Dharma Talk: The Buddhist Understanding of Reality

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village, France — 21 June 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the Path of the Buddha retreat, Thay focused on global ethics. A handout (see below) summarized four different approaches to ethical questions. Here is an excerpt from Thay’s last Dharma talk, in which he discussed the Buddhist approach.

We study this line: “Both subject and object of perception manifest from consciousness according to the principle of interbeing.” This expresses an understanding of deep Buddhism. The question of whether we continue to be after the disintegration of this body has been asked by so many people. And there are many ways to answer, according to our capacity to understand. There are at least two kinds of Buddhism. Those who practice popular Buddhism are practicing more devotion than meditation, so their understanding of rebirth is quite different. But to answer this question satisfactorily, you have to use the understanding given by deep Buddhism, the understanding that is in accord with science.

We usually believe that consciousness is something inside of us, and we go and look for the world outside. We think there is an objective world outside and there is a subjective world inside. Remember when we read from “Winnie the Pooh”? Winnie the Pooh thought he saw the footprints of a hostile animal, and he became afraid. But with the help of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh discovered that the footprints he found on the snow were his own footprints! The same thing is true with the object of our inquiry – the so-called objective reality of the world. We think it is something distinct from our consciousness, but in fact it is only the object of our consciousness. It is our consciousness. That’s the hardest thing to understand and a basic obstacle for us and for science. Now a number of scientists are beginning to understand this concept. The British astronomer, Sir Eddington, said that on the unknown shore we have discovered footprints of unknown people, and we want to know who has been there before us. We come, inquire and investigate, and we find that they are our own footprints.

The world outside is our consciousness, is us. It is not something separate and distinct. The object and the subject of perception inter-are. Without subject, there is no object; without object, there is no subject. They manifest at the same time. To see means to see something. The seer does not exist separately from the seen; they manifest at the same time. If you imagine that the seer is independent and goes out in order to see the seen, that is a mistaken perception.

The Nature of Consciousness

Consciousness is always consciousness of something, and consciousness only lasts a millisecond. Consciousness is like an elementary particle, like an electron; its nature is non-local. Nonlocality is a word used by scientists about time in quantum physics. An elementary particle can be everywhere at the same time. We think that one thing cannot be several places at once, but scientists have agreed that an elementary particle – an electron – can be both here and there at the same time. It can be both this and that at the same time. It can be you, it can be me.

Many philosophers and scientists have said that the nature of consciousness has a cinematographic nature. A film is made up of separate pictures that last only a fraction of a second. Consciousness is like that, it just lasts one millisecond. Then, because moments of consciousness succeed each other continuously, you have the impression that consciousness is something that lasts. But the notion of a permanent consciousness is illusion, not reality. Consciousness is only a flash.

It’s like a flame on the tip of a candle. You think there is one flame, but really there is a succession of millions of flames, one after the other, that give the impression that it is only one flame. The flame of this moment gives rise to the flame of the next moment, and the flame of the next moment gives rise to the flame of the next moment. Things exist only in one millisecond. And that is true not only with consciousness; it is also true with our bodies, because cells die to give rise to other cells. In a month, all our cells will be new cells. It’s like a river. We see a river and call it one name, but the water is not the same water, it’s always changing. You cannot swim twice in the same river, and it is not the same person who goes into the river. Tomorrow it will not be “you” who goes into that river. You will have changed, just like the river constantly changes.

Buddhism offers the example of someone holding a torch and drawing a circle in the dark. Since he moves the torch quickly, you have the impression that there is a circle of fire. But in fact there is only one dot of fire. Everything is fleeting and impermanent. Modern science acknowledges this.

No-Self and Samadhi

Science is now capable of demonstrating no-self. Neuroscience teaches that neurons communicate with each other very well, and they operate together without a leader or a boss. They are like an orchestra playing beautiful music without a conductor. Our bodies are made of many cells and there is coordination among the cells; they don’t need a president of all the cells in order to make decisions. There is no-self.

If a scientist knows how to maintain that insight on life, then that flash of insight will become a liberating factor. If you just accept that idea as a notion, that is not enough to liberate you from your fear, your desire, your despair. No-self and impermanence as notions are not very helpful. You need to maintain a long-lasting understanding in order to get liberation. That is why samadhi has been translated, “you maintain it like that.” You keep the insight alive and you make it last. In your daily life you are able to maintain the vision of impermanence, the vision of no-self as a living experience. Only that insight can liberate you from fear, from anger, from separation. It is like when you boil potatoes, you have to maintain the fire underneath them for at least twenty minutes for the potatoes to cook. If you light the burner and then you turn it off, you will never have cooked potatoes. Samadhi is like that. Samadhi is the concentration needed to maintain the steady presence of that insight. Scientists are capable of finding no-self and impermanence, but what they need is samadhi to maintain that understanding throughout the day. They need the tools of mindfulness, concentration, and samadhi, in order to discover more. It would be helpful to have practitioners of meditation and scientists to collaborate, in order to discover more about ourselves.

You can be sure that the world is an object of mind. The sun, the moon, the earth, the cosmos, the galaxies – they are all objects of mind. And our body, also, is an object of our mind. And our mind, also, is an object of our mind. That is why we can investigate the object of our mind. When we understand the object of our mind, we understand our mind, because mind and object of our mind inter-are. One cannot be without the other.

When we believe that consciousness is permanent, and only the body perishes, that the soul continues and goes to heaven or hell, that is eternalism. A right view should transcend a view of eternalism. A permanent, immortal soul is something that cannot be accepted, either by good Buddhists or good scientists. But the opposite view – that after this body disintegrates, you disappear altogether, is another extreme, another wrong view, called nihilism. As a student of Buddhism, you are not caught in either of these views. There’s only continued manifestation in different kinds of forms; that is rebirth, continuation, in the context of impermanence and no-self. Good scientists see that nothing is born and nothing dies.

Being a Cloud

Suppose you are a cloud. You are made of tiny crystals of ice and water and you are so light, you can float. And maybe floating as a cloud, you encounter a block of hot air so you become drops of water and fall as rain. You go down, you come up again, you go down, and you come up again. Transmigration, reincarnation, rebirth is always taking place in a cloud. And yet a cloud does not need to become rain in order to have a new life. A cloud has a new life every moment. Rebirth, continuation takes place with us in the same way.

There is a lot of cloud in us, and we continue to drink cloud every day. Birth and death are taking place in every moment of our daily life. We should not say, “I will die in twenty years, in thirty years;” no, you are dying right in this moment and you are reborn right in this moment. Rebirth is happening in the here and the now – not in the future. So when someone asks you, “What will happen to me when I die?” Ask him or her, “What happens to you in the here and the now?” If you know what happens in the here and the now, you can answer the first question very easily. You are undergoing birth and death right now because mentally and physically you are of a cinematographic nature. You are renewed in every instant, and if you know how to do it, your renewal is beautiful.

In every moment we produce thought, we produce speech, and we produce action. That action will have an effect on us and on the world: that is our karma. If you know how to handle your thinking, your speech, and your action, you’ll be more beautiful. You don’t have to wait until you die to see what happens to you. Look in the present moment and you see that birth and death are going on in you at every moment, both in your body and in your consciousness. Every moment of our daily life there is input and there is output. You breathe in, you take food, you have new ideas, new feelings. And things go out from you, like urine, air, and water. So the cosmos is renewing you and you are releasing things to the cosmos. Birth and death does not wait; it is happening now, in the present moment.

Suppose one part of the cloud transforms itself into rain and the rain falls and becomes part of a river. The remaining part of the cloud is looking down from the sky and sees its continuation on the earth. It says to its rain part, “I enjoy floating up here but you’re part of me and I hope you enjoy it down there. To be floating up here is nice, but to be flowing down there is also nice.” The cloud is both floating in the sky and flowing as the rain.

As a human being, we can see that too. I see myself in my students and in my friends. I wish them good luck, because their good luck is my good luck. When my disciples and my friends carry me with them, I wish them the best. My happiness and suffering depend on them. So when I look, I don’t just see me here. I see me there, and there, and there. I wave and say, “Have a good time in there!” That is the way to look. You see yourself not just in this body, you see yourself everywhere, because every moment you produce thought, you produce speech, you produce action that continues you in the world.

One hundred years from now, if you come to Plum Village, you’ll still see me in different forms – and younger and more beautiful! [laughs] Because it is possible to be more beautiful in our way of thinking, in our way of speaking and acting if we know how to generate right view. With right view, we don’t suffer. We can produce thoughts of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. A cloud can do the work of self-purification up there, so that when it becomes snow or river, it is beautiful. It is possible.

Karma

We began our talk with the notion that both consciousness and object of consciousness are manifestations of consciousness. Consciousness is a dynamic force that is at the base of manifesting living beings and the world. In Buddhist insight, the world is a manifestation of consciousness. Many scientists have begun to agree that the cosmos is a manifestation of consciousness. As a scientist, you cannot stand outside as an observer; to really understand, you have to be a participant.

In Buddhism we speak of karma as the threefold aspect of action; thinking, speaking and acting. When we produce a thought, that thought can change us and can change the world in a good way or in a bad way. If it is right thought, if that thought is produced in line with right thinking, then it will have a healing, nourishing effect on our body and on the world. Just by producing right thinking you can change the world. You can make the world a better place to live, or you can transform the world into hell. That is karma, action; this is not something abstract. For example, the economic crisis is born from our thinking. There is a lot of craving and fear, and the value of the dollar, of the euro is largely created by the mind. Everything comes from the mind. That is why thinking is action and speaking is action. Speaking can release tension and reconcile, or speaking can break relationships. Speaking can destroy someone’s hope and cause that person to commit suicide. Physical action is also energy.

There is individual karma that has an effect on everyone. Everything that happened to you happened to the world. You produce that thought, you are affected by that thought, and the world is also affected by that thought. There is also collective karma. During this twenty-one-day retreat, the friendship, the joy, the healing, the transformation is the work of everyone. Each one of us contributes through our practice, through our insight, through our speech. In Buddhism, we do not believe in a God that arranges everything, but we don’t believe in coincidence either. We believe that the fate of the planet depends on our karma, on our action. It does not depend on a God, it does not depend on chance, it depends on our true action. Karma is the dynamic force that underlies everything. I think that scientists will have no difficulty accepting this.

Man is present in all things and all things are present in man. Man just arrived yesterday in the history of life on earth. Looking into a human being, we can see our non-human elements, namely our animal ancestors, our vegetable ancestors, and our mineral ancestors. In our past life we were a cloud, and we were a rock. Even in this moment, we continue to be a cloud, we continue to be a rock. There is a mountain in us, do you see? There are many clouds in us, do you see?

In a former time, we were fish, we were birds, we were reptiles. And our ancestors are fully present in us, in the here, in the now. We continue as a reptile. We have many reactions that belong to the reptile species. We want to say that we are created by a God in his image. But in fact, we have many ancestors. When a fish swims happily in the water, it is very proud of its talent for swimming. And a fish has the right to say that God must be the most wonderful swimmer in the world. And a rose can say, “God is the most beautiful rose in the world, because he has created me like this.” If you are a mathematician, you tend to think God must be the best mathematician in the world. Your notions of God are anthropocentric. If you are a gay person, you may think that God is the best gay person in the world. Why not? The fish has that right, the rose has that right, so we all inter-are. We continue our ancestors in us now. We are human, but we are at the same time a rock, a cloud, a rabbit, a rose, a gay, a lesbian. We are everything. Let us not discriminate or push away anything, because we are everything. Everything is in us. That’s the right view.

If we see that everything is in man and man is in everything, we know that to preserve other species is to preserve ourselves. That is deep ecology, that is interbeing. That is the teaching of the Diamond Sutra. A good Buddhist should be an ecologist, trying her best to preserve the environment, because to preserve the environment is to preserve yourself. Man contains the whole cosmos.

On the phenomenal level there seem to be birth, death, being and non-being, but ontologically, these notions cannot be applied to reality. Birth and death are just notions. The true nature of a cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. The scientist Lavoisier says that nothing is born, nothing dies. He agrees completely with this teaching. A cloud manifests as a cloud. There is no birth of a cloud, because before being a cloud, the cloud has been the tree, the ocean, the heat generated by the sun. To appear as a cloud is only a moment of continuation. And when a cloud becomes a river, that is not death, that is also a continuation. We know that there is a way to continue beautifully, and that is to take care of our three aspects of karma – thinking, speaking and acting.

Being and non-being are more wrong views. Non-being is a wrong view, but being is also a wrong view. The absolute reality transcends both being and non-being. Before you are born, you did not belong to the realm of non-being, because from non-being, you cannot pass into being. And when you die, you cannot pass from being into non-being. It’s impossible. To be, or not to be – both are wrong views. To inter-be is better.

The dynamic consciousness is called karma energy. Karma energy is not abstract. It determines our state of being, whether we are happy or unhappy. Whether you continue beautifully or not so beautifully depends on karma. It’s possible to take care of our action so that we don’t suffer much now and we will continue to do better in the future. There is the hope, the joy.

Free Will is Mindfulness

Everything evolves according to the principle of interdependence, but there is free will and the possibility to transform. Free will is mindfulness. When mindfulness intervenes, we are aware of what is going on. If we like our action, we allow it to continue; if we don’t like our action, there are methods to change it with concentration and insight. We don’t want to take a path leading to ill-being; we want to take the path leading to the cessation of ill-being, to well-being. Free will is possible in Buddhism, because we know that we can handle our thinking, we can handle our speech and we can handle our action. We are responsible for our action and it is possible to assure a good continuation. Freedom begins with mindfulness, concentration and insight. With insight, with right view we can practice right thinking. We can change ourselves; we can change the world. Everything is the fruit of action.

The one affects the all. The all affects the one. Interbeing means impermanence, non-self, emptiness, and karma. In the teaching of Buddha, every teaching inter-is with every other teaching, so impermanence should be understood as no-self and no-self should be understood as interdependence. No-self and interdependence are not two different things. If you understand interdependence, you understand no-self. If you understand impermanence, you understand interdependence. They are different words, but they are just the same thing.

Right view allows right action, leading to the reduction of suffering and the increase of happiness. This is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the active aspect of the teaching is the Noble Eightfold Path.

Happiness and Suffering

Happiness and suffering inter-are. You should not try to run away from suffering because you know that a deep understanding of suffering can bring about insight, compassion, and understanding. And that is the foundation of happiness. We do not think that there is a place where there is no suffering. The Pure Land, the kingdom of God is right here. If we are free, then we can recognize the kingdom of God in the here and the now. We need only a flash of awakening to realize that what we are looking for is already here – the kingdom of God. No birth and no death.

Please remember that without the mud, the lotus cannot grow. We should not be afraid of suffering. We know how to handle suffering. We know how to handle the garbage in order to make compost and nourish the flowers. That’s why we can accept this world with all our heart. We don’t need to go anywhere else. This is our home. We want to manifest again and again and again in order to make this home more beautiful with good action. The ultimate reality transcends notions of good and evil, right and wrong. That is the absolute criterion for Buddhist ethics.

