Dharma Talk: The Habit of Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Upper Hamlet, Plum Village June 19, 2012


Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is Tuesday, the nineteenth of June 2012, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall, Upper Hamlet. This is our nineteenth day of the twenty-one-day retreat.

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Sitting here, I can hear the sound of the rain. I know that I’m with my Sangha, sitting together, enjoying this present moment. With mindfulness, this moment must be a happy moment.

 

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The practice of non-thinking is the secret of success in meditation. When thinking settles in, you lose the first impression of contact. You do not have much chance to be in the here and the now, and to be in touch with what is in your body and around you. Instead, just become aware of contact and feelings. In this way you can be in touch with the elements of nourishment and healing available in your body and in the environment, both physical and mental.

The Universal Mental Formations

There are five mental formations called universal. They are present in every consciousness, in every mental formation.

The first one is touch, mental contact. Sparsha. When eyes and an object come together, there is contact between them, producing eye consciousness. Eye consciousness begins with contact. So mental contact is the first thing that manifests as a perception. Organ and object bring about consciousness. And consciousness is made first of all with mental contact.

It can be followed right away by feeling: vedana. The feeling may be pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.

The third mental formation is called attention: manaskara. This has the function of drawing your attention to an object. When the bell master offers the half sound, your attention is drawn to that sound. That is manaskara, attention. Several objects of at-tention may happen at the same time—three, four, a dozen—but you’re free to choose one object to bring your attention to.

And with mindfulness you can make a good choice. Instead of listening to another sound, you’re listening to the bell. Breathing in and breathing out, just focus your attention only on the bell. Listening to the bell can help you to create the energy of concentration that can help you to calm down the body and the mind. So that kind of attention is good in nature. It’s called appropriate attention. You choose to focus your attention on something that is wholesome, that will be of benefit. A good practitioner always practices appropriate attention. The Sanskrit word is yoniso manaskara.

But when we allow our attention to go to objects that do not benefit our peace and practice, it’s called inappropriate attention. It’s called ayoniso manaskara. So as a good practitioner, mindfulness helps us to focus our attention only on the objects of benefit, and that can come before contact (sparsha) or after contact. After contact, you may see that this is not a good object of attention, and you may change the object of attention. So manaskara can come before sparsha or after sparsha. These five universal mental formations are always present with consciousness, any kind of consciousness. They are a series, and they bring about a perception.

One day we had a retreat in northern California and there was a fire in the mountains. During sitting meditation and walking meditation, we heard the sound of helicopters. When you have been in a war, like the wars in Vietnam, the sound of helicopters reminds you of machine guns, bombs, and death. So it’s not pleasant. But there was no choice to avoid listening, so we chose to practice listening to the sound of the helicopters with mindfulness. With mindfulness, we can tell ourselves that this is not a helicopter operating in a situation of war. These helicopters are helping to extinguish the flames. With mindfulness, our unpleasant feelings were transformed into pleasant feelings, into feelings of gratitude. Mindfulness can transform everything.

When the feeling is pleasant, you stop all thinking and just become aware of the feeling. Like the pleasant feeling of walking barefoot on the beach, feeling the sand between your toes. Walking on the beach, you can be very happy, if you are able to let go of thinking of this or that.

The fourth universal mental formation is perception. What you are in touch with, what you are feeling, appears in your mind as a sign that suggests a name, like: flower. This is to have an idea about the object of your feeling. When this happens, bring your mindfulness to that perception, because it might be a wrong perception, like mistaking a piece of rope for a snake. Wrong perception is always possible, and can bring about fear, anger, irritation, and so on. Mindfulness can help you avoid wrong perception. The intervention of mindfulness is very important on the path of thinking, on the path of feeling.

 

The fifth universal mental formation is volition, cetana, resolution, intention. You have the concept, the idea, the perception of the object of your contact. You want to decide whether to possess it or to push it away. This is a decision, an intention, to accept or reject.

A New Neural Pathway

These five mental formations are always together. They form a neural pathway that can lead to either suffering or happiness. In your brain, there are many neural pathways that you are used to traveling on. For example, when you come in contact with something that habitually triggers a feeling in you, like the feeling of anger, your frequent traveling on that neural pathway turns it into a habit—the habit of suffering. With the intervention of mindfulness, you can erase that neural pathway and open up another pathway that leads to understanding and happiness.

