimming full of people despite the early hour. I listened to the descriptions of each of the Five Trainings and the responses from the men, women, and children who participated. A part of me wanted to be there as well. At the conclusion of the ceremony, I witnessed just how much it meant to Susan, as she hugged her friends and openly wept. Tears of joy flowed freely in the hall, including some from my Dharma discussion group who held reservations about taking the Trainings the night before. I was glad that we talked about meeting together again, back in the Bay Area.

Susan and I gathered our things and packed up for the return trip home. We enjoyed our last lunch with some of our friends and said our good-byes. What had seemed like potentially too long a stay when we arrived, changed to too brief a visit as we prepared to leave. Since coming home, I still try to live in the present, to chew slowly and enjoy my food, to be mindful of things I do. I know that I physically feel better and much more relaxed. I have taken a few meditation walks and always enjoy restful meditation, my favorite kind. I stop when I hear a bell and remember to breathe. I try to be mindful of others and not too quick to judge. I am beginning to understand the philosophy of community and support and I will try to teach it and practice it with others.

This retreat will not be my last.

Jim Dudley lives in San Francisco and is a Captain with the San Francisco Police Department.

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Poem: Zen Garden

These five beach stones
from Nova Scotia,
in a sea of sand;
no two alike
in shape or hue
but polished
to a liquid glow,
glisten as if
unlike the smooth
white ball of quartz,
(a turtle’s egg you
might well think)
set on a bench,
as if observing,
without thought,
that nothing’s
what it seems
to be, and yet
there is this
woven web
connecting ocean,
bone, blood,

—Sarah Rossiter


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Poem: Meditation

mb47-Meditation1It doesn’t matter if
there are no fish,
in streams or rivers
that I pass.
I often stop,
and stare awhile,
where they might lie,
behind which rock,
or run or riffle.
Sometimes I think
I almost see them,
even though
they don’t exist.

It doesn’t matter if
there’s only this
one breath breathing
in and out.
With each breath,
I often stop,
what lies ahead,
or else behind,
not fish, but fears,
tails flashing.
Sometimes I almost
think I see them,
even though
they don’t exist.

—Sarah Rossiter

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Cleaning the Sponge

A Dharma Talk on Beginning Anew

By Sister Dang Nghiem and Brother Phap An

At the Stonehill retreat in New York, two senior Dharma teachers teamed up to speak about the practice of Beginning Anew. This excerpt preserves some of the playfulness, humor, and depth of their presentation, which took place on August 15, 2007.


Brother Phap An: Some of us have listened to Beginning Anew presentations quite a few times. If you’ve been to Thay’s retreats, every time we have a Beginning Anew presentation.

This time, the sangha asked me and Sister Dang Nghiem to do the Beginning Anew presentation — Sister Dang Nghiem, Adornment with Equality or Non-Discrimination and Brother Phap An, Dharma Seal, like the animal in the Atlantic. Actually it’s Dharma Seal like a stamp, the Dharma seal. So you can remember our names. (laughter)

The two of us met a few days ago, and I said that I’ve been doing presentations for a few years now, and every time I want to have Beginning Anew anew! What should we do about it? So tonight you will see a skit! Let’s see how it will evolve. (laughter)

This morning, in her talk, Sister Annabel mentioned a man working in the garage who turned to his wife and said, “I know that you must be suffering a lot. Please tell me about it.” This is a form of Beginning Anew. Let’s ask Sister Dang Nghiem what she thinks about that practice. What should we do before we make such a statement to our loved one? Please tell me.

Is the Sponge Clean?

Sister Dang Nghiem: I would ask, “Is the sponge clean?” (laughter)

Brother Phap An: What do you mean by “sponge”? (laughter) I don’t quite understand that term. Please explain! (laughter)

Sister Dang Nghiem: You know how we wash dishes every day? We use the sponge to clean the dishes. But how often do we think about whether the sponge is clean? Because if the sponge is not clean, the dishes will not be clean. (laughter)

We may be very eager to do Beginning Anew, but actually the first step is to come back and to do Beginning Anew with ourselves — to clean the sponge.

In our lives we often look for new things. If a pair of shoes is old, we get a new pair of shoes. If a pair of shoes is new but we don’t like them, we get another pair. Sometimes we do that with relationships. We can get another girlfriend or another boyfriend.

But how often do we do Beginning Anew with what we have, to see it fresh, to make it new, alive, and beautiful for us again? How often do we hear ourselves thinking the same thoughts and saying the same things, even sometimes those things we know will not bring more understanding and harmony? How often do we see that in our physical reactions we have very predictable patterns?

The practice of Beginning Anew starts with the sponge. It means that we begin anew with our own thoughts, our own speech, our own bodily actions.

Brother, how do we do Beginning Anew with our own thoughts? I think that’s the most difficult.

Lying Down with Anger

Brother Phap An: For me as a monk, the life of a practitioner is a life of practicing Beginning Anew every moment of daily life. That is my practice. The way I practice Beginning Anew is by returning to my breath. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. And then, breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I relax my body. That’s my practice of Beginning Anew with my physical body.

As a human being we often act like an automated machine. As soon as a button is pushed, we act in a certain way. To respond properly to any situation, the first practice is to stop. Awareness of breathing is very important; it helps us to stop.

I used to have a very hot temper. But now I have lower blood pressure! It took me a long time to practice stopping, but that is the training of a monk.

I remember one time there was a ceremony in the Upper Hamlet, a monks’ residence in Plum Village in southern France. That day the abbot of the hamlet asked some of us to hang a wooden plaque with Thay’s calligraphy and to prepare an ancestral altar. We discussed where to hang it, but the abbot was not there, he was busy; perhaps he was busy having tea. Thay Giac Thanh was the abbot at the time, a very dear brother, very kind, very Zen.

So we hung it up, and it was about noon when we took away the ladder, the drill, the hammer, all the tools. With his Zen master’s stick, the abbot came and walked through the meditation hall. He looked and said, “Well, the wooden plaque with Thay’s calligraphy doesn’t look nice over there. The altar should be in another place.” (laughter)

It was a Zen training, you know. Whenever you go to monastery and you have frustration, think of it as a training. (laughter)

When he came in and said we need to move it, my anger just came up like crazy. And you know what I did? As soon as he left, I lay on the floor, flat! Just like this. (demonstrates; laughter) So I lie on the floor, and I put my arms around me, and I begin to follow my breath. Breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in! (laughter) Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out. And I feel the anger so strong, it wants to take me off the floor.

Breathing in, I know that I’m very angry. (laughter) Breathing out, I embrace my anger with all of my love! This is the real transmission for you tonight (laughter). When you are angry with your beloved, even if you are on a paved road, lie down. It’s the Zen way of practicing. (laughter) But make sure there’s no truck going by! (laughter)

Luckily I was able to lie down and embrace my anger. After five or ten minutes, I felt calmed down and I stood up, and went out to look for another brother so we could move the ancestral altar.

So my practice of Beginning Anew has very much to do with our daily life. The practice of walking meditation is the practice of Beginning Anew. The moment that we put one step on the floor, aware of the step, aware of our body, aware of the blue sky or our feeling, that is a wonderful practice of Beginning Anew.

My Sister Dang Nghiem said, “That’s the way to clean the sponge.” In every one of us there is a block of suffering. We are all born with a block of suffering, which has been transmitted to us by our ancestors, the way they lived, the way they acted, the way they talked with each other. They made each other suffer. As we grew up this block of suffering began to snowball. Beginning Anew is a practice of reversing the process of the snowball effect, to make that snowball smaller.

That’s the basis of the practice of Beginning Anew. Once we are able to have that calm and peace within us, then we can approach the other person.

Sister Dang Nghiem, how do you approach a sister when she’s angry with you? How do you practice Beginning Anew with her? After you clean your sponge, what do you do?

A Tale of Two Sisters

Sister Dang Nghiem: Well, actually the situation happened not very long ago. One sister came up to me, and as we were passing by, she gave me a note. She and I have been really close because we were aspirants together. We came as young lay women, and we played together and then we became ordained at the same time. So we are sisters in the same family.

Recently there was something that made us feel a little strange towards each other. Her note said something like this: “I’m ready, if you are ready, to talk to me about your anger towards me.” (laughter) I almost choked when I read that note! And then she walked away. On the way back, I was standing there and I said something to her. But first I have to give you a little bit of background or else it may shock you!

When I was young — my grandmother was the one to raise my brother and me — every time I tried to be a little bit philosophical or argumentative, my grandma just saw right through it and she would say, “You make me want to poop!” (laughter) That effectively deflated my ego.

So when my sister passed by me this second time, I said, “You make me want to poop!” (laughter) It’s loving speech between us.

She said, “Poop, so that you’re unblocked!” (laughter)

When she said that, I just kind of pulled her cone hat and kissed her on the cheek. And then she walked away.

It made me really happy in that moment. We could just be goofy together again. As the day proceeded, I thought, now I can go and talk to her. And then it came to me, no, I don’t want to go to talk to her, I’ll let her suffer! (laughter) I just didn’t want to go talk to her.

