Dharma Talk: Free from Notions

The Diamond Sutra

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall
Deer Park Monastery
Sunday, September 25, 2001

Thich Nhat Hanh

Right view is the foundation of the Noble Eightfold Path presented by the Buddha. Right view helps us to think correctly. It helps us to say things correctly, and to do things correctly, so we don’t create suffering and despair for ourselves and for others. When we practice mindfulness, we produce thoughts in alignment with right thinking, full of understanding and compassion. Then we only create happiness; we do not create suffering. With the practice of right speech, we say things that move us in the direction of understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. With the practice of right action, our physical action will only protect, save, help, and rescue. That is why the practice of mindfulness based on right view can help heal ourselves and help heal the world. We can start right away if we have a friend or a community of practice supporting us.

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We have to cultivate right view. If you listen to a Dharma talk or read a book, you’ll get some ideas about right view. But right view is something you experience directly, not through concepts and ideas. Right view is the kind of insight, the kind of under-standing, that can transcend the notion of being and non-being. It is not easy to understand.

When we speak of the birth of something, the creation of something, we are already caught in the notion of being and non-being. To be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. And to die means from the realm of being you pass into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. That’s how we think, but that is not right thinking.

So if you are caught in the notion of being and non-being, you are caught also in the notion of birth and death. When you observe reality as it is, you can touch the truth that reality is free from the notion of birth and death, being and non-being.

Can we speak about the birth of a cloud? According to our thinking, to be born means from nothing you become something. But looking deeply, you know the cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from the water in the ocean, the heat gener­ated by the sun, many things like that. So it is very clear that our cloud has not come from the realm of non-being.

The moment you see the cloud, that is a new manifestation. Before that, it was there in another form. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth. The cloud has never been born. It has not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being.

When you look up into the sky and you do not see your be­loved cloud anymore, you think your cloud has died, has passed from the realm of being into non-being, and you cry. But the fact is that your cloud has not died. It is impossible for a cloud to die. A cloud can become rain or snow or ice, but it is impossible for a cloud to become nothing. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. And the same thing is true of everything else, including ourselves, including our grandfather, our great-grandmother. They have not passed into the realm of non-being. If we look deeply, we can still see them around very close, in their new manifestations.

[Thay pours a cup of tea.] I’m pouring my cloud into the glass mindfully. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness, you can see the cloud in the tea. Your cloud has not died; it has just become the tea. The tea is the continuation of the cloud. When you drink your tea mindfully, you know that you are drinking your cloud. You already have a lot of cloud inside. This is only another cloud coming in to nourish you.

You are like a cloud. Your nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Being afraid of dying is not right thinking, because nothing can pass from being into non-being. Nothing can pass from non-being into being. If you cannot see the cloud in this tea, you have not really seen the tea. Mindfulness and concentration bring insight, which allows you to look at the tea and see the cloud.

In the Diamond Sutra, a very famous sutra in the Zen tradi­tion, we learn that there are four notions that you have to remove if you don’t want to suffer. These four notions are the crown of discrimination and fear and hate.

Tmb59-dharma1-3he Notion of Self

First is the notion of self. You separate reality into two parts. You distinguish between self and non-self. One part is yourself, the other part is the non-self. But looking into what we call a self, we see only non-self elements.

As a practitioner of mindfulness, you look deeply into this flower and you see that it is made only of non-flower elements. There’s a cloud inside also, because if there’s no cloud, there’s no rain and no flower can grow. So you don’t see the form of a cloud, but the cloud is there. And that is the practice of what we call signlessness. You don’t need a sign, a certain form of appear­ance in order to see it. There’s the sunshine inside. We know that if there is no sunshine, no flower can grow. There is the topsoil inside. Many things are inside: light, minerals, the gardener. It seems that everything in the cosmos has come together to help produce this flower. If we have enough concentration we can see that the whole cosmos is in the flower, that one is made by the all. We can say that the flower is made only of non-flower elements. If we return the cloud to the sky, return the light to the sun, the soil to the earth, there is no flower left. So it’s very clear that a flower is made only of non-flower elements.

What we call “me,” “myself,” is like that, too. We are also a flower. Each of us is a flower in the garden of humanity, and each flower is beautiful. But we have to look into ourselves and recognize the fact that we are made only of non-us elements. If we remove all the non-us elements, we cannot continue. We are made of parents, teachers, food, culture, everything. If we remove all of that, there is no us left.

When a young man looks into himself, he can see that he is made of non-self elements. If he looks into every cell of his body, he will see his father. His father is not only outside; his father is inside of him, fully present in every cell of his body. Suppose he tries to remove his father; there’s no son left. If we remove the father, remove the mother, the grandfather, the grandmother, if we remove our education, our culture, the food we eat, then there’s no us left. So the young man can see that his father is in him. He is the continuation of his father. He is his father.

It’s like the tea is a continuation of the cloud. Suppose the tea hates the cloud. The tea says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with the cloud!” That’s nonsense. And yet there are young men who are so angry at their fathers, they dare to say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that person.” Because they have not looked deeply, they do not see that they are the continuation of their father. They cannot remove their father from themselves; they are their father. So to get angry at your father is to get angry at yourself. That is the insight you get from the practice of mind­fulness and concentration. If you have that insight, you are no longer angry at your father. You know that if your father suffers, you suffer. If you are happy, your father is happy also. No more discrimination between father and son, because father is made of non-father elements and son is made of non-son elements. Everything is like that.

So the first notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of self. If you can see, in the light of interbeing, that you are in me and I am in you, you’ve got the insight. Anger and the desire to punish are no longer there. Removing the notion of self is the basic action for peace.

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If the Palestinians look deeply, they see that the suffering of the Israelis is their own suffering, and that their happiness is also the happiness of the Israelis. If they can recognize that they inter-are, that their happiness and suffering depend on each other’s, then they will release their anger, their fear, and their discrimination, and they can make peace easily. If the Hindus and the Muslims look deeply and see they are in each other, then there will be no conflict, no war.

So the removal of the notion of self is crucial for peace. If we can do that, we can be free from discrimination, separation, fear, hate, anger, and violence. With mindfulness and concentra­tion, you can discover the truth of no self, the truth of interbeing.

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The Notion of Being Human

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to re­move is the notion of man, human. Man is made only of non-man elements. Man, we know, is a very young species on earth. We are made of minerals, vegetables, and animals. Humans have human ancestors, but we also have animal ancestors, vegetable ancestors, and mineral ancestors. They are still in us. We are the continuation of our ancestors. We still carry the minerals, the vegetables, and the animals within us. If you have the insight that man is made only of non-man elements, you will protect the ecosystem. You will not destroy this planet. That is why the Diamond Sutra can be seen as the most ancient text on the teaching of deep ecology. In order to protect man, you have to protect minerals, vegetables, and animals.

The Notion of Living Beings

The third notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of living beings. When I was ordained as a novice monk at the age of sixteen, my teacher showed me how to bow to the Buddha. “My child, before you bow to the Buddha, you have to meditate.” He gave me a short verse to memorize: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to, the nature of both is empty.” That means that I am made of non-self elements. I am empty of a separate self. And you, the Buddha, you are also made of non-you elements. That means that you are in me, and I am in you. There is non-discrimination between the Buddha and a living being.

If you do not have that kind of insight, communication is impossible. You have to see the true relationship between you and Buddha. You must see that the Buddha is made only of non-Buddha elements. And you must see that you are made of non-you ele­ments. You must see that you are in the Buddha and the Buddha is in you. Before you have that understanding, you should not bow, because you think that you and the Buddha are two separate enti­ties. So there is a discrimination between Buddha, the enlightened one, and living beings; a discrimination between the creator and the creature. You have to see God in yourself, and you have to see yourself in God, in order for true communication to be possible.

Looking into a buddha, what do you see? You see a lot of afflictions, sickness, and despair that has been transformed. So a buddha is made of non-buddha elements. Before that person became a buddha, she suffered from anger, fear, hatred, and wrong perceptions. But because she knew how to practice mindfulness and she got insight, she became free. She became a buddha.

So looking into a buddha, you see non-Buddha elements. If you do not see non-Buddha elements in the Buddha, you have not seen the Buddha. Don’t imagine that the Buddha is an entity that is separate from us human beings. The safest place to look for a Buddha is in yourself.

If you know how to grow lotus flowers, you know that a lotus flower is made only of non-lotus elements. Among the non-lotus elements is the mud. The mud does not smell very good; it is not very clean. But without mud you can never grow a lotus flower. So if you look into a lotus flower, and you have not seen the mud in it, you have not seen the lotus flower. It is only with mud that you can grow a lotus flower. It is with the suffering, afflictions, fear, and anger that you can make the compost in order to nourish the flower of Buddha within ourselves.

That is why in the Lin-chi Zen tradition, when you look into the living being, you see the Buddha. When you look into the Buddha, you see the living being, because you are made of non-you elements and the Buddha is made of non-Buddha elements. If you have that insight, communication between you and the Buddha will be very deep. Otherwise, you will be worshipping an idea that is not reality.

You are the Buddha. You have Buddha nature, and if you practice mindfulness and concentration, you can transform afflictions. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove the notion of living beings.

The Notion of Life Span

The fourth notion is the notion of life span. Suppose we draw a line from left to right, representing time. And suppose we pick one point here and call it B, representing birth, and another point, we call it D, representing death. Usually we think that birth is the point where we start to exist, to be. So the segment from birth, from B on, is being. Before we are born, we did not exist. So the segment starting with D represents non-being.

When we come to D—we are very afraid of coming to this point. [laughter] It’s not pleasant to think of D. But if you can remove your notions, your wrong thinking about D, you are saved by right understanding and you are no longer afraid of D; not by a god, but by right understanding.

We believe that to be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. To die means from the realm of being you pass again into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. You are caught in the notion of birth and death; in the notion of being and non-being.

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Many of us believe that the cosmos has come from the realm of non-being into being. That is how we understand creation. Both believers and scientists believe that the cosmos has a beginning. Scientists speak about how the cosmos has come to be, with theo­ries like the Big Bang. It means before that, there was no cosmos; there was no universe. The Big Bang, and then later on, the Big Crunch. [laughter]

We need the practice of mindfulness and concentration to get the insight that liberates us from these notions. The notion of birth and death. The notion of being and non-being.

A well-known theologian named Paul Tillich described God as “the ground of being.” But if God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of non-being? You cannot conceive of God in terms of being and non-being. God, the ultimate, must transcend both notions. So to describe God in terms of being is to reduce God to something much less than God.

Many of us try to have life and to eliminate death. But how is life possible without death? Death is the very foundation of life. Life is the foundation of death. They always go together. Do not believe that death is something that waits for us down the road. No. Because life is here, death is also here at the same time. You cannot say that now is birth, now is life, and death is for later. That is not right thinking.

Science can help us understand this. We know that at every moment, many cells in our body die, right? And every day new cells are born. So many cells are dying in one second and we are too busy to organize funerals for them. [laughter] Birth and death happen in the here and the now, in every moment, in every mil­lisecond. Why are we afraid of death? We are experiencing death in every moment, because where there is life, there is death.

The same is true of happiness and suffering. Many of us think that happiness alone is enough; we don’t need suffering. But suf­fering is something that helps create happiness. If we look deeply into the suffering of the other person, we will come to understand the root of their suffering. Understanding suffering gives rise to compassion and love. Understanding and love are the foundation of happiness. If you do not have understanding and compassion, you are not a happy person. Compassion is born from understand­ing. If you understand your own suffering and if you understand his or her suffering, then love and compassion will be possible.

It is the mud that helps to produce the lotus. It is the suffering that helps produce the flower of happiness. Let us not discriminate against the suffering. Let us learn how to make good use of the suffering in order to create happiness. Let us learn how to make good use of the mud in order to produce lotus flowers.

If you believe that you are born at one point and you will die at another point, after which nothing remains, you are caught in the notion of life span. It is impossible for you to die. It is impos­sible for the cloud to pass into the realm of non-being. Right view transcends the notion of being and non-being, birth and death. That is why this insight can help produce right thinking, right speech, and right action. It has the power to heal and to nourish.

Many of us think that happiness is made of power, fame, sex, and wealth; but many people running after these objects suffer deeply. Those of us who practice mindfulness and concentration know that every moment can be a happy moment, because a mo­ment of happiness is a moment when you are truly in the here and the now, and you notice that so many wonders are in you and around you. You can be happy right here and right now.

That is the teaching of the Buddha. It is possible to be happy and joyful in the here and the now. Every in-breath, every step can help you touch the wonders of life. Recognize that you are luckier than so many people. And if you are happy, you have an opportunity to help other people.

Edited by Barbara Casey, Sister Annabel (True Virtue), Alan Armstrong, and Natascha Bruckner

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Together We Are One

Excerpted from Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery
September 10, 2011

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Question: Dear Thay and dear community, as a survivor of rape, how do I forgive my attackers?