Transcribed by Nancy Mendenhall, edited by Barbara Casey, Natascha Bruckner, and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

Four Views of Ethics

I. Theistic Traditions

Judaism and Christianity teach that the world was created by a loving, all-powerful God to provide a home for us. We, in turn, were created in his image, to be his children. Thus, the world is not devoid of meaning and purpose. It is, instead, the arena in which God’s plans and purposes are realized. What could be more natural, then, than to think that “morality” is a part of the religious view of the world, whereas the atheist’s world has no place for values?

In the major theistic traditions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — God is conceived as a lawgiver who has laid down rules that we are to obey. He does not compel us to obey them. We were created as free agents, so we may choose to accept or to reject his commandments. But if we are to live as we should, we must follow God’s laws. This conception has been elaborated by some theologians into a theory about the nature of right and wrong known as the Divine Command Theory. Essentially, this theory says that “morally right” is a matter of being commanded by God and “morally wrong” is a matter of being forbidden by God.

II. Bertrand Russell’s “Scientific” Approach

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 1902).

III. Recent Scientific Approach

The universe is some 15 billion years old — that is the time elapsed since the “big bang” — and the earth itself was formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The evolution of life on the planet was a slow process, guided largely by natural selection. The first humans appeared quite recently. The extinction of the great dinosaurs 65 million years ago (possibly as the result of a catastrophic collision between the earth and an asteroid) left ecological room for the evolution of the few little mammals that were about, and after 63 or 64 million more years, one line of that evolution finally produced us. In geological time, we arrived only yesterday.

But no sooner did our ancestors arrive than they began to think of themselves as the most important things in all creation. Some of them even imagined that the whole universe had been made for their benefit. Thus, when they began to develop theories of right and wrong, they held that the protection of their own interests had a kind of ultimate and objective value. The rest of creation, they reasoned, was intended for their use. We now know better. We now know that we exist by evolutionary accident, as one species among many, on a small and insignificant world in one little corner of the cosmos. The details of this picture are revised each year, as more is discovered; but the main outlines seem well established. (James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, McGraw Hill, 2007).

IV. Buddhist Approach

Both subject and object of perception manifest from consciousness according to the principle of interbeing. Man is present in all things and all things are present in man. On the phenomenal level, there seems to be birth, death, being and non-being, but ontologically, these notions cannot be applied to reality. The dynamic consciousness is called karma energy. Everything evolves according to the principle of interdependence, but there is free will and the possibility to transform; there is probability. The one affects the all, the all affects the one. Interbeing also means impermanence, non-self, emptiness, karma, and countless world systems.

Right view allows right action, leading to the reduction of suffering and the increase of happiness. Happiness and suffering inter-are. The ultimate reality transcends notions of good and evil, right and wrong. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Winter Retreat of 2008).

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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

mb52-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

As you may know, our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was hospitalized after the retreat at Stonehill College in Massachusetts for treatment of a chronic lung infection. Thay has recovered well and as I write this he is teaching at the retreat in Deer Park Monastery. But he was unable to attend the retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, eerily titled “One Buddha Is Not Enough.”

“Dear friends,” Thay wrote from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, “if you look deeply enough, you will see me in the retreat, walking with you, sitting with you, breathing with you. I feel clearly that I am in you and you are in me.” The nine hundred participants, after feeling everything from dismay, frustration and anger to sadness and grief, experienced the truth of Thay’s words . Everyone’s practice deepened tremendously. (I was pleased to learn later that very few people actually left the retreat.)

By the end of the retreat, several long-time practitioners — including monastics — told me that this was their best retreat ever. Here in Colorado we have been fortunate to have had two monastic retreats, in the summers when Thay did not come to the US. So we know what incredible Dharma teachers we have among our monks and nuns. This was one of the blessings of this retreat — we had the great fortune to hear some voices we normally do not get to hear. Thay Phap Niem gave a powerful Dharma talk on no birth no death; Sister Chau Nghiem, Thay Phap Dung, Sister Tue Nghiem and others gave memorable talks; and a panel of lay and monastic Dharma teachers did a masterful job of answering questions.

Thay continued in his letter: “In this retreat, you will witness to the talent of the Sangha: you will see that Thay is already well continued by the Sangha, and the presence of the Sangha carries Thay’s presence. Please let me walk with your strong feet, breathe with your breathing lungs and smile with your beautiful smiles.” This is our summons to carry Thay with us always. I believe that our Sangha is vibrant and powerful enough to ensure Thay’s continuation, a continuation in beauty. The Colorado retreat was proof of that.

Please send us your stories and photos from the U.S. tour as soon as you can; we will feature some of them in our upcoming issues.

However, I am sad to say that I will no longer be editor of the Bell. I am moving on to other adventures, starting with a course in storytelling at Emerson College in England. Editing our Sangha’s journal has been a joy and a privilege.

Allow me to express my deep gratitude to all who contribute to making this magazine a reality: our talented staff, David Percival, Helena Powell, Brother Phap Dung, Sister Annabel; and wonderful volunteers Barbara, Matt, Judith, Elaine, Brandy, Richard, Peggy. It has been an honor to work with you. And to all who have participated these past four years — writers, photographers, subscribers, donors — I bow to you all. It’s been a delightful journey. I will miss you very much, but I will continue to enjoy you through these pages — and you may see one of my stories now and again.

May you be well in body and spirit. May you meet adversity with courage and grace. May you rejoice in the love that surrounds you always.

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Letters

Sangha Building

This latest issue of the Mindfulness Bell is just bursting with treasures for Sangha practice (as well as a very helpful article on the aspirant training process!). It really helps those of us with young Sanghas and provides us with inspiration and direction with wonderful examples from practice. Thank you for putting this issue together for us!

Laurie Seidel
Roanoke, Virginia

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Thank you for focusing on the topic of Sangha building. Bliss Run Mindfulness Community in Columbus, Ohio just turned one year old. The stories featured in the Bell were both inspirational and informative. Our Sangha has experienced flooding in our room while we were meditating, finding ourselves locked out of the building, having our meeting room turned into a storage room, and dealing with some hostility from people who are suspicious of meditation groups. We have had “key” people disappear, for no apparent reason. We have had people come for only one time, despite our deep commitment to welcoming people with warmth and enthusiasm. Nothing has deterred our core group of six people. As Thay encourages us to focus on Sangha building, I sometimes find myself struggling. I know that even when we only have six people attend, that’s enough, as Thay also reminds us. Yet, there is a part of me that longs to have a greater attendance. Craving lurks just around the corner, even in the meditation hall.

Yet, with each issue of the Bell, I am reminded that I do sit with a worldwide Sangha that includes people from all corners of the globe. Sangha building is not a numbers game. It is a way of life.

Diane Strausser
Columbus, Ohio

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Last May we had a wonderful retreat with Thay in the Netherlands.

We sold a lot of books, DVDs, and CDs in our bookshop. From the revenue we would like to send € 1000 [$1420] for issues of the Mindfulness Bell for prisoners.

Greet de Weger Meppel,
The Netherlands

Reply from David Percival:

Greet, this is really generous of The Netherlands Sangha and we are indeed grateful for your support. Please let all of your members know that we deeply appreciate their assistance. And many prisoners stuck in some lonely prison will also be grateful as this allows us to bring the practice to them and help them to deal with their suffering. We frequently hear from prisoners about how the Mindfulness Bell makes a real difference in their lives and how they usually share each issue with other prisoners. Bows and smiles to you and The Netherlands Sangha.

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Another year has passed and once again I’ve been offered an extension on the gift subscription to the Mindfulness Bell that I was given years ago.

Through the kindness of others the Dharma is shared with prisoners such as myself. Thank you and all those who make the Dharma available to others in need. I can’t imagine a greater gift.

Last year my reply to your subscription offer was printed in an issue of the Mindfulness Bell. As a result I received a kind letter from a fellow reader, ex-prisoner, and Dharma brother, John C. He has been a wonderful source of information regarding Buddhist history and practice, and is but one of the many treasures that have come into my life as a result of my study and practice.

Today, in many ways, I am more free than I have ever been. The gift of the Dharma has given me what I never thought possible: Peace.

To you and countless others who share the Dharma, I say again, thank you. I am in your debt.

Lee S.
Gulf Correctional Institution
Wewahitchka, Florida

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First, let me thank you for continuing to send the Mindfulness Bell. I share it around among other inmates here and we all love reading the magazine. And it has helped me so much with my practice.

Once again thank you for your support, concern, and love. Thank you very much for caring for me and for allowing me one more year’s subscription to the Mindfulness Bell. It means a lot to me, really it does.

Fabio V.
Union Correctional Institution
Raiford, Florida

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I would be most grateful if you would renew my subscription to the Mindfulness Bell. It’s such a blessing to receive information and news on the Dharma, Sangha, and those who spread the seeds of love.

I really enjoyed the Prison Sangha article in the Autumn 2008 issue. It inspired me to make a cell Buddha. I can pull him out when I am in need of his calming presence.

I found deep satisfaction in reading Sr. Chau Nghiem’s article, “Resurrection in the Present Moment” (Winter/Spring 2009). It was inspiring how she was able to move beyond the judgments and racism that were bestowed upon her. Even from her own grandparents. What can I say, I was touched.

And as always Thay’s words set my mind at ease and put a smile on my face.

Thomas. A. S.
Green River Correctional Complex
Central City, Kentucky

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Touched by Heart Nectar

Stories from a Joyful Retreat

By Lorrie Harrison

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A friend recently sent a description of what he imagined it was like at Plum Village: “I get a flash of it being like individual bees flowing toward an attractant. The sweet words of Thay and the lovely people and surroundings pull at the soul like the flowers pull the bees. Then the hive disperses to various parts of the world, forever touched by the heart nectar.”

This is exactly what it is like.

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A Family Reunion

About 600 of us from fifty countries are in Plum Village for the June retreat. To help people connect and feel solid, we form “families” of about twenty people. In my Oceans of Peace family, we are from Denmark, Viet Nam, Hong Kong, North Carolina, Wales, the UK, Berkeley, Botswana, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands… and Lopez Island, my home off the coast of Washington State.

The weather is steamy-hot midday, but mornings are blessedly cool. The large pink-petal lotus flowers are just opening, a few lazy frogs lounge on the shiny green lily pads, the sun is still gentle and easy. By 9:00 a.m. we’ve all arrived at the meditation hall for Thay’s Dharma talk. Quietly we slip off our shoes and enter in noble silence. The hall is simple. At one end, two sticks of incense burn on a Buddha altar. Up front, a simple vase sits next to Thay’s cushion with a sprig of flowers and a tray with one small teapot and cup. Cushions and mats are arranged in a large semi-circle with chairs behind. I enjoy hearing the comforting rustles and whispers as lay friends and monastics settle in. Those who don’t speak English plug their headphones into audio boxes for translations of Thay’s talk.

The ting-ting-ting of the small bell announces Thay’s arrival. Everyone stands and joins their palms. Our teacher enters the silent hall and walks to his cushion in the center of the front row. He turns to the Sangha and bows. We return his bow, and all sit down.

Seeing Thay for the first time in three years, my heart opens like a morning flower. He looks so young, so fresh; his words are as joyous as his smile. “Dear friends, when I see you all here, come from so far, I feel so happy! We have each other; we have hope. Like many drops of water, we come together to flow as one serene river. On June 21 we will go back into the world, but we are here now. Let us enjoy every minute, every second. For me this is a family reunion, a celebration, a Dharma festival! We entrust ourselves to the Sangha. We learn, we grow and together are free.”

Before the monastic chanting that precedes the Dharma talk, a nun offers this aspiration: “The Sangha is invited to come back to their breathing. Let the whole Sangha breathe as one body, chant as one body, listen as one body and transcend the boundaries of the delusive self, liberating from the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, and the equality complex.”

Huh? I can understand liberating from feeling superior or inferior, but isn’t equality exactly what I’m hoping to nourish? Each morning the aspiration is read aloud and each morning I smile hearing it. The little mystery tickles me. One day, Thay unties the knots of my koan. “When we feel equal, we are still separate. Our practice is to liberate ourselves from all distinctions, to understand I am in you and you are in me. No distinctions. No separation. This is true interbeing.”

Thay talks about Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, saying President Obama is practicing Beginning Anew with Islam. “He is one of the few politicians who knows how to use loving speech. He does not call himself a Dharma teacher, but he is a Dharma teacher!” Thay tells us Obama has manifested for our sake, and asks us to give him our support. “The Sangha is very strong; we should do something to let him know we are here for him. Please reflect on how you might help him. Where there is a will, there is a way! We all know that President Obama is made of many nonObama elements.” Thay’s eyes crinkle into a twinkly smile. “And we are some of those elements!”

Breathe, You’re Online

Thay likes to write on the whiteboard when he talks. I enjoy watching him erase the board. He pauses, quietly stands up, and walks mindfully to the board. Then he picks up the eraser. There is not a sound in the Dharma hall. Hundreds of us, totally silent. It’s easy to smile, relax, and enjoy the peaceful moment. Thay slowly wipes away the words, making a clean space for new writing. I feel calm, free from speed, free from wanting anything, enjoying watching the eraser make wide, peaceful arcs across the board.

Thay is teaching about practicing right diligence: ways to stay safe in a fast world. At Plum Village, the monastics have a way to use the Internet while not getting caught in its energy. They ask another brother or sister to sit beside them while they are online. In this way they are part of the world, but safe, too. Thay paints beautiful calligraphies which are sold in the bookshop to raise money for special projects. The newest is “Breathe, you’re online.” How cool to have a teacher who, at age eighty-three, uses the Internet to share the Dharma!

A Path to Joy

One of Thay’s themes in this retreat is joy. He talks about the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths, reminding us that the first truth is that life contains suffering. But, he says, we concentrate too much there. The second truth is that there is a path to suffering; the way we have been living has brought suffering to us. Remove the cause and the effect will vanish. The third is that there is joy, an end to suffering, and it is the absence of darkness, the presence of light. The fourth noble truth is that there is a path to that joy.

The old language, from the time of the Buddha, calls the third noble truth the cessation of ill-being, but Thay’s teaching is clear: let us call this by its true name, joy! Let’s find a way to make this wonderful teaching available to everyone. The world needs our help. “Dear friends, please be the best practitioners you can be. That is why we live our life in mindfulness and concentration: it is for our own liberation. With that, we can help to liberate the world.

We can learn to gladden our minds. Please don’t leave your love, your compassion in the basement of your store consciousness. Go get them! They will be your tonic, your strength, your nourishment. You will become stronger, and then, when pain, confusion, sadness come, you will be able to handle them.”

How do we bring up this feeling of joy? We make use of our breathing. We return to the present moment so that insight, knowledge, and awareness will bloom, and joy will be possible right away. We don’t have to be excited any more. Our joy can be calm and peaceful. This is true joy.