Even though in our precepts as monks and nuns we should not hold our anger for more than twenty-four hours, I wanted her to wait for a few days! But deep inside me, I was cleaning my sponge. I always do my best, because I know that I am very unskillful. I was very aware that I wanted revenge, but at the same time I was just smiling because I have always felt a lot of love for my sister. It was just a matter of time until we came to talk to each other.

When we did Beginning Anew there was a full moon, and she sat there and I talked to her. I said, “Actually, I am not angry at you. It’s not anger that you feel from me, but hurt. When you shared like that, it took me by complete surprise. I thought we knew each other, and now I hear that you cannot talk to me. I feel that you don’t understand me, and that’s what hurts me the most.”

She just listened, and I did the best I could not to blame her in any way but to explain how I felt. I also explained how I contributed to the situation. Because admittedly there were times when she tried to give me advice or something, and I didn’t want to hear it so I brushed it off. That was how we came to a point where she felt that I did not listen and that she could not speak to me.

At the end she said, “Now I don’t want to say anything, but it makes me feel lighter to hear you.” We did hugging meditation and I said, “Please forgive me for my limitations.” She said, “Don’t worry about it.” We walked away feeling a lot happier.

Beginning Anew, Anew

The interesting thing is that the awkwardness continued. Beginning Anew is not some kind of magic. Sometimes it works and the situation is resolved, but to me it’s a continual process.

It comes back to the sponge that has to clean itself. Deep inside us there are still thoughts and views, grudges or resentments or whatever. When we do Beginning Anew, it resolves to a certain level, but the deeper levels are still there. When the awkwardness between us was still there, I knew that deep inside me there are still other issues, as there are inside her. It takes a lot of patience and love.

I see that we have trust in each other because we want to make that commitment to live together as partners, as parents and children, or as brothers and sisters. We want our relationship to be healthy, to be beautiful, but at the same time we realize that it is a continual process, and it is very difficult. The best thing we can offer each other is our practice. We take responsibility for our sponge, and we give ourselves the space and time to constantly cleanse ourselves. We also give the other person the time and space to do that, because if we push ourselves or the other person when we’re not ready to do Beginning Anew, to share, or to go to a deeper level, then it becomes very awkward and unnatural, and it can even cause more damage. It’s really a process that is like a dance, and we learn to be sensitive to it.

I would like my brother to share a little bit about the process of Beginning Anew. We don’t jump in with what’s difficult because that would cause imbalance. We start with flower watering; we acknowledge what’s beautiful first. My brother is one of the best practitioners of flower watering! And I would like to know how, when you live with your brothers and sisters, year after year, how do you manage to see beautiful things in us and not just boring things?

Master of Flower Watering

Brother Phap An: Flower watering is the practice of looking deeply into the other person; you recognize his or her beauty and how that beauty offers love and support to your life. You need to say something sincere, and something that comes from your observation — not a form of flattery.

For example, just last night, my brother who is at the CD table brought in a sleeping bag for me. My body does not feel up to cold weather, and I have felt cold the last few days. The fact that he brought in the sleeping bag, materially, made me very warm, but his care and kindness also gave me a lot of warmth. So I’m watering the flower right now for him down there, at the CD table.

You don’t need to say, now I’m doing flower watering for you. You can do it very skillfully without revealing what you are doing, but people see and feel that you are watering their positive seeds. And that’s how I do it, Sister, to answer your question.

Don’t wait until the situation becomes difficult. If we do the flower watering then, it’s too late. We should learn to practice it in our daily life. It becomes a habit to see the goodness in the other person.

I think I have a very good seed from my ancestors, perhaps from my mom. My tendency is to look at the wholesome seed in the other person. It’s very rare that I look at the negative seed. My practice is to see everything that people do for me as something very wonderful. Every day I can water flowers all the time, all day long. So that’s the problem with me! (laughter) You see, when you do it too little, you have a problem. But when you do it too much, it becomes a problem, too. Many brothers and sisters just don’t trust my flower watering. (laughter) They say I am too professional! (laughter) And they don’t trust it. But I say it from my heart.

So my brothers and sisters gave me a very bad name: Master of Flower Watering. (laughter) There’s Zen Master, there’s Tea Master, and I’m Flower Watering Master! But the truth is I see good acts in all of my brothers and sisters. In very small acts, I appreciate them.

Your First Love

The key of the practice of Beginning Anew is to return and touch that deep love within you. When we have a relationship — with ourselves, with our environment, or with a partner or a friend — we approach it with that first love. When you come to a retreat the first time, you have that first love. Then when you come the second time, things become more familiar and somehow that first love begins to deteriorate a little bit, because we use the old experience to respond to the new situation. That’s our human tendency. We are like a machine, and we tend to act that way.

Beginning Anew is to lighten up, to turn to the first love that’s within us. I believe that in any relationship there is that first love. The first moment that you touch the earth and do that first step in walking meditation, that is your first love. If you practice for some time and you don’t get happiness from it, you don’t get much joy from it, then that love is beginning to deteriorate.

When a relationship becomes less nourishing, less joyful, less happy, then that first love is withering away. Beginning Anew is to go back and to touch that love one more time. In my sister’s language, it is to clean our sponge, to clean that sponge so that the first love reveals itself again.

Transcribed by Greg Sever, edited by Janelle Combelic and Barbara Casey.

mb47-Cleaning2The Practice of Beginning Anew

From the Deer Park Monastery Website

To begin anew is to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, our past actions, speech and thoughts, and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationships with others. At the practice center we practice Beginning Anew as a community every two weeks and individually as often as we like.

We practice Beginning Anew to clear our mind and keep our practice fresh. When a difficulty arises in our relationships with fellow practitioners and one of us feels resentment or hurt, we know it is time to Begin Anew. The following is a description of the four-part process of Beginning Anew as used in a formal setting. One person speaks at a time and is not interrupted during his or her turn. The other practitioners practice deep listening and following their breath.

1. Flower watering

This is a chance to share our appreciation for the other person. We may mention specific instances that the other person said or did something that we admired. This is an opportunity to shine light on the other’s strengths and contributions to the Sangha and to encourage the growth of his or her positive qualities.

2. Sharing regrets

We may mention any unskillfulness in our actions, speech, or thoughts that we have not yet had an opportunity to apologize for.

3. Expressing a hurt

We may share how we felt hurt by an interaction with another practitioner, due to his or her actions, speech, or thoughts. (To express a hurt we should first water the other person’s flower by sharing two positive qualities that we have truly observed in him or her. Expressing a hurt is often performed one on one with another practitioner rather than in the group setting. You may ask for a third party that you both trust and respect to be present, if desired.)

4. Sharing a long-term difficulty & asking for support

At times we each have difficulties and pain arise from our past and surface in the present. When we share an issue that we are dealing with we can let the people around us understand us better and offer the support that we really need.

The practice of Beginning Anew helps us develop our kind speech and compassionate listening. Beginning Anew is a practice of recognition and appreciation of the positive elements within our Sangha. For instance, we may notice that our roommate is generous in sharing her insights, and another friend is caring towards plants. Recognizing others’ positive traits allows us to see our own good qualities as well.

Along with these good traits, we each have areas of weakness, such as speaking out of anger or being caught in our misperceptions. When we practice “flower watering” we support the development of good qualities in each other and at the same time we help to weaken the difficulties in the other person. As in a garden, when we “water the flowers” of loving kindness and compassion in each other, we also take energy away from the weeds of anger, jealousy, and misperception.

We can practice Beginning Anew every day by expressing our appreciation for our fellow practitioners and apologizing right away when we do or say something that hurts them. We can politely let others know when we have been hurt as well. The health and happiness of the whole community depends on the harmony, peace and joy that exists between every member in the Sangha.


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Beginning Anew

Reflections on the Practice of Touching the Earth

By Larry Sipe


I have an eighteen-year-old son who is emotionally and verbally abusive. My relationship with him has been tumultuous. From affable and good-natured to explosively angry in the blink of an eye, he has punched holes in the wall, thrown objects (including a quart-sized Mason canning jar), and destroyed his bedroom with a baseball bat. His anger goes on and off like flipping a switch. It radiates, filling the room with its presence. I am the focus of intense, often violent and irrational outbursts of anger in which he swears unrelentingly, alternating with periods when he is down to earth. Walking on eggshells around him, I adopt a careful living style. I am on edge constantly while waiting for the other shoe to drop, even during the good times. His expectations of me are never clear. Feeling frightened, unsettled, and off-balance, I anxiously await his next outburst or mood swing.

The stress at home is palpable. My son’s anger has nearly torn the family apart on more than one occasion. I love him, but I cannot live like this. Every day he grows angrier. He is highly unpredictable. He projects the blame for all his problems onto me. (He would not get angry if only I would do what he wants me to do.) He has an overwhelming need to dominate my actions in order to get his own way, resulting in jealousy of his sister based on perceived parental favoritism, manipulating situations to his own advantage, and threatening to do harm. More than once he has threatened my life — he has pulled a knife on me, threatened to beat me to death with the baseball bat he was holding, and menaced me with a hatchet during a confrontation at home. He has even threatened to kill me while I sleep.

Becoming a Person with PTSD

Faced with unavoidable stress sustained over years of caring for him, I was frequently, then constantly, on guard. Such conditions took their toll. Feelings of hopelessness developed, triggering depression. Avoidance of contact with all reminders (including my own thoughts) of my son became paramount. Contact set off intrusive, vivid flashbacks and nightmares in which I relived everything over and over again.