 

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Suppose you are reaching for a big piece of cake. Because you have learned mindfulness, suddenly your awareness helps you to ask, “Why am I reaching for the cake? I’m not hungry.” You may have some worry, some anxiety, some irritation, and you reach for something to eat to forget, to cover up the irritation in you. That becomes a habit because a neural pathway in your brain has been created for it. As a practitioner, you have to change the neural pathway to change this pattern of suffering. You should allow mindfulness and concentration to intervene so you are not the victim of that suffering.

Suppose you are in a discussion group and you have a chance to speak about your suffering. You may express your suffering in a way that will make you continue to suffer, like you have in the past. Or you may choose another way. You know that brothers and sisters in the Dharma are listening, trying to help you recognize and embrace the suffering so that you can heal and transform. While speaking, you use mindfulness and concentration in order to share. Your way of sharing changes, and after having shared, you suffer less. Otherwise, sharing in the old way, you are just rehearsing your suffering.

With mindfulness and concentration intervening in the process of perception, a new neural pathway is created that does not lead to suffering. Instead it can lead to understanding and compassion, and happiness and healing. As a good practitioner you know how to make a new pathway in your brain. Our brains have the power of neural plasticity; they can change. Old neural pathways can disappear and new ones open so that you have access to happiness and compassion.

Suppose someone says something that angers you. Your old pathway wants to say something to punish him. But that makes us victims of our habit energy. Instead, you can breathe in and say, “Unhappiness is in me, suffering is in me, anger is in me, irritation is in me.” That is already helpful, recognizing your feelings and helping you not to respond right away. So you accept that anger and irritation in you, and smile to it. With mindfulness, you look at the other person and become aware of the suffering in him or in her. He may have spoken like that to try to get relief from his suffering. He may think that speaking out like that will help him suffer less, but in fact he will suffer more.

With just one or two seconds of looking and seeing the suffering in him, compassion is born. When compassion is born, you don’t suffer any more, and you may find something to say that will help him. With the practice, we can always open new neural pathways like that. When they become a habit, we call it the habit of happiness.

During the winter retreat, Thay stayed in Upper Hamlet for three months. Every morning, when he first got up, he washed his face. The water was very cold. Thay usually opened the tap so the water came out drop by drop, and he put his hand under the water faucet and received the feeling of cold water. It helped to make him more awake. It was very refreshing. He took some of these drops of water and put them in his eyes and felt the refreshment in his eyes. He enjoyed the washing and did not want to finish quickly. He did not have to think. He wanted to be fully alive, so he took time to enjoy the pleasure of the water.

Mindfulness and understanding helped him to see that this water has come from very far away. From up in the mountain, from deep down in the earth, it comes right into your bathroom. When you develop the habit of being happy, then everything you do, like serving yourself a cup of tea, you do in such a way that it creates joy and happiness.

When Thay put on his jacket and walked, he enjoyed every step from his hut to the meditation hall. He always got in touch with the moon or the stars or the fresh air. To be alive and to be walking on this small path is a great joy. To go to the meditation hall and sit with the brothers is a great joy. So every moment can be a moment of happiness, of joy.

If you have depression, if you have some problem with your mental health, the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight will help stop you from traveling the same old neural pathways. You open a new path, a path of happiness. Focusing on your suffering is not the only way to heal. Instead, you focus on the non-suffering side that is in the here and the now.

You have many good seeds of happiness and joy in you. You have the seed of compassion, of understanding, of love in you, and you practice in order to get in touch with appropriate attention, stopping your thinking, enjoying the pleasant feeling that is possible in the here and the now. You recognize the many conditions of happiness that are here, in order to make this moment into a pleasant moment. This is possible. While you are doing so, the healing takes place. You don’t have to make any effort because you have the habit of happiness. All of us have the capacity to be happy. Suffering is not enough!

The Five Particular Mental Formations

After you have studied the five universals, you may like to learn about the five particular mental formations, which are: desire, resolution, mindfulness, concentration, understanding/insight. Chanda, adhimoksha, smrti, samadhi, prajna.

The first, desire, is intention. Intention can be positive or negative. Our good intention is our desire to practice, to open new neural pathways, to create happiness. I want to transform suffering, and I know ways to do it. Our resolution is our determination, our confidence that this is what we want. I want to practice, to change myself, to cut off the source of nutriments that lead to suffering. I want to consume only what is good for my mental and physical health. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight are the energies that develop neural pathways leading to compassion, understanding, and happiness.