Circle of Friends

After the Dharma talk, we wander around the grounds. It’s nice to seek a soft patch of grass by the lotus pond or a wisp of shade. The monks show us where to pick juicy black mulberries from the trees. The nuns are selling little treats to raise money for needy children in Vietnam. We gather at their tables, choosing sweet crepes served on fat green leaves, warm sesame balls (oh, the doughy goodness!), and squares of carroty cake.

The big bell calls us for walking meditation. We gather in one huge circle, monastics and lay friends side by side. Someone begins singing, “Happiness is here and now, I have dropped my worries. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no longer in a hurry.” More little songs follow with simple words, melodies, and hand motions. We sing in French, German, Dutch, Vietnamese, and Spanish. Years ago I felt a little goofy singing like this, but now these songs awaken my tender heart. I feel like a happy kindergartner, safe in a circle of friends.

After we sing half a dozen songs, a hush falls on the group. Like flowers turning toward the sun, the circle opens as Thay joins us. We join our palms and bow. Taking two children by the hand, he starts making slow, mindful steps. Imagine the extraordinary sight: 600 people silently walking step-by-gentle-step around the lotus pond, through the stately rows of poplar trees, into the forest, down beside the creek, and finally back to the hamlet. We walk for forty-five minutes, flowing in a silent Dharma river.

mb52-Touched3Lorrie Harrison, Compassionate Listening of the Heart, is a founding member of the Morning Light Sangha on Lopez Island in Washington State. A professional writer, she lived and practiced near Plum Village for five months over the summer.

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New Trainings for a New Generation

mb52-New1This new version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings has been developed by Thay and the Plum Village Sangha in a series of Dharma talks followed by Dharma discussions during the three-month winter retreat, the week-long French retreat, and the three-week June retreat, in 2008 and 2009 in Plum Village.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

Sisters and brothers in the community, this is the moment when we enjoy reciting the Five Mindfulness Trainings together. The Five Mindfulness Trainings represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality and ethic. They are a concrete expression of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path of right understanding and true love, leading to healing, transformation, and happiness for ourselves and for the world. To practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings is to cultivate the insight of interbeing, or Right View, which can remove all discrimination, intolerance, anger, fear, and despair. If we live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva. Knowing we are on that path, we are not lost in confusion about our life in the present or in fears about the future.

1.       Reverence for Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

2.       True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

3.       True Love

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

4.       Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

5.       Nourishment and Healing

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

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Helping Obama, Helping Others

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Responding to questions from lay friends on June 13 during the Path of the Buddha retreat, Thay spoke about supporting President Obama and assisting those in need across the globe.

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Helping Obama

Many of us are very pleased to have Obama as president of the United States of America. I have not seen any politician like him who knows how to use loving speech, to speak in a humble way. The presence of Obama also tells us of the presence of a group of people who agree with him — not only Americans but also Europeans, Africans, and Asians. This is very important.

Obama, with his good intentions and his nonviolent approach to the problems of the planet, did not just happen. In the past forty or fifty years many of us have been working ceaselessly to sow the seeds of peace, reconciliation, and preservation of the planet. Sometimes we have felt that the work has not brought any results. But then the increased suffering and despair helped to wake people up and to see there is another way to deal with conflict in America and the world.

On Obama’s inauguration day, we felt hope. We want Obama to succeed; whether we are Americans or non-Americans we have invested in him and we are afraid that he will not succeed. In order to help him, we have to organize ourselves. We have to strengthen our Sangha, and the Sangha in America. Wherever we are, we can always do something to help. Obama may not call his team a Sangha but it is a Sangha. If not they are not capable of preserving their compassion, insight, and determination, they will not be able to help Obama, and then Obama will disappoint us.

I think President Obama doesn’t need to come to Plum Village and follow a retreat; he got his training somewhere in his own way. He used the word “mindfulness” in his inauguration, and in his speech at Cairo University he used “beginning anew.” He said, “I want to have a new beginning with Islam.” He knows how to use loving speech. Maybe he does not need formal training but he needs a strong Sangha surrounding him and helping to support him.

Helping Others Across the Globe

We all want to help people in Tibet and Burma and other places throughout the world. Forty thousand children die every day because of the lack of food and nutrition. Many of us are aware of that; and yet not many of us do anything to help. How can we reach out and help these children who are dying? How can we reach out to our brothers who feel left alone in the struggle for democracy and independence?

The problem is that we are so busy. We are running to get what we want. We have no time, no energy: that is the main obstacle. How can we rearrange our lives so that we have time to help our brothers and sisters who are caught in difficult situations?

We should liberate ourselves from our too-busy lives. We have to reorganize our lives, individually and collectively, in order to be with each other in a more intimate way.

We can begin with Sanghas. Members of a Sangha belong to society and have jobs, family, community, aspirations, and plans. But we still find a way to come and sit together for twenty-one days. If other people make an effort they can do the same. Imagine for twenty-one days all the cars stop. We don’t eat the flesh of animals. We enjoy the fresh air, the song of the birds. We allow our bodies to release tension; we listen to the sound of the bell. We cultivate brotherhood and sisterhood. We are truly making peace within ourselves, making peace with the environment and with one another. If 500 people can do that, other groups can do it also, whether they are Christians, Muslims, or Jews.

What we do here we are not doing for ourselves alone. We do it for everyone. We show people that another way of life is possible. They can release their habit energy, slow down and begin to change so that they have more time for themselves, for their family, for members of their Sangha. And then naturally problems like those concerning the hungry children, the environment, Burma, Tibet, will be more easily solved.

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A Frolic Down the Path of the Buddha

By Janelle Combelic

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A Buddhist retreat at Plum Village is unlike any other Buddhist retreat (as far as I know). There’s relatively little sitting meditation, which surprises and disappoints some folks. But there are lots of other forms of meditation — in fact the practice of mindfulness means meditating twenty-four hours a day, no matter what we are doing. The point, of course, is to teach us how to do this in daily life, out in the “real” world.

There are two particularly ingenious methods that Plum Village has devised for teaching the practice of mindfulness. The first is working meditation. At the Path of the Buddha retreat, I was in the francophone family with my friend Pascale and my mentor, Sister Dao Nghiem. Our job for the three-week retreat was to clean the bathrooms in Lower Hamlet. Hence our name: Delicate Fragrance.

Working with people every day, you get to know who likes to scrub every corner and who would rather pick flowers for the sinks. Who has a bad back but doesn’t want to complain. Who stops to chat (and chat and chat), who’s cheerful no matter what, who’s grumpy. Who wants to tell people exactly how to do everything (me) and who on the second day realizes that grown women know how to clean bathrooms and can decide among themselves who’s going to do what (me again).

You learn a lot about other people, but mainly you learn about yourself, in the context of community and activity. Being as how most of us live and work with others, these lessons come in very handy once we return home.

On the Road to Plum Village

The other ingenious device to teach mindfulness on retreat is the skit. Most Vietnamese people love to play; and since their culture was only recently infected with modern technology, they still enjoy old-fashioned homegrown entertainment. So at the end of every retreat there’s a grand performance. Fortunately, we’re doing the performances within each hamlet rather than all 600 of us together. After living together for three weeks, Lower Hamlet feels like one big family.

Which is a good thing, because there’s nothing that brings up people’s neuroses like the idea of performing in public.

Unlike most families, we started working on our skit the very first week. Serge, the one man among twenty-three women (our hamlet hosts women and a few couples), proposed a lovely old French folk song that someone had rewritten into a Plum Village song, “On the Road to Plum Village.” We decided to rewrite the song again with a story about us: arriving at Plum Village all tired and stressed out, then cleaning toilets and showers together, finally finding freedom and happiness.

Working on the song that first week was a blast. A few people did the writing, then Beatrice, a delightful and energetic Swiss woman who could not for the life of her hold a tune, emerged as the director. We formed two choirs who sang back and forth to each other. Sur la route des Pruniers…

At the end of the second week it all turned sour. We’d been rehearsing every day, and had the music down pretty well but were getting tired of it. Hélène, who happens to be a fabulous singer, arrived at the retreat two weeks late. That evening she sat down with the only two people who still wanted to rehearse and she taught them a slightly different version of the tune. And the three of them came up with a new way of performing it.

The next evening after dinner we started to rehearse, and all hell broke loose. Ah non non non! On recommence pas à zéro! No, we’re not starting over, someone huffed and stomped off. Others shook their heads in disgust and did not return from cleaning their dishes. The rest of us regrouped, decided to put the song mostly back the way we had it, and had a great time singing our hearts out and laughing.

The next day we started adding the skit. It had been my bright idea to have actors pantomime what the words were saying. (No one in our audience was going to understand our song, because it was in French! The other 140 retreatants at Lower Hamlet were British, Dutch, German, American, with a few Italians.) From the supply closet by the kitchen, I had collected all kinds of props — new brushes, sponges, mops, spray bottles — all stashed in a suitcase for the first part of the skit.

Retreat Rockettes

Don’t you just wish that after all these years of listening to Dharma talks, meditating, paying therapists, going on retreat — don’t you wish you could stay enlightened for more than thirty seconds at a time? When it came time to create the little skit, just three minutes of pantomime, my ego came out to play. Big time.

Because I had some really good ideas! Brilliant ideas! Every morning and every evening in meditation, in the deep stillness of the meditation hall, it was the first thing that sprang into my mind: Sur la route des Pruniers… I saw our three nuns doing this, and our lay friends doing that in the next verse, and a stupendous finale with everybody dancing… as stunning as the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.

Enough already! Quiet.

When it came time to rehearse with our family, my overbearing enthusiasm was not well received. Beatrice was a little miffed that I had wrenched all the fun stuff away from her. And the actors never managed to come together at the same time: Andréa got sick, Géraldine had to make an emergency trip to care for a friend, Josslyn had somewhere else to be after Dharma discussion. But the obvious reason that it didn’t come together is that it was supposed to be a collaboration. Silly me.

Day after day, I dealt with my feelings and frustrations — looking deeply in meditation, stepping back when rehearsals weren’t going well, letting go, letting go.

Thank goodness the performance was pushed back to Thursday. On Tuesday Sister Dao Nghiem, who had left us to our own devices, initiated a rehearsal. The two groups sullenly stood facing each other in a semicircle and half-heartedly sang: Sur la route des Pruniers… The nuns walked through the center as we had scripted. The actors feebly acted out our part. With only a little squabbling in the middle, we limped to the finale.

Sister Dao Nghiem calmly admonished us to relax a little bit and have fun. Then she redesigned the ending, adding some peaceful walking in pairs rather than our manic scurrying and jumping. We performed it a few more times but our hearts weren’t in it.

I Have an Idea!

The big day came. We rehearsed before dinner, but it wasn’t going very well. I was disgusted with myself for getting so hung up on the whole thing, for not being able to communicate my ideas effectively, and especially because my magnificent finale had been scrapped.

Finally I decided to just throw myself into it. What did I have to lose? I banished my ego once and for all and joined in the fun. We were nervous, we were excited, we were enjoying ourselves again.

Then Hélène said, “Attendez, j’ai une idée! Wait, I have an idea!” We all screamed. She was joking of course. Béatrice suggested next time we do a skit we should call it “I have an idea!” We all laughed; we knew exactly what she meant.

That night in the meditation hall we were one of the last acts to perform. There were five or six before us, all funnier and more inspired than the last. The pot-washing family pounded tubs and pans for an energetic percussion piece, accompanied by nuns and laywomen waving big pot lids in a traditional Vietnamese hat dance. The vegetable-chopping family did a skit about having to work in silence (Delicate Fragrance conveniently forgot about the practice of silent working meditation).

When it came our turn, yes, you guessed it — we pulled it off! Our fellow retreatants laughed and clapped along to our silly song. We exited the stage area breathless, joyful, eminently pleased with ourselves.

Someone from another family later remarked on how much harmony there was in our family. We laughed our heads off when we heard that.

But there was harmony. A far deeper harmony than when we started. During the worst of it, when some people disappeared from the family for a day or two and our dinners together were glum, Sister Dao Nghiem told us that harmony does not mean the absence of conflict. You can have differences — in a community there will always be differences — but still you have harmony because you care about one another. You want it to work, so you do whatever it takes.

In fact, I believe those very difficulties are what knit the community into a harmonious whole. How else would we get to know one another deeply, to know ourselves?

That’s why Thay says he wouldn’t want to go to a heaven where there’s no suffering. It’s in those cracks that healing occurs. It’s when our heart breaks that we learn how to love.

That’s the whole point of the skit — aside from motivating us to relax and play, us Westerners who can take the whole thing so seriously. It’s fi to feel peaceful and loving when you’re sitting on a cushion or walking in the woods or eating with friends in silence. But try to do something together and that’s where the real practice begins.

Those are the lessons that I’ve taken home with me, and put to use in my daily life — humility, joy, Sur la route des Pruniers…

mb52-AFrolic2Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, practices with Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado.

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Sangha Building Within Prison

By Nancy Lee Koschmann

I have two Sanghas in my life. My home Sangha is a group of mostly working, middle-class people like myself who have discovered Thay’s writings or have attended retreats with him. My other Sangha is composed of inmates at a nearby men’s maximum security prison who have difficulty even acquiring Thay’s books.

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On Friday mornings I sit as a volunteer with the prison Sangha, hopefully providing support and encouragement to the inmates as well as the official leaders, a nun and her assistant from the Syracuse Zen Center. Recently we held two partial day sittings — the first in the history of the prison — during which the men who gave the Dharma talks spoke of the immeasurable comfort and strength they drew from our small but committed prison group. While my home Sangha plays a central role in my life, the prison Sangha has also become a place of deep motivation and supportive connectedness. It has offered me valuable Dharma lessons, companionable meditation, and regular guidance in mindfulness. If that is true for me, think how true it must be for my incarcerated Dharma brothers who have very little else in their lives.

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Thus I think a great deal about Sangha building in prison, wondering how to create a supportive Buddhist community within those tall, thick stone walls. One way, I believe, is to maintain contact with Sangha on the outside, but prison regulations make that very difficult. Those of us from the outside try to bring in materials from our home and affiliated groups: magazines, newsletters, and thoughtful writings. We have to get permission for any items we bring; in addition we must arrange several days in advance to have everything listed on a gate pass. We are in the process now of getting approval for several volunteers so that they can visit the Sangha as embodied proof that those on the outside care and know about the men. The process includes forms, background checks, fingerprinting, and a great deal of time.

The Nail That Sticks Up

While maintaining the strength of our little prison Sangha is crucial, equally important is the effort to reach out and include other inmates in our practice and our services. Prison regulations in New York declare that each inmate may designate only one religion and attend only one type of service. This is, of course, rather antithetical to the way Thay has taught us to think of the Dharma, but there seems no way around the rules at present. To change affiliation is to call attention to one’s self — not a good thing to do in a prison environment where, as the Japanese saying goes, the nail that sticks up gets hit on the head — so unless people are unusually motivated, they are unlikely to request a change. Inmates are allowed to attend a religious service as a guest three times, but for most people this is not enough exposure to determine whether or not they want to change affiliation and forgo the formal services of their root tradition.