Thich Nhat Hanh: The criminals, those who have made us suffer, also are victims. They were born and raised in an environment that was not loving enough to nurture them. And they had difficulties, but no one, including their parents, could help them. So they are victims of their environment. If we had been born and raised in that same environment, we may have become like them. That’s why, when we look deeply, understanding comes and compassion arises in our hearts. We can forgive.

Many people in Vietnam escaped the Communist regime by boat, and many of them died during the trip crossing the sea to Thailand or to the Philippines. Many of their deaths were caused by sea pirates.

The sea pirates were often born into families of poor fishermen in the coastal areas of Thailand or the Philippines. They heard that when the boat people fled their country, they may have had their family valuables, like gold or jewelry, with them. So if the sea pirates could rob them of their valuables, they could escape the poor, desperate situation they and their families had been stuck in for so long.

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Your grandfather was a poor fisherman. Your father also was a poor fisherman. And you are a poor fisherman, and you have no opportunity to get out of this situation. Your father and your grand­father couldn’t get good educations, so they had no opportunity to get jobs that would enable them to live easier lives. So if your mother did not know how to read and write, and your father was drunk every day, then it is very difficult for you to get an education and get out of this terrible cycle. It’s difficult for you to learn to have a loving heart. So when people tell you that if you go out one time and rob the refugees of their gold and their money, this will get you out of your desperate situation, you are tempted. In this way, the poor young fisherman becomes a sea pirate because of his ignorance, because of his background, because of his desperation.

I was in France when I heard stories about boat people. Many of us tried to go to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines to help. They encountered a lot of suffering.

Suppose you are on the refugee boat. Of course, you can protect yourself. You can shoot the sea pirate. Otherwise, the sea pirate will throw you into the ocean, rape your daughter, and take your valuables. Every time you hear that a boat person has been raped and killed by a sea pirate, you suffer, and you believe that if you had a gun and you were on a boat, you would be able to shoot that person. But if you shoot the sea pirate, he will die and you will not be able to help him. He’s a victim of his environment, and he did not have any education, any opportunity for a better life. So the sea pirate is also a victim.

If we meditate, we know that today there will be babies born on the coastline into these poor families. If educators, politicians, and others do not do anything to help these babies get better food and education, when they grow up they will become sea pirates. We can see that if we are born and raised in that way, we too may be­come sea pirates. That kind of meditation allows us to understand, to see that these criminals are also victims of their environment, and that allows the nectar of compassion to be born in our hearts, and we can forgive. Not only do we not want to kill them or punish them, but we are motivated by the desire to do something to help them. We can see that those who rape us are also victims. With that kind of understanding, we know that there are things we can do to help rapists and to prevent people from becoming rapists.

That is something parents, teachers, educators, and politicians have to meditate upon. We have to take the kind of action that will help change the situation and prevent these babies from becoming sea pirates and rapists.

Forgiveness is possible with understanding. You cannot for­give if you only have the desire, the intention to forgive. In order to truly forgive, you have to see the truth, to understand that that person is a victim. When you see that, compassion arises, and naturally you can forgive, and you feel lighter. And you don’t want to punish him anymore. You want him and his children to have a better environment in order not to continue like that, generation after generation.

So many of us in society are victims of violence, anger, fear, and discrimination. The only answer is compassion. Compassion arises from understanding. Understanding is the fruit of medita­tion, namely, the practice of looking deeply in order to understand why things become the way they are. When you respond with compassion, you suffer less, and you are able to help.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Letter from the Editor

Editor-NB

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

Last fall, some of our Facebook friends told us they’d like to read about forgiveness. They wanted to learn how to heal the past in the present. As submissions came in, I was inspired to look deeply at the theme in my own life. Every day gave me an opportunity to forgive myself or someone else!

I learned that sometimes, before I’m able to forgive, I need to move through a firestorm of grief or rage. When I hear of a child who has been abused or killed by an adult, I feel blinded by those strong negative emotions. When I’m righteously angry, it feels unnatural to forgive adults who harm children. Yet when I embrace the anger and uncover the need beneath it—such as the need for justice and kindness—I begin to move through the painful emotion and into inner peace. Within that peace, my heart feels wider and more willing to understand perpetrators of abuse. It’s necessary to honor the anger and sadness—like mud is necessary to grow a lotus. And for me, the lotus is an insight: forgiveness will only come when I love the hurting child within an adult who hurts children.

In this issue, Thay’s response to a rape survivor (“Together We Are One”) tells us that to truly understand is to forgive. He skillfully shows us how to grow our understanding and use it to stop the cycle of suffering. Sister Jewel frames her two visits to prisons with a lovely teaching on self-forgiveness that is not just for inmates. She calls out to the truly free person within each of us. Practitioners share about their rocky roads to the beautiful vista of forgiveness.

The time is ripe to heal the past in the present, to fully arrive in the now. The challenges in our world, the needs of our planet, are asking us to rededicate ourselves to awakening. Our mindfulness is needed now. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Plum Village—a time to celebrate, to reflect, to honor our wondrous transformations as individual “cells” and as a global Sangha body.

As we reflect on the path that led us to this moment, we can also turn our attention to a vision of how to continue beautifully. The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation Fund gives us a chance to support our practice centers and to invest in peace. Please read Elizabeth Hospodarsky’s article, “A Handful of Rice” (p. 38), detach the brochure from the center of this issue, and return it with your contribution. Your gift makes a tremendous difference in sustaining our teacher’s legacy.

May this collection of heartfelt offerings nurture your understanding and peace.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

A Ten Minute Lesson on Self-forgiveness in San Quentin

By Sister Jewel (Chau Nghiem)

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Now I see why Jesus told the disciples to visit the prisoner. The prisoner lives at the physical locations of human retaliation, at the place where life keeps dissolving into death-making. If we lose contact with this place in our culture, we abandon justice and forgiveness. Side by side, prisoner and free, we are in it together.
— Cynthia Winton-Henry, What the Body Wants

When Jun Hamomoto invited me to visit the Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin state prison, I immediately felt drawn to go. On a Sunday afternoon, Jun picked me up and we enjoyed the beautiful drive from Oakland to San Quentin with the sun sparkling on the bay. We arrived at San Quentin and I left in the car any articles that could be a hindrance to getting past the security checks. I brought only a book as a gift for the sitting group, and even then, carefully removed the CD from its back jacket as Jun said it would require special clearance.

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At the guard house by the main gate, we handed our IDs to the guard, a big, sturdy, Caucasian man, and signed in. We heard over the intercom that there had just been a stabbing in one area of the prison. Someone later explained it was a fight between Latinos and Caucasians. I asked the guard what the prisoners could use to stab each other.

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“Those guys can create a weapon out of just about anything. They take pieces of metal out of their bed and sharpen it to make a blade, filing it down with their plastic cutlery. They file down springs in the bed to make sharp projectiles. They even make spears by wrapping wet newspaper in a cone shape around a sharp metallic head. You wouldn’t believe how creative they are at finding ways to harm.”

I said how important it was to channel that creativity into more constructive areas. The guard looked dubious and replied, “It is probably too late for many of these prisoners, better to start with kids still in school. But that’s why people like you are here. To help them be more positive.”

We asked if we could take a few pictures in front of the sign outside the gate before we entered. The guard came around the gate with us and zoomed in and out, trying several angles to get the perfect shot, first with flash, then without. Then he had us move to the other side of the sign and went through the whole process again. I was touched by his generosity and care because he came across as pretty gruff at first. I guess prison guards have to do that.

Jun asked if we could still go in after the stabbing, and the guard nodded. We walked through the staff parking lot toward the main entrance. I admired the white stucco Spanish architecture of the prison, its outer walls decorated with rows of beautiful blue tiles. The watch tower loomed over the several-story structure.

We signed in and showed IDs a second time to a younger Caucasian guard who stamped neon numbers across our wrists and allowed us to pass through one gate. Then we showed our IDs to a third older Latino guard sitting behind a glass window, and he let us in through the final gate. We entered a beautiful, grassy courtyard. Men were sitting on the ground near a guard station. We signed in yet again and let a pretty African-American woman guard know we were heading toward the Buddhist sitting group.

Jun explained that all the men were sitting on the ground because of the recent stabbing. On an alert, inmates have to sit down wherever they happen to be. (This was also the reason many of the men couldn’t get to the sitting group that night.) The men sitting down were friendly and seemed relaxed, sharing in soft, mellow voices. The two closest to us were African-American, one older, another younger. We exchanged a smile and turned to enter what Jun told me was the Muslim prayer room, which the Buddhist sitting group was allowed to use every Sunday night.

We entered the spacious, rectangular room, in which about fifteen men in bright blue prison uniforms and five visitors sat in meditation. All were on green mats and cushions arranged in a rectangle on the floor. An elder Dharma Teacher from the San Francisco Zen Center, Seido Lee deBarros, sat in a chair at the front of the room. Jun led us to our places. I was slightly skittish when I realized I would be sitting right next to an inmate. Young and with a short buzz cut, he looked Asian or Latino. But my nervousness quickly passed. I was really glad to be there.

Dignity and Discipline

I closed my eyes and followed my breathing, allowing my body to settle and feeling my excitement at being in this new and unfamiliar place. I quickly felt a real peace and presence in the room. Except for occasional far-off shouts and the low rumble of men conversing good-naturedly in the courtyard, it was quiet.

After about five minutes, one of the inmates stood and announced, as a guard entered the space, that there had been a recall because of the stabbing. All inmates had to return to their cells. We were a bit stunned. One of the visitors who sits regularly with the group said this had never happened before.

Several men came up to greet me. A forty-something African-American man thanked me for coming and shook my hand. He said he was sorry we couldn’t have our usual two-hour meeting and they were sad to miss hearing my Dharma talk. A tall, twenty- something Caucasian man also thanked me for coming and said they would have liked to share more with me. I shook hands with an elderly Caucasian man who started this sitting group over ten years ago, before anyone from the outside joined the group.

All of them had a clear, bright expression in their eyes. I was moved by their dignity and the discipline in the group. There was a kindness, friendliness, and openness that helped me feel immediately connected. It was also clear from the graceful way they accepted the unexpected interruption of our gathering that they had lots of practice with letting go.

I offered Thay’s book, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, to Seidosan as a gift for the whole group. One of the inmates thanked me for it and said they would enjoy reading it.

After leaving, in the warm 7:00 p.m. sun, the five visitors, Jun, and I informally introduced ourselves as we walked back through the two gates and signed out. I reflected in our small group how good it was that we were meditating and cultivating peace around the time of the stabbing. Our energy was helping to balance out the violence and anxiety in another part of the prison.

The Group of Hope

I shared with the other visitors that if we had been able to spend the evening together as planned, I was going to tell the men the story of the Group of Hope, a humanitarian group in Brandvlei, a maximum security prison near Cape Town, South Africa. Visiting them in 2008 was one of the most profound and memorable experiences of my two weeks in southern Africa.

The Group of Hope began in 2002 with the intention to raise awareness about HIV in prison, to help reduce discrimination toward prisoners with HIV. The men wanted to do something for prisoners dying with AIDS, and so they began a garden and grew vegetables for them, visited them in the prison hospital, and sent cards home for them.

The inmates’ care and desire to educate others about the realities of HIV soon led them to sponsor twenty-six HIV-positive orphans, who came to the prison to visit with the men once a month, bringing them lots of love and joy. The Group of Hope threw birthday parties for them, grew vegetables for them, and made them clothes (they raised enough money to buy several sewing machines for this purpose).

When a volunteer introduced them to the first HIV-positive orphan they were to adopt, Thabang, the men asked the prison administration for the clothing in which they had entered the prison. They cut up their own clothes and hand-sewed clothes to fit Thabang. Bonding with him and the other children, they got a taste of fatherhood, and their life in prison began to have much more meaning and purpose.

By 2008, their social work from behind bars had grown exponentially to include making clothes for disabled children and elders, sponsoring orphanages and street children, visiting the sick in the prison hospital and making cards for them, as well as organizing festival events in the prison to commemorate World AIDS Day and to promote awareness of violence against women and children. They even established a memorial outside the prison entrance to honor and house the urns of their program’s AIDS orphans who passed away. The group’s good energy had a powerful effect on other prisoners.

Although the word “prisoner” was printed in small letters all over their bright orange uniforms, I felt it should instead say “free person” because of their great compassion and love. When we are free from hatred and discrimination, we are free people. Many people living “outside” do not look as free to me as the men in the Group of Hope.(2)

I found it very inspiring to listen and share with the Group of Hope. Because of their harmony and kindness, my first visit to a prison was positive and pleasant. Theirs was also the most racially integrated group I encountered on my entire trip in South Africa. While the majority of inmates were black, a number were white and “colored,” an Afrikaans-speaking ethnic group in South Africa, descendants of early Dutch settlers and native Africans. San Quentin’s Buddhadharma Sangha had a similar racial diversity, which I very much appreciated.