Eight Levels of Consciousness

The first level of consciousness is eye consciousness. Form is the object of eyes. When eyes and form encounter each other, it brings about eye consciousness, sight. Eye consciousness always has contact, attention, and feelings, because any consciousness has the five universals within it. They happen very quickly, maybe in less than one millisecond.

The second through the fifth consciousnesses are: ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, and body consciousness. Body and touch, tongue and taste, nose and smell, ear and sound, eyes and form. These consciousnesses are a kind of flow; their nature is a continuum, always going through birth and death.

It’s like the flame of a candle. We have the illusion, the false perception, that it is one flame, but instead there is a succession of millions of flames together without interruption. When someone draws a circle with a flaming torch, you may see a circle of fire. But it is an optical illusion. When the movement is done very quickly, you have the impression that there is a whole circle of fire instead of just one flame.

Consciousness has the nature of cinematography, with one image following another, giving the impression that there is something continuous. So all the five consciousnesses operate like that. When you see an elephant walking, there is a succession of images of the elephant, subject and object always changing. These five consciousnesses can stop operating and manifest again when there are the right conditions. They are not continuous like other consciousness. When you go to sleep, maybe three, four, or five stop operating altogether.

According to Buddhist teaching, when they operate alone without mind consciousness, they might have the opportunity to touch the Ultimate. There’s no thinking. The first moment of touching and feeling can help these five consciousnesses touch the ultimate, touch reality. That is called in Sanskrit pratyaksha. There is direct contact, with no discrimination or speculation. But when the five collaborate with mind consciousness, then the thinking, the discrimination, the speculation settle in and they lose contact with the ultimate, with reality.

The sixth is called mind consciousness. It can be interrupted also, if you fall into a coma, or sleep without dreaming, or enter a meditation called no thinking, no perception. If you dream while sleeping, your sixth consciousness still operates, but it does not get the form, the sound, etc. from these five, but from the eighth, the store consciousness. The store consciousness contains the seeds of everything, so the world of dreams is created from store consciousness.

All the consciousnesses manifest from the base, from the seeds in the store. The seed of eye consciousness gives rise to eye consciousness. The seed of nose consciousness gives rise to nose consciousness. Object and subject arise at the same time.

The seventh is manas, the ground for the sixth to lean on in order to manifest. Manas has a wrong view about self. It is always seeking pleasure and trying to avoid suffering. Manas ignores the goodness of suffering and the dangers of pleasure seeking. Manas ignores the law of moderation. A practitioner should try to instruct manas to transform wrong views concerning self. We have to instruct manas that there is a lot of danger in pleasure seeking; that we shouldn’t try to run away from suffering because if we know how to make good use of suffering, true happiness will become possible. That is the work of meditation.

Mind consciousness with mindful concentration can help open up a new path in store consciousness. Every action that we have performed is preserved by store consciousness. Any thought we have produced today or yesterday, whether in the line of right thinking or wrong thinking, is always stored. Nothing is lost, and it will come back at some point as retribution.

Store consciousness receives information, receives action, and processes it and allows it to mature, to ripen. Maturation can take place at every moment. The seeds of information can manifest on the screen of mind consciousness. The store can be compared to a hard drive, which maintains and stores information. But the information on your hard drive is static; it’s not alive, while all the seeds in store consciousness are alive and changing every moment, going through birth and death, renewing all the time; they are living things.

Characteristics of Seeds in Store Consciousness

The bija, the seeds, have characteristics. The first characteristic of a seed is in Sanskrit kshanakarma. It means going through birth and death every moment, cinematographic, always changing, always evolving. Not like the information you store in your computer that stays the same. They are alive, growing, maturing. Their nature is instantaneous (Sanskrit: kshana); it means they only subsist a very short unit of time.

The second aspect of the seeds is in Sanskrit sahabhu. It means that the seed of a mental formation and a mental formation co-exist, serving as cause and effect for each other. They are always together like the left and the right. For example, cause and effect manifest at the same time. Like subject and object, left and right, above and below.

The third aspect of seeds is in Sanskrit bhavangasrota. It means it forms a continuous series. It engenders its own fruit and seeds, again and again. It makes a continuum. It is not a static object; it is a flow. It has its own nature: a seed of corn manifests only as a corn plant. The seed of anger has anger as its nature; you cannot mix it with the seed of compassion.

The fourth aspect of seeds is in Sanskrit vyakrta. It means their nature as wholesome, neutral, or unwholesome is determinate. Every thought, word, or action that you perform can be classified either as neutral, wholesome, or unwholesome.