Gradually withdrawing and isolating myself more and more, I experienced a restricted range of emotional response. I felt disconnected, spacey, and unaware of what was going on around me. Misperceptions resulted from my confused thinking. I was not fully present for myself, let alone my son. Relationships were not being nourished. I was losing balance, falling apart, and becoming increasingly fearful. In this state the cycle of daily conflict with my son triggered an internalizing of the stress reaction. My severe and continuous emotional reaction to the traumatic events was subsequently diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That was how I saw myself — as a person with PTSD.

At River Sangha, in Salem, Oregon, I was introduced at that time to a restorative practice: Touching the Earth. It is based on the Lotus Sutra with its elements of compassion and loving-kindness. My experience with this practice has been transformative. It is with a deep bow of gratitude that I offer the merits of this practice. In Touching the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “When we touch the Earth, we take refuge in it. We receive its solid and inclusive energy. The Earth embraces us and helps us transform our ignorance, suffering, and despair.” This practice offers the opportunity to begin anew moment by moment.

To Touch the Earth

Joining my palms together to form a lotus bud, I kneel mindfully, and rest my feet, hands, and forehead on the floor. Palms are turned face-up in an attitude of openness to the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Thay instructs me to follow my breathing and touch the Earth, releasing all my instability, fear, anxiety, and anger. I communicate gratitude, joy, and acceptance to Mother Earth. The Earth neither reacts nor judges me as it absorbs my negativity. This teaching resonates with me as I am prone to pull in rather than run toward challenges. Thay teaches peace is the way, and that it is available to all beings right here, right now. “With this practice, we cultivate a relationship with the Earth, and, in doing so, we restore our balance, our wholeness, and our peace.”

The practice of Touching the Earth is instrumental in allowing me to stop reacting to the self-destructive pattern of my PTSD and start responding to it. Touching the Earth affords me the opportunity to look deeply at past events, changing my experience of and relationship to the stressors that affect my well-being. The seeds of joy and happiness are watered, change is possible, and I am arriving home with each breath, even though I still experience PTSD. The changes occur in my mind. I evolve from seeing myself as a person with PTSD to seeing myself as a whole person. My feeling of being alive is restored!

To echo Joanna Macy in her classic memoir Widening Circles: “[Touching the Earth] did not alter the circumstances of my life, it removed no hardships. Yet it changed everything.” I am transforming into a peaceful warrior through the practice of Touching the Earth. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “The energy of mindfulness and concentration produced by Touching the Earth has the capacity to awaken us to the nature of reality, to transform us, to purify us, and to restore joy and vitality to our life.”

Touching the Earth affords an opportunity to heal and reconcile relationships, beginning with the relationship to one’s own heart and rippling outward to include all beings in all directions. Through this practice I am now more understanding and compassionate of my son. I open my heart to him as he has made me suffer. With awareness of this understanding and compassion, comes love. I know that he has had his own suffering to face — anger, pain, and hatred. His suffering has spilled over causing suffering to those around him. I want him to be open to life, to be happy and healthy. I do not want him to suffer or to cause others to suffer. The practice of Touching the Earth touches this relationship deeply, as well as all relationships. The interbeing nature of all beings is nurtured through such practice: connection with my son, the clouds, the blue sky, the earth, and all beings, is only possible in this moment — now.

Touching the Earth impacts my personal relationships and awakens me to the potential for beginning anew in the present moment. The opportunity is available for forgiveness and healing. Reconciliation is possible. Personal relationships, such as those with my son and Mother Earth, are nourished with this restorative practice.

mb47-Beginning3Larry Sipe, Insight Embodiment of the Heart, lives in Salem, Oregon, where he works for the local school district and community college, and attends and co-facilitates River Sangha.

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Relationship Dharma

By Janelle Combelic

We need to create environments where people can succeed in the practice. Interpersonal relationships are the key. With the support of even one person, you develop stability, and later you can reach out to others.
—Thich Nhat Hanh


I sit on the patio across the table from my housemate of three weeks, Carol. A vase of orange and white cosmos, pink zinnias, and blue salvia sits on the table; a candle burns fitfully in the warm evening breeze. Carol and I sit in silence a few moments, eyes closed, and then I invite the bell.

This is our first session of Beginning Anew.

We’ve rented a big old house together in the middle of town –she, escaping from the dissolution of a twenty-five-year marriage; me, leaving the refuge of my mother’s house a block away, where I had lived since my return from Plum Village. We don’t know each other very well and before we moved in together, I told Carol I wanted to have a weekly “house meeting” to do a practice called Beginning Anew. At Plum Village I had frequently heard Thay speak about the importance of doing this practice once a week with one’s family or partner.

I know myself well enough by now (there are blessings to growing older) to accept that I like things done a certain way. I have extremely high standards, for myself and everyone else — this is a blessing in my work as an editor, it’s a curse in my relationships. I also tend to hold things in, especially irritation and hurt and anger. I would ten times rather turn it against myself than hurt someone’s feelings. So when something bothers me — like dirty dishes in the sink, clutter on the dining table, or a messy cupboard — I don’t speak, I seethe.

Moving in with Carol I knew that I needed some formal process for resolving whatever differences might arise. Little did I realize that the process of Beginning Anew would produce miracle after miracle and become in itself an essential part of my spiritual practice.

The Pull of Community

During half of my adult life I’ve lived alone. In recent years, especially since my fourteen months in and around Plum Village, I’ve felt drawn to living in community. In one Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet Thay said that lay people should try living together, in order to share resources, live more simply, and learn to co-exist in peace. “I hope,” he writes in Teachings on Love, “that communities of practice [like Plum Village] will form in the West, with the warmth and flavor of an extended family, as brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts… We have to work together to find ways to help each other. If we can do that, everyone will enjoy the practice.”

This is one of Thay’s most important teachings, one that he has made manifest through his monks and nuns in Plum Village and the other monasteries: it is possible — and necessary — to live together in harmony and love.

To live in harmony one needs three things, as I see it: a spiritual foundation, a conscious intention to create community, and tools for resolving conflict. As Carol and I discussed living together I wanted to make sure that these conditions were present. Carol is fairly new to the practice but she loves Thay’s books, enjoys meditation and yoga, and expressed a keen desire to learn more and to experiment with our spiritual community of two.

I’m happy to play teacher, but I really have no idea what I’m doing. Except for the ritual Beginning Anew ceremony practiced in small groups during retreats, I’ve never actually done Beginning Anew. I’ve heard Sister Chan Khong and other Dharma teachers explain it, I’ve read about it in Anger, in Joyfully Together, and on the Deer Park website [see sidebar page 26], but that’s a far cry from doing it.

Doing the Practice

While Carol and I sit silently in our back yard, serenaded by robins and finches, I pray for guidance. Returning to my breath,

I pray that I might speak the words that need to be spoken while holding back those that do not. A deep peace fills me, trust in the truth of the Dharma.

We begin.

On a piece of paper I have written out the four steps as I understand them:

  1. Flower watering
  2. Expressing regrets
  3. Hurts/anger/peeves (I added that last part)
  4. Asking for help

I take the first turn. Timidly, I look at Carol and tell her what I like and admire about her: her courage in the face of great emotional strain, her devotion to her two young adult children, her sense of humor, her delicious cooking, her easy-going nature. I can tell she is pleased, and when she takes her turn to water my positive seeds, I feel the same. It’s wonderful to be openly appreciated!

Next I express my regrets. Life has been pretty smooth these first three weeks together, but in my own head the Judge and Jury have convicted my gentle housemate on a variety of counts. Leaving crumbs on the kitchen counter — guilty. Loading the dishwasher wrong — guilty. Speaking to me in the morning when I want to be left alone — guilty. Of course these petty concerns are too silly to mention, so I never say anything to her at the time, and the trial just goes on in my own mind, endlessly. It is exhausting, and also cumulative, as I find the irritation getting closer and closer to the surface as it grows. So I express the regret that I have a very critical mind, and it is a struggle for me to relax and live with a little disorder, with someone else’s habits. Carol then expresses regret that she has been emotional lately, prone to fits of weeping and rage toward her inexplicably cruel ex-husband.

We haven’t quite mastered deep listening yet, so we interrupt and reassure one another that we understand. In later sessions we will use the flower bouquet as a “talking stick” and try not to interrupt. But for two people who love to talk, that’s an ongoing challenge.

Now comes the really really hard part: expressing angers and hurts (and pet peeves, of which I have hundreds, thousands). I’m embarrassed to do so, but I mention just a couple of my concerns, mostly involving the kitchen, which don’t phase her in the least. She frowns at first, then smiles. Then it is her turn, and she says she wishes I weren’t quite so grumpy in the morning. I can live with that.

The fourth step comes to us easily: I ask for help in being more flexible and easy-going, she asks for help being more calm and centered. We stand, both of us glowing, and hug. What’s happened for me is that in the space of forty-five minutes our relationship has deepened from a casual cohabitation to a spiritual friendship. There’s a level of trust between us, that came from sharing painful and scary things, that might have taken years to establish without this process.