I asked the San Quentin visitors to share this story with the men the following week, and they promised to do it. Before we left, one of the women offered us bags of cherry tomatoes still on the vine from her garden. My, were they sweet! We enjoyed their juiciness and vital smell of just-picked freshness. Seidosan said, “Just like the Dharma, sweet in the beginning, the middle, and the end.” We all smiled, enjoying that precious, quiet moment of cherry-tomato-togetherness. I decided to offer some to the guard and slipped back through the gate to hand him a bunch. He was surprised and smiled broadly in thanks—another sweet moment of connection. Back outside the gate, our group kept lingering, not really wanting to part company, perhaps also feeling pulled to be with the inmates. The sun was edging further and further toward the horizon. Finally we offered bows and last words of appreciation for the time together.

Jun and I returned to her car. We drove a few yards down the main street and parked by a small beach. We walked down the wooden steps to the beach and as Jun stood still, calf-deep in the water, I walked back and forth along the length of the small cove, enjoying the waves coming and going. We watched the first stars come out and the lights of the cars dancing over the bridge. It was a beautiful ending to our visit.

For the Whole World

Thay speaks about knowing the taste of the whole pot of soup just by tasting one teaspoon of it. Our very short visit to San Quentin was a spoonful of a delicious, nourishing pot of inmates- who-practice-deeply-and-really-have-a-Sangha soup! I feel lucky to have had even just five minutes together, and to touch their humanity and goodness through the briefest of smiles, handshakes, and words of greeting.

The San Quentin sitting group, like the Group of Hope in South Africa, is a powerful example of self-forgiveness. When we decide to engage in positive, meaningful, transformative action in the present, we are releasing the bonds of the past and affirming that our lives are worth living and living well, to the best of our ability. By taking action now to water what is good in us, we release the wrongdoing committed in the past, not handcuffing ourselves to memories, self-blame, and recrimination, and ensuring that we will do better at avoiding harmful actions in the future. Whenever we water the good seeds in us, the seeds of suffering in us grow weaker all by themselves. For inmates, simply showing up to meditate and practice together is a bold statement of self- appreciation, self-love, and self-care; they are showing up not just for themselves, but also for each other, as friends, brothers, fellow travelers on the path.

Whenever we choose to keep going despite our past wrongs, to connect and deal openly with whatever is in our reality now, with hope and kindness, that is a moment of self-forgiveness. Doing what we can to build connection rather than create distance, to honor ourselves and others rather than to criticize and blame, that is self-forgiveness. These wholesome actions are also ways of forgiving life for the fact that our past wasn’t what we wanted or needed. Every day, we can choose to show up for life just as it is, determined to bring the best of ourselves to it.

Although I was asked to offer the inmates a teaching that Sunday evening, it was really they who gave me the Dharma talk! I am so grateful for such memorable teachings, shining from each inmate simply because they showed up and were truly present. I am thankful for their practice of awakening, moment by moment. What they do in San Quentin is for themselves, but it is also for the whole world.

  1. San Quentin is one of the largest prisons in the S., housing over 5,000 inmates. It is California’s oldest state prison, with the only death row for male inmates in the state. It is also home to the well-respected Buddhist practitioner Jarvis Jay Masters, author of Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row and That Bird Has My Wings. Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin prison was founded in 1999 by Seido Lee deBarros and a few inmates. Outside members of the Sangha are affiliated with San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Community of Mindful Living, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. More information can be found at www.shoresofzen.com/sanquentinzen/
  2. Unfortunately, in 2010, the Group of Hope was shut down for security reasons, but the inmates are trying to start it up The group’s website, www.groupofhope.co.za, is out of date but still functioning, and it shows nice pictures of the men and the orphans they took care of.

Sister Jewel (Chau Nghiem) is from the U.S. and ordained as a nun in 1999. She is delighted by the ever-increasing avenues to practice and share mindfulness with children and young people, and to bring mindfulness to teachers and schools. She currently lives at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Waldbroel, Germany and is editor of Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Forgiveness Is the Path

By Ankit Rao

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“I don’t think this is working.”

My life was turned upside down by these few words. My girlfriend of five years, the person I had bought a house with not more than a year before, and the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, let me know that things weren’t exactly as I had presumed them to be. Not only had she decided to leave, but she had been seeing someone else without my knowledge.

All the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—would visit me in the years to come. I spent the next several months in what I call my “lost year.” I drank, sometimes six days out of seven. I spent as little time as possible in the house we had shared. There were times when I cried, times when I had so much anger and hate within me that I felt like I was going to explode.

What did I do? I threw myself into my work. My job entailed raising the general public’s awareness of environmental issues. I loved every second of it. I felt so much passion for helping to inspire people to take care of the world. I spent the weekends waiting for Sunday night to arrive so I could once again do what I cared about. I worked more than I ever had, with a lot of zest and a lot of denial. At work I was enthusiastic, full of life and vigor, but after work, as I neared home, I could not help feeling the expectation that what I had experienced was a dream and that I would finally wake up, that I would find my girlfriend waiting for me. That time never came. The house became like a living tomb, and the memories racked my mind every night. For four years, I could not escape them.

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You Cannot Help but Love 

I finally reached out for what I thought was my freedom by taking a post as an environmental education coordinator in Thailand. My job required me to spend weeks with children out in the rainforests, mangroves, mountains, and river systems of Thailand, and I found the work to be very inspiring. In my free time, I visited temples, swam, relaxed by getting massages, and felt a world away from where I had once been.

One day, however, I felt more than a little challenged. A coworker who I was managing on a trip spent the whole five days angrily disputing every decision I made. It’s not that I was not open to hearing constructive criticism, but I felt she could have found ways to communicate her ideas that did not disrupt the whole group. For the first time in a while, I felt anger rise up inside me.

I needed some peace, and as I inwardly asked for it, the whole universe seemed to assist me by offering me a book from the work library, the first book I laid my eyes on: Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh. Little did I know that my life would change the moment I picked up that book.

The section entitled “Understanding” explains that if someone has shouted, acted badly, or cursed you, you should look for the reasons why he has acted in this way as opposed to getting angry yourself. Once you have done this, you will start to understand the reasons for the person’s behavior. It may be due to his relationship with his parents or friends, or some disruptive event that happened in his life. The underlying message is that once you understand, you cannot help but show love.

So I tried to find out more about my colleague and what she was going through, and gradually I began to understand why she would shout at people when she did not get her way. Instead of having negative feelings toward her, I forgave her and started to show her love, even when she continued to shout. An amazing thing happened: the ice that had developed between us started to melt and the shouting stopped. It was a wonderful way to end my time in Thailand. I also realized that I had not thought about my ex-girlfriend for a whole year. I had moved on.

True Emancipation 

I left my job and traveled for fifteen months through India, Nepal, and Canada, going on many treks, volunteering on organic farms, and teaching. For a time I helped teach English to Tibetan students. These people had been denied their independence and forced out of their country, but I witnessed no anger or recrimination in them. I had seen the same attitude in people in Burma earlier that year, and I felt humbled. I wanted to know how people could endure great wrongs without being consumed by anger and blaming. It was during an Introduction to Buddhism course in Dharamsala, India, that I found the answer.

During a meditation session at the course, my thoughts came back to my ex-girlfriend. I looked back to my experience in Thailand and remembered Thich Nhat Hanh’s wise advice to try to understand the reasons why someone has treated you badly. For the first time in a year, I actually started to think about the process and the reasons that led her to do what she did. As much as I thought that she did not conduct herself well, I started to look at what I may have done that could have influenced her to make these choices. For the first time, I started to see what I had done: taking her for granted, complaining, not listening, arguing, and getting angry when she would not act as I expected her to. I was shocked and saddened. I realized for the first time that we were both to blame.

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I started to understand, and as I understood, I accepted, and then something happened that was bigger than anything I had ever experienced in my life: I forgave her for everything she had done and how she had done it. I felt at peace with her for her actions and sent her a ream of love. I released a deep sigh of relief. Yet for the remainder of the meditation session, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and guilt for how I had acted and what I had done. I knew that if I was to truly emancipate myself from the past, I had to do one more thing: I had to forgive myself.

I forgave myself for all that I had done, for the mistakes that I had made, and for how I had made her feel. I made a promise to be more mindful of my actions and their effects in the future. Intense emotion filled my body, and I cried like a baby. In front of fifty other meditators, I cried as if none of them were present. And in this moment of forgiveness and surrender, my pain started to release. Forgiveness, like a pair of scissors, cut the cords that had bound me for so long.

As I left the meditation course several days later, the light seemed to shine on me from on high. However, looking into the sky I could not see the sun, nor blue skies, nor white wispy clouds. The light was from within. I forgave and I was free.

My fifteen-month journey ended with a retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. I felt as if I had come full circle. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings had helped me many months before in Thai- land and India, and set me upon this course of self-discovery and forgiveness. Now here I was, immersing myself in his teachings. It was wonderful not only to hear Thay speak and to participate in group walking meditation, but also to hear others relate their life experiences and the ways Thay’s teachings had helped them. The message of forgiveness came up many times during conversations, and it was beautiful to hear others talk about having been healed by the same advice: whenever there is a potential argument or confrontation, stop, take a few deep breaths, listen, understand, accept, and show love.

Forgiveness is not a one-stop final destination. We must continue to practice it on our daily journey. If we are to have peace in every step, then forgiveness is the path on which we tread.

mb63-Forgiveness4Ankit Rao works to inspire people to care more for the planet’s resources, explore their relationship with nature, and see a positive change in their own personal development and wider community as they immerse themselves in the earth’s natural environment.

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There Is a Purpose

By Melissa Addison-Webster

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“The love of the Buddha is possible.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Youth Retreat at Plum Village, 2010

Even before my spinal cord injury, I had a history of driving irresponsibly. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, I put my parents’ car in the ditch twice and had my license suspended for twenty-four hours for driving under the influence of alcohol. I was young and arrogant and thought I was invincible.

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On June 9, 2000, my friend Lorena and I drove to a nearby town to buy groceries. We went out for lunch and drank some beer. Back at Lorena’s place, we smoked pot, and I invited her to my place for dinner. Before heading home, I drove to the liquor store and bought Old Milwaukee, just like my dad always drank. It was a rainy spring day. I turned onto a back road. The rear wheels of my truck skidded on the loose gravel, but I drove on. Then my mind went blank, and I have no memory of what happened next.

When I regained consciousness, I was in an emergency room. The first thing I asked was if my boyfriend Sam was there. He was. Then I asked the doctor, “What is my diagnosis?” He stated frankly, “You’ve broken your neck and you’ll never walk again.” I wept uncontrollably. Sam stood over me, unable to even hold my hand because of my critical condition.

My friend Lorena had saved my life. She was driving ahead of me, and when she noticed that I was no longer following her, she turned around to find out what had happened. She found my truck in the ditch, slammed up against a driveway, and me trapped inside with my leg caught in the steering wheel. I had smashed the driver’s side window with my head and pushed out the frame with my neck. I yelled, “I’m going to go, I’m going to die!” I felt I was about to leave my body and I was terrified. Lorena physically held my energy in my body and reassured me I would survive. The fire department arrived and extricated me from the truck, and I was airlifted to a hospital in Edmonton. I was twenty-two years old.

Learning to Survive

I had sustained a major burst fracture at the seventh cervical vertebra (C7), and the medical team decided the C7 needed to be fused to the neighboring vertebra to stabilize it. The only neurosurgeon qualified to perform the surgery was away at a conference, so I had to wait twelve days before undergoing surgery. I felt trapped in a horrible dream that wouldn’t end. What had I done to myself? Why had I not learned my lesson about impaired driving? How was I going to survive?

A wonderful nurse named Irena helped me get through those weeks in the hospital. She was a Buddhist, and she kept telling me, “Change is constant.” I had been intrigued by Buddhism since learning about it in my eleventh grade religion class, so I gladly accepted her prayer beads and wisdom. She also wrote out the mantra “Om mani padme hum” for me. She told me that by chanting this mantra, I was invoking the name of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Irena was the first of many people whose gifts helped me begin to wade through my suffering.

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After close to a month in acute care, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where I spent four months learning how to feed and dress myself, how to catheterize myself, and how to slide my body from my wheelchair to my bed and back again. My mental outlook on life was extremely bleak, and I started taking antidepressants to get through the darkness.

One day I was sitting alone in the physiotherapy room asking myself, “What is all this about? How can I be experiencing so much loss?” I heard a gentle, quiet voice telling me, “There is a purpose. There is a purpose.” I didn’t mention this experience to anyone because I was already having enough problems coping with reality.

My relationship with Sam was getting worse, so I made the difficult decision to leave him. I felt so much shame and self-blame for how everything had turned out. I told people I was leaving to go to university in Ontario, and I moved in with my parents.