The fifth characteristic is that seeds are always ready to manifest when conditions are right. The manifestation of a seed can be helped or blocked by other conditions.

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The sixth nature of seeds is that seeds always bear fruit. A seed brings about its own fruit. That’s the law of retribution. A good act will bring a good result. Happy, compassionate speech will bring a good result. So the seed of corn only manifests as a plant of corn, and not something else.

Retribution

Store consciousness operates in a way that is not known to mind consciousness. It’s difficult for mind consciousness to see clearly how store consciousness operates. Store consciousness has the duty to maintain, to hold these seeds. Store consciousness has the ability to receive and preserve every act, whether it is speech, a thought, or a physical action.

 

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We continue as a body, as a series of consciousnesses, because store consciousness has the capacity to hold that for us. What we perform as karma, as action, through our thinking and speaking and acting, will always have retribution, and retribution can be seen in the here and the now. Your body, your feelings, your perceptions are a certain way because you have acted in a way that will bring those results. So that is the fruit, the retribution, of your action. The state of your body, the state of your mind, and the state of your environment are the results of your action.

There are two kinds of retribution. The main retribution is your body and mind, the results of your action in the past. You are your action; you are your karma. You are the way you are because you have performed the karma that has led you to this state of body and mind.

The other aspect of retribution is the environment. The environment is you. It’s you who have created that environment because of your karma, your action. There is collective karma and individual karma. Both you and the environment are the fruit of your action, are your retribution. Store consciousness has the power, the duty, to ripen and to manifest the fruit of your action.

Vijnapti has many meanings. The first meaning is to manifest. The seeds of store consciousness manifest in body and mind and environment. You have not been created by a god; you are a manifestation from your own action. You have not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being. You will not go from the realm of being into the realm of non-being. You have not been created; you are only manifested.

To manifest in this form, and then to manifest in another form, and then in another form, is like the cloud. Now it is a cloud, later on it will be rain. Later on it will be tea or it will become ice cream. There are many manifestations of the cloud. You are like that cloud, and you can choose a path of transformation that you like, that is beautiful. So vijnapti is manifesting as consciousness, as body, as environment. In Sanskrit, all words or nouns that have the “vi” prefix have to do with consciousness. “Vi” means to distinguish, to perceive.

So to manifest as body and mind and environment, and to perceive that body, that mind, that environment, that is vijnapti. In Buddhism there is a school of thought called vijnaptimatra, meaning manifestation only, no creation, no destruction. There is only manifestation. Manifesting from the seeds, from consciousness.

The Light of the Candle

We conclude this Dharma talk with the image of a candle that emits light. Light is an action of the candle. Light is the candle itself. Here we also have another candle that emits light. The candle receives its own action, because the light emitted by one candle shines upon the other candle. What you do has an effect on yourself and has an effect on another person. There are other candles that are close to you; not only do you affect yourself, but you affect the next candle. So here you see the light of this candle, but there is the participation of the other candle also. If you analyze this zone of light, you see this is the light emitted by this candle, but also some of it has been emitted by the other candle.

Imagine there are multiple candles, and one shines in every other candle. You can think in terms of force fields. Subatomic particles can be seen as energy, and they exert influence on other atoms, other subatomic particles. The candle and the light of the candle are the same. We are the same. We and our action are the same. We are only our action. Force fields are like that. Everything is made by everything else. The one is made by the all, and looking into the one, we can see all. Looking into our rose, we see the whole cosmos in it.

You can see that everywhere there is both collective light and individual light. In fact, you can no longer distinguish between the collective and the individual, to the point that you can eliminate the notion of collective and individual, so that you can be free.

Consciousness is like that. The question you may ask is whether everyone has individual store consciousness. Think of the candle, think of our suffering. Our suffering is made of non-suffering elements. Our suffering carries the suffering of our father, our mother, our ancestors, and of the world. So you cannot say that it is individual suffering; you cannot say that it is wholly collective suffering. They inter-are. So interbeing is a good term to describe everything.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

 

Further Reading on Buddhism and Science

Click the links below  to read the following articles on Buddhism, science, and mathematics:

  • While attending “The Sciences of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June, OI member Paul Tingen was encouraged by a few monastics to write down some of his insights into the parallels between new discoveries in neuroscience and our practice. The result was an essay called “Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain: How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice.It describes how mindfulness practice and the insight of neuroplasticity can help us rewire our brains and alleviate habitual patterns of suffering.
  • Seven Interbeings” is an article written by Tetsunori Koizumi, Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies, in response to Thay’s inspirational Dharma talks given during the June 2012 retreat, “The Sciences of the Buddha.” The article demonstrates how Thay’s innovative concept of interbeing is consistent with some fundamental relational principles of mathematics.