The Blessings of Beginning Anew

Because we understand each other better, we have more compassion. As the calligraphy in the meditation hall at New Hamlet says so beautifully, “Listen well to understand deeply, look deeply to love well.” Because we are learning to love our little Sangha of two, we want the other person to be happy. Carol tries to accommodate my need for order, and I’ve let go of a lot of my pet peeves. Amazingly, I’m even learning to speak up — skillfully — when something really does bother me.

An even bigger miracle occurred during our third Beginning Anew. Several weeks had passed since our second session — in spite of our intentions, we don’t manage to do it weekly — and my irritation at small things was eating away at me. On this day, I really needed to do Beginning Anew. It was her turn to start, and when she came to the second step she hesitated a long time. Then she confessed that she had done something she regretted deeply: on her husband’s birthday earlier in the week, with her family celebrating in a nearby restaurant without her, she had started feeling suicidal; while I was at our weekly Sangha she overindulged in alcohol (neither one of us ordinarily drinks). I knew nothing of any of this until Carol tearfully confided it during Beginning Anew.

Immediately my irritations vanished, to be replaced with a wave of compassion and tenderness. We talked, listening deeply to one another and providing support for each other’s healing. In the sacred space of the ritual, surprising insights arose, as if the process took us to a deep place of shared wisdom.

Several months have passed since then, and we are scheduled to do Beginning Anew tomorrow morning. We’ve become rather lax, and we paid for it the other day when we had our first fight. Of course it was over something relatively minor, and we’re both sorry we lost our tempers. We’ve patched it over, but I’m looking forward to working through it more deeply.

Well, it’s not entirely true that I’m looking forward to it. Beginning Anew is not easy, especially for those of us who never learned how to express our anger and hurt. It’s a challenging practice, but one that yields profound results, and not for ourselves alone. “We should live our daily lives,” writes Thay, “so that there is Beginning Anew in every minute. If everyone practices, there is hope for the future. Look deeply to make renewal possible. Sangha building is the most important art for us to learn.”

In our little community of two, I am looking deeply at my expectations, my irritations, my control issues — the neurotic dance of my mind. Beginning Anew is a powerful tool for manifesting the practice of mindfulness in relationship. It’s allowing me to have more trust, more love in my life.

And a messy kitchen no longer summons the Judge and Jury. I can actually walk through it and smile. Such freedom!

Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, lives in Longmont, Colorado with her dog Serafina. All quotes in this essay are from the “Community” chapter of  Teachings on Love, Parallax Press, 2007.

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Healing Our Brokenness

By Sister Viet Nghiem

The first person with whom we need to practice Beginning Anew is ourselves. In this excerpt from the question-and-answer session at the monastic retreat in Estes Park in August 2006, Sister Viet Nghiem answers this difficult question from a lay retreatant: how can we look deeply at our suffering in a way that isn’t obsessive but instead transforms it?


When I came to Plum Village I had had a lot of trauma and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I lost my twin sister, I lost my dad; I went through a lot of violence when I was a child. But I didn’t know I had traumas. I thought my life was normal, but I wasn’t happy and I didn’t know why.

I felt a very deep sense of brokenness, and I didn’t know how to put the pieces back together. What really helped me was the Sangha and my teacher — their love, their complete embrace. Slowly, by doing the practice and being in a surrounding that is really protective, I can look inside myself at my own pace, and use the practice to heal myself. I’m not going to tell you that to heal traumas takes only one day. That didn’t happen with me; I’ve been living in this community for almost seven years. It’s not that I wanted every single day to heal my trauma, I didn’t push it, I just let it happen. Some people think, okay, I’m going to manifest this, I’m going to try really hard — [snaps finger] — and it’s going to work out. If it doesn’t work at the pace you think, you get disappointed.

I just let it happen. And I learned a lot. Some days it went really well, and some days it didn’t go so well because I had to learn. For me the main point about healing trauma was how much love I received from my brothers and sisters, and how much of the time they taught me how to love myself. To love oneself takes a lot of courage, because I had to face a lot of things I didn’t want to face. It’s hard to sit with myself when the feelings break, when I feel the sadness coming up and I feel overwhelmed. However, the learning you get back through the practice is immeasurable. I never get bored with learning the practice somehow.

Trauma as Teacher

When I look back, for a long time, since I didn’t know I had traumas and I didn’t know how much brokenness I had in my heart, I felt I was a victim. I behaved like a victim, I thought like a victim. Because I didn’t know how to embrace and recognize my feelings and emotions, I became a victim of myself, basically. With the support of the Sangha and the practice, I learned to keep still, keep quiet, and let the healing happen — slowly, deeply. After a while I realized that all these traumas were really good teachers.

I shared during the dharma discussion that I don’t like talking about happiness, gratitude, and love because I don’t take them as things I can share openly. For me they are very intimate feelings and I share them very rarely. I tend to keep them for myself. I don’t think I would appreciate my happiness, gratitude, and love the same way if I didn’t have any traumas in my childhood. There is always something to learn from situations, but at the beginning it’s difficult because emotions and feelings overwhelm me. They really feel like a tidal wave. There’s no way you can run away or escape. Things that happened in my childhood, I mean, I lost my dad to suicide, I lost my twin sister — it’s really hard. I have a lot of loneliness and despair, and a lot of things going on in my mind — less now. But I see the value of these lessons and these events.

It takes a lot of practice and a lot of courage, but it’s not useless. It’s hard, I’m not going to hide that, but it’s not useless.

mb47-Relationship3There is always something to learn. Once I got the lessons and I grew in loving myself and being more responsible, it’s easier to relate with people.

I learn from despair, for instance. I can have a lot of despair, thinking that my life is useless, until one of my friends and other brothers and sisters come to me and say, “Look, look how much you’ve done! You can help people change their lives because you changed your life.” I learn from sadness. I feel sad when I’m not capable of letting go. I learn from anger. Anger teaches me that I have limits, and sometimes I’m not capable of setting my limits, so I feel angry. I learn from loneliness, how to connect better to myself and others. But if I feel that all these things are just there to bug me, to bother my life, forget it. I’m just going to stay stuck and I don’t get the lesson. So when there are things coming up like that, and I look at my life, I see there’s always something very valuable to learn, and things are not just given to harm us.

Suffering is hard. But now I can say, I don’t have regrets. I don’t think it was a waste of time. But it takes practice. It takes being committed to a community of practice, to observing, embracing, not giving up even though really you want to give up.

Some Healing Practices

Walking meditation and Touching the Earth can be wonderful practices to come back to oneself, and stop our mind, and that nourishes us. One thing that really helped me was to read and write. I do a lot of writing. I like walking a lot, I can connect to that very much. I like singing and chanting. Anything that keeps me centered, no matter what the storm is. I have to stay mindful and keep centered. Once the emotions pass it’s easier to see; the clarity is there.

I found that eating my meals in mindfulness also helped me heal the traumas, to nourish my body in mindfulness. I realized that having all these traumas made my heart and my body very sensitive. I sit quietly and enjoy a meal, really take my time to chew my food, swallow, and really feel the food coming right into my stomach. Once it’s in my stomach I can take another mouthful. You go slowly, take it easy, go gently.

mb47-Relationship4And the last point is, when I was a teenager I felt so broken and sensitive, that anything felt like it was being too hard on me. I didn’t know how to be gentle with myself. That’s something I learned from my brothers and sisters, to be gentle with myself — when I take a shower or when I take a bath, when I put on my clothes, when I eat, when I drink, the way I think about myself. There’s a lot of things I have to change. We cannot change the world, but we can change ourself. It’s hard, but it’s possible.

Sister Viet Nghiem, Sister Transcendence, grew up in France and now lives at Deer Park.

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The Importance of the Dharma Discussion Guidelines

At our weekly Sangha gatherings, we present the Dharma Sharing (Dharma Discussion) Guidelines before each session. Doing so reminds us of our aspiration to listen deeply and to speak mindfully. The Guidelines also provide tools that enable us to build a safe and harmonious environment. Here we can learn to speak about our happiness and our difficulties in the practice, thereby contributing to the collective insight and understanding of the Sangha.

We are concerned that these guidelines are sometimes not offered by facilitators, both lay and monastic, at larger retreats. This has occasionally led to advice giving, interrupting or crosstalk, which has resulted in causing some harm and disharmony. Sometimes folks theorize rather than sharing the experience of their practice, and we have been in groups where a few persons speak multiple times, which does not leave time for others to speak. These types of interactions result in a loss of safety, support, trust, focus, and full participation within the group.

We invite everyone to consider deeply the benefits derived from using these Guidelines and to look at them anew. We may then be encouraged to take responsibility for requesting that our facilitators present them at the beginning of the groups that we are participating in and also be ready and willing to do so ourselves.

Please contemplate how to present the following Guidelines in a loving and mindful manner. It is wonderful to hear them through the many voices of the Sangha as each person adds his or her special freshness.

Guidelines for the Practice of Dharma Sharing

1. Practice deep listening and loving, mindful speech

Topics emanate from our life and practice. It is best to avoid discussions that are theoretical rather than experiential. Our deepest aspiration is “to learn [Avalokita’s] way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world.” We can invoke the name of Avalokita before the Dharma sharing begins.