Healing Trauma

Going to university was good for my mind, and it spurred me to become an activist. I began protesting for proper accessible parking signage at the university. The protests made the local papers, and soon after that, the university put up some signs. I was so happy! I began to see how nonviolent forms of direct action could create social change. At the same time I began organizing with antipoverty groups in the city.

As I worked for external social change, I also began exploring internal personal transformation. I started sessions with an energy worker named Lilli Swanson, who practices Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, which helps to heal past trauma, and she encouraged me to join her meditation group. Although my mind raced constantly in the beginning, I began to notice and wonder about the peace I felt within my body. Every morning when I woke up, I lit a candle and sat for fifteen minutes, and slowly I began to learn how to calm my mind.

In 2006 I entered a graduate program in Disability Studies in Toronto. On October 11, I was rushing to a talk by Stephen Lewis, a Canadian diplomat and social justice activist. I quickly changed lanes on a one-way street, and another driver crashed into the front of my van. The driver’s side window was smashed, I was covered in glass, and it was raining. Fortunately I was near Lilli’s house, and she came to help me. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, went through medical tests, and relived much of the trauma of my earlier accident, except this time I had a talented healer to help me get through much of the suffering. I realized that I carried deep unresolved trauma from the first accident; in a strange way, the second accident created an opening to release some of that trauma.

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I tried to go back to graduate school but was feeling extremely anxious and unwell. Due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I was not able to sleep. Soon I was trapped in enormous fear and constant paranoia. At Christmas I decided to withdraw from the program, and I moved back in with my parents again. I needed to take time to heal and mourn my spinal cord injury.

A Purposeful Life

For some time, I had been longing to practice with Thich Nhat Hanh. I deeply revered his work as an activist and peacemaker. I had been given some of his books and had found them wise and accessible. In October 2007, I drove to a retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery and received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which have become my roadmap for living a more purposeful life.

On the drive home, my moods were up and down. One moment I was overjoyed to have practiced with a teacher who worked so diligently for social justice and peace. The next minute I swung back to my old thinking patterns. I felt I could not love myself after I had received and ignored so many warnings about drinking and driving. Because of my recklessness, I had lost the use of 85% of my body. I hated myself.

I began practicing with True Peace Sangha in Toronto in 2009. The Sangha has supported my healing by being a place of refuge. I have been able to cultivate a stronger foundation of mindfulness by meditating with other people, and this has allowed me to handle my difficult emotions with more compassion. Whatever emotion I share, whether joy or sorrow or even despair, I always feel loved and held by the Sangha. With the help of a fellow Sangha member, I went to Plum Village for three weeks in 2010. This pilgrimage was a wondrous gift, and I returned to Canada with much less fear in my body and more joy in my heart.

I am learning forgiveness because I can feel it radiating from the hearts of Thay and the monastics. Thay says we cannot just have a willingness to forgive. We have to begin to see and understand the suffering within ourselves and other people. Only then is true forgiveness obtainable.

To nurture self-forgiveness, I have found guidance from Avalokiteshvara. Chanting to her and asking her to come into my heart, I have been able to cultivate more self-compassion. Through mindfulness I have learned to witness my inner narrative. For a long time, my very first thought every morning was that I had destroyed my life and didn’t deserve love. Through my meditation practice I have learned to calm these thoughts and work through my self-hatred. Meditation has increased my ability to be present. Cultivating happiness by dancing and going to the dog park is part of my practice. Making art and journaling also relieves a great amount of pain. Living according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and practicing Touching the Earth nurture my self-forgiveness, as well.

I deeply understand that suffering is purposeful. I had to give up the ability to walk to finally be able to look at my attachments, begin to find true love, and work toward the path of liberation. Even if I could change what happened to me, I wouldn’t, because I carried enormous sorrow within me and was unfulfilled in my existence. My injury has been a wonderful catalyst. Through my transition I have learned to be tremendously thankful for what I had previously taken for granted: mobility, living in a peaceful country, just being alive.

Walking Melissa, as well as inner child Melissa, is still within me, with her wholesome seeds of love, compassion, and joy. I am slowly learning that self-love comes through forgiveness and that I am worthy of love.

The biggest gift I give to myself is to deeply embrace and make friends with my grief. Although it may feel as though I have a vast ocean of sorrow to paddle across, I know mindfulness will keep me afloat and eventually carry me across to the shore.

mb63-ThereIs5Melissa Addison-Webster, Boundless Light of the Heart, practices with the True Peace Sangha in Toronto, and is a social worker, activist, and performance artist. Presently, she is completing her studies to become a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist, and enjoys spending time with her cat, Nina, and gardening.

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Traveling in Thailand

The retreat is over, traveling again.

At a guest house in Nong Khai
I start to talk about my travels with this guy from Georgia

When he finds out why I’m here
and between gulps of beer he almost shouts,
“so what’s it like to be Buddhist?”

No chance to answer before more beer arrives at the table
and the conversation changes to women
young Thai women

These older foreign men are on a quest
one laments the loss of his young girlfriend
one says to another
“did you find a woman yet?”

I can’t hear his angry answer

The Georgia man, with sadness in his voice,
recounts his three weeks in a Cambodian jail
arrested for begging at a tourist beach
The conversation gets louder: women, sex,
lack of money, where to go next
beer flows, cigarettes flare

I slip away to a quiet spot by the river
away from that table of angry men
reclaiming my island of mindfulness I smile

Stopping, no more talking

Through the bamboo leaning over the water
I see a brilliant blue sky
and with great clarity
I see that our practice is where we are
with what is, with understanding

This is it and I am one with these men
Their suffering is my suffering

And with immense gratitude for the practice
I walk slowly along the trail
my compassion flowing like the massive Mekong a few feet away

— David Percival, True Wonderful Roots
Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Making Friends Out of Bullies

By David Viafora

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My co-facilitator Joanna and I sat down under an arching oak tree, watching the sunset glowing on the chaparral hillside at Deer Park Monastery. It was our last meeting before the Compassionate Cougars, our children’s group, would arrive for a family retreat. There were still activities to plan, schedules to clarify, and roles to discuss, but we just enjoyed sitting silently, feeling the coastal breeze, and breathing with the mountain, allowing it to calm our spirits. Taking care of ourselves would be our most precious offering to the young ones coming up the mountain. We were healing the child inside each of us before they arrived, returning to the fresh air in our breaths, embraced by our father oak tree and nurtured by our mother mountain.

For five days before the retreat began, the children’s program staff spent time nourishing the child within, confident that this would be the best way to prepare for the arrival of more than 100 children and teens. We played games and shared our favorite animals, colors, and happiest childhood memories. We paired up and asked each other questions about our childhoods: Did you have braces? What was your favorite recess activity? What was a funny memory? Within a short time, this group of adults was giggling like third graders. The playfulness of childhood was returning to us.

Several days before the staff arrived, I journaled about my happy childhood memories. I felt surprised by the vast reserve of joyful memories that was available, and how my reflections brought joy, vitality, and gratitude to life within me. Yet I knew that if I wanted to connect deeply with my childhood, I couldn’t just hover over one end of the spectrum of experiences. To relate authentically with young people, I needed to embrace multiple dimensions of my own childhood, including the painful sides.

Don’t Throw Away Your Suffering 

For me, developing the courage to embrace difficulty and pain has been a gift from Thay and from the Buddha. The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing explains that one can first establish awareness of the breath and the body, and then allow feelings of joy and happiness to permeate one’s whole being. After this foundation of peace and joy is established, it is much easier to accept and embrace difficult feelings. Thay shares that when we allow painful feelings to rise up from the basement of our store consciousness to the living room of our mind consciousness, the feelings can be recognized and healed. It is healthy to allow them to circulate in our consciousness and to be tenderly embraced by our loving attention. Thanks to these teachings, I’ve found that mindfully journaling about both joyful and difficult experiences can bear fruit. One memory stood out very clearly as I allowed my mind to survey the later childhood years. While I recognized my fear and hesitation to reflect on it, I could hear Thay’s soft voice inside of me, saying, “Don’t throw away your suffering; take good care of it. Your happiness and compassion depend on it.”

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As a third, fourth, and fifth grader, I was often teased by students who were older, physically stronger, and socially influential. When I was in sixth grade, however, I had greater social standing and was also quite physically strong. Once, I was on the playground near groups of boys and girls in my class. Another boy was playing by himself near a tree. I thought that it would impress the other boys and girls if I showed I was tougher than he was, so I started making fun of him. I could intimidate him because he was less physically strong and had less social standing than I did. My intention was not to hurt the boy, but I thought picking on him would make me look cool in front of the others. He seemed to be ignoring me, but it’s difficult to know how much that experience affected him.

Even though it happened so long ago, I found it difficult to accept what I had done. I questioned, “Where was my heart at that time? How could I have treated him so insensitively and without care for his feelings?” These became koans that I worked with during the family retreat. The memory was difficult to embrace. However I also felt some goodness in the reflection, knowing that I was beginning to accept sides of myself that I did not want to acknowledge before.

Our staff had an opportunity to share about our childhood experiences. When it was my turn, I shared my happiest childhood memories, and then let down my guard and shared the difficult memory. I recognized feelings of shame and sadness arising. I felt the deep listening and acceptance of my monastic elder brother and the group. Yet toward the end of my sharing, I looked at the others, and they were all looking downward. I thought, “Oh no, I’ve shared too much suffering, and perhaps too early for this group of fairly new staff. I’m supposed to be coordinating the Children’s Program this year, and now they may be questioning my integrity and capacity as a leader.” I had confidence in the Sangha’s deep support for me, but questioned if it had been the right time to share this childhood suffering.

I tried to keep an open mind, so I could learn from whatever the experience had to teach me. The next morning, I did a love meditation for myself and touched the earth, allowing the karma of my past and my ancestors to be released. Touching the earth helped me to understand how I inherited both beautiful and wholesome ways of being, as well as unwholesome and harmful ways from my ancestors—especially my land ancestors—when I was young. Since then, I have been working to transform them.

I reflected on the causes and conditions that allowed the painful interaction to happen. It was not an isolated incident, but rather a pattern of behaviors that took many forms. I was a victim of much bullying and teasing during the third, fourth, and fifth grades. I felt inferior to others as they treated me unkindly to raise their own feelings of power and superiority. The school culture had a strong effect on me. I received a transmission of unkindness and domination, which I then transmitted to children who were less socially and physically strong than me. Being bullied and bullying others appeared as two sides of the same coin. Understanding myself as a victim, it became easier to understand and forgive myself for what I had done. Understanding myself as a bully, it was easier to forgive and understand those who treated me this way.

Two Ways of Being Popular 

During the family retreat, I read the children a story called “How to Make Friends” by Robert Aitken, a pioneering American Zen master. Mr. Aitken shared about a time when he was a nerdy, scrawny young kid with glasses. One day at school, he tried to say something to a group of boys he admired. The head boy teased the young Robert while the other boys laughed. At the time, Robert hated those boys. Later, he understood that the boy probably acted that way to feel important in front of others. Mr. Aitken explained that there are two ways of being popular: the fake way and the true way. The fake way is when you make others afraid of you by talking about them and being rude to them. A truly popular person, however, tries to be decent and kind to everyone. He becomes popular because everyone feels safe to be themselves around him. Mr. Aitken wrote that if one person can be truly popular and decent to everyone, the entire school can change, because treating others in this way can be contagious.

After the young Cougars heard the story, silence pervaded, even among the loud and rowdy kids. They were touched because the story resonated with the stories of their own lives. One by one, the children started sharing personal experiences of being around fake popular kids, and how it felt to be teased. One boy shared that he often hung out with the fake popular kids because he felt safer. He said they wouldn’t hassle him when he was on their side. He admitted that it was sad to see other kids treated unkindly. A very kind and mature girl disclosed that she often hung out with fake popular kids and felt a sense of power. She did not feel as afraid when she was with them. In the past, she had been called a nerd for being smart, and although she shrugged it off, it was still difficult to be treated that way. Others shared that being teased or hassled was a part of everyday life at school for them.

As the children shared, a strong bond of sympathy and understanding naturally arose in the group. They seemed to understand each others’ suffering, despite being at different schools. This manifested strongly during one boy’s sharing. The boy was very talented in playing with a yo-yo. He recounted a time when he was yo-yo-ing at school, and some kids walked by and called him a freak. It was a visibly painful experience for him. The other Cougars were silent after he shared, and I could feel them listening deeply and sympathizing. After the silence, kids began to offer their support: “Oh, no way! I’m sure they’re just jealous of you. It’s because you are so awesome!”

This boy had a chance to share his yo-yo skills with our group, and he received a lot of positive affirmations; the other kids and facilitators were really impressed! Later in the retreat, many of the kids encouraged him to present his yo-yo skills during the performance night. They enthusiastically offered their support: “Yeah, we got your back. We’ll cheer you on and say, ‘Yep, he’s in my family.’” They told him, “We’d be proud of you.” His past suffering was visibly transformed in the present, as he felt the love of his friends and community.