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

Letter from the Editor

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, Editor-NB

I love reminiscing. Tell me a story that starts with “I remember when…” and you’ll have my full attention. I especially treasure recollections like the ones in this issue of the Mindfulness Bell. Although they are stories from many years ago, they serve as lanterns that light up the present moment with understanding.

In this special issue, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Plum Village and honor our beloved teachers. We bow deeply to Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and the many monastics and lay teachers who uphold the practice with joy, love, and wisdom. This collection of stories shows how our teachers make the way clearer by walking ahead of us, holding up the torch of awakening, illuminating the path of practice.

We honor those who have made Plum Village possible for all of us, and also those who have established practice centers and Sanghas all over the world. As  Sister Thoai Nghiem eloquently shares in this issue: “It is the image of an ancient tree that suddenly produces a fragrant flower. How I love this image! The fruits of meditation practice, of daily enlightenment from Thay, have been inherited. And the fragrance will be spreading in countless directions, even if the tree grows against the wind, and regardless of storms.”

Because an anniversary is a time to bow to our ancestors, I’d like to acknowledge the Sangha sisters and brothers whose love and labor have made the Mindfulness Bell possible. Heartfelt gratitude goes especially to Arnie Kotler, Therese Fitzgerald, Carole Melkonian, Yael (Ellen) Peskin, Maria Duerr, Leslie Rawls, Barbara Casey, Peggy Rowe Ward, Janelle Combelic, and Judith Toy, among many others. We thank each of you for creating and sustaining this publication—a gift of the living Dharma and a testament to our collective transformation.

As we honor our lineage and appreciate the many gifts we’ve received, may we put these gifts to service for the benefit of all. May we translate our understanding from the past into loving-kindness today. May our mindfulness and compassion, forged in the crucible of suffering, become a lamp that brightens the way for others. All around us, numberless beings need help—whether it’s food, shelter, medicine, or a listening ear. May we use the presence and love we’ve generated in our practice, both to transform our own suffering and to be here for others in need. 

The Mindfulness Bell is a joy to co-create. I truly hope it is a joy for you to read. Please consider making a donation to support production costs and help us send free subscriptions to prison inmates. And multiply your joy by giving gift subscriptions this holiday season.

May these offerings deeply benefit you and all beings. With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

 

 

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

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Letters

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

I was introduced to mindfulness during a training course at work several years ago and I have found that it has helped to transform my life. I am an artist and an art therapist and I now use mindfulness meditation a great deal with my patients. Often I begin with a mindfulness meditation and then I encourage the patient to draw their observations.

I read your story, “A Peaceful River” (Summer 2012), as the clouds were rolling past my small studio window. I became absorbed in the sky and the clouds as I reflected on your words and felt inspired to paint. My painting shows my orange mug, full of tea reflecting the clouds as they float past. Underneath the blue sky I have pasted small pieces of torn-up newspaper which were from an article that troubled me. It was about the environment and the loss of trees through constant development in England where I live. I visualised the issue attaching itself to the clouds and knew that this too, like the clouds, would pass.

Thank you for your inspiring story and for the other encouraging stories in the Mindfulness Bell.
Withnewfound peace and joy,
Michelle Edinburgh
Solihull, England

mb61-LetterToEditor Dear Mindfulness Bell friends:

I recently received my first issue and am thrilled to be brought into the circulation of your mindful readership. Keeping a mindful awareness and positive perspective here in prison is difficult but with the inspiration and support of works by Thich Nhat Hanh, IT CAN BE DONE one breath at a time. Enclosed is a compilation/composition of mine that was recently inspired by my meditation on the depths of “aimlessness.” Thanks for all you do for all of us and please know how we in prison already have the elements for happiness within us but we need frequent reminders not to try too hard. 

Trying Too Hard

Consider the lilies of the field: How they grow.
They neither toil nor spin.
The Tao abides in non-doing.
Yet nothing is left undone.
Buddha taught that there is no need to
Struggle to be free.
The absence of struggle is itself freedom.
Be Still and Know that I Am God.
How hard could it be?
Still….

Blessings & Peace,
Rob Becker
Danville, Illinois, U.S.A.