Even though we have the intention to listen deeply, our mind will wander. Perhaps we are agreeing, disagreeing, feeling agitated, wanting to respond, or drifting. If we are mindful of our thoughts and inner dialog, we can choose to come back to being present with the person speaking. Many in our Sangha use this as a training to become more attentive listeners for family and friends

Our speech, like our listening, is the fruit of our practice, a response from within. It is good for the atmosphere of the Dharma sharing when participants take three breaths before speaking, to allow time for the previous person’s speaking to be fully received. Speaking from the heart about topics that emanate from our life and practice involves speaking with awareness in a way that could be of benefit to others as well as ourselves; speaking with kindness, in a voice that is clear and loud enough for everyone to hear, including those with some hearing loss; connecting with others by making eye contact; perhaps smiling from time to time. We all benefit from hearing each other’s insights and direct experience of the practice.

2. Bowing

Before speaking we may wish to make a flower bud with our hands and bow. When we bow, or put our hand on our heart or use a signal we are comfortable with, we are signaling that we would like to share. The Sangha bows back, acknowledging that we are ready to listen deeply. When we are finished we let the Sangha know by bowing/signaling again. Knowing that we will not be interrupted creates a safe and harmonious environment.

Instead of bowing we can use an object, often referred to as a “talking stick,” to pass around the circle. The facilitator might introduce this method if the group is very large or if the facilitator senses that there are participants who wish to share but are too shy to do so. If a person is inspired to speak, she/he will do so; if not they will pass the object on to the next person. If time allows it is considerate to send the object around a second time so that those who were not ready to speak the first time have another opportunity.

3. Saying our name, each time, before we speak

This practice fosters a sense of inclusion for newcomers as well as aiding those of us who might have some difficulty remembering names. We do this in our Sangha even when there seems to be only “regulars” present.

4. Avoid giving advice, even if it is asked for

In general it is helpful to always use the word “I” instead of the word “you”. Speaking from our own experience eliminates the opportunity to give advice. If someone asks for advice and a practice that we have worked with comes to mind it is fine to share our experience.

5. All that arises is confidential

“What is said here stays here.” Confidentiality secures the safety of the group and helps avoid gossip. Also, after the Dharma Sharing time, if we want to talk with someone about what they said in the group, we first ask if it is okay. Sometimes a person does not want to talk more about what they said and this is a respectful way to honor that.

6. Refrain from speaking a second time

We don’t speak again until it appears that everyone who wants to speak has spoken. This ensures that everyone can speak and provides a space where we can benefit from all of our Sangha wisdom. We are encouraged to speak mindfully, “not too much and not too little” for the number of participants. Near the end of the time the facilitator may offer an opportunity for those who have not spoken to do so if they wish and may address any unanswered questions.

7. Share with the whole circle

Whatever we share is for the benefit of all those present. We do not engage in cross-talk with another participant. If we ask a question we ask the whole group and if we answer a question we speak to the whole group and not just the person who asked. If we ask a question we should not expect an answer straight away. Another topic may be addressed first and only when someone feels ready will the question be addressed. However, if towards the end of the sharing, the question has not been addressed the facilitator may do so to the best of his/her ability.

How to Use the Guidelines

Offering the Guidelines at the beginning of each Dharma sharing enables the facilitator to refer to them when a situation arises that could disrupt the safety of the group. For example, by having stated at the onset that we intend not to give advice or interrupt each other, a facilitator is more able to gently correct this situation when it occurs by reminding the group of the Guidelines, thus protecting the group in a skillful manner.

In our Sangha we continue to practice using the skillful means provided by the Guidelines. If this is new for your Sangha or if you are just starting a Sangha we invite you to enjoy experimenting! If your Sangha has been using similar Guidelines all along you may want to reflect on them anew both individually and during Dharma Sharing.

Thinking of the wonderful Dharma Sharing Guidelines as trainings and learning to apply them skillfully, in all of our interactions, will help us to cultivate compassionate communication wherever we are.

Respectfully submitted by The Riverside Sangha of the Community of Mindfulness NY/Metro

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Invoking the Name of Avalokiteshvara

mb47-Invoking1We invoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and open-heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.

Chanting from the Heart, Parallax Press, 2006, p. 30

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Family Day at Deer Park

By Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

mb47-Family1On December 17, 2006, Deer Park held its first family day of mindfulness. The intent was to offer a full day of activities for both parents and children to enjoy together. Since January 2006, we have offered a regular children’s program at Deer Park, on every first and third Sunday. However, the children’s activities are mostly separate from the adults’ so parents are not always familiar with the mindfulness practices we share with their children, and rarely have the chance to explore them together as a family.

The day was filled with lots of joy and meaning. Although adults outnumbered children, it was hard sometimes to distinguish between the two because we had so much fun that everyone’s inner child was very alive!

Dharma Adventure

We began with an introduction to the day. Then we divided into five groups to begin our Dharma Adventure, each group visiting one of five different stations around the monastery and then rotating. Nuns, monks, and lay practitioners were already at each station to receive the groups. Everyone in the Deer Park Sangha was enthusiastic and participated in the day; even the cooks prepared lunch early so they could join one of the groups!

One station offered pebble meditation,* which was actually acorn meditation because acorns are so plentiful and beautiful. There, families learned a little about anatomy and how the lungs and breathing process works. Gently holding a single acorn, they visualized: “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower, breathing out, I feel fresh.” Then they continued to breathe and visualize mountain — solid; still water — reflecting things as they are; and space — free.

Another station engaged everyone in making a collective artwork: a wheel of Tibetan prayer flags decorated with play dough figurines in all colors, shapes, and sizes. The beautiful structure brightened up the tea room in Solidity Hamlet for many months afterwards.

An outdoor station had everyone playing cooperative games, which ranged from story-telling, to relay races, to standing in a circle with cups in our mouths and without hands, pouring water from cup to cup. Very memorable!


Then there was the dining hall station, where everyone got their hands messy making and mindfully eating peanut butter balls, with lively discussions about each ingredient and its interconnectedness with other things.


At the last station, families were skillfully facilitated in role-playing difficulty they encounter in their everyday family life. They acted out situations like miscommunication or venting their anger and frustration, and then had an opportunity to play out the same situation again, with more calm and awareness.

Deep and Simple Practices

After a joyful, sort-of-silent lunch together in the dining hall, the children offered the Sangha total relaxation! As all the adults and children lay quietly resting in the Ocean of Peace meditation hall, four children slowly guided everyone in relaxing the different parts of the body. They also sang beautiful lullabies.

Then Sister Susan guided everyone in the children’s version of Touching the Earth. We were all moved by the depth of the words; the concentration and sincerity in the room was palpable. Several adults came up to me at the end of the day asking for a copy of the text, saying they liked it better than the adult version [see Mindfulness Bell issue 45, Summer 2007].

We ended the day with a session of Beginning Anew. Passing a flower around the circle, parents and children expressed their gratitude and appreciation for each other as well as what things they wanted to do to bring more happiness to each other. Sharings were concrete and from the heart. Laughter, tears, and peaceful silences left us all feeling very full, very rich in the Dharma.

We all enjoyed the day very much and look forward to offering more events like this in the future. We hope other sanghas will benefit from what we are learning and we also want to learn from the innovations of other sanghas as we open the new Dharma door of family mindfulness practices.

Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem, is now in residence at Plum Village in France.

*This practice is explained in depth in Pebble for Your Pocket by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Heart to Heart

In each issue of the Mindfulness Bell readers take on a different topic, writing in short essays about their personal experience and their practice.


The Fourth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.


Awakened Silence of the Heart

The Fourth Mindfulness Training has been a bell of mindfulness, a wise teacher, a good friend, and a road back from hell for me.

In my early life, my siblings and I were relentlessly bombarded with violent and angry language between our parents and issued daily reminders of our worthlessness, stupidity, and so on. We internalized the language and began to speak that way to ourselves and to others, even those we loved.

At my first retreat at Omega with Thay and the nuns and monks, I could not keep from weeping tears of gratitude and relief when we lay friends were addressed with so much respect, gentleness, even tenderness. When we were offered the opportunity to take the Trainings, my heart opened with joy. To join such a community and to practice in such a way for myself and for my loved ones seemed a precious gift.

I focused on the Fourth Training in my statement of aspiration and was given the name Awakened Silence of the Heart. The name has unfolded like a lotus, revealing its meaning to me over years of committed and joyful practice.

A small but profound miracle of mindfulness happened recently. I dropped one of my favorite mugs. It shattered. The miracle was that no abusive cascade of internal criticism followed. (“That was stupid. Clumsy fool! Etc.”). There was only compassionate silence, an awakened silence. After cleaning up the shards, a benevolent bell of mindfulness sounded inside me, inviting me to consider that the accident occurred because I was hurrying a bit. The mug and I might have been saved some suffering if I had not been ahead of my breath. The awakened silence, the space in the living room of my mind, made me feel happy. I bowed to the Training in gratitude.

A companion incident occurred later in the week. An office mate, while hurrying to set up for a meeting, broke a lovely piece of pottery made for me by a friend. In the beginning of the practice, I might have exploded with irritation and criticism. In the later years, I would have seethed with resentment and contempt while saying, “That’s okay. It doesn’t matter.” Now, my heart says gently, “All is impermanent. I’ve enjoyed its beauty a long time.” My body, speech and mind are in alignment with that kind remark. The friend who broke the bowl could feel easy.