Loving the Victim and the Bully 

A few of the children had been coming to Deer Park regularly for several years. I asked them to share about how they dealt with teasing and bullying. One boy shared that in the past, kids would try to tease him, and although he didn’t like it, he just ignored them. Once, he simply told them, “Can you please stop it?” He continued to ignore them and they stopped trying to pick on him. Another girl shared that a few years before, she had recognized that there were true friends and fake friends in her social group. When one person was gone, others would say unkind things about that person. She was afraid of how they would talk about her. She stopped contributing to the behavior, and then others stopped as well. She moved on and developed different friendships that she could count on.

Despite our past failed attempts to hold discussions with the Cougars for more than fifteen minutes, this discussion lasted over an hour and fifteen minutes. They spoke with the sincerity and wisdom of adults, because the topic was so real to their lives. The concentration in the group was solid. I listened, enthralled by the authenticity and depth of their sharing. They had a very safe and open space to share. I could understand the children who shared their buried feelings of frustration and pain as victims of bullying. And I could also listen with empathy to those who were initiating such unkindness toward their peers. I had been the victim and I had been the bully, and I lovingly accepted each of those sides of myself. So now I could really be one with each of the children.

The children produced a collective insight that kids who were bullying and popular in the fake way were suffering themselves. I shared with the children that bullies hurt others because they may have been hurt in the past, and they learned to do that to others; they hadn’t had an opportunity to grow enough love in their hearts. I shared with the children, yet I was also sharing with the eleven-year-old within me. I was answering my koan: “How could I have acted in an unkind way toward that poor boy? Where was my heart at that time?” Listening to the children’s deep sharing allowed the child inside of me to heal again. Now, from time to time, I send a prayer of lovingkindness to the boy on the playground. I don’t know if he will receive it, yet I trust that we will meet again, perhaps in different forms. And I feel his smile for that, because now we can be friends again.

After the retreat, I checked in with a few of my fellow staff brothers and sisters. “May I ask for your feedback about what I shared that evening about my childhood? Do you think that I was sharing too much raw suffering for the group at that time?” They looked at me, surprised, and said that it felt like the right thing for me to share. One very sweet sister said, “David, I thought it was very courageous of you to share that part of your childhood. I was only looking down because I was remembering my own bullying behavior as a kid. Boy, I was really a bully back then.” I was so surprised. We both laughed and smiled at our eleven-year- old selves.

mb63-MakingFriends3David Viafora, True Mountain of Meditation, is currently living at Deer Park Monastery. He has the most fun practicing with the Dharma Bum Kids Sangha and the World Beat Kids Sangha in San Diego, as well as the children’s and teens’ programs at Deer Park.

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Healing the Past in the Present

By David Ostwald 

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Sitting awkwardly at my first Sangha meeting in 1998, I was feeling both ill at ease and curious. But by the time we’d finished reading the Five Mindfulness Trainings, those feelings had been transformed to excitement and certainty: I had found my path. One phrase in particular grabbed my attention: “I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.” It was an intention I was ready to embrace. (This sentence from the fourth training was not continued in the 2009 revision.)

Over the next months, I phoned some people with whom I had conflicts in order to reopen our fractured dialogues; to others I wrote letters of apology and appreciation. I gave a substantial sum of money to an old girlfriend, who in our years together had carried the majority of the financial burden. I thought I was making good progress until a more experienced practitioner quietly suggested that I might also want to apply the phrase to my internal conflicts. A crevasse opened at my feet; I had only addressed the tip of the iceberg.

Old Knots Loosening 

In spite of growing up in pleasantly cushioned middle class surroundings with well-intentioned parents, I received my share of wounds. And, like most of us, I developed compensatory behaviors in response. In my case, one of the most potent was taking on the role of the “good boy.” It was remarkably effective at the time, but now, more than sixty years later, it’s become a useless burden. Unfortunately, since my parents have been dead for many years, I only have the mom and dad I have internalized with whom to work out a more healthy and realistic position.

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One practice I tried, as a way to shed some useless behaviors, was to close my (almost) daily meditations by offering gratitude to my parents. Sometimes I focused on one parent, sometimes on both; sometimes for something specific—their wonderful curiosity, their trust; other times for something more general—their efforts to be good parents, or just for being who they were. Gradually, over the course of several months, I experienced small heart openings and old knots loosening: appreciation replacing hostility, flashes of anger replaced by understanding.

It was when I wanted to go deeper that I began to appreciate the power of Thay’s insight that we can heal the past in the present. As he points out, not only are all our blood ancestors alive in our very DNA, but so are all our life experiences—including the unresolved conflicts of those who raised us.

As my suffering was lessened by practicing compassionate meditation, I realized that I needed to be in touch with the suffering of the child that I still carried with me. Secure in this understanding, I began focusing on reconciling my conflicts with my mother. Several meditations in Blooming of a Lotus proved helpful, particularly those that encouraged us to look at ourselves and our parents as five-year-olds. Experimenting with the wording of these meditations—for example, choosing different ages for my mother—brought further gains. (I would imagine that for those of us who have stepparents or are adopted, there are probably other fruitful variations.)

Embracing my Inner Child 

Another helpful version was offered by Dharma teacher Lyn Fine. She suggested I begin with myself as a one-year-old and then, inhalation by inhalation, work up toward the present: “Breathing in, I am aware of my suffering as a one-year-old; breathing out, I embrace my one-year-old in arms of compassion.” “Breathing in, I am aware of my suffering as a two-year-old,” etc. I have found that some years arouse little or no effect, whereas for others, strong feelings well up. When I experience a “hot spot,” I try to look deeply at the emotions. How many causes and conditions can I discern?

Once, I found myself riveted in fascination when I inhaled “one,” and remembered lying tiny and helpless on an icy rubber sheet. The image was accompanied by feelings of loneliness and profound abandonment. I’m sure my practical scientist mother just laid me down in my bassinet for a moment as she prepared to tenderly bathe me. But wouldn’t someone less self-involved have extended her empathy to understand how vulnerable being left naked on that cold sheet might feel? At the same time, I began to wonder about my own needs. I know my mother was nursing me at that age; why do I not recall the loving warmth of that experience? Is there something in me which cries out, “More…give me more, ever more love?”

Another time, I successfully got by “one” only to stumble into a memory pit at “two,” the year my brother was born. Cradling my feelings, I was able to experience my self-centered, decades-old interpretation that his birth was an act of hostility by my parents. I chuckled. It was a rueful laugh, but I felt freer nonetheless.

Embracing my Mother 

Another technique I tried was writing my mom several long and painful love/hate letters. I could only send them by “internal mail,” but it was helpful nonetheless. Ultimately, it was making her hurtful behaviors the object of my meditations that provided real breakthroughs—although not right away. Significant change began only when I acknowledged that she, too, was scarred by suffering; that her suffering was mine, and mine was hers.

Many of my childhood hurts arose out of my mother’s inability to maintain her loving attention for more than twenty minutes. Hundreds of times, I reveled in her warm, loving support only to find myself abruptly “abandoned.” Naturally, like most children, I assumed I was doing something wrong. However, once I was able to embrace her with compassion, I recognized how damaged she was by painful events in her early life, which, of course, had nothing to do with me. How she must have suffered at age nine, when her mother left to be with her lover! No wonder she was fearful of being close to anyone for too long; she might be abandoned again—maybe even by me!

I rejoice in the healing and reconciliation that I am finding through my practice. At the same time, I often feel disappointed; growth seems to come so slowly. I have to remind myself that for every Buddhist story about moments of sudden enlightenment, there are at least as many about dedicated practitioners who sit, search, and question for the better part of their lives. Indeed, even after his enlightenment, Buddha practiced every day!

mb63-Healing3David Ostwald, True Path of Equanimity, has been practicing in Thay’s tradition since 1998. With his wife, Birgitte Moyer-Vinding, he facilitates the Flowing Waters Sangha in Portola Valley, California. David strives to extend mindfulness practice into his work as an opera stage director and as an educator teaching acting to singers.

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Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Pardoning an Imperfect Church 

By Brother Phap Kinh 

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Three times a day, around mealtimes, the brothers living in Upper Hamlet and Son Ha Temple of Plum Village can hear bells chiming from nearby churches. Whereas these bells used to call Christian practitioners to prayer, nowadays they mainly serve as simple reminders of the time of day. The bells are not rung by a human hand. Without enough priests in France to go around to every church, many are not open to the public.

In September 2011, eight Buddhist monks and thirteen nuns from Plum Village went for a “pilgrimage” to Abbeye Saint-Pierre, a living Benedictine monastery that is home to some fifty monks, in Solesmes, France. Our stay was part of a fraternal exchange between the two monasteries. Every two years, two monks from Solesmes come to Plum Village for a short retreat, and two years later, members from our monastic community return the visit.

Elder Plum Village monastics such as Sister Jina initiated this interfaith dialogue with our Christian counterparts, opening many doors within the Solesmes monastery and to the hearts of its monks. For those of us from the Western world, this pilgrimage is the realization of our teacher’s will for us to return to our source, water our ancestral roots, and honor a common monastic tradition going back over two thousand years. For our Vietnamese brothers and sisters, it was a chance to learn about European monastic culture. It was also the first time most of us from the West had stepped foot in a Christian monastery.

Some of us with Christian backgrounds were motivated by a desire to reconcile with our past and with the Catholic Church. Although monastics are free, and even encouraged, to embrace our original spiritual ancestors, it is not always easy to feel connected. Some of us suffered in our religions of origin.

A Living Church 

My father’s family was Polish Catholic and my mother was Orthodox, from Montenegro. I was born in a Catholic hospital in Juneau, Alaska, and attended a Catholic grade school and later a Jesuit all-boys high school. Many Polish Catholic families dream of having a priest or nun as one of their family members, and my Polish grandmother prayed I would become a priest.

Over the years, I have had many misgivings about the church and Christianity. I had never forgiven the Catholic Church for requiring my mother to abandon her family’s religion in order to marry my father. As a result, a tradition was lost to us. Since becoming a Buddhist monk, I have felt relatively at peace with my past, though my stay at Solesmes was a test to see if I had more wounds to heal and bridges to mend.

The first impression that many of us had upon entering the Abbey church, the heart of the Saint-Pierre monastery, was its vitality. The church felt alive, by virtue of the many monks praying and singing in it seven times a day. The well-being of the monastery was reflected in its gardens, buildings, and cloistered walks. I realized that this was my first time experiencing a truly living Catholic church.

The feeling of familiarity and brotherhood was strong and heartfelt from the moment we arrived. When the bells were rung during our stay, we saw the monk who was pulling the cord. And rather than simply reminding the locals that it was time for lunch, the bells corresponded to the chants and prayers inside the church, sung and spoken by a community of brothers who had dedicated their lives to beauty and worship.

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This insight brought me to a deeper understanding of the suffering of the Catholic Church that I had known all of my life. The hospital and school in Juneau, run by missionary sisters, were closed during my childhood, as has been the case for countless churches throughout Europe and the Americas in recent decades. But even before they had closed, the nuns had difficulty fulfilling their mission as their numbers dwindled. And if enrollment was still high in the Jesuit high school I attended, there was a sense that the priests were losing their grip on the situation, as the times, they were a-changin’. Sometimes the Church tried to hold on by asserting authority, but to increasingly deaf ears. Looking back, I see that we were living in the shell of a church past its prime. Individual members certainly tried their best, but the church as a whole lacked life and joy.

My experience in Plum Village is quite the opposite. If we lack the resources of the Catholic Church, we are nevertheless expanding and full of vitality. Our community seemed very young to the Benedictine brothers of Solesmes, and they were amazed by our numbers and the centers we have opened worldwide. Our relatively short existence—Plum Village celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, whereas Solesmes celebrated its 1000th year in 2010—makes everything we do modest in scale and scope. For example, it is hard to imagine Plum Village monastics running a hospital or a school. But our community is marked by a sense of being at the beginning, rather than at the end, of something major, something with the potential to flourish and last for centuries. Whatever forms the future may take, we know that we are the first generation of a Buddhism newly planted in the West.

Observing the life of our Benedictine brothers, the longevity of their vocation, and the depth and beauty of their practice, I was overcome with compassion for those within it who know that the Church has seen more glorious days. And yet the brothers continue to garden, build furniture, and publish books. Although their numbers are waning, they seem content to have four novices in their fold. They know that throughout history, conditions have come and gone, and that monastic life in Europe has alternately thrived and suffered throughout periods of revolution, war, and famine, but also of stability, peace, and feast. These dedicated brothers have chosen to offer their life to humanity, singing and praying for its well-being.