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Last summer I decided to offer a course on Buddhism so that more inmates might have an opportunity to explore the ideas and practice of meditation. I offered a four-week course on “The Science and Practice of Meditation,” and while the men seemed to enjoy it and attended regularly, it was much too short to scratch the surface of either the science or the practice! This term I am doing a fourteen-week course, entitled “Introduction to Asian Meditation.” We are fortunate to have the official backing of both the Cornell Prison Education Program and Cornell University’s East Asia Program to help pay for books and photocopying. My local Sangha paid for the first course’s texts, Be Free Wherever You Are and The Heart of Understanding by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Twenty-one men joined the present class. Together we are reading about and discussing the benefits of meditation — mostly research reported in the Mind-Life Institute of the Dalai Lama. We will study the historical life and context of the Buddha and then move on to the teachings, including Thay’s Being Peace and several articles from the Mindfulness Bell. We meditate briefly at the beginning of class and then again for the last forty minutes or so, alternating guided meditation with walking meditation and silent meditation. The men are keeping a journal on their attempts to meditate on their own during the week. One man wrote in his journal this week, “I love this class. I haven’t figured out how to concentrate yet, but at least I know it is possible. When I leave class, I am calmer and happier than I’ve been for years.”

No Stone Walls

Will any of these men join our prison Sangha? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: the men in the Sangha are encouraged to know that there are others out there in the cell blocks who are at least exploring the same path. I remind my students often that this is a class about Buddhism, with some practical experience in meditation, but that it is not a class that aims to “convert” anyone. Meditation, I tell them, is part of all religious traditions and if they practice, they will learn more about themselves, about others, about compassion and how to handle destructive emotions and be free and peaceful wherever they are. The teachings are about a more skillful and peaceful way to live. Yes, I hope they come to our Sangha, at least to visit, but whether they do or not, I believe I am contributing to the real meaning of Sangha: a broad community of people walking the same path — whether we call ourselves Catholic or Sufi or Jew or Zen Buddhist, whether we are in prison or on the outside. In such a Sangha, there are no stone walls.

mb52-Sangha4Nancy Lee Koschmann, Opening the Path of the Heart, taught psychology and women’s studies for twenty-five years; she is now a life coach and volunteer who practices with Cedar Cabin Sangha in Ithaca, NY and ShoShin (Beginner’s Mind) Sangha at Auburn Correctional Facility, Auburn, NY.

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A Day of Mindfulness at San Quentin

By Caleb Cushing

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A decade ago, on the infamous exercise yard of San Quentin State Prison, an inmate sat upright by himself along the fence. A few close friends approached and asked what he was doing. He said he was practicing Zen meditation, and they sat down with him. All of them were older inmates, “lifers” who were serving long sentences, all veterans of the war in Vietnam. Eventually, under the auspices of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), they established a congregation fully recognized by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Now, for two hours every Sunday evening, as many as thirty inmates gather in a well-heated classroom to practice as the Buddhadharma Sangha. In the prison industries workshops, they’ve expertly crafted an altar, cushions, pads, and benches, and on the chalk-tray of the blackboard, they set a framed calligraphy by Thay — The kingdom is now or never.

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The SFZC facilitators regularly ask the men to prepare talks that focus on their practice and then to respond to follow-up questions from the Sangha. Many of the men are mature, insightful practitioners. When the SFZC officials are unable to attend, they sometimes ask members of the Community of Mindful Living [Editor’s note: Sanghas in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh] to facilitate. They appreciate our being there; their practice brings us joy and inspiration as well. The men like our practices of listening to the big bell, mindful eating, and especially Dharma discussion. For the Dharma talks, we ask the men to suggest topics in advance, and we invite an inmate to give the talk alongside us.

They have a library with several books by Thay. After we had showed up with some regularity, the inmates said they were interested in learning some of our practices, so we arranged an extended period of practice — a Day of Mindfulness at San Quentin. We provided homemade picnic lunches for everyone, and some said it was the first time in years that they had fresh raw vegetables.

Two guests and two inmates gave a joint Dharma talk about using mindfulness to deal with anger, and then took questions from the Sangha. One of the inmates who spoke on that panel, Michael Gallardo, wrote an article for the San Quentin News about the Day of Mindfulness:

On Monday, February 16, 2009, amidst heavy rain and strong wind, the fifth annual Day of Mindfulness was held in the Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Inside the fifty-by-twenty-foot room located at the Garden Chapel area on the prison grounds, fourteen inmates and fourteen visitors from the Community of Mindful Living of Northern California celebrated the day with sitting meditation, walking meditation, and Dharma talks….

The group shared a mindful lunch together, eating in silence, while sitting on chairs, zafu (sitting cushions) and zabuton (meditation mats). Inmate Lindsey, from the prison Sangha, solemnly walked to the altar, offered the Buddha a portion of his lunch and later said to the group, “I am completely overwhelmed. Today is a very beautiful day.”

Mindful living, the practice of complete awareness, is based on the teaching of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has founded several Mindful Living communities located around the world.

“Mindfulness gives us the tools to live our lives in peace in the midst of prison chaos,” inmate Russo said about the practice. “Although this event was a Buddhist Religious program, the cornerstone of our practice has always been ‘we are here for anyone, of any belief’,” Russo added.

Most of the visitors are involved in mindfulness and meditation programs in various jails, prisons, or community centers in Northern California. They are proactive in their practice, which radiates into the community.

The Buddhadharma Sangha was established almost ten years ago. Five inmates spent a year, rain or shine, sitting in meditation on the lower-yard. On September 5, 1999, in the midst of a partial lockdown in the prison, the Sangha held its first service with Zen priest Roshi Seido Lee de Barros, from Green Gulch Farm in Marin County.

The prison Sangha, with volunteers from San Francisco Zen Center, Berkeley Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm, and about thirty inmates, meet on Sunday evenings, practicing and studying the Buddha’s teachings in the Soto Zen tradition. It also offers, from its library, a wide selection of books on all Buddhist  traditions….

At the end of the day, as the rain and gusty wind momentarily subsided, the group gathered in a circle and shared a song together amid tears and the feeling of gratitude experienced throughout the day. “I fully understand now why you all come here,” said inmate Thao, on his second day with the Sangha, as he walked back to the housing units.

It was wonderful day for all of us, because we all have so much to learn.

Caleb Cushing, True Original Commitment, practices with the Pot Luck Sangha and the Open Door Sangha in the East Bay Area of  Northern California.

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According to the Lionheart Foundation, the U.S. criminalizes and imprisons more people than any other country in the world. It has over 2 million people in prisons, six to ten times as many as any other nation. Three-quarters of these prisoners have a history of drug or alcohol abuse and one-sixth have a history of mental illness. One out of every three black men between the ages of 20 to 29 are in prison or on probation. In the last twenty years more than 1,000 new prisons have been built.

Abbott Kinloch Walpole of the Gateless Gate Zen Center in Gainesville, Florida says the prison-industrial complex is a “confluence of interests,” which depends on a steady supply of prisoners from which money and property can be harvested. Politicians and judges to be “electorally viable” must help supply prisoners. Not only their jobs but the jobs of many judicial, police, and prison officials depend on having lots of prisoners. In Florida there is nothing for prisoners to do in prison but to take psychotropic pills to deal with their brutal situation. He says if you want to know what prison does to prisoners read holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Many Sangha sisters and brothers are writing to prisoners. Others are facilitating prison meditation and Dharma courses. Other practitioners are working to prevent the executions of prisoners and the daily abuses inflicted on them, or to change draconian penal policies and practices through human rights organizations. “Restorative justice” programs are being established where criminals, crime victims, and communities work together to heal the damage caused by an offender. Others are working on “re-entry” policies and programs to help prisoners when they are released. While others are helping the families of prisoners, particularly their children; or working to prevent young people from going to prison. There are also efforts to educate and inform the public and community leaders about hellish prison conditions, a need to end the criminalization of the poor and minorities for behaviors that are not crimes, and the destructive results of the prisonindustrial complex.

Many Sanghas do excellent work with prisoners in their communities and only a few are listed here. At the forefront of Buddhist efforts, two organizations stand out: the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Prison Program and the Prison Dharma Network (PDN).

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The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in U.S. Prisons

By Bill Menza

Resources for Prison Sangha Building

Buddhist Peace Fellowship

  • Prison Resource Guides for Prisoners
  • Free Buddhist books and other publications
  • Dharma/spiritual correspondence courses and pen pal programs
  • Newsletters that focus on prisoners’ rights and criminal justice
  • Resources for prisoners with children
  • Legal Aid resources
  • Post-release resources

Prison Dharma Network

Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in American Prisons by Kobai Scott Whitney, explains what it is to be a prisoner and practicing in prison. Available from the Prison Dharma Network for $15. Write to PDN, P.O. Box 4623 Boulder, CO 80306. Or order online at www.prisondharmanetwork.org.

Recommended  Books

Be Free Where You Are by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press). A Dharma talk at the Medium Security Prison in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Doing Your Time with Peace of Mind: A Meditation Manual for Prisoners
Provided free to prisoners in English or Spanish by the Heart Mountain Prison Project, 1223 So. St. Francis Drive, Suite C, Santa Fe, NM 87505. Download it from heart-mountain.org/NewFiles/Booklets.html or email dougbooth4@gmail.com.
Dharma friend Amy Davis reads the entire fourteen-page manual, answering commonly asked questions about meditation, and provides instruction in five basic meditation styles. The tapes are free to inmates. Prison Dharma groups are asked for a donation of $1 per cassette, but no requests are refused due to lack of funds. The cassettes are “prison-friendly” – housed in clear plastic cases with clear shrink-wrap, molded together without screws.

Dharma in Hell by Dharma Teacher Fleet Maull. A former federal prisoner tells about imprisonment “in the charnel ground” of America’s prisons, and his fifteen years there living a life of vows and service, and thus bringing compassion and transformation into this hell realm. Available from the Prison Dharma Network, PO Box 4623 Boulder, CO 80306, or online at www.prisondharmanetwork.org.

Some Organizations and Sanghas Helping Prisoners

Buddhist Peace Fellowship Prison Project
P.O. Box 3470 Berkeley, CA 94703
Tel: (510) 655-6169 ext. 307
E-mail: prisons@bpf.org Web page: www.bpf.org
The project started in 1998 to help all persons associated with the prison system through advocacy, education, ministry, and training. Has a prisoner pen pal program. Sends the BPF journal Turning Wheel and Dharma books to prisoners.

Prison Dharma Network
P.O. Box 4623 Boulder CO 80306 Tel: (303) 544-5923
E-mail: pdn@indra.com
Web page: www.prisondharmanetwork.org/PDN
An international non-sectarian contemplative support network for prisoners, prison volunteers, and correctional workers founded in 1989 by Fleet Maull, a former prisoner. Has an online discussion group. Publishes books and materials relating to prison Dharma and the PDN’s Volunteer Training Manual on how to start a prison Dharma program.

Unified Buddhist Church (Thich Nhat Hanh) Prisoner Outreach
Deer Park Monastery
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido CA 92026
Tel: (760) 291-1003, Fax: (760) 291-1172
Web page: www.deerparkmonastery.org.

Mindfulness Bell Subscriptions
c/o David Percival
745 Cagua SE
Albuquerque, NM, 87108-3717
Tel: (505) 266-9042
E-mail: dperciva@unm.edu
Monastics at Deer Park Monastery are working with David Percival at the Mindfulness Bell and staff at Parallax Press to send magazines and books to prisoners. They are looking for lay practitioners to help in corresponding with prisoners. For those already writing to prisoners please note that issues of the Mindfulness Bell can now be downloaded at www.mindfulnessbell.org/download_mb.htm and sent to prisoners.

North Carolina Prison Sanghas
For more than fifteen years the Charlotte, NC Sangha has been supporting prison inmate Sanghas in the North Carolina Department of Corrections. Contact Leslie Rawls at sangha@charlottemindfulness.org.

Boston Old Path Sangha
The Old Path Sangha and its sister Sangha in Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts have been supporting a meditation group at the Boston Suffolk County House of Correction for many years. Contact Rich Geller at rgeller@meditationprograms.com.

Gateless Gate Zen Center
1208 NW 4th Street Gainesville, Florida 32601
Tel: (352) 336-1517
E-mail: gatelessgate@hotmail.com
Web page: www.gatelessgate.org
Abbott Kinloch Walpole has developed a program for prisoners to deal with imprisonment and post-imprisonment based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Pain Center. Prisoners participate in week-long meditation trainings in prison and when released live in residential monastic houses. He also visits Florida’s death row prisoners.

The Lionheart Foundation
P.O. Box 194, Back Bay Boston, MA 02117 Phone (781) 444-6667
E-mail: questions@lionheart.org
Web page: www.lionheart.org
Sponsors the National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisoners and the National Emotional Literacy Project for Youth-at-Risk; and distributes free to prison libraries and programs the book: Houses of Healing: A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom.

The Engaged Zen Foundation
Ven. Kobutsu Malone, Osho
P.O. Box 213
Sedgwick, Maine 04676-0213
Tel: (207) 359-2555
Web page: www.engaged-zen.org
The Engaged Zen Foundation was originally founded to foster Zen practice and meditation in prisons to bring about change in the prison systems. It has since broadened its perspective to address universal human rights and social justice of criminal justice systems — because “a prison full of enlightened prisoners … is still a prison.”

Amnesty International USA
www.aiusa.org
An international organization working to stop the human rights abuses, torture, and execution of prisoners.

International CURE
www.CUREnational.org
An international organization working for criminal justice reform. Has state chapters.

Human Rights Watch
www.hrw.org
An international organization working for human rights, including those of prisoners.

Center for Constitutional Rights
ccrjustice.org
A national organization working for the constitutional rights of all people in the USA, including prisoners.

The American Civil Liberties Union
www.aclu.org
A national organization working for the civil liberties of all people in the USA, including prisoners.

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
www.ncadp.org
A national organization working to end the use of the death penalty in the USA.

Bill Menza, True Shore of Understanding, is a Dharma Teacher who practices with the Florida Community of Mindfulness.

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Isis & the Buddha

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I don’t know how to explain my cat’s curious sweet friendship with our concrete Buddha.

Isis loves the sound of the bell. When she hears the sound of the bell signaling the beginning of our morning sitting, she comes into the room already purring. She begins by rubbing up against my husband John and me, each of us in turn, sometimes putting her paws on my chest and bringing her nose right up to my mouth just close enough that I can feel the soft fuzz of her chin. Then she settles in front of me, conforming her body to the fold of my legs. She does not stir until the sound of the small bell and we move to stand up.

mb52-Isis2When Bill Menza, True Shore of Understanding, came to visit last spring, he brought a lovely Buddha statue for our yard. I was astonished to watch Isis exhibit the same behavior with the statue. The first time I let her outside, she ran right to the statue as though greeting an old friend.

It has become a regular ritual. She rubs her body all over the Buddha, brings her nose right to his mouth as though savoring his breath, and eventually climbs into his lap or drapes her paws over his legs. I have even seen her pat his face affectionately with her paw.