One of the most delicious fruits of this practice is with my blood family. When I told my father that I was returning to Plum Village last year for a retreat, he launched into a tirade about cults and craziness. I was able to listen without reacting and to hear what was not being said. My awakened heart understood that he was afraid I would not come home, since I had once referred to the sangha as my spiritual family. Breathing in, allowing him to wind down, I said gently, “You are my father. I will always come home as long as you are alive.” His body softened. His heart softened. “Okay,” he said, “have a good time.”

In the spaciousness opening in the silence of my heart is also trust. I am becoming truthful enough to speak of my suffering and my need and desire for support without feeling painfully imperfect, full of shame or criticizing myself for not being good enough. I am able to more often say: “Dear sangha friend, can you help?” And to trust that they will come and breathe with me and listen deeply and speak lovingly.

As the Awakened Silence of my Heart grows, I am free. I suffer less. And I create less suffering in others, in my family, and in the world.

Diana Hawes
Awakened Silence of the Heart, True Wonderful Light
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A.


The Broadway Bicycle Boy

It was summer in New York City. I was walking along Broadway near 112th Street, when a boy about eight years old came riding his bicycle up from behind me and crashed a few yards in front of me. He was wearing shorts and I could see he had skinned his knee. He was hunched over, grabbing his knee, squinching his face in pain, but holding it in and not emitting a sound. I approached him, knelt down and pointed to his knee. “That must hurt!” I said. “YES!!!!!! It really hurts!” he screamed, and burst into tears. As he finished his round of crying, he looked up to see who this stranger was. I smiled, pointed to his knee again and said, “That must still hurt!” “YES!!!!!! It still hurts!” and he was off again, sobbing and pointing to his knee.


I made a simple decision to not rush on. I stayed and paid attention to his hurt. After a few more rounds of crying about his knee, he looked up to see if I was still there. Do you know what he did next? For the following fifteen or twenty minutes, he pointed to scars on different parts of his body and told me how this one happened and that one happened and this one over here happened. It was as if he had never had a chance to tell someone completely enough how much it hurt or how scared he was. He had quite a few stories. After doing this for a while, his tone was happy and confident. He got on his bike and rode away.

As I walked on, I thought how many scars we all carry, physical and emotional, and how we rarely get a chance to really tell the stories to the point of healing. And so we find ourselves, at whatever age, dragging behind us a sackful, or in some cases, a huge trunkful of old unhealed hurts that weigh us down, depress our joy, sap our confidence, distort our thinking, and otherwise cause us to hide our true goodness.

Each of us is just waiting for the right conditions to tell our stories.

John Bell
True Wonderful Wisdom
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.


Stopping the Avalanche

mb47-Heart4Here at 8000-foot elevation, I am sitting quietly and gazing at an avalanche field near the top of Mount Shasta, California. The forest has been torn and many strong trees lie broken across the field. Jagged four-foot-high dead trunks still stand upright, looking like ghosts of people I have known and lost. So much breakage here even after ten years.

Sadness sweeps through me now as I remember ways that my words have avalanched angrily and broken friendships. I grieve the damage that I have caused. Despite a daily practice of many years, words can rush out of me just as this snow roared down the mountain. And like these fallen older trees even the strongest friendship and community can fall by the power of unmindful words.

“Words once spoken cannot be taken back.”

To understand stopping as a spiritual practice is one of Thay’s most valuable teachings for my fiery energy, because it is so uncomplicated and very clear: Stop when hurrying, stop when gulping food, stop when a friend needs you to listen, stop when driving too fast, stop when the phone rings… stop and breathe at stop signs.

These beloved practices have brought depth and happiness to me. But when emotions are strong and rushing out of your mouth, how do you even wake up enough to stop them?

There are the seven “stop sign” words that stop me before an avalanche and that can even stop me during an avalanche: always, never, all or none of the time, everybody, everything, nobody, nothing.

These seven stop signs tell me that the avalanche is coming or that I am already being carried away. They tell me that I am lost in black and white stories of my mind. After all, these seven words are never true!

If I say one of these words, I know to stop speaking immediately and breathe. I’ve learned to tell my family member or friend that I might need to stop abruptly and talk later. In my time out, as I calm myself, I inevitably realize that my point of view is neither balanced nor accurate! I become more ready to truly listen. (It’s very helpful to let friends and family know about this practice ahead of time so they don’t interpret your leaving as another whack of your anger. We support each other in this practice with an agreement that we will come back together calmer and more able to understand each other.)

If I think one of these words, I know that I am caught in creating a particularly dramatic off-center story. Time to detach from the interior talking and practice re-grounding — walking meditation is especially effective. If I wait (often about forty minutes) until the interior conversation finally comes to balance and compassion, whatever story the mind is creating transforms and becomes more positive.

If someone else says always, never, all or none of the time, everybody, nobody, everything, nothing, whether it’s about me or about somebody else, I am now usually less reactive to what they say. After all I know these words! They come out of suffering and can easily create more suffering. So it’s time for deep listening.

On Mt. Shasta, the avalanche field speaks to me again. Huge chunks of bark are composting into soil. Now there are the tiniest small firs bending into lovely diagonals from harsh winds and winters. They look like delicate bonsais. I see this beauty and the fresh life growing even amidst the wreckage.

We can all take heart to begin anew.

Laurel Houghton
True Virtue and Harmony
Fairfax, California, U.S.A.

For the Summer 2008 issue, the topic will be the Fifth Mindfulness Training. Please send your story to editor@ mindfulnessbell.org by February 15. Keep your writing personal and concrete, and under 500 words. Include your Dharma name if you have one, and your city of residence.

Photos courtesy of the monastic sangha

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Sangha News

The European Institute of Applied Buddhism

Distinguished programs of Buddhist Studies may be found at any number of universities around the world. There is, however, a crucial element missing from most, if not all of these programs: training in concrete methods for using the wealth of the Buddha’s teachings to relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves, our families, our communities, and across the world. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) offers a complete program that fully integrates the study of Buddhist texts with concrete applications at all levels of students’ daily life.

Buddhism as taught at EIAB is not religion. The teachings of the Buddha are offered in a non-confessional, non-sectarian manner, and there is no agenda either explicit or implicit to “convert” anyone to (or away from) any religious status. EIAB offers training in practices and methods developed by Shakyamuni Buddha himself and by others inspired by his teachings, with the sole purpose of relieving suffering and bringing happiness to ourselves and our world.

Under the aegis of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the world-renowned meditation teacher, scholar, and writer, together with senior Dharma teachers of Plum Village, students of EIAB gain not only a firm grounding in essential Buddhist teachings, but a mastery of their own minds, bodies, speech, and actions through cultivating the art of mindful living. Specifically, EIAB trains students to apply Buddhist teachings in such a way as to:

  • Release tensions of the body, reduce bodily stress and pains, and in many cases alleviate not only symptoms but also underlying causes of
  • Look deeply to understand whatever suffering may be in them or around
  • Recognize and transform painful feelings and emotions through
  • Use compassionate listening and skillful words to create bridges of real understanding between individuals and also between groups in

Courses are open to all who wish to improve the quality of their own lives and those of their families and communities by learning effective means of making happiness and peace a reality in all aspects of daily life. Buddhist teachings are offered at EIAB in a very practical, nonreligious way, and students of any — or no — religious background can benefit from learning them and putting them into practice. No academic prerequisite is necessary to begin a course of study at EIAB. Courses are taught at several campuses across Europe, North America, and Asia.

Credit is awarded upon successful completion of each course. Upon completion of a prescribed series of courses, students may be awarded the degree of Master of Buddhist Studies and Practice (MBSP). Other institutions with programs in Buddhist studies, comparative religion or other subjects may like to send students for, say, ten to twenty hours of training at EIAB to bring deeper meaning to their studies. EIAB works in cooperation with other academic institutions to promote maximum transferability of EIAB credits to programs at those other institutions.

The EIAB also offers specialized programs of study and training for longtime monastic and lay practitioners who have realized the benefits of Buddhist practice and wish to become Dharmacaryas (Dharma teachers), to share the teachings and practice of Buddhism with others in ways that are relevant and effective for our time. The EIAB Dharmacarya Council decides when a student in this program is ready to receive official recognition as a Dharmacarya in the teaching tradition of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village. This official recognition may include a ceremony of Dharma Lamp transmission.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, former abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center, has moved back to Plum Village to help Thay in setting up the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.


Thich Nhat Hanh Receives Doshi Family Bridgebuilder Award

On September 5, 2007 in Gersten Pavilion at Loyola Marymount University more than 1,400 students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered to listen to and meditate with Thich Nhat Hanh who was the recipient of the Doshi Family Bridgebuilder Award. LMU is a Catholic university rooted in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions, located in West Los Angeles, California.

“In our civilization, most of us are running from anger, fear and difficult situations and because of that we suffer and those around us suffer,” Nhat Hanh said. “We need to look deeply at our suffering and pain to understand its root… as a means to cultivate compassion and understanding.” Nhat Hanh then discussed the significance of practicing mutual compassion and building a community of brotherhood and sisterhood. His work includes bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for mindful meditation practice. He explained how the two groups overcame obstacles through listening compassionately and helping one another remove wrong perceptions rooted in fear.