Rooted in Gratitude 

Looking with compassion, I no longer feel a need to fault the Church for what I may once have perceived as its arrogance, dogmatism, narrowness, discrimination, or exclusivity. I am thankful for the excellent education I received from nuns who were far from home and doing their best with very limited means. If some priests were unable to answer satisfactorily my spiritual queries, others took good care of my family in times of need. They made mistakes, but so have, and so will, we. Our teacher does not ask us to be perfect; he only asks us to try our best. And at the very heart of Jesus’ many wonderful teachings is to love and forgive both others and ourselves, unconditionally, and in spite of all our so-called trespasses.

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The practice of Beginning Anew allows us to praise others’ strengths, convey gratitude, and express our regrets and suffering. It was in a spirit of beginning anew and reconciliation that during a visit last summer to the town of my birth—my first as a monk—I visited my former grade school and parish church. Alone in the church, I touched the earth in gratitude to my teachers and spiritual ancestors from that branch of the great tree. I also attended a mass in the Catholic cathedral followed by a chanted vespers service in the Orthodox church just across the street. In so doing, I honored my ancestors on both sides of my family tree.

If my visit to Solesmes served to reaffirm my engagement to my current monastic life in Plum Village, it also filled me with admiration and love for the beautiful path of our monastic brothers and sisters in Christian monasteries. We are because they are. And in the true spirit of equanimity as taught by our teacher, I sincerely hope that others will follow their path, which is parallel to and not in competition with the one I currently follow.

Before inviting the great bell in Upper Hamlet, I thank my spiritual ancestors, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Buddhist alike, for sending me to Plum Village. I feel very fortunate to have these three roots. Thay teaches us that a tree with multiple roots is stronger than one with a single root. In this lifetime, I became a Buddhist monk rather than a Christian priest. I believe my grandparents in me are all pleased with my choice because I am here for our collective happiness and well-being. I dedicate my monastic life to my ancestors, as well as to all my friends and loved ones, and to the entire international mahasangha.

When I invite the great bell, I express the wish that all people, animals, vegetables, and minerals will be happy and free of suffering. And when I listen to the chimes from nearby Christian churches, I now think with maitri and gratitude of my brothers in Solesmes going off to chant, and I take them as melodious bells of mindfulness. May every minute and every second of our days and nights be well. 

mb63-Forgive4Phap Kinh/Dharma Meridian/Brother Christopher is a novice monk in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village. He is French and American, was born in Juneau, Alaska, and lived in Paris for twenty-five years before ordaining. He likes hiking, singing, climbing trees, and watching butterflies and clouds.

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Dear Grandma

By John Salerno-White 

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August 7, 2007 

I’ve just returned from a trip-of-a-lifetime to Africa and am in the midst of preparing for another trip-of-a-lifetime to Plum Village. With four days to prepare, I’m very involved with checking my packing list, brushing up on my French, and making certain that I understand all of my plane and rail connections.

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While looking through the papers from Plum Village, I notice that on Wednesday, July 11, we will be celebrating Ancestors Remembrance Day. This makes me even more joyful about the retreat, because I know many of the wonderful seeds in me have been nurtured by my most recent ancestors.

As I make an inventory of the gifts from my ancestors, I acknowledge:

From my mother, I received a deep appreciation of non-human beings. Trees, mountains, sky, wind, clouds…all of these were to be loved, treasured, and respected.

From her mother, I learned unconditional love. When we grandchildren involved ourselves in thoughtless, unhelpful activities, we knew that she still loved us and accepted us wholly.

From her father, I learned much about equanimity. He had the great gift of helping newly met people understand that they were seen as friends.

From my father, I learned how to be still. He showed me that if one sat quietly in the forest, it would become possible to see what was really there.

I now move on to the memory of my father’s mother. From that grandmother, I received the helpful gift of…

A feeling of loss and emptiness fall over me as I realize that I can’t recall anything of value imparted to me by that grandmother.

There is only a feeling of being judged by her as not being quite good enough. I find this very unsettling.

All three of these grandparents lived close to me in San Francisco, and I spent much time with them. I trust that through looking deeply, I can contact the wholesome seeds within me that have been watered by my father’s mother.

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I sit down on the bed and breathe for several minutes. Nothing but blankness presents itself.

I take the memories of my grandmother and mentally sling them over my shoulder. Grandma, right now I can’t see how you have helped me, but I’m taking you with me to Plum Village. We’ll work on this together, once we get there.

August 10, 2007 

I’ve been in Plum Village for a few days. Tomorrow is Ancestors Remembrance Day. Sitting in my room, looking out the window at the green trees, I invite my grandmother to join me. I do my best to see who my grandmother was, yet still cannot see how she is helping me.

Dear Grandma, I don’t know all of who you were. I never felt as close to you as I did to my other Grandma. I do recall receiving nurturing presents, birthday cards, and family meals, but I feel that there must be something more important that I’m missing.

Dear Grandma, we are so different, you and I. The Catholic tradition was a very important factor in your daily life. I remember you reciting prayers with your rosary beads. You had crucifixes in your home’s bedrooms and I recall a picture of the sacred heart of Jesus. You prayed very regularly. You went to church on days other than Sundays—on days when religious practice did not require your attendance. Grandma, I do not follow these religious practices. I am not like you at all!

OH!

I have a mala made of bodhi seeds that I use to count my breaths. I have several Buddha statues in my home. Thay’s calligraphy hangs on a wall. I sit in the morning and I sit in the evening. I come back to my true home as often as possible. I love being in a local Buddhist temple and find comforting joy in the presence of monastics. I have just travelled far to join other practitioners in a monastery.

Dear Grandma, I am you!

Thanks for all you’ve given me. Thanks for helping me to become deeply involved with this wonderful practice. I now see how you have been very important in making all this possible. I’m so glad that you came here with me.

Dear Grandma, please excuse me for taking so long to appreciate your positive influence in my present life.

Let’s go outside for a walk.

John Salerno-White, True Peace on Earth, teaches high school chemistry and lives in Vacaville, California. He facilitates three local Sanghas: Light Heart Sangha (Vacaville), SammaSankappa Sangha (at California Medical Facility State Prison, Vacaville), and Fresh Breeze Sangha (Davis).

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Ten Breaths for Happiness

By Glen Schneider 

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The Ten Breath Practice is a simple, concrete way to nourish our seeds of happiness and joy. It involves allowing ourselves to be “caught” by something wonderful during the course of our day: a sight, a sound, a feeling. When this happens, we stop and offer it our full presence. Something shows up for us, so we show up for it. You can practice it anywhere, anytime. It can change you and your relationship with the universe.

This practice is based on recent neuroscience, in which three important discoveries have been made about nourishing happiness and joy.

  1. Our brain is organized in clusters of neurons known as “neural pathways,” which are created when similar chemical signals are repeatedly fired among these Mental traffic tends to follow existing, readily available routes, regardless of whether the neural pathway is appropriate, accurate, or beneficial. The more we use a route, the more available it becomes. “What fires together, wires together.”
  2. The human organism is preferentially wired, overwhelmingly, to recognize dangers and Survival is the priority. Happiness and joy are optional behaviors.
  3. Neuroscientists have estimated that it takes about thirty seconds to firmly root a new neural So with awareness and practice, we can develop our beneficial pathways. New neural networks become more firmly rooted with the length of time something is held in awareness and with the intensity of the emotional stimulation. As new connections are created and used repeatedly, footpaths eventually become freeways. With practice, we can re-wire our brains so that patterns of happiness become habitual, authentic, and deeply nourishing.

As Zen meditators, we are accustomed to following our breath, so we can use ten breaths as the measure of time needed to set a new pathway. Suppose a flower catches our attention while we’re walking outdoors. We pause and simply present ourselves to the flower without judgment, commentary, or analysis. We behold it through awareness of our breathing—bringing mind and body together—and we count each breath cycle: “one, two, three,” all the way to ten. While breathing, please bring into awareness your emotions and body sensations. Let the experience be as intense as possible. See if you can open up every cell of your body to the experience.

Distractions or doubts may arise. “I’ve got other things to do.” “This isn’t working; this is boring.” “This really isn’t such a great flower after all.” You might feel foolish or you might break out in tears. The important thing is to find a way to count to ten, to really set and anchor the new neural pathway. And when you reach ten, why not count to twelve, or twenty? The sky’s the limit.

The Ten Breath Practice engages the teacher within. What catches your attention is entirely, uniquely up to you. How you behold this experience and allow it to penetrate is also totally up to you. Out of your own sustained awareness, you will create and strengthen new neural pathways. Your mind will grow, and the next time you encounter a flower, your experience of it will be easier, more familiar, and deeper. Good luck!

mb63-TenBreaths2Glen Schneider, True Attainment of Concentration, is a Dharmacharya and founder of the Buckeye Sangha in Berkeley, California. A naturalist/gardener, he is writing a natural history field guide to the East Bay part of the San Francisco area. He has two daughters, Rosa and Lily (pictured).

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Peanut Butter Love Balls

By David Viafora and Sangha Youth 

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During the September 2011 retreat at Deer Park Monastery, the young people offered their creativity, fun, and love to the Sangha by raising money for children in impoverished conditions around the world. Within the Children’s Program, we incorporated mindful eating and looking deeply into the sources of our food, cultivating gratitude by recognizing our many conditions of happiness, working in harmony and caring for each other, skillfully relating to money without greed, generating compassion for others, and finding ways to help those in real need.

The Children’s Program would like to thank Sister Jewel for pioneering similar activi­ties in Plum Village and the EIAB, and Terri Cortes-Vega for her well-explained practice of making Interbeing Peanut Butter Balls with kids  (Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, 2011).

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The success stories are best told by the children themselves.

The Children’s Program has been talking about helping less fortunate children in the world. While discussing one day, we thought of ways to help these people. We came up with the idea of making cookies to sell to make money to donate to these people. We used many ingredients and experimented with many materials, including cranberries, raisons, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, honey, oats, and peanut butter. The next day at lunch, we sold them to the Sangha and had so much fun. After that day, everybody wanted to make a second batch. A day later, David finally let us make another batch. We made about 125 that day, and sold them at dinner. We had fun all over again. On Saturday before the Question & Answer, we presented Thay and the Sangha the money, $450. I think the best part of all was the teamwork and fun we had.
-Manda Nguyen-Sanh, age 10

Over the past few days, we have made Peanut-Butter-Cookies to raise money for children in of food. The cookies were called Interbeing Peanut Butter Balls, Cosmo Coconut Balls, Peanut Love Logs, Everything in Everything Balls, and Choco Coco Balls. We made a lot of money and it was very fun. I hope we can make these again sometime!! :)
-BoiAn Nguyen-Sanh, age 7

As we made the cookies, I thought about how many poor/hungry children would be helped with our money. I noticed that the Sangha donated more money when they found out about our cause. One lady even donated a check of $50! The next day, when she came back for more cookies, we treated her to a complimentary cookie. Other people donated five, ten, and twenty dollars for only one or two cookies. I was amazed, and also happy for all the children that were going to be fed. The day after, my friend Dalia and I, as the oldest of the children, were chosen to represent the Children’s Program in front of the Sangha before Thay’s Question and Answer session. I was honored to represent my friends in front of so many people, the monastics, and Thay. I hope that after reading this, all the Children’s Programs will do something like it to donate to the less fortunate.
A lotus to the Sangha.
Thank you.
-Quynh Nguyen-Sanh, age 12

What I liked best about making the cookies was that we put our love into the cookies and we made them as mindfully and peacefully as we could. We’d spoon out some of the batter and for each spoonful we would say love or joy. We sat at a table to sell them, we sold out in 15 MINUTES. People loved them! We saved a couple for ourselves and when we ate them we thought about the ingredients and what was in them. For example there is a cloud in them because a cloud rains and the rain gives water to a peanut tree and we get peanuts from the peanut tree and we u se the peanuts to make peanut butter. The End.
-Sabine, age 10

We made cookies to sell so that we could get money for kids that r starving all over the world. It was really fun making and selling the cookies.I particularly liked making the chocolate ones. I hope that the hungry kids will be happy!
-Mischa, age 11

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A Handful of Rice

The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation Fund 

By Elizabeth Hospodarsky 

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“Don’t worry if you feel you can only do one tiny good thing in one small corner of the cosmos. Just be a Buddha body in that one place.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh

From the time the Buddha began to teach, members of the fourfold Sangha have engaged in the practice of dana (giving) by sharing time, talent, and money to help spread the Dharma and meet the needs of the community. This tradition continues today. The practice of giving—cultivating the spirit of generosity—is one of the foundations of the Buddhist path. Thich Nhat Hanh and the monastic community inspire and guide laypeople to transform our suffering and the suffering in the world, and we express our gratitude by providing support to meet monastics’ basic needs, assist with their charitable work, and share the Buddha’s teachings.

Sister Chan Khong tells a story about when she lived in Vietnam during the war and worked tirelessly to feed the hungry. She would go from house to house, asking for just a handful of rice to help feed the children. When a head of household heard what she was doing, he would often offer her a small amount of money—much more than just the handful of rice she had asked for. She would kindly refuse, and ask each person in the household, even the cook, for a dollar. By the time she left the house, she would have ten dollars—much more than the amount that was originally offered!