— Emily Whittle

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Fierce Compassion

By Cheri Maples

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Cheri Maples received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and became a Dharma teacher on January 9, 2008 at Plum Village. Here is part of the Dharma talk she gave to the Sangha that day.

Since I was very young, I have had a passion for justice, which led to my work as a police officer and my work in other parts of the criminal justice system. However, I began working for social justice, not from a peaceful place, but from the place of an angry rebel. Looking back, I realize that fighting for social justice in various forms was one of the fuels I used to keep the unconscious habit seeds of anger burning strongly. As a result, the unskillful behaviors I engaged in created some harm in my personal and work relationships.

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I attended my first retreat with Thay in 1991. That retreat started the beginning of the mindfulness journey I have been on ever since. I have lots of habit energy and karma to transform, so this lifelong journey, while not a speedy one, has been and will continue to be a journey characterized by constancy and right aspiration.

For me, the path of mindfulness continues to be about waking up to the mystery that is right here in the present moment. Although there continue to be painful experiences and cycles in my life, I get increasingly frequent and reassuring glimpses of my vastness and my interconnection with everybody and everything in the universe.

As my practice has progressed, I have begun to understand that working for peace and justice is a journey of gentle honesty and a process of learning how to be present so that every interaction with another person is an opportunity for authenticity and understanding.

I was such an unlikely candidate for this path that I consider finding my way to it nothing short of a miracle. Today, I would like to share with you some of the most important things I have internalized about Thay’s teachings.

Suffering as Compost

First, I have learned that our personal suffering is the richest compost of our practice.

I experienced much pain in my relationship to my parents as a child, in my relationship to my children as a parent, and in my other intimate relationships. I have learned how to use this pain to understand more about what it is to be human.

I now understand that blame has often been a barrier I erected not to take responsibility for my own emotions. As I learn more about how to understand and frame my own suffering, I continue to see my own preciousness and that of others. I have learned that imperfection is not a thing to be avoided or blamed on others and that the very things that make me feel so very unlovable, all those defects I tried so hard to hide, are precisely what I have to offer others.

I have learned to remind myself that I need to stop relating to what I would like to fix in myself and replace the seeds of project mentality with loving kindness and unconditional friendship with myself and others. It’s helpful to remember that what I am doing is unlocking a softness that is in me and letting it spread in order to soften the sharp edges of self-criticism and complaint.

The Path of True Redemption

Second, I have learned that the truth is many-sided and can be approached from multiple perspectives, and that it is important to develop a deep sense of openness.

I see multiple doors to the Dharma around me every day and understand that different people enter through different doors. To me, any door that helps people lead a more ethical and compassionate life is a legitimate Dharma door. My challenge as a Dharma teacher is to find and invite people through the Dharma doors that they can relate to by translating Thay’s teachings into a language they can understand. Of course, a major focus of mine will be bringing Thay’s teachings to those who work in the criminal justice system because I understand not only their language and fears, but also the injustices committed when people abuse the trust and state authority bestowed upon them.

I hope I can help people to understand the difference between fear and faith, between doing the right thing and righteousness, between action and compulsion. I hope I can help them internalize Thay’s teaching that when we stop seeing ourselves solely as victims or oppressors, we can develop a sense of forgiveness for ourselves and others that leads to true redemption. And, in finding their way, I hope I can encourage people to think enough of themselves to claim the right to question what is offered, to investigate what they are being told, to trust their own experiences, and allow others to do the same.

In finding my own middle way between action and compulsion, I try to remind myself that although my spiritual practice requires me to take action, it should not be one more thing to judge myself about or be compulsive about. In every major step along my own path, first in receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, then in receiving the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and now being made a Dharma teacher, I have gone through what I call an “I’m not worthy crisis.” When I really get scared that I am not worthy, my partner will say to me, “Do you trust Thay?” I say, “Of course. I trust Thay with all my heart.” She says, ”Then, trust him not to make a mistake. Get out of the way and let the Buddha be the Dharma teacher.”

I do trust that the process of becoming a Dharma teacher will work in a similar manner as the process of receiving the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The trainings and the possibilities contained within the trainings work on me as I work on them. As my understanding and practice deepens, old habit seeds and energies are transformed as new seeds get watered by living up to the possibilities of the path.

So I have decided that the purpose of being a Dharma teacher is no different than the purpose of any student on the path. The purpose is not to do it right but to reside in the joy and possibilities provided by the opportunity to commit more deeply to the Dharma and reap the bountiful harvest that this possibility offers.

In finding my way between fear and faith, I have learned that faith is about discovering the existence of an ultimate dimension and learning to live with heart. Discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart and letting the world tickle your heart with the wonders of the present moment and your relationships with others. It comes from being willing to open up, touching your own vulnerability, and having the courage to share your heart with others. This is the path to the authentic relationships that are the litmus test of spirituality.

In discovering the difference between doing the right thing and righteousness, I have learned that dogma and righteousness are subtle forms of violence. In contrast, faith enables us to meet life with a sense of curiosity rather than a definition of reality.

One of Thay’s greatest gifts to me was the teaching that if we truly understand our interconnection with others, we can all find a victim and an oppressor within ourselves. I can look back and find painful examples of my own mistakes and unintentional abuses of power. Likewise, I can find painful examples of my own victimization. When we learn to acknowledge and make friends with these parts of ourselves, it enables us not to become one or the other.

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As long as we see ourselves solely as victims, our anger will fuel a dangerous sense of entitlement that can be just as destructive as the oppressor’s abuse of power. When I see all the ways that I have been a perpetrator and a victim, I can relax. I can hold more paradoxes, more dichotomies. I can also let go of my guilt about the past and understand that redemption lies in the correction of the course of my mistakes. I can continually begin anew by taking the opportunity the present moment puts in front of me to make a different choice.

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An Unwavering Commitment to Non-Violence

Third, I have deeply internalized Thay’s teaching that it is impossible to end violence with violence.

I believe this is the biggest challenge and the most important lesson for all those working in the criminal justice system. Working to provide public safety means working for peace and justice, and requires an unwavering personal commitment to non-violence in our own lives and in our environments and systems. This requires a personal aspiration not to contribute to violence or aggression in any form. If the personal is indeed political, the most radical political act of all is to learn how to live in more harmony with everyone and everything.

When we understand our interdependence deeply, we understand that when we care for ourselves, we care for others; and when we care for others, we care for ourselves. This understanding enables us to effectively work for peace in ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Unfortunately, I work in a criminal justice system based on the premise that punishment of the perpetrator will heal the victim and rehabilitate the perpetrator. Of course, people insistent on punishing each other usually become allied in making each other suffer more.

I have observed that it is not the wrongdoer’s repentance that creates forgiveness, but the victim’s forgiveness that creates repentance. This is where forgiveness enters the realm of spirit and paradox. Because it becomes a mysterious gift offered to one who does not necessarily merit it, it becomes the essence of compassion itself.

In conclusion, my own path has taught me how important it is to be present to my own life, to trust myself and help others to do the same, to allow my heart to be torn open in love rather than protected in fear. I have learned to keep asking myself if what I am doing is making me kinder, more understanding, and more loving.

Cheri Maples, True Jewel, worked in the criminal justice profession for twenty-five years; she is also a licensed attorney and clinical social worker, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. Cheri practices with SnowFlower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Healing from Abuse

Footsteps of Freedom, Love and Peace

by Brian Kimmel

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On the day of his sentencing, my former stepfather said to me in front of the judge, my family and his, “I never did anything to hurt you, and I’m sorry you felt I did. I loved you like a son.”

Although it may have seemed empathetic to my personal feelings of hurt and betrayal, it was not an apology and he had not admitted he had sexually abused me. The judge sentenced him that day for seventeen years on two counts of child rape in the first degree. I was twelve years old; his sentence “in the first degree” meant that I was under the age of ten when the acts occurred, and that he did have the intent to harm. Still, I was convinced he loved me. I was convinced that something in him knew that he loved me.

Despite my insights into love, it took me many years to heal and to find freedom from the effects of the abuse. I was introduced to mindfulness practice when I was sixteen years old. I remember the first time I tried sitting meditation, under an old cherry tree in my dad’s front yard. There was a passage in Thay’s book, Being Peace, that read something like: “If you don’t have a Sangha to practice with, practice with a rock, a flower, or a tree.” And that’s what I did. I went outside, bowed to the tree, and sat on the grass as if it were a cushion. I closed my eyes, and for an instant felt at peace.

That one time of feeling at peace was enough to motivate me to continue to practice. Even though I continued to suffer with the effects of the abuse, experiencing anger, depression, anxiety, thoughts of committing suicide, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the more I practiced, the more confident I became in the refuge the practice offered me.

I tried so many different methods to deal with my anger and other challenging emotions. I tried beating pillows, screaming, running, and throwing fits. Each time I acted out my feelings in those ways I felt angrier and more out of control. So I began Thay’s method of sitting and walking with my anger, and I made the practice my own.

When I’d feel angry I’d stop, breathe, and sense the feeling in the center of my body, or wherever the feeling expressed itself. I experienced the emotion deeply, feeling it on many levels through my senses, and through a deeper, intuitive awareness. I’d sit with my feeling as if to hold it in my arms like a crying babe or I’d walk with the feeling as if walking quietly and peacefully with a good friend. I knew the feeling was hurting, and as long as it was hurting a part of me would hurt. Every time I felt anger or whatever the feeling was, if I acted it out through bodily actions, through my words and through my thoughts, I made that feeling grow, I made my suffering grow.

Sometimes anger, like people, says things, does things, or thinks things it doesn’t really mean. Sometimes anger, like people, does things, says things, or thinks things from its own hurt. I know my anger was hurting and as I became aware of how much my anger was hurting, based on how much I was hurting, I started to listen, to really listen.

“Anger, my little one, what are you trying to say? How can I help you suffer less, to ease your pain? How can I help you to be free?”

Anger became a sort of meditation; I allowed anger to be there, without the expectation of getting rid of it. Every time I would try to get rid of anger, I fed it more. If it died down for a moment, in another moment or at a different time it would come back even stronger. Whether I was sitting or walking I made sure to keep my anger close to me. With my anger close to me I was better able to take care of it, to manage it and to make sure it wasn’t doing me or others harm. I learned to walk with my anger for hours, very slowly. I gave myself the permission to spend time unraveling, and getting to know this thing called anger and other challenging emotions or habits of mind. Anything I felt was a threat to my well-being I walked with, sat with, and I encouraged myself to listen and to take care of it with mindfulness, with loving-kindness and compassion.

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Sometimes I even walked with my former stepfather in my heart. I felt how it must have been to have caused so much pain in another, and to inherit that pain in his body and mind. “How might he be experiencing the feeling of anger in him?” I wondered. I walked with my former stepfather like walking with a friend, slowly allowing his world to unravel before me, in our footsteps of freedom. We walked in freedom together. He and I were not trapped in the delusion of self and other or in the identity of abuser and abused. We walked together through my actions of mindfulness, concentration, and love. Yes, love.

For many in my family and perhaps in society too, my former stepfather may be a challenging person to love. But he is composed of everything we are all composed of. He has air in him, fire in him; he has beauty and light and love; he has the seed of anger, of hurt and betrayal; he has kindness and compassion, forgiveness and joy; he has all the capacity one needs to live in freedom. For me, my former stepfather was easy to love, because I knew how much he needed love. To have caused another person to suffer causes so much suffering in him. And he may be unaware, unable to forgive all the people who may have “unintentionally” hurt him.

So much of our world depends upon the way in which we view it. If we change our views, the miracle of life tells us that everyone can love, and everyone has love somewhere inside of them. With love the whole world will experience freedom in togetherness and peace.

mb52-Healing3Brian Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, lived for five years in Las Vegas where he helped found the Tuesday Night Mindfulness Group. He will be a full-time student this fall at Naropa University in Colorado.

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To Meet My Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh

By Glenn Johnson

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Since I began practicing Buddhism six years ago, I have been almost obsessed with meeting the person who made it all clear to me — Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

Reading his writings and listening to his Dharma talks electronically has helped me understand what I need to do to build a stronger community. It’s not about trying to make everyone be a Buddhist. It’s about being a better person. Caring more for yourself, others, and the world around you. Especially the last two. It’s about smiling to yourself and to those you meet.

I’ve tried to figure out how I could get to Plum Village in France, despite the fact I can’t afford to go. Or to write to him, and hear back from him in words written by his own hand.

I then wondered whether Thay would be coming to a city near enough to Ottawa for me to drive to hear him speak, maybe even bow to him directly and just feel that I am in the presence of the closest thing to a Buddha that I may ever know.

As I was cutting the grass and listening to an old podcast from public radio’s Speaking Of Faith about a retreat that Thay gave for police officers in Wisconsin, something suddenly awakened in me.

I became aware that I was too attached to the notion that I somehow had to touch Thich Nhat Hanh so I could thank him for the way he has touched my life.

Bodh Gaya Is Everywhere

One person commented on my website: “As long as we know his teachings and contemplate upon his innocent yet strong, noble, smiling face he is with us. As all beings are. My obsession was in going to Bodh Gaya — the Mecca of sorts for Buddhists. Then I realized that Bodh Gaya is everywhere — as is Buddha … Any place can be the most sacred place in the world to us if we make it so.”

I had read a number of wonderful books about Buddhism in general, but many of them were confusing to me because they went into great detail about some of the different schools and their specific trainings. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an interesting document, but it doesn’t easily translate for the Western world.

That’s where Thay helped put Buddhism in my heart with an incredible clarity. Some of the tenets of Buddhism can be complicated, but they don’t need to be.

One reader told me: “He especially has an amazing ability to make the Dharma understandable to the Western mind. I have had two wonderful chances to see him speak in person and his energy fills the room like sunshine. He has changed my life as well and I will be forever grateful to him. He truly is a living Bodhisattva.”

An Open Heart

I would love to hear the Dharma and feel the inspiration directly from the Master. But in many ways I already have.

I have bought a number of his books, given away some to others who needed to read his teachings. I have watched videos and heard his voice electronically.

Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken to me and touched me in a way that has opened my heart to others. His writings and teachings were as specifically meant for me as others.

I would be thrilled to live in Plum Village as a monk or lay teacher and try to pass on the mindfulness trainings and other things that I have learned. In some ways, I do it on a microscopic scale by passing on kind or inspiring words of my own to others, or on Facebook or Twitter — our generation’s electronic temples.

Thank you, Thich Nhat Hanh. Although you may never read these words, their love will go straight to your heart because it is open.

Glenn Johnson lives in Ottawa, Canada, where he works as deputy editor of Canwest News Service. He practices with the Pagoda Sangha.

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Meeting Sadaparibhuta

By Susan Hadler

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Sometimes we meet someone whose Buddha nature shines so brightly that they are like a lamp showing us the way ahead. My Aunt Elinor is that kind of luminous Buddha. She is a form of the bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, Never Disparaging.