Thich Nhat Hanh is the third recipient of the award from LMU’s Center for Religion and Spirituality and the Doshi Family. The award is given annually to honor an individual or organization dedicated to fostering understanding between cultures, peoples and disciplines. The event in Nhat Hanh’s honor was funded by the Doshi Professorship of Indic and Comparative Theology. Past recipients include Deepak Chopra and Zubin Mehta.


In this issue we introduce “Dharma The Cat Cartoons,” generously provided to the Mindfulness Bell by creator David Lourie.


The cartoons have been published in twenty-eight countries in eighteen languages; they are available in an “e-book” collection. An online blog invites “multi-faith commentary” from readers.

About “The Lesson,” David writes that this is “a great example of how sometimes when we try to teach others, others teach us! To start with, Bodhi has undertaken an unnatural challenge when he tries to retrain an animal’s basic nature — that is, to stop Dharma from hunting.”

David then goes on to explain that the story is actually autobiographical. The one-year-old cat that his family adopted from an animal shelter was affectionate and gentle. “But when we first brought him home and let him loose in the yard, he became an instant terror to our happy little neighbourhood, by stalking everything that moved — and catching most of it,” writes David. Over the next year, the family trained him with patient gentleness to not harm the creatures he traps by giving him a reward for releasing them. “Therefore he still hunts, but at least he has learned to be gentle — a mixed lesson that is the result of my not thinking it through properly in the beginning.”


David Lourie is an Emmy Award-winning writer and editor of documentaries, and creator of Dharma The Cat Cartoons  (www.DharmaTheCatCartoons.com).  Having been introduced to meditation while at U.C.L.A. in 1965, David has since studied Buddhism in the Theravada tradition. He lives in New South Wales, Australia.


English-Language  Retreat & International Vesak Conference
Vietnam, May 2008

In place of the biannual June retreat at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh will offer a six-day retreat on “Engaged Buddhism for the 21st Century” in Hanoi, May 5-11, 2008.


After the retreat (and a day of rest), Thay and his students will participate in an International Conference to celebrate the Buddha’s Birthday (Vesak) organized by UNESCO, May 13-17. The theme of the conference is “Buddhist Contribution to Building a Just, Democratic and Civil Society” and Thay will give one of the three keynote addresses.

In addition, the Vietnamese organizers have asked Thay to invite his students to participate in the conference as presenters and attend as guests. The conference will focus on the following seven themes:

  1. War, conflict and healing: a Buddhist perspective
  2. Buddhist contribution to social justice
  3. Engaged Buddhism and development
  4. Care for our environment: Buddhist response to climate change
  5. Family problems and the Buddhist response
  6. Symposium on Buddhist education: continuity and progress
  7. Symposium on Buddhism in the digital age

Students of Thay who would like to offer a presentation (7-10 minutes maximum) on one or more of these themes are invited to submit proposals, by December 31 if possible. Proposals should include:

  • title and abstract of no more than one single-spaced page
  • a one-page CV or a 250-word biography
  • (optional) a paper, of no more than 7000 words

The cost of the retreat and conference is $675 or 520 euros, which includes the cost of the hotel (double-occupancy), intercity transportation, and most meals. (See the inside front cover for additional information, or go to www.plumvillage.org.)

Tentative Itinerary for the Lay Delegation

Sunday, May 4, 2008
Official arrival day – Hanoi, Vietnam

Monday, May 5 to Sunday, May 11
English-speaking retreat for Western lay practitioners Hanoi

Monday, May 12, 2008
Lazy day resting day (breakfast at hotel, lunch & dinner on your own)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008
VESAK – Arrival, registration, and welcoming delegation from different countries (breakfast at hotel, lunch & dinner on your own after registration at National Convention Center)

Wednesday, May 14 Friday, May 16
VESAK conference, with seven workshops on Engaged Buddhism by Plum Village practitioners; and keynote addresses by Bhikku Bodhi, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, and Thich Nhat Hanh

Saturday, May 17
Official departure day
VESAK – Optional package tours (by VESAK organizers) Optional Tour: Avalokiteshvara Caves with Sr. Chan Khong (not included in price package)

Sunday, May 18
Rest day – on your own

Monday, May 19 Thursday, May 22
Optional tour — depart for Hue to visit Tu Hieu Root Temple and charity programs in the Thua Thien and
Quang Tri Provinces with Sr. Chan Khong (not included in price package)
Return to Hanoi on May 22nd

Registration and Information
If you would like to participate in these special events, or would like more information, please contact our registrar Sr. Tue Nghiem at tnhvntrip@earthlink.net. Presentation proposals should be submitted by email to Sr. Pine at vesak2008@yahoo.com; please include “Vesak 2008” in the subject line.

— Sr. Chan Khong (for the Brothers and Sisters of Plum Village)

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Book Reivews

mb47-BookReviews1Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go
Waking Up to Who You Are

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2007
Softcover, 204 Pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

In this book we receive two gifts tied up in one package: twenty-three teachings of Master Linji and twenty-three commentaries on those teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh, with a bonus of five practices offered by Thich Nhat Hanh based on Linji’s teachings.

In Teaching 14, Master Linji outlines for us the Holy Grail of mindfulness practice — the promise that we can indeed realize our clear original nature. That each of us can roam freely through the world and reach all the Dharma realms. That if we meet the Buddha, we can speak to the Buddha; if we meet a hungry ghost, we speak to the hungry ghost. Wherever we go, we are at home. “Everywhere is pure, the light of clarity illumines the ten directions, and you see the oneness of all that is.”

Master Linji is famous for saying that when we meet the ghost Buddha, we should cut off his head. Thay always tells us, whether we’re looking inside or outside ourselves, we need to cut off the head of our views and ideas, including our notions of Buddhist teachings.

This book finds me at a time in my life when I am physically exhausted because of all my Dharma activity and my involvement in our sangha. How ironic — and, gulp — unskillful for a teacher of mindfulness! Perhaps I need to cut off the head of the notion that I must launch and do so many worthy projects.

Master Linji might well have hit me with his stick! That was the effect of reading this book. I am stunned into noticing the present moment. I am stunned into realizing that I am so busy teaching others to stop that I do not stop myself! In a recent article by the president of Shakyadita, the International Buddhist Women’s Association, Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo warns of this paradox in monastic life as well as lay life: “[We]… cannot become genuine models of simplicity and contentment unless we live simple and contented lives.” St. Francis of Assisi said, “Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”

What does this mean to one who is worn out from over-activity? Again and again, Master Linji, as well as Thay, warns us about the “busy” trap, suggesting we should become “busynessless”— a term coined by Linji. So we can conclude that even in the ninth century during the Tang Dynasty, in Jiangxi province, just south of the Yangzi River, folks were caught in too much to do! In 2000, when I visited Plum Village, then too, I felt struck by the stick when Thay said to several hundred people, “You do not have to be the director of anything.” I felt as if he were speaking directly to me.

After mastering the teachings, our ancestor Linji threw away his books to live the Dharma! In his commentary on Linji’s Teaching 14, Thay tells us, “A sutra is only a supporting condition to manifest our own wisdom.” The same could be said of the Buddha and the Sangha.

Linji states very clearly that learning a sutra or even practicing seated meditation in a spirit of attachment only creates more karma. What indeed, keeps us busy if not ego and attachment? What an inner revolution! The spirit of Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go can free us from samsara, the vicious cycle of birth and death and suffering, and lead us to the Pure Land, which is none other than right here, right now.

mb47-BookReviews2The Buddha’s Diamonds

By Carolyn Marsden and Thay Phap Niem
Candlewick Press, 2008

Reviewed by David Flint

As The Buddha’s Diamonds begins, ten-year-old Tinh sits in the village temple and “sighs, the knots inside him relaxing” as the monks and nuns begin to chant. The Abbot offers a teaching about how “The Buddha’s Diamonds” — the sunshine, the ocean, our loved ones — are always available to us, even in a poor fishing village. And yet a few minutes later Tinh encounters his first remote-controlled toy car —sent to his cousin by a rich uncle in America:

“Tinh reached for the remote control…. He tapped the button on the left and the car drove toward a palm tree. He maneuvered the car around the base of a tree…. He loved the feeling of power in his hands…. This car was a diamond the monk didn’t know about.” Tinh spends much of his time daydreaming about having a life-sized car like this.

And so it goes in this lovely and evocative children’s book, set in a Vietnamese fishing village not long after the war has ended. Through Tinh’s eyes we experience the effect of consumer goods and consumerism on one fishing village. We see the subtle and unspoken shifts in the relationship of a father and son, in the warmth of a child’s life lived within an extended family. This story takes us into a huge, exciting, frightening and dangerous ocean storm. And it shows us the possibility of dwelling in happiness in the present moment.

We see Tinh learning lessons in wise attention as he accompanies his fisherman father: “You’re daydreaming again, Ba said. When the boat is moving, pay attention.”

Later, after the storm has damaged many homes and boats, including his own, Tinh sees the statue of the Buddha. “He even felt the beginnings of a glow around his own heart.” And then Tinh “refused  to look at the Buddha’s face. He turned away from happiness and started home,” feeling it is wrong to be happy at such a time.