Sister Chan Khong, Thay, and the monastic community still feed hungry children in Vietnam. They share the practice of mindfulness and compassion with thousands of people every year at practice centers all over the world. They transform lives.

A Spiritual Family

I often marvel at how fortunate I am to have experienced the transformative teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I am sure you feel fortunate, too. Twenty years ago, my heart was not filled with love and happiness, but with great despair. I even thought I might be better off dead. My family loved me, but they were not able to water my seeds of happiness and well-being. Fortunately, I was blessed to meet Thay through his books, and over time attended retreats, found my local Sangha, and joyfully joined my spiritual family. Thay’s loving kindness allowed me to transform my own suffering, misperceptions, and anger into joy, peacefulness, and compassion. And now, as a recent ordinee into the Order of Interbeing, I feel firmly planted in the fertile soil of the Sangha, where seeds of happiness are watered every day!

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The truth is that Thay and the Buddha saved my life. Like many of you, I hold profound gratitude for Thay, our monastic brothers and sisters, and the worldwide Sangha for providing this loving and compassionate community.

I am so happy to know that people in our community share my feeling of gratitude and have created sufficient conditions to ensure the continuation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings and work around the world. The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation is a group of dedicated monastic and lay volunteers working together to provide the material means to teach the practices of mindfulness, loving speech, and deep listening throughout the world.

TNH Continuation Fund

This past summer, throughout Thay’s North American tour, Sister Chan Khong, Brother Phap Dung, Brother Phap Hai, Sister Peace, Jeanie Seward-Magee, Denise Nguyen, Laura Hunter, Harvey McKinnon, and I happily shared this new fundraising effort with those who attended retreats, public talks, and days of mindfulness. We invited people to join the Continuation Fund by becoming monthly donors. The response was overwhelmingly positive. People expressed relief that the financial needs of the fourfold Sangha were being addressed, and joy in showing their gratitude and thanks to Thay.

Now we invite you, a core supporter and practitioner, to join us in the Continuation Fund by making a monthly gift. It’s easy to do, and it will benefit you and many others around the world.

Your dana supports:

Blue Cliff, Deer Park, and Magnolia Grove Monasteries. Many of us have experienced deep joy and peacefulness at one of these beautiful practice centers. The monastic brothers and sisters give us focused and insightful instruction in the Dharma, which we then put into practice as we endeavor to live mindfully in society. Your support will help supply the necessary resources to maintain the practice centers, make urgently needed improvements, and meet the growing demands of attendees.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching around the world. Every year, Thay and the fourfold community travel extensively to offer retreats and share the message of mindfulness and compassion with many different groups of people, including politicians, educators, environmentalists, business leaders, and children. Contact with new audiences helps grow our community and broaden exposure to mindfulness practice. Your kind gifts will allow this outreach to continue, and will create scholarship opportunities for people who would otherwise be unable to attend retreats.

Monks and nuns in Thailand and Vietnam. Many brothers and sisters are doing essential work while living in primitive conditions. Your support helps the monastics meet their own basic needs so that they can continue to help the poor and share the Dharma with Thai and Vietnamese people.

Online Dharma sharing and publications. Many people are not able to attend retreats and do not have access to a local Sangha. However, through Internet Dharma talks, podcasts, videos, books, and journals, millions of people are able to touch the Dharma and learn about mindfulness. If there is a way to communicate the Dharma, we are doing it.

A Joyful Act of Service

The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation is governed by a foundation board consisting of monastic and lay members. A committee of advisors assists the board by providing technical expertise and strategic thinking. The TNH Continuation and Legacy Foundation works under the guidance of the governing board of the Unified Buddhist Church. By working together mindfully with the goal of easing suffering in the world, everyone involved strives to fulfill the aspirations of our ancestral teachers to spread the Dharma with thoughtfulness and love.

In the coming months, a primary goal for the foundation board will be to assist individual practice communities in assessing needs for their physical and operational continuation, so that each one continues to be a favorable, appropriate place to live and practice. The board’s other primary goal will be to ensure that all organizational, technical, and regulatory needs are met, so that asking for and receiving gifts is a joyful and valuable act of service for all members of our Sangha.

I hope you will join me and many others by becoming a member of the Continuation Fund. We are interconnected and need to support each other. I hope that you will feel joy in knowing that your handful of rice, added to everyone else’s, is enough to bring peace and ease the suffering of innumerable beings long into the future. Your monthly gift—no matter how small or large—will help ensure the continuation of our monastic communities, our collective mindfulness practice, and the peace advocacy of Thay and the fourfold Sangha. Join us by returning the enclosed brochure (see page 24), or by signing up at www.plumvillage.org/ giving.html.

mb63-Handful3Elizabeth Hospodarsky, True Ocean of Attainment, humbly serves on the TNH Continuation and Legacy Foundation Board. She also works with environmental nonprofits to help protect animals, plants, and minerals in the U.S. and Canada. She lives with her husband and two children in Tucson, Arizona, and practices with Singing Bird Sangha.

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Occupy Oneself, Occupy the World

By T. Ambrose Desmond

When my wife Annie and I first arrived at Occupy Wall Street in New York, I felt a powerful sense of arriving in the beautiful present moment. Surrounded by towering stone and glass buildings in which so much wealth is exchanged, Zuccotti Park was overflowing with a sense of hope. The park was crowded with people and signs, drums and brass bands, a medical station, information tables, and an outdoor kitchen that fed everyone. It was also swarming with television crews.

Annie and I walked mindfully to the southeast corner of the park, where about a hundred people were sitting down for a silent meditation. I sat with one hand on my heart and one hand touching the earth. As I breathed, I took the grounding energy of the earth into my heart and radiated it out to everyone in the park. After forty minutes, a woman took out a Native American drum and played a heartbeat while we chanted over and over, in English and then in Spanish: Because we love you so much. Porque te queremos tanto.

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The heart of the Occupy movement is deep listening, despite how the media chooses to portray it. It’s about creating spaces where people who are concerned about “the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression” (1) come together and dialogue about what to do. The movement offers no demands because demands would end the discussion. So many people in the world are concerned about the suffering caused by our economic and political system, but we may not agree about how to respond to this suffering. Before the Occupy movement, public political discourse was largely relegated to the media, which had created a situation of increasingly deepened division. The Occupy movement provides spaces for people with different views to meet in person and connect. Although many people who come to these spaces are not yet skilled in listening, there are many others who are trying to help us all “renounce fanaticism and narrowness through compassionate dialogue.”(2)

Room for Everyone

Most of my involvement with Occupy Wall Street has been in facilitating consensus meetings and mediating conflicts. One of the most difficult conflicts was about the nearly constant drum circle on the west side of the park. The neighbors had begun to complain about the drums, which often continued at high decibels into the night. Many of the working groups (which did all the organizing) were complaining too, because it had become nearly impossible to have a meeting anywhere in the park due to the noise. Complicating the situation, many of the drummers had been homeless for a long time before coming to the park, and many were mentally unstable.

We held a meeting with several drummers, a representative from the working groups, and a representative from the neighbors in a kosher cafe near the park. At one point, the local woman who represented the neighbors talked about how hard it was for her kids to do their homework while the drummers played. Jim, one of the drummers, started screaming at her. He told her she was “collateral damage” and was trying to oppress him, and that there was no place for her in the revolution. When the representative from the working groups said he wanted there to be a place for her and that she was part of the 99%, Jim shouted that he didn’t care about the 99% and was here for his own revolution.

The other customers in the cafe looked afraid and began leaving. The cafe manager also looked upset. I felt angry at Jim and wanted to make him stop yelling. Thanks to the practice, I have a strong habit of stopping and breathing when I feel anger. As I breathed, I heard a voice within me ask for love and support. I sent the energy of compassion to myself and my heart softened.

When I looked at Jim again, he no longer looked like a bully who needed to be stopped, but like a man in deep pain who wanted to be loved. I made eye contact with him and his face softened immediately. I said, “Jim, I’m so happy to see how deeply you care about changing the world for the better. I also know that it will be possible to do that in a way that makes room for everyone’s needs. Can we start focusing on figuring out how to work together?” Everyone nodded and looked anxiously at Jim. He smiled and his face resembled a scared child’s, but he nodded too. The tone of the meeting changed, and a week later we had an agreement that the drummers would play for two hours each day at the park and then march around the city for the rest of the day.

I feel so deeply fortunate for this practice that transforms not only my life, but also the world.

1 From the 13th of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings
2 From the 3rd of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings

mb63-Occupy2T. Ambrose Desmond, True Mountain of Joy, lives part- time in New York, working as an organizer in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and part-time at MorningSun Mindfulness Center in New He also works as a psychotherapist.

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Applied Ethics

Education for Teachers

By Richard Brady

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“I haven’t felt this good about being a teacher in a long, long time.”
— Teacher from Belgium

“I gained the insight during the retreat that no one can make me happy except myself.”
— Teacher from Germany

“My insight from this retreat: I thought about the specialness of food. When I would eat a piece of bell pepper, I would normally think, ‘Ah, a piece of pepper, I already know that taste and form.’ But now it occurred to me that in fact, each bell pepper is a new, different one and each bell pepper is only eaten once, however much it might resemble the former and future peppers that I eat. The same of course is true for rain droplets or a smile of a person you know: each one is unique.”
— Teacher from Holland

This was some of the feedback from participants in the Applied Ethics Stage I course at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism last summer, when I was privileged to assist Sister Annabel and Sister Jewel in teaching. I had sent Sister Annabel a copy of my book, Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, to use as a resource for this pilot course, and then offered to help in person. Having read the description of the Stage I course, which can be found on the Plum Village website, I knew that taking care of the teacher was its focus. I was happy to receive the course schedule a few weeks beforehand from Sister Jewel, and to see that it was very similar to a weekly schedule for a Plum Village retreat: daily Dharma talks related to personal practice, a question and answer session, a lazy day, exercise and working meditation in the morning, total relaxation in the afternoon, and evening programs.

Twice, we focused on teaching children. We had the good fortune to attend one of Sister Jewel’s classes with local children, and we devoted one evening program to bringing mindfulness into the classroom. Other evening programs were Total Relaxation, the Five Touchings of the Earth, Beginning Anew, presentations on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and a tea meditation. The morning meditation with the monastic community included sutra reading, Touching the Earth meditations, and a Five Mindfulness Training transmission ceremony. We also practiced eating meditation, walking meditation, and afternoon meditation and sutra reading with the monastic community.

The experience of the twenty-five participants was deep and transformative. Held by the practice of the monastic Sangha, our group formed its own Sangha; we shared suffering and joy, wisdom and play. Participants took the teachings home inside of them to share with their students.

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Like the EIAB, Plum Village, Blue Cliff, and Deer Park will also offer courses or retreats for educators in the future. However the number of educators who will participate in these courses can only be a tiny percentage of all teachers. Besides size limitations, the monastic settings of these courses will be problematic for many teachers. Nevertheless, it was the monastic setting of the EIAB course that helped create the conditions for deep learning to take place. I wondered how Thay’s teachings would be able to reach a large number of students.

A Resource for All

In early November, Order of Interbeing member Rob Wall and I attended a symposium, Advancing the Science and Practice of Contemplative Teaching and Learning, at the Garrison Institute in New York State. Thanks to Meena Srinivasan, who submitted the proposal but was unable to attend, we had the honor of presenting a poster on Applied Ethics at a ninety-minute Marketplace of Ideas session. In this session, posters were presented by representatives of many groups offering mindfulness to youth. Creating our poster for this special opportunity, we sought a direction that would embody Thay’s teaching. We didn’t want Applied Ethics to be seen as one more approach competing with those already in existence.

We saw that just as Thay’s teachings have nourished many Buddhist teachers, Applied Ethics can nourish the many existing approaches that bring mindfulness to education. Courses like the one at the EIAB can be a resource for all leaders in the mindful- ness in education movement and their colleagues. They can deepen their practice of the teachings in a monastic setting, and translate them into language that will work for their students. The heading of our poster read:

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Applied Ethics
We are here for you

The poster displayed the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the EIAB course schedule, quotes from participants, a photo of the smiling members of the group, and a schedule of future events for educators in Plum Village and London with Thay.

Wearing our brown OI jackets, Rob and I conversed with the many interested folks constantly gathered around our poster. People told us that they’d read Thay’s books for years. Some had been with Thay at public lectures or retreats. Thirty people signed up to get more information on Applied Ethics. Most of these indicated an interest in attending courses or retreats at one of Thay’s monasteries and were enthusiastic about the possibility of events in the U.S. Nine purchased copies of Thay’s new book, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children.