Elinor was sent to a mental hospital in 1936 when she was twenty-three years old and the mother of a two-year-old son and a five-month-old daughter. We know now that Elinor had postpartum psychosis, a condition that is treatable. It’s likely that Elinor recovered within several years. And yet she stayed in the mental hospital system for the rest of her life. Her husband died of a heart infection the following June and the children were raised by his sister. Elinor was abandoned by everyone in the family until it was said that she had died.

A Life in Institutions

Elinor was my mother’s oldest sister and I grew up wondering who she was and what had happened to her. Until I counted the number of grandchildren in my grandfather’s obituary, I didn’t know that she had children. When I found her married name I began to look for her, hoping to find where she was buried so that I could bring her flowers.

I searched for many years. Last year I found Elinor alive in a nursing home in Canton, Ohio. She was ninety-four years old and had spent the past seventy-two years in the mental health system, including forty-two years in the mental hospital, sixteen years in a group home, and fourteen years in the nursing home.

Even before I met her, I saw Elinor’s Buddha nature. During a phone conversation, the social worker at the nursing home told me, “Elinor calls the nurses Mother and some of them call her Mother. The others she calls Dorothy or Margery.” The social worker was surprised to learn that Dorothy and Margery were the names of her sisters.

Elinor made everyone around her into family! She embodied the quality of kshanti, all-embracing inclusiveness. As Thay explains in Peaceful Action, Open Heart: “When our heart is large enough, we can be very comfortable, we can embrace the sharp, difficult thing without injury.” Elinor taught me that if I could see everyone around me as my mother, my children, if my heart were large enough to include everyone, I would feel happy and safe and live without the burdens of judgment and fear.

 “Will You Be Kind to Me?”

The week after tracing Elinor, my husband and I drove from Washington, D.C. across the Appalachian Mountains to visit her in eastern Ohio. I immediately recognized her white hair and blue eyes, so like Mother’s. She was sitting in a wheelchair at the table eating dinner. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. She stopped eating for a moment and looked intently at me. Then she offered to share her dinner. A little later she said, “Do you love me? Will you be kind to me? My mother loved me and she treated me like she loved me.”

“Hello, Sadaparibhuta,” I thought to myself. “You speak directly to my heart. You’ve protected and preserved your heart through the long years without family to visit or support or care for you. You know that love is the most important quality and you call forth love in me. I bow to you.”

When Elinor finished eating, she picked up her napkin, shook it out, and folded it with complete concentration. Two people who lived in the nursing home were arguing, the TV was on, a person was moaning behind us, and another person was listening to the radio. Elinor’s response was, “Quite a chorus.” In the midst of the noise and chaos, Elinor accepted the life around her just as it was and she seemed to accept herself as well. When she was tired, she folded her head into her arm and slept. When I rubbed her back too hard, she told me, “That’s awful!”

I enjoyed sitting with Elinor. I felt free to just sit and be present. There was no pressure to please or entertain or even talk. Elinor reminded me that the heart of practice is acceptance. It’s so easy to struggle against the way things are, big things like illness and death, everyday things like traffic jams and frowns. With Elinor at that moment, all was well.

Elinor put her hand on top of mine and I enjoyed the soft warmth. She had long thin fingers that could reach octaves on the piano. When Elinor was young, she was a pianist and played the piano on the radio. “I heard that you play the piano beautifully,” I said. “Yes. I do play the piano. I play Let Me Call You Sweetheart and You Are My Sunshine.”

She nurtured her spirit with music for many years. And she gave music to everyone around her. “When she first came here, she’d walk over to the piano every night after dinner and play for us.

Elinor has a lovely voice and sings often,” the nurse said with a smile. “Everyone here loves Elinor.”

Accepting What Is

How did she manage to keep her heart open and her spirit alive? She had no family. She lived without hearing her children’s laughter. She owned nothing and wore what was handed to her. She ate what was given. She lived without privacy. She wasn’t able to walk down the street for a cup of tea. She was not bitter or angry, although she did not suffer fools. Her life was not cluttered with things she didn’t need. “I don’t want anything at all,” she wrote on a sheet of lined paper clipped into a blue binder. She had little choice except how she related to herself and to those around her. She learned to live beautifully with herself and others. I take strength from the way Elinor survived so well with so little, that she kept what was most valuable — her heart and her music. She was a Buddha in her simplicity, her affection, and her sense of interbeing.

mb52-Meeting2I found the group home in which Elinor had lived for sixteen years after the mental hospitals were emptied of patients in the mid-seventies. “Yes, I remember Elinor,” said the woman who ran the home. “The day she came here she walked up the front steps and when I opened the door she held out her arms and called me Mother! She endeared herself to me … She loved to sing!”

Elinor was my teacher. She showed me how to be aware of love, to give and receive the energy of love, to give space for love to exist and to ripen. I became aware of what cut off the flow between us, things like needless questions and extraneous comments. Elinor spoke out of her true nature and not as I might have wished or expected. That encouraged me to be less concerned about results and more aware of what was true within and around me. Elinor always responded to love and affection. “I love you,” I told Elinor. “That’s the way it should be,” she said.

mb52-Meeting3Elinor’s mother passed away suddenly when Elinor was sixteen, and her father, who could have signed her out of the hospital when she recovered from the post-partum psychosis, never came to take her home. “I love my dad,” she said. “I always will.” This too is Sadaparibhuta’s nurturing love, even in the midst of betrayal and rejection. I come from a family that tends to end relationships when pain or shame overwhelms love. When I think of Elinor, I am aware that when the seed of love has grown small or been lost in the face of fear or hurt, I can find that tiny seed, and with nurturing, it will grow strong again.

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In July I asked Elinor, “Do you have children?” “Yes,” she said. “I have two and I love them very much.” That was the permission I needed to search for her children. I was able to find them, and Elinor’s daughter and granddaughter came right away to visit her.

In January Elinor took her last breath. The weekend of her memorial service, Elinor’s family and four of my siblings met for the first time. During the service I read a passage from the Bible: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Tears fell as I read, knowing that Elinor was and is the love that bears all things, endures all things.

Before I began to practice, before I found the Sangha, I would have fallen into sorrow and seen Elinor’s life as an unbearable tragedy. Belonging to a Sangha that is supportive and affectionate, I am more aware of the energy of love even when it springs from the muddy ground of a life lived in a mental hospital.

Sitting with Elinor enlarged my heart. The weeds of mystery and tragedy and fear withered as Elinor watered seeds of love and simplicity and interbeing. What an amazing surprise to find that the person who the family abandoned is the one who restores our lost connections and the love that goes with them.

mb52-Meeting5Susan Hadler, True Lotus Recollection, practices with the Washington MIndfulness Community in Washington, D.C.

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Healing the Past in the Present

By Ann Moore

In a New Year’s Eve Dharma sharing session at Blue Cliff Monastery, Sister Anh Nghiem invited us to write on the phrases: “It had been,” “But then,” and “I realize.”

In response to her invitation I offer the following story in three chapters:

Chapter 1: It Had Been

It was the last straw when Caroline walked into my writers’ group. My dislike for Caroline was a long-standing, pure prejudice, our acquaintance limited to her occasional inquiry about my mother. As she was closer to my mother’s age than mine, I judged her insincere; if she really cared, she would ask my mother. Also I identified her as one of the elite with whom I feel uncomfortable.

My mother died in October of 2006. Returning from Mexico the following April, Caroline said consolingly: “You must miss your mother dreadfully,” leaving me speechless, as I did not. Caroline had returned interested in prison ministry, and had been given my name to contact. Soon we were carpooling to my two prison ministries.

One day she told me she would be away the third weekend in October. “So will I,” I said. “Where will you be?” We were both going to the same retreat. We began driving together to my two Sanghas. When she headed back to Mexico, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

And now she was in my newfound writers’ group. Tuesday was my early morning Sangha; Monday night I slept under a black cloud. I woke upset by my lack of either Buddhist or Christian compassion, hopeful that Sangha wisdom would help.

Chapter 2: But Then

I remembered reading about my dilemma, but where? Miraculously I found the passage in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: “When one person comes up to us, the sight of him makes us uncomfortable. But when someone else walks by we like her right away. Something in each of them touches a seed in us. If we love our mother deeply, but feel tense every time we think of our father, it is natural that when we see a lady who looks like our mother, we will appreciate her, and when we see a man who evokes the memory of our father, we will feel uncomfortable.”

I had known that irrational aversion was triggered by unresolved childhood conflict, but I had been the apple of my mother’s eye and felt only love for my father. I considered my mother for comparison:

  1. My earliest associations with Caroline were inquiries about
  2. I had assumed a friendship of sorts between
  3. There was the awkward allusion to my loss, which I now recognize as the sort of dead-end assumption for which Mom was notorious.
  4. Caroline was invading my space; I had adolescent boundary issues with
  5. Caroline was making demands on my time; I had been Mom’s sole caregiver.

The match was unmistakable. Within minutes the black cloud dispersed and Caroline became simply Caroline, a person of mutual interests, no longer a threat to my identity.

Chapter 3: I Realize

I realize now, yes, I was tense whenever I thought of Mom. Her love was so vast, so suffocating, that I could not return it in kind. For that I had always felt guilt, while remaining mentally loyal, denying negative feelings as best I could. I now saw clearly that I had projected those feelings onto Caroline.

My mother had idolized her mother, who had been instrumental in driving away my father, whom Mom also idolized. I now saw that Mom had been so judgmental because she had projected unacknowledged, unacceptable family flaws onto others, a trait which I was continuing. With that realization I felt only compassion for the mother I had long found difficult. And I now understood what it meant to heal the past in the present.

Ann G. Moore, Skillful Acceptance of the Heart, lives in Stonington, Connecticut and practices with Clear Heart Sangha in Matunuck, Rhode Island, as well as the New London Community of Mindfulness in New London, Connecticut.

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Loving Our Planet

Spirituality and Global Warming

By Brother True Dharma Sound, Phap Thanh

A Reflection and a Mindfulness Training: “Aware of our responsibility and love for ourselves and for our environment, we want to practice living in harmony with humans, animals, plants, and minerals. Aware of our interrelatedness with all beings, we know that harming others is harming ourselves.”

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Our planet is under stress and our civilization is in trouble, according to L. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and a highly honored scientist. The majority of scientists agrees that our planetary climate is heating up and that there is an urgency to prevent further damage. Increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, expanding deserts, shrinking forests, disappearing plants and animals, eroding soils, and falling water tables are just a few signs. These imbalances have the potential to lead to an immense amount of suffering through droughts, drinking water shortages, famines, increased occurrences of storms, floods and other climate-related disasters.

Our environmental support system is rapidly changing and it seems that our civilization is moving toward self-destruction. We seem to be confronted with the challenge of accepting the death of our civilization. This includes accepting our own death. On the spiritual level, we are challenged to practice with confronting our death, to arrive at a point of “no death, no fear.”

Global warming is not only a biological crisis; it is also an emotional crisis, a psychological crisis, and a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of me as a person, of us as a society, of us as the human species, of all beings inhabiting planet Earth (including humans, animals, plants, minerals). But this crisis is an opportunity for fundamental changes in our own lives, in our situation as humans, and in the way we relate to the planet. It is an opportunity to practice interbeing.

As spiritual practitioners we can practice awareness of the rising and falling of all civilizations and acceptance of the coming death of our civilization. We can practice with non-fear when facing global warming. Looking at the scientific proof of the need for urgent action, we can practice non-despair to keep our freshness for the needed action. It is time to face and digest what is going on around us and act accordingly.

What We Eat

I would like to take a closer look at the topic of eating a vegetarian diet and the impact on our environment and global warming. Consuming less meat and dairy is an action many people all over the globe can commit to, without having to invest large amounts of money, and it has a relatively significant impact on global warming. Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation.(1) “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems,” senior U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official Henning Steinfeld says. “Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.” (1)

The methods of raising animals for food are especially alarming in the USA. But according to a recent UN report, it is the case worldwide that with increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tons. (2) So the current situation in the USA will be mirrored in a growing number of countries.

An estimated 40,000 children die each day—fourteen million or so a year—from diseases such as measles and diarrhea that are commonly associated with poverty, overcrowding, and malnutrition. About sixty percent of deaths in children under the age of five in developing countries are thought to be related to malnutrition. Millions more children survive on the edge of starvation. (3)

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Meanwhile, corn and wheat are largely grown to feed livestock (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) or to produce alcohol. Over 95 percent of oats, 90 percent of the soy crop, 80 percent of corn and 70 percent of all grains 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. (5,6)

U.N. Recommendation

The U.N. 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”.1 We need to reduce at least 50 percent of meat industry products, and 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 cattle-rearing industry create less pollution, such as choosing animal diets that can reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions. 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.

From Vegetarian to Vegan

Over the last two thousand years, many Buddhist practitioners have practiced vegetarianism. The community at Deer Park Monastery is vegetarian with the intention to nourish our compassion towards the animals. We also eat vegetarian in order to protect the earth, preventing the greenhouse effect from causing irreversible damage. (5)

According to researchers at the University of Chicago, being a vegan is more effective in the fight against global warming than buying an eco-friendly car. The typical U.S. diet, about 28 percent of which comes from animal sources, generates the equivalent of nearly 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan diet with the same number of calories. By comparison, the difference in annual emissions between driving a typical car and a hybrid car, which runs off a rechargeable battery and gasoline, is just over one ton. If you don’t want to go vegan, choosing less-processed animal products and poultry instead of red meat can help reduce the greenhouse load. (4)

Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is possible for most people on our planet. We simply need to pay attention to creating a balanced diet, perhaps supplementing certain nutrients like vitamin B12. A completely vegan diet might not be possible for everyone, but reducing our consumption of meat is possible. This will reduce greenhouse gases and help to create less suffering for all beings on our planet.

Brother True Dharma Sound, Thich Chan Phap Thanh, was formerly known as Bernd Ziegler. He resides at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

Sources

1     H. Steinfeld, P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales, and C. de Haan, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options,” Livestock, Environment and Development (2006).

2     “Rearing Cattle Produces More Greenhouse Gases than Driving Cars, U.N. Report Warns,” U.N. News Center, 29 Nov. 2006.

3     Read, C., “Behind the Face of Malnutrition: What Causes Malnutrition?”, New Scientist magazine, Issue 1704, 17 Feb. 1990.

4     G. Eshel and P. Martin, “It’s Better to Green Your Diet Than Your Car,” New Scientist magazine, Issue 2530, 17 Dec. 2005.

5     Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness in the Marketplace – Compassionate Responses to Consumerism,” Parallax Press, Berkeley, California (2002).

6     M. Vesterby, K. Krupa. “Major Uses of Land in the United States, 1997,” Statistical Bulletin No. 973. Resource Economics Division, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture (1997).

Vitamin B12 in a Vegan Diet

I feel very happy that, under the guidance of Thay, our Sangha has made a successful transition to a diet free from animal products, in all of the main practice centers and during retreats of mindfulness. Our Sangha is making a significant contribution to reducing the production of greenhouses gases which contribute to global warming, and is setting a powerful example for others in the world to follow. Furthermore, we contribute less to the suffering of animals in the egg and dairy industry that often live in inhumane  conditions.