This is not a book of good advice all dressed up as a children’s story. Life itself teaches Tinh about wise attention and how the mind can be happy in difficult situations. One eleven-year-old said of The Buddha’s Diamonds: “I liked it. It has lots of descriptive words so you can really get into it.”

This book can be enjoyed by children and adults, and is good for reading out loud. It can also be used as the basis for discussion in a children’s group in a Sangha.

mb47-BookReviews3The Dragon Prince
Stories and Legends from Vietnam

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2007

Reviewed by Emily Whittle

“Long ago, when earth and sky were still covered in darkness, a great bird with wings like curtains of night….”

Before the end of the first sentence in The Dragon Prince, the wide-eyed child in me is awakened and I am hanging on every word, enchanted by a rich story that unfolds like a compelling dream.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking these stories are mainly for children. These are stories that resonate on deep levels, weaving myth, legend, and Vietnamese history into an intricate tapestry to delight and inform all ages. Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple, straightforward prose refreshes my literary palate like a piece of fresh fruit after a meal.

In keeping with the author’s lifelong dedication to mindfulness, these stories emphasize interconnection, cooperation, and the resolution of conflict through understanding. Without being saccharine or scolding, they water good seeds in us. At the same time, we are educated about Vietnamese culture, with details such as the origin of traditional earth and sky cakes and the practice of chewing betel nuts.

The third story begins, “It had not rained in over six months.” Again, I am hooked. It has not rained in my town in North Carolina in five months. Maybe this story will give me a clue to the meaning of this terrible drought that signals the growing imbalances of nature.

Perhaps we need to dive down into the store consciousness to awaken the Dragon Emperor that resides in us all. He’s been napping, waiting for us to make the inner journey. We only need to ask his help to slay the monsters of greed, jealousy, discrimination, and hate. It will take courage, cooperation, and concentration but we can do it. Then the rains can come and the parched fields will turn green again.

Maybe this is not the meaning intended by Thich Nhat Hanh, but that’s the power of myth and legend. Although Vietnamese, these stories are timeless and placeless. They rise up from the collective unconscious like deeply rooted trees. I read them hungrily. They feel like good medicine.

The last story, “A Bouquet of Flowers,” goes right to the heart of my own suffering and the suffering of my friends. A dying father leaves his son and daughter a poem from the ancestors that will help them find a buried treasure. On his deathbed he instructs them, “…Don’t be as busy as I have been. Work just enough to live, and take the time to find the deep meaning of the poem and uncover the treasure.”

The son, who ponders the poem in a literal way, fails to understand, despite three years of contemplation in a monastery. It is the daughter who penetrates the meaning of the poem, simply by tending the rice fields with concentrated mindfulness. Without looking for the treasure, she finds it in the details of her daily life.

There is treasure embedded in the stories in The Dragon Prince. Read them and it can be yours!

Books of Note

Compiled by Judith Toy

New Edition of World As Lover World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, by Joanna Macy, Parallax Press, 2007, 206 pages, paper. A visionary ahead of her time, in this modern classic the author sounds a call for us to wake up to a deeper relationship with the Earth or risk its destruction. Includes spiritual practices for activists.

First Snow, by Helen Coutant, with pictures by Vo-Dinh, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1974. A picture book for children age five to nine. A charming story about a little girl whose grandmother is dying, a story that grew out of the shared belief of Coutant and her husband, Vo-Dinh, that many of the ancient ideas and traditions of Buddhism can have meaning for all people. Available through out-of-print book searches online.

Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam, edited by Philip Taylor, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2007, 491 pages. Part of the publisher’s Vietnam Update Series of annual conferences that focus on recent economic, political, and social conditions in Vietnam. An academic textbook, with a fortytwo-page chapter by sangha member John Chapman on Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam in 2005, as well as some details of Thay’s early life.

Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others, by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, Las Olas Press, 2007, 263 pages. Helps us recognize how we interact with others’ suffering, pain, crisis, and trauma, and the effects of trauma exposure everywhere: in ourselves, our organizations, and our society. “Reading this book is like looking into a mirror,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in his endorsement. “We will see ourselves much moreclearly, will understand ourselves much better…” For information go to www.traumastewardship.com.

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Feet in the Water, Tornadoes Above, and Landslides

Plum Village, November 24, 2007

By Sister Chan Khong

Dear Friends,

These are a few of the headlines from Vietnam announcing great natural disasters sweeping across the country. In the north, we have sent aid to a few hundred of the thousands of inhabitants who have seen their homes vanish under the water. In central Vietnam, the flood continues to submerge hundreds of thousands of homes. Mostly the homes of the poorest were affected, homes constructed of straw, wood and mud, as they could not afford to build brick homes or homes on high foundations.

The only dependable help comes from compassionate volunteers and nuns who organized themselves to help as best they could. In looking deeply, we see that as children of this planet, we have destroyed without pity our Mother Earth, and these “natural” disasters are bells of mindfulness waking us up to hear her warnings. Perhaps in the name of development, we should not destroy our natural resources like mountains and forests, and return to a simpler life. Making use of the spiritual heritage of our ancestors, we can protect the environment and the way of life of millions of living beings that share this earth with us.

Floods Under Our Feet

Widespread deforestation caused by industrial exploitation through the mining of anthracitezinc or nickel has greatly inhibited the land’s capacity to absorb the seasonal rains; this leads to repeated and increasingly higher water levels. Therefore, hundreds of thousands of acres of rice fields and agriculture are under water in many districts of Ninh Binh, Thanh Hoa, and Ha Tinh. In central Vietnam, the fl immersed thousands of homes and on November 12, 2007 the water level in the Perfume River in Thua Thien (Hue City) rose for the fourth time, 4.5 meters. Water levels in other rivers in Quang Ngai, Quang Nam, Thua Thien also rose higher than ever before. Mother Earth and the mountains are crying out and telling us that if we do not change our way of life soon, we will all die together.

Our young monastic sisters in Hue City (of Plum Village tradition) were sitting on the higher story of the temple Tay Linh to avoid the flood, continuing to chant sutras and practicing to chew mindfully their instant noodles without drinking water — even as they are surrounded by flooding water polluted with corpses of animals. The water in the temple was already more than 2.20 meters high! Fortunately, there were three rooms on the upper level for them to stay in, and there were enough ramen noodles for them to eat. The electrical and water systems were disrupted. Luckily, telephone lines were still intact, so that the monastic brothers in Tu Hieu and sisters in Tay Linh, together with our social workers in Thua Thien, Quang Tri, and Saigon, could still communicate with each other and make plans to go offer help to flood victims.

Tornadoes Loom Overhead

With the water rising we are fortunate not to have hurricanes, or the damage might have been catastrophic. There are only small local tornadoes, such as the two tornadoes that hit the Thua Thien districts, killing two infants and injuring 22 elementary school students.

Devastating Landslides

From November 5 to 8, several landslides occurred in the regions of Quang Nam and the Tien Phuoc, Dong Giang and Dai Loc districts. In a remote area in Quang Ngai province, next to Tra Lanh village, tens of thousands of cubic meters of unpopulated land created a landslide knocking down newly installed electric and telephone lines. Three landslides occurred in Phu Yen, burying fourteen people alive in Hoa Xuan Nam. Another landslide, though smaller, covered a large part of the railway on the south-north tracks through Vietnam, causing trains heading north to stop at Tuy Hoa for several days. In the province of Binh Dinh, the flood has buried 20,000 units to the rooftops and destroyed the Ganh bridge, cutting the national route connecting the plain of seven provinces to the high plateau of four other provinces.

Environmentalists in Thua Thien, Quang Nam, and Quang Ngai are very worried that flood waters can soften mountain soil and cause more mountains to crash down.

Yesterday, when we called Vietnam, we learned that the price of rice has increased enormously.
Even very poor quality rice has increased from 4000 dong to 6000 dong for one kilogram.
Please donate generously; all donations are tax deductible.

For $6, you can give 15 kg of rice. For $6, you can give a blanket. For $12, you can buy a gift packet with 15 kg of rice, 30 packets of ramen noodles, a bottle of soy sauce, and 50,000 Vietnamese dong (approximately $3). For $120, you can help rebuild a family’s roof.

Sister Trung Chinh
Deer Park Monastery
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido CA 92026 USA
By Check: Unified Buddhist Church
Att: help victims of natural disasters in Vietnam
By Credit Card: (please indicate amount, e-mail address, mailing address, telephone number, credit card name, number and expiration).
Online: www.Deerparkmonastery.org look for “How You Can Help.”

Credit Agricole D’aquitaine
304 Bd Du President Wilson 33076
Bordeaux Cedex, Intitulé E B U ,
Village Des Pruniers
13306 00342 42901199011 96
I.B.A.N./B.I.C. (Etranger) fr76 1330 6003
4242 9011 9901 196 / agrifrpp833
Ubs ag ch-4002 basel no de compte 233 4-5317.61f in euros
Iban ch71 0023 3233 4053 1761f

Sister Hy Nghiem
Miss Phan Minh Tam.
Telephone: 0975605755
Account: 054.001.00780.9
Sacombank-Saigon Thuong Tin
Commerical Joint Stock Bank
Swift Code: SGTTVNVX
Chips Uid: 364442
Att: Help victims of natural disasters in Vietnam.

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