How wonderful it would be for leaders from all areas of the mindfulness in education movement to practice together at Blue Cliff, Deer Park, Plum Village, and the EIAB.

mb59-AppliedEthics3Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, received the Lamp Transmission in 2001 to work with young people. He lives in Putney, Vermont, where he practices with the Mountains and Rivers Mindfulness  Community.

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Solidity and Generosity

A Retreat for the U.S. Congress

By Susan Hadler

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Word came from Sister Peace that Thay and the Plum Village Sangha would visit Washington, DC toward the end of their North American tour in October 2011. Thay would offer a talk at the Warner Theater, sponsored by Omega Institute, and then a talk at the Library of Congress, followed by a special overnight retreat for members of Congress. The Faith and Politics Institute, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Fetzer Institute would sponsor the retreat and the talk at the Library of Congress.

Thay had offered a retreat for Congress in 2003. The Washing- ton Mindfulness Community (WMC) and the other area Sanghas had provided support in a multitude of ways. Sister Peace had been part of that effort (before she was Sister Peace). Now she was inviting the North American Sangha to bring mindfulness into Congress by writing letters and visiting members of Congress, inviting them to attend the talk and retreat.

I was not part of the organizing team in 2003. I had recently scaled back my professional life so that I could deepen my practice and have more time to sit, walk, and enjoy the trees and the sky, my family, and the Sangha; to write, play my flute, and paint. At that time, I had very little inner space, and I needed time to slow down, to come home to myself, and to heal. I needed to take one breath and then another. The Sangha supported and nourished me deeply during that time, never demanding or expecting more than I could be or give.

Sitting in silence with others on Sunday evenings, followed by true sharing of our practice, strengthened my whole being and gave me the space to be with myself in the midst of being with others, something that I had seldom experienced before. By 2011, I had changed. I was no longer fiercely guarding my privacy and my need for silence. I understood the need to mindfully reach out to Congress.

Early in September, Sister Peace invited the WMC to organize visits to Congress and to support the Plum Village Sangha when it arrived in DC. Having no plan except to follow the guidelines on the Plum Village website for contacting Congress members, I sent out an announcement for a meeting. All the rest flowed from deep Sangha energy. Friends came to the meeting. Joey designed an invitation and Abbie printed it. Local Sanghas contributed funds to purchase seventy-five copies of Thay’s new book, Peace Is Every Breath, to give to Congress members.

Some of us met in a friend’s Congressional office with books, invitations, letters, and a list of members of Congress to visit. After stopping to breathe so that we could walk the marble halls with mindful steps and deliver invitations with Buddha smiles, we began to open the heavy doors and greet our new friends, the staff who support the members of Congress.

Almost everyone was receptive. When we spoke of Thay’s understanding of their stressful, pressured, busy lives, most of them laughed and said they sure could use the retreat. As we left the offices, many were already beginning to read Peace Is Every Breath. We were heartened. We felt Thay’s presence as help arrived exactly when and how we needed it.

Sangha energy continued to flow like a river of mindfulness. Sangha members met with Sister Peace to plan ways to support Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. One member of the WMC, a caterer, volunteered to make dinners for the monastic Sangha on the evenings of the talks. Another member designed and printed cards with information about area Sanghas to be handed out at the talk. At the Warner Theater, some Sangha members handed out programs and fliers while others sold books for Parallax Press. Thay’s Dharma talk was like good medicine. Tiredness vanished from people’s faces as Thay led them to a deeper, more spacious place where they could breathe and know they were breathing.

Knowing that only plastic flowers would be available at the Library of Congress for Thay’s talk the following night, I asked Skip at Omega if we might rescue any unwanted flowers for that event. Abbie volunteered to take the flowers home and bring them to the Library of Congress the next night. Smiling, I watched Abbie drive away with huge bunches of flowers filling her car. Early the next day at the Library of Congress, Sister Peace and I found out that the flowers would have to go through an off-site inspection lasting an hour and a half. Laughing at the impossibility of this, we called Abbie, who decided to prune the flowers and arrange them into smaller security-acceptable containers.

Hours before the talk began, we were informed that Thay had requested that each person receive a copy of the new Five Mindfulness Trainings at the door. We shared this news with the woman guiding us through the details of the evening at the Library of Congress. She offered to help us print 500 copies. When we delivered them, we found out that the Faith and Politics Institute had also made 500 copies. Later, I passed the fliers on to Sister Chan Khong to use at the Day of Mindfulness in New York. I was learning that everything works out beautifully and I don’t really need to worry.

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Entering the auditorium, I noticed the flowers standing like monks lined up in front of Thay, adding color and simplicity. I listened to Thay encourage us to come home to ourselves, listen deeply to each other, and nurture clarity, compassion, and courage through the concentration that mindfulness practice generates. I listened with the ears of a person in the midst of a divided situation and felt hope. I know that Thay’s way works because of my experience with my own family: sitting and breathing and sending peace to myself and to each family member from whom I was estranged, I gradually shifted my heart and my perspective until full reconciliation happened.

The members of Congress and guests seemed to be deeply affected by Thay’s talks and by the collective energy of mindful- ness at the retreat. They were completely engaged and appreciative of the practice. One said to me how much she enjoyed eating mindfully in silence, and that she would take this home with her. Another came to the retreat quite tense, and I noticed how much more relaxed and young she looked over time. I understood the depth of these seemingly simple changes.

Retreatants were eager to learn ways to communicate effectively with each other in Congress and the nation. I left the retreat aware of suffering caused by lack of understanding mutual needs. I also felt a deeper appreciation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, a quintessential ethical and spiritual guide for living a life of meaning and connection with oneself and all other beings.

I became aware of many fruits of the practice. As the oldest daughter of seven children whose father was killed in war, I know how to respond and to take care of others. But this time, I saw the difference between responding out of desperation and necessity and responding out of inner strength. In the past, I often gave of myself heedlessly, neglecting my well-being until sickness made me stop and rest; or I would protect myself, holding back to avoid becoming exhausted. This time, even as I dealt with the challenges of planning and organizing, I was aware of the pleasure of supporting the Sangha. Another delicious fruit was experiencing, over and over again, the joy and sturdiness of true Sangha generosity.

mb63-Solidity3Susan Hadler, True Lotus Recollection, practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC.

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Book Reviews

mb59-BookReviews3The Novice
A Story of True Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperCollins, 2011
Hardcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Chau Yoder

Edited by Lyn Fine and Natascha Bruckner

I felt really touched by the new English version of The Novice: A Story of True Love. When I read this story of the novice Kinh Tam in English, and then reread the original Vietnamese version (Su Tich Quan Am Thi Kinh), I felt strongly that many readers would benefit from the tale of injustice, patience, and the four immeasurable minds of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of this ancient Vietnamese story has many deep teachings to transform our suffering.

When I was about fifteen years old, I went with my mom to the Vietnamese opera (Cai Luong) and saw many touching stories. This one penetrated deep into my subconscious, planting seeds about Buddhism, patience, and realizing the great vow to live a free life. I used to hate the character Mau, who falsely stated that Thi Kinh was the parent of her baby. Now, reading Thay’s novel, I feel more compassionate toward Mau. As I read this book, I felt my heart opening—especially toward the end, when I read Thi Kinh’s compassionate letters to her parents, teacher, husband, and Mau. Thi Kinh wrote these love letters at the time she knew she was dying, and I felt she was passing her generosity on to us. Her letter to her parents inspired me to think about my parents. They sacrificed so much for me, and at times I wonder if I was good enough for them. I created suffering for them when I decided to marry my husband Jim and live far away from them. Yet when we became engaged, they generously opened their hearts to Jim, and we all happily lived near each other when Jim and I sponsored them, my grandmother, and my siblings to come the U.S. in 1981.

I felt touched by Thi Kinh’s letter to the abbot, who had accepted Thi Kinh as his student, thinking she was a man. Thi Kinh wrote that in order to go to the pagoda to study, she had to pretend to be a man because there was no nunnery. She asked for forgiveness for the deception. She begged her teacher to build a nunnery so that young women could be students of the Buddha’s teachings. She was thinking about the future, “paying it forward” on her deathbed!

A key teaching in the novel relates to the question of how to be magnanimous without being a victim. Why do people have to be tolerant of injustice in the world? Why do we have to live in the patient way that Thi Kinh lived? Thay writes that being patient does not mean suppressing suffering. We have to be patient in order to understand with loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

Near the end of Thay’s retelling of this ancient tale, the abbot visualizes that Thi Kinh is really a bodhisattva. Her loving kindness is not only for human beings, but for all beings—a grand aspiration. This is the ultimate goal of the true awakened person; how can we live it in our lifetime? This story offers a lot for us to think about: the meaning of equanimity, letting go, nondiscrimination, non-self, patience, and magnanimous living.

In the English edition, a chapter by Sister Chan Khong offers an interesting comparison of the life stories of Thi Kinh and Thich Nhat Hanh, who both have a grand patience and an inclusive heart. Additional chapters describe the activities of the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) founded by Thay in 1964, and the situation in Bat Nha (Prajna), a monastery in Vietnam that was offered to Thay in 2005 by the abbot of a temple in Lam Dong Province, but ousted by the Vietnamese authorities in 2008.

I’m thankful that Thay published The Novice in English, so that young generations in the United States will get to read it and understand their Vietnamese roots a little better. My hope is that when people read this novel, the nectar of compassion in Thi Kinh will drop into their mind, body, and spirit to help them become more compassionate, ethical, loving people who will, in turn, help us live a more harmonious life.

mb59-BookReviews1The Seeds of Love
Growing Mindful Relationships

By Jerry Braza
Tuttle, 2011
Soft cover, 192 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

The foundation for developing mindful and healthy relation- ships begins with ourselves. Three practices—Seeing, Renewing, and Being—will support you as you become the master gardener of your life and your relationships.” This opening passage from The Seeds of Love, by Jerry Braza, reflects the accessible yet deep lessons shared by the seasoned Dharma teacher in his new book. Braza emphasizes teachings and practices that help us nurture positive seeds in ourselves and our loved ones. He writes about how to transform seeds of fear, anger, jealousy, and doubt into love, compassion, and understanding.

While many of the teachings in The Seeds of Love reflect the wisdom of the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh, Braza brings a unique, modern, and American perspective to his presentations. He offers the insights of an experienced lay practitioner and college professor who has practiced with a Sangha for many years. The practices explored are not only for the pur pose of individual self-healing, but also for promoting healthy relationships with our families, friends, and co-practitioners. As the Buddha teaches, we inter-are with each other, so heal- ing within and without cannot be separated.

This book is both simply presented and dense in content. Braza includes beautiful poetry and illustrations that make the book an excellent practice companion. Furthermore, the teachings are accessible to people of all faiths, and Braza incorporates the lessons of many wisdom traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism. Appropriate for beginners and experienced practitioners alike, this is a wonderful continuation of the author’s first book, Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness.

As a gardener, I find the book’s gardening metaphors and themes beautiful. They bring to mind the fact that one translation of an ancient word for “one who meditates or practices mindfulness” is “a cultivator.” The Seeds of Love would be a great book for Sanghas or book groups to read together and use as a basis for meaningful sharing and discussion.

mb59-BookReviews2Walking the Tiger’s Path
A Soldier’s Spiritual Journey in Iraq

By Paul M. Kendel
Tendril Press, 2011
Soft cover, 247 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

“As the gardener, such is the garden.”
— Hebrew Proverb

Until reading Sergeant Kendel’s book, I’d only heard news accounts of the war in Iraq. Although my two nephews have each done two tours in Iraq, they don’t talk about their experiences. Kendel describes the precise type of hell realm this war has been. The “enemy” is both everywhere and nowhere, and compassion is considered a weakness. In the course of serving with the Georgia National Guard, Kendel became a student of the Shambhala Buddhist teachings. He learned that the mind of a tiger, according to Sakyong Mipham, is a “mind of discernment,” allowing us to “stop and think and make a decision based on wisdom and compassion, rather than on hate and fear.”

With story after hair-raising story, Kendel outlines his gradual battlefield enlightenment through correspondence with Buddhist teachers, and through reading Pema Chodron’s Awakening Loving Kindness while on patrol. He came within a fraction of an inch of blowing away a father and his little girl, but made split-second eye contact with the child. Instead of seeing the enemy, he “saw something positive. I saw hope in that little girl’s eyes. Hope…even when the world around her seemed to be in total chaos.”

When Kendel came home, his wife was having an affair and not only ended their marriage, but changed his close relationship with his two sons. And then his mother died. These events, along with haunting incidents in Iraq, constituted for Kendel both a crisis and an opportunity.

His saving grace was the Shambhala practice, along with Margot Neuman, a senior student who reached out and gave Kendel a peaceful place to take refuge. His subsequent visits to the Shambhala Mountain Center, and meeting Pema Cho- dron and Sakyong Mipham as well as Shambhala President Richard Roech, cemented Kendel’s inner peace and gave him a Sangha. The Shambhala warrior, he learned, does not create war at all. The tiger sees with clarity how to act.

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