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While I wholeheartedly support this way of consumption in our community, I hope that the Sangha will consider the nutritional aspects of a diet free from animal products. A well-rounded vegan diet can be very healthy in many respects; however, it lacks

some vitamins and minerals that are essential for our body’s health. A vegan diet completely lacks Vitamin B12, and contains less calcium than a diet with dairy foods. B12 is one of several essential elements needed for the production of hemoglobin, a molecule in red blood cells. One cannot obtain B12 from vegetal sources, only through animal products, nutritional supplements, or select fortified foods. The body can store reserves of B12 from two to four years without needing any new supplies. Once the reserves of B12 begin to run out, and without any new intake, the body begins lacking healthy red blood cells, a condition known as vitamin deficiency anemia.*

Red blood cells carry oxygen and other nutrients throughout the body; the symptoms of anemia range from mild to severe. The most common physical symptoms are pale skin, weakness, fatigue and lack of energy, numbness or poor circulation in extremities, loss of appetite and weight loss. Symptoms can also include cognitive changes such as memory loss or forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating, thinking and planning, general malaise, and depression.

Having suffered from a severe case of anemia after living at Plum Village as a novice monk, I would like to help the community be aware of this important nutritional aspect. In the past couple of years, I have spoken with several people in the Sangha, both lay and monastic, who shared that they had experienced mild cases of anemia, as diagnosed by a medical doctor.

Many people in the Sangha are aware of the need for B12 in a vegan diet, but it may not yet be common knowledge throughout the community. Hopefully we can help everyone to be aware of the nutritional supplements needed in order to prevent individuals from experiencing anemia and its health related consequences. For the vast majority of people, a daily multivitamin with B12, or a B-complex vitamin will do the job.

Taking care of our bodies in this way may help us to cultivate better health, which gives us more energy and stamina for our practice of mindfulness and for serving others.

— David Viafora, Courageous Faith of the Heart

*  Asian and African people produce their own B12; Caucasian intestines no longer produce much it because they have been on a meat and dairy diet for so long. So most Caucasian people on a vegan diet need extra B12. — Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Ending the War with Weight

Mindfully Transforming Body Image

By Peter Kuhn

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One morning, feeling serene and well-grounded after meditating, I took a mindful shower. Awash with gratitude I stepped out with a smile and looked in the mirror. All I saw was my big belly and love handles. Contented joy vaporized into distress. I berated myself, obliterating peace and the morning’s merit. Breathing in, I realized the thoughts and feelings I was consuming were toxic. Breathing out, I released and attended to them. My suffering had something to tell me. How do I cultivate peace and compassion for all sentient beings when I find parts of myself unacceptable?

The body scan from the Satipatthana Sutra* has been a fantastic tool:

“Further, the practitioner meditates on his own body from the soles of his feet upwards and then from the hair on top of his head downwards, a body contained inside the skin and full of all the impurities which belong to the body: Here is the hair on the head, the hair on the body, the nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.”

The mindful penetration of each body part cultivates understanding and gratitude. I appreciate their miraculous design, their unique and interdependent natures. Each part serves and supports all others; each part serving and supporting my life and transformation. In time I penetrated my fat with the same equanimity as my heart or lungs. When judgment and aversion were overcome an old knot was untied.

With right concentration, I see that fat is storing energy for future use and is an evolutionary survival tool. My eye of understanding can now see fat as battery packs instead of a cloak of shame or nemesis. My heart softens and I suddenly appreciate my fat as a precious gift and see that it is here to serve and support me, too. “Oh, my poor misunderstood fat, I am here for you.” I think of loved ones and others who are unable to gain weight due to illness, of the millions who are starving, malnourished, or lacking enough to eat. For the first time, I am able to thank my fat and express real gratitude that it is here for me. I appreciate that it is working well and caring for me by storing energy for future use in times of famine, drought, or hardship. With an open heart, I let my fat know that I’m grateful it’s here for me but I do not need this amount of energy stored presently. With deep sincerity and a smile I let my fat know that I am working for its liberation as well as my own. Looking deeper, I see that liberating stored energy from my body makes it available elsewhere, in another form, where a need may exist. Nothing is wasted in nature.

Energy transforms,
Neither produced nor destroyed.
Weight is not the enemy,
I bow deeply to my fat.

When I embrace my pain, distorted perceptions are revealed. I gain understanding and insight; in this case, a new perspective on the way I view my body and weight. Looking deeply I touch the reality of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. Accepting my fat, new peace and happiness are born.

Mindfulness practice led me to exercise. There were times when I wanted to quit a workout early. I learned to exercise for those who cannot do it themselves instead of just ‘toughing it out’ for myself. I think of my hospice patients at the VA Hospital, the wounded, ill, lame, and incarcerated. I can work for them and my ancestors, for my dead son, David, and the uncountable masses who would give anything for the good health and freedom I enjoy. Interbeing supports and sustains me on all levels.

Thinking of others helps me practice mindful consumption as well. I can transform hunger pangs from a self-centered panic button to a mindfulness bell. My hunger becomes “the hunger,” shared by millions, most of whom lack the choice of when and what to eat. Small self becomes the large self.

I vow to liberate stored energy
To benefit all beings.
Eating mindfully for nutrition,
Transcending indulgence.

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Even as a vegetarian my relationship to food can be unwholesome. I’ve used food as a drug, but thought of it as a comfort as I eat to escape my feelings, fill a void or find pleasure. When I eat sweets I’m compelled to keep eating them. I tell myself, “This is a treat,” and “I deserve this pleasure.” When finished, I’ve consumed thousands of nutritionally void calories without satisfaction. I’ve watered seeds of indulgence and gluttony, not well-being and happiness. If I am mindful of my feelings I know that I am suffering. Buddha taught that there is a cause and end to suffering. My suffering has something very important to tell me. Piercing the cloud of denial and illusion, I see that eating for taste alone is a root cause of my suffering. The end of this suffering is eating for nutrition. I no longer mistake sweets for something wonderful. Not eating sweets is the real treat.

When appetite calls I know I’m alive.
The fire of transformation ignites
A calming smile.
All is well.

I’ve dropped three pants sizes in the last year and am in better shape than I’ve been in a long time. Even so, one look in the mirror at my remaining pot belly and that old tape, “What’s the use?” can pop up, shadowed by doubt and futility. Breathing in, I recognize my old friends. Breathing out, I know these are just thoughts and feelings. Embracing them I smile. Breathing in, I know I want to lose more weight. Breathing out, I know the pounds are dropping. Slow and steady. Breathing in, I know I am doing well. Breathing out, I smile as my practice grows stronger and supports me.

I question my thoughts, feelings and perceptions as they arise. Dining at a friend’s house I was offered homemade chocolate mousse and politely declined, feeling quite good about myself. The hostess had worked hard on her creation and my wife explained, “Pete doesn’t eat sugar any more.” Craving arose immediately. Breathing in, I observed a small voice whispering, “See what you are missing? You can’t have that.” For that instant, mousse seemed like the key to my happiness. Suddenly, eating it seemed a greater act of independent volition than declining. An expression of freedom! Other thoughts started to dog-pile on the first: it would make the hostess very happy if I broke my diet for her creation, I don’t want to hurt her feelings, I adore chocolate, it does look great! Breathing out, I recalled the pain I’ve experienced firsthand from unmindful consumption. I reaffirmed my well-being, knowing I could eat whatever I wanted right here and right now. I was not “missing out,” but gaining solidity in freedom from suffering. I politely explained to them, as well as to myself, that I had not “stopped” eating sugar or dessert, but was choosing not to, just for today.

There is no diet to stick to,
I am not stuck.
There is no renunciation.
I eat for nutrition.

Am I feeding my liberation or my suffering? Thay explains, “True love cannot exist without understanding.” Sometimes, what I perceive as love is a mislabeled distortion, a romantic guise for obsession. I’ve loved food all my life, but the nature of that love was self-centered gratification. As I practice mindful eating and the Five Contemplations, my love of food is no longer based solely on gluttonous self-centeredness.

Hunger pangs ring
A mindfulness bell.
In a moment’s pause I taste the fullness
Of my great essential nature.

As I cultivate true love, it radiates, inside and out. When I’m awake in the present moment and I know what I am eating, in the mundane and greater sense, the nutritional value of my meal increases. I am enriched on all levels and dine on the miraculous, feeding my awakened nature and physical form. Abstaining from meats I’m cognizant of the great harm caused directly and indirectly by the consumption of animals, engaging compassion for all creatures and our mother Earth, and truly generating the “peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness and in the collective consciousness” that the Fifth Mindfulness Training describes. The taste of love is sweeter than chocolate mousse.

My fork rests between bites
Inviting full awareness
Of habit energy and what I chew.

When I focus on weight loss there is no satisfaction. I can’t lose it fast enough and fear gaining it back. I want to lose weight but it isn’t my goal. The practice is my process and the process is my goal. There can be no failure, only an aspiration.

The spoon and I inter-are.
She breathes.
We release between bites.

I am deeply grateful to my teacher, Thay, who helps me turn walls to doors while cultivating true love.

*See Exercise 7 in Healing and Transformation: The Four Establishments of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Peter Kuhn, Deep Transformation of the Heart, lives in San Diego, CA with his wife Jackie. He is a recovering addict, clean and sober 23 years, and practices at the World Beat Center Sangha, the Still Ripening Sangha and Sweetwater Zen Center.

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The Courage to Change Becoming a Conscious Consumer

By Jonathan Borella

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My spirituality has become the main guiding force in my life. It plays a role in almost every decision I make, in my relationships with family and friends, and in my perspective of the world. Indeed, as the days go by, I am noticing my life and my spirituality are becoming one.

My so-called spiritual journey set off when I started becoming aware of the immense suffering in the world. I saw people unable to maintain relationships, destroying their lives with drugs, and pillaging the environment in pursuit of pleasure. So I started to look at myself, and how I interacted with the world. I didn’t like what I saw. I decided to change.

I don’t think I ever decided to become a “spiritual” person but when one dedicates one’s life to a path, it becomes a spirituality. One of the fi ways I saw this manifesting was in my diet. So much of the suffering in the world is caused by how people consume. I decided to become a conscious consumer. I was a self-described barbeque lover until I transitioned to vegetarian and finally vegan. Now, any time I decide what to eat, my spirituality is present. And my conscious consuming didn’t just stop with my diet. From there, I cut animal products out of nearly all my daily necessities. I began driving less and cutting my water consumption in half. This may seem like a drag to some people, but I wouldn’t call it spirituality if I didn’t enjoy it.

I used to be very cynical. I used to think that if other people didn’t care about me, why should I care about other people? But, as I became a more conscious consumer, I realized that all my previous consuming habits were rooted in that selfish attitude. That realization exposed the flaw in my cynical logic and I asked myself the flip side of the same question. “If I don’t care about other people, why should other people care about me?” If no one is caring about anyone else, nothing will change. The question then became: “Do I have the initiative and courage to change myself?” It became clear to me that this would be the ground of my spiritual path and the only way I could effect any real change in the world.

I started to train myself in empathy: seeing myself in the other person and seeing the other person in me. This aspect of my spiritual path has proven to require the most attention. When I see someone making mistakes, or causing harm, it is so easy to fall into judging and condemning. But that attitude has never helped me before. Now when I catch myself in this view, I have to remind myself that I am not seeing things clearly. I am only seeing the tip of the iceberg and there is still so much more to this person I don’t understand. Trying to understand someone means caring about him. Now I try to see her situation in life, her difficulties. Sometimes I may offer advice. Most of the time, though, I know my words are not needed. I used to preach a lot about what people should and shouldn’t do. Now I try to make the way I live my life an example to follow.

My spiritual path began with a sense of compassion, wanting to do something about the suffering in the world. I don’t know what ignited this initial sense of compassion but the more and more I practice, the more I keep coming back to it. Compassion has to be both the means and the end.

Jonathan Borella is a student at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, where he practices with the Cedar Sangha.

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Poem – Map of a Garden: You Are Here

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I float above my personal atlas to
Find a new garden.

I draw contour lines and color fields
Let them fill in like growth rings
The way I imagine the
Landscape of a poem and make
A poem-map, compass rose
Pointing inward and out.

From toothbrush to bedtime story is
The map of a lucky child’s day
The map of “Smoke Maker” has
Six directions, a veil and a blindfold…

Saffron page after saffron
Page of projections
Territories common and rugged
As stones foliate and fade

I lay pins on the new
Map of the new garden:
A pin for sun
A pin for grapes
A pin for lilacs
A pin for ladybugs

You Are Here

The map of my garden
On this private meridian
Has a pavilion with cushions
A fountain with peacock-green tiles
A path from one to the other

Three pins for honeysuckle and pleasure
I am here at the intersection of
Here and Now

Where golden rose and jasmine
Replace the noxious
Weeds of disturbed places
Where clarity of sky
Prevents its falling.

— Esther Kamkar

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Sangha News

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The Realization of a Dream

Thich Nhat Hanh began his last Dharma talk at the Path of the Buddha retreat by speaking about the EIAB.

It has been Thay’s dream to set up an Institute of Applied Buddhism in the West, and now the dream has been realized. We have created the European Institute of Applied Buddhism [EIAB] in Germany, very close to Cologne. It is in the heart of Europe. There is a monastic community and a lay community taking care of the Institute and offering retreats and courses on Applied Buddhism. If you are a Dharma teacher in Europe or America, you might be inspired to go there and teach a course. You can bring your children and your students. There will be many students there from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and so on. You can get more information about it by visiting their website, www.eiab.eu.

Unlike other institutes, there is a permanent Sangha always practicing there. At the EIAB, the residential community embodies the teaching and the practice. It is the most important feature of the Institute. Whether you are in Dharma discussion, listening to a talk or practicing sitting or eating, there is always a strong Sangha present to support you.

We want the teaching of Buddhism to be applied to many areas of life, so a variety of courses are offered. There is a twentyone-day course for young people who are planning to marry,

to help them learn practices and to gain insight that will make their commitment successful. This course has roots in the history of Buddhism. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries like Thailand, a young man had to come and practice in a temple for a year before marrying. It’s like military service, but instead, this is spiritual service. Even the prince had to do it, or he would not be qualified to be king. When a man asked a woman to marry, she would ask whether he had fulfilled his time in the temple. If not, she would refuse his offer. Now people come to the temple for a shorter period, but that service still exists. We hope that in the future in every country there will be an institute that will train young people before they can marry, because they will have a much better chance to have a happy family life. Because there are so many families broken by divorce, we must offer that course everywhere.

We also offer a twenty-one-day course for children who have difficulties with their parents, and one for parents who don’t know how to communicate with their children. And we offer a course for both parents and children to practice together. We offer a course for people who have recently discovered they have an incurable disease like cancer or AIDS, and one for those who are grieving from the loss of a loved one. We will also offer a course on how to set up and lead a local Sangha.

The Buddhism taught at the Institute of Applied Buddhism is not a religion, but a way of life, a way of transformation and healing.

I think our spiritual ancestors and our blood ancestors have prepared this place for us in Germany. There is a lot of land, with many trees and clean air. The people in the town like us and are glad we have come. They support us, bringing gifts to the monastics. The building can hold 500 retreatants. Thay

intends to organize a gathering of Dharma teachers there from Asia, Europe, and North America to stay together for one week. They will sit and walk together, drink tea together and reflect on how to make the teaching and practice relevant to our times. So, please, if you are a Dharma teacher, you might like to come to that retreat at the Institute, probably two years from now.

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The Meanings of Engaged and Applied Buddhism

First was born the term, “Engaged Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism means that you practice all day without interruption, in the midst of your family, your community, your city, and your society. The way you walk, the way you look, the way you sit inspires people to live in a way that peace, happiness, joy and brotherhood are possible in every moment.

The term Engaged Buddhism was born when the war in Viet Nam was very intense. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on, and what was happening then was bombs falling, people being wounded and dying: suffering and the destruction of life. You want to help relieve the suffering, so you sit and walk in the midst of people running from bombs. You learn how to practice mindful breathing while you help care for a wounded child. If you don’t practice while you serve, you will lose yourself and you will burn out.

When you are alone, walking or sitting or drinking your tea or making your breakfast, that is also Engaged Buddhism, because you are doing that not only for yourself, you are doing that in order to help preserve the world. This is interbeing.

Engaged Buddhism is practice that penetrates into every aspect of our world. Applied Buddhism is a continuation of engaged Buddhism. Applied Buddhism means that Buddhism can be applied in every circumstance in order to bring understanding and solutions to problems in our world. Applied Buddhism offers concrete ways to relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness in every situation.

When President Obama gave a talk at the University of Cairo, he used loving speech in order to release tension between America and the Islamic world. He was using the Buddhist practice of loving speech: speaking humbly, recognizing the values of Islam, recognizing the good will on the part of Islamic people, and identifying terrorists as a small number of people who exploit tension and misunderstanding between people.

The practice of relieving tension in the body is Applied Buddhism because the tension accumulated in our body will bring about sickness and disease. The sutra on mindful breathing, presented in 16 exercises, is Applied Buddhism. We should be able to apply the teaching of mindful breathing everywhere – in our family, in our school, in the hospital, and so on. Buddhism is not just for Buddhists. Buddhism is made up of non-Buddhist elements.

So please offer your help because the European Institute of Applied Buddhism is our dream. Find out how you can help make this dream come true. Next June we will have a seven-day retreat there.

—Thich Nhat Hanh
Plum Village, 21 June 2009

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Give from the Heart
The European Institute of Applied Buddhism

Following is an excerpt from a fundraising letter by Thay Phap An on behalf of the monastics residing at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB). To read the complete letter, view photos of construction at EIAB, see the course catalogue, or make a contribution, please visit www.eiab.eu.

19 June 2009

Dear Beloved Sangha,

In September 2008, more than twenty brothers and sisters were sent to Germany from Plum Village to set up the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB). This has been a dream of Thay’s since he was a young novice. His wish is to bring the teaching of the Buddha into every aspect of our lives. Buddhism should not only be theoretical, but it should be practical and we should be able to apply it in transforming the suffering of individuals, families, and society. At the EIAB, we will have courses for new couples who are getting married, for parents and children who wish to reconcile, for police officers, psychotherapists, teachers, and businesspeople.

The EIAB building has the capacity of hosting 400-500 people. The military operated the building from 1967-2006 and they have their own set of fire safety regulations. As the EIAB, the building is considered to be in civilian use, and the authorities have a very different set of fire safety regulations for this purpose. In addition, many water pipes are now old and rusty, and together with our now out-of-date kitchen, they no longer meet the public health standards. We also need to repair our old heating system due to many leakages, and more importantly, to make it more energy efficient and ecologically friendly. To house the intended number of people, we would also need to build many more public toilets and showers.

In the last nine months, a team of experts that includes architects, engineers and technicians have looked carefully into this matter, and we now know that we would have to spend at least 3 million Euros for half of the building to be functional and open to the public. The EIAB is not allowed to be opened to the public under current conditions, and the brothers and sisters are only given temporary permission to stay in a small restricted area of this building until January 2010. This means that we have to raise 3 million Euros as soon as possible in order to proceed with the construction work and have it completed by the end of 2009.

Last night, I was thinking about how we can raise this big amount of money in such a short time. I evoked the name of the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion to ask for her help, and for the whole night, I thought about my international beloved community – brothers and sisters and friends that I have come to know in my 18 years as a monk. I thought that if each of our friends, families, or local Sanghas everywhere in the world would give a contribution of 500 Euros, then with 6,000 such contributions, we would meet our urgent need of raising 3 million Euros by the end of this year. I am writing this letter to our friends all over the world so that you know about our situation. I have a deep trust in our beloved community. I know that if I communicate our difficulties to you, we will receive your help.

The EIAB is a vision not only for the European community but also for the international community. We sincerely ask for your practice of generosity to help to make the EIAB a reality for the cultivation of love and understanding for all of us, and our children.

— Thay Phap An
On behalf of the brothers and sisters of the EIAB

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Help Prajna Monastery

Just as a flower garden may experience heavy winds and severe rainstorms as it grows, the Sangha body can encounter very difficult conditions as it blooms in awakening. In recent months, young monks and nuns at Prajna (Bat Nha) Monastery in Viet Nam have faced adverse conditions – including police interrogations, violent attacks, and threats of eviction. Yet they have continued to blossom.

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Causes and Conditions

Prajna Monastery, in Viet Nam’s central highlands, houses more than 350 monks and nuns who have chosen to practice according to the Plum Village tradition under the guidance of Thich Nhat Hanh. They are all between the ages of sixteen and thirtyfive. Since Thay’s first return to Viet Nam in 2005 his teachings have inspired dozens of young Vietnamese to ordain as monks and nuns. The Venerable Abbot Thich Duc Nghi offered the Prajna monastery as a home for the new monks and nuns. Over the next few years, the number of aspirants and lay practitioners quickly multiplied, and Prajna needed to expand. Supporters from many countries donated funds to renovate buildings, build new structures, and buy adjacent land for the growing community.

During Thay’s next visits to his homeland in 2007 and 2008, he met with government officials, including the president of Viet Nam. Thay proposed that the nation open its doors to visitors, strengthen ties with other countries, and reduce its dependency on China. He presented a ten-point proposal to the president. All of his suggestions were adopted by the government except the last one, “to dissolve the religious police and the religious affairs bureau.” In a letter explaining recent events, Sister Chan Khong writes, “It seems that difficulties at Prajna can be traced back to this point.” She explains that Thich Duc Nghi was under pressure from the immigration office to expel Plum Village monks and nuns from Prajna, even those who had a valid visa.

In 2008 Thich Duc Nghi asked the police to evict the 379 monastics living at Prajna. By the end of that year, a report from the Vietnamese Buddhist Church directed the monks and nuns to leave by April 2009.

In a letter to his students, Thay writes that “this was not about an internal struggle over a temple, but it was the result of a delusion: that the presence of Prajna may be a threat to national security, because the monastics at Prajna… want to do politics.” He likens this perception to a painting drawn in the air – purely a projection. “Now everyone around the world is able to see that the monks and the nuns and the aspirants at Prajna only do one thing. That is: to practice and to guide others to practice.”

Wrong perceptions of the monastics have led to violence. A letter from the monastics of Prajna testifies: “Groups of men were ordered to throw the belongings of young monks out in the hallway. Gates to the monastery have been locked so that lay friends could not enter. Some monks and nuns have been chased with life-threatening objects.” Police came to the monastery frequently, searching and questioning the monks and nuns, and asking them to sign a statement that they were living there illegally. Sister Chan Khong writes that the monastics “always used gentle speech toward the police and even offered them tea and songs to relieve their tension.”

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On June 26, monastic huts were torn down in an attack. Electricity, water, and phone lines were shut off, and food deliveries were blocked. An e-mail from a western visitor describes video footage of the event: “An out-of-control crowd swarmed over the grounds… taking things from the rooms, as uniformed police watched and did nothing.” As of mid-August the monastics were still without electricity and water.

A Chance to Practice

For the monastics, these events have offered a chance to practice mindfulness, solidity, and equanimity – to abide in stillness, even in the heart of turmoil.

In a letter dated July 20, Thay reassures his students at Prajna and everywhere: “Thay has confidence that you can behave true to the Dharma in challenging and difficult circumstances. The day Thay received the news that people invaded your monastic residence… throwing out your belongings, pushing whoever got in their way, and going to the third floor only to find all of you doing sitting meditation, evoking the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening Avalokiteshvara in the imperturbable posture, and not trying to react or fight back, Thay knew that you were able to do what Thay has hoped for, and there is no more reason for Thay to be worried about you.”

Thay’s letter recounts the story of a Prajna novice trained in martial arts. In response to the attack, the young brother “asked his mentor for permission to handle those men. ‘Please allow me to quit being a monk. I cannot bear it anymore. I only need fifteen minutes to defeat all those gangsters. After that, if needed, I will go to prison… when I finish my term, I will return to be a monk again.’” His mentor responded with compassion. “Dear brother, don’t call those young people gangsters…. They were misinformed. They are thinking that we are gangsters who have come here to take over the building and the land. They are victims of wrong information, and they need help more than punishment.” He encouraged his brother to sit in meditation and master the anger in him. A few days later, the novice realized that if he had answered violence with violence, he would have “destroyed the great example set by the Buddha and by Thay.”

How We Can Help

The world’s eyes are on Prajna Monastery. Articles about Prajna and “Plum Village style practice” have

appeared in newspapers from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. Worldwide, Sangha members are concerned, confused, and wondering how to help.

A blog titled www.helpbatnha.org features written accounts, letters, photo galleries, and a history of events at Prajna. It also demonstrates the resilient spirits of practitioners there. One photo shows a makeshift outdoor kitchen, with the caption: “The monks find ways to make do with hearts unperturbed.” Another picture shows a barricade of tree branches, with the words: “This pile of trees may block our path, but it can never block our understanding and compassion.”

The monastics have called for help from the international community so that they can practice in safety and peace. They “cannot just find another place to relocate, since there are almost 400 monks and nuns. Moreover, it is not likely that the monks and nuns would be left in peace to practice, even if we were to relocate. Thus, we entrust our protection in our spiritual ancestors and in you.”

To help the young monks and nuns at Prajna, Sangha members can write letters to the Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate, sign a petition at www.helpbatnha.org, inform news organizations and human rights groups, and sit with local Sanghas, sending support and compassion to all those affected by the events at Prajna Monastery.

— Natascha Bruckner

Sources:

  • AP news, Ben Stocking, “Vietnam’s dispute with Zen master turns violent,” August 1, 2009
  • Email from OI member True Concentration on Peace, July 2009
  • New Zealand Herald, Margaret Neighbour, “Monks evicted from monastery in row with government,” August 5, 2009
  • helpbatnha.org

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Media Reviews

mb52-MediaReviews1Clear Peaceful Moon
Songs inspired by the poetry of Thich Nhat Hanh

By Joseph Emet
Parallax Press
CD, 47 minutes

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

This is a new release from the creator of the beloved collection A Basket of Plums. Joseph Emet is a Dharma teacher who lives in Montreal and writes beautiful songs in both English and French, all inspired by the words of Thich Nhat Hanh.

This new collection includes an old favorite that I heard at Plum Village many years ago and always loved for its whimsical lilting tune. The words evoke the delights of walking meditation:

The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this lovely path I walk in peace.
With each step a gentle wind blows, with each step a flower blooms.

In his note about this song Joseph writes that he “saw this gatha of Thay’s printed on the back of a friend’s calling card a long time ago.”

Most of these songs are practice songs, meant to be sung with a Sangha — or perhaps alone in the car or while walking. The arrangements are simple and sweet, showcasing the clear voices of Emily M. King, Jean Monpetit, and the Skylarks, a women’s ensemble from the Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa. But when I actually sing them with others they come alive.

At the June 21-day retreat at Plum Village in 2006, Joseph taught us to sing “Waking Up This Morning”:

Waking up this morning I see the blue sky.
I join my hands in thankfulness for the many wonders of life.

It is especially beautiful as a round. A friend and I tried to teach it at the monastic retreat in Estes Park last year, and failed laughingly at making it into a round. But it’s a lovely song just as it is.

I had the good fortune of participating in a singing circle with Joseph at the Path of the Buddha retreat this past June at Plum Village. On our last lazy day, Joseph came to Lower Hamlet and about twenty of us sat on the veranda of the meditation hall while Joseph led us with his guitar.

My favorite moment came while we were singing “Remember”:

Remember the time when, a white cloud, you were
floating in the sky and I, a wandering stream, used
to sing on my way to the wide ocean.

After we had learned the song, Joseph instructed us to turn to the person next to us, and sing it to each other. It wasn’t long before my partner and I had tears in our eyes. Somehow, for that moment, we truly remembered being a cloud, being a stream flowing to the ocean.

Newcomers to our practice often wonder at the childlike songs we enjoy. But music opens the heart in a way nothing else can. Almost everyone can sing. Simple songs connect us to one another — and to our inner child’s joyous heart.

mb52-MediaReviews2Mindful Living Every Day
Practicing in the Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh

A film by David M. Nelson
Parallax Press
DVD, 120 minutes

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

A few Sundays ago, nine of us gathered to enjoy a morning of mindfulness. After sitting and walking outside, we watched Mindful Living Every Day: Practicing in the Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, the new film that introduces Plum Village style practice in a fresh and beautiful way. Produced and filmed by David Nelson, and written by Nelson and the Plum Village monastics, the deep, mindful energy of this film conveys the teachings impeccably. After the viewing, every person present wanted his or her own copy.

The narration in this forty-minute film is shared by several monks and nuns. The scenes of Plum Village life, children in the Netherlands, and practitioners in Vietnam and the U.S. bring variety, interest, and light-heartedness to the presentation. The narrator begins the film explaining that we practice the art of mindful living, and that mindfulness reveals love, which makes us free. From there, the first section of seventeen short chapters offers simple teachings on stopping, mindful breathing, sitting and walking meditation, working and eating. Later, simple teachings on interbeing, how to water good seeds, transforming feelings, the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and Beginning Anew are offered.

The photos include Plum Village sunrises, children playing, practitioners exercising, walking, and working, and Thay inviting the bell. Each chapter is introduced with Thay’s calligraphy, and occasional cartoons illustrate teachings as well.

Already this film has brought great happiness to our Sangha, and to friends and family of our Sangha members. One Sangha member is passing her copy to her children and grandchildren. Another member invited a friend and her thirteen-year-old son to watch it, after dishing out bowls of ice cream. She reported that they all sat in silence at the end, ice cream melting in the bowls.

This may be the best method I know to share the simple practices and the deep, transformative energy of mindfulness in a widely appealing way. A deep bow of gratitude to David Nelson for this Sangha-building tool.

Bonus feature: Each of My Steps Is a Prayer. A documentary of Thich Nhat Hanh’s pilgrimage to his homeland Vietnam after over 40 years in exile.

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