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I wanted to pass on my appreciation for a recent story in the Summer 2012 issue of the Mindfulness Bell. In June 2012 I became a new mom. In the early weeks I struggled with my role as a mom. Then I read Sister Trang Moi Len’s “Mama, Today Is a Special Day.” Through my tears that is. Her words helped me reconnect to Thay’s teachings and find the strength and courage to love my baby daughter. Thank you for such a wonderful publication and for the reminder to find our true selves. 

Warm regards
Vanessa
Chirgwin Massachusetts, U.S.A

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Ancient Tree, Fragrant Flower

By Sister Thoai Nghiem 

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They’re always beautiful, the good old days. Each time someone asks me about the old days, I am perplexed, saying “umm” and “ahh,” but once I start, I often run out of time. Our memories, when we touch them, vibrate as a musical note echoing in the vast silence.

I can see the images of those days…

Plum Village Memories 

Those days, our beds were slats of wood placed on four bricks in a cement-floor room with unpainted walls, without a heater, and the winter wind freely slipped in, freezing cold.

Those days, everyone was wearing a pair of wooden clogs because everywhere was muddy. Some lay practitioners, after returning home from Plum Village, would try to look for a pair of clogs because they thought it was a fashion at Plum Village. Some left with a chunk of mud as the village token. On the day when Lower Hamlet had to lay gravel on the path around the dining hall so that firefighters’ trucks could drive there according to the law, I looked at the new white path reflecting the sunshine and felt like I had just lost something very precious. It was a little bit like civilization had come to a remote rural area, and I became someone who missed the good old days.

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Those days, Dharma talks in the Lower Hamlet were given in the dining hall. Every fifteen minutes, teacher and disciples stopped to breathe and listen to the clock chime. The stove was placed at the end of the hall. Anyone who cooked could secretly chop and peel vegetables if they were not spotted by Thay.

Those days, the kitchen in Upper Hamlet had a top level, which was the dining hall. Going there to eat or for Dharma sharing, when standing up, you would have to bend your head since the pillars and rafters were so low.

Those days, in the Violet Cloud building, only Thay’s room was unchanged. It used to be the cow shed. Sister Tu Nghiem’s room is a common room now; Sister Hieu Nghiem’s is Sister Chan Khong’s now. The office was a library, and the rest of the upstairs space was for storage of miscellaneous things and/or straw.

Those days, each summer, Vietnamese would be heard all over the Lower Hamlet, where there was a festive atmosphere. Wooden slats and bricks were carried from here to there to build beds. At the end of summer, a row of plastic containers full of soiled bed linens was waiting to be washed by hand. Often I jumped inside the container to wash by feet.

Those days, almost every week, Thay would teach us chanting and ho canh. However, nine out of ten people would chant in different melodies.

Transforming Mind and Body 

Those days, Thay constantly introduced new practices with which we hardly could keep up. Our personal practice was still not good enough, so Thay had to find out new practices to help us transform our mind and body.

Those days, Thay organized a Dharma festival. When each person heard his or her name called, he or she had to go in front of the Sangha, breathe in and out three times, and pick a small piece of paper with a topic from the bell. Then that person had to talk about the selected topic for ten minutes. Some were freaked out, a few were quite articulate, and others burst into tears.

Those days, Upper Hamlet only had one blue van for shopping. The side door would not close properly. It was very nice to sit in there because when the van climbed uphill, the door would slowly open, allowing the wind to blow in, just like boarding a xe loi in Vietnam (very similar to a rickshaw, being pulled by a motorbike instead of a person).

Those days, Lower Hamlet only had an old car, donated by uncle Cao Thai. Sister Hieu Nghiem was the only driver since no one else could drive a manual car.

Those days, I wandered around the whole day in the forest because the schedule was very relaxed except on a Day of Mindfulness. In the autumn I picked apples and hazelnuts and gathered wood for the fireplace in the dining hall. In the spring I hung a hammock under the plum trees and fell asleep.

Those days, all novices wore grey robes. Thay loved the memories of his novice time, so one day Thay came into the meditation hall wearing a grey robe.

Those days, bikkhus wore brown robes. Bikkhunis and novice nuns could wear only brown robes during retreats. When there was an announcement on the board about putting on sanghati, the sisters would ask each other what color robe to wear.

Those days were nearly twenty years ago. I was still very clumsy; it took me nearly half an hour each time I shaved my head. I was still up and down due to little-things-that-seem-to-be-very big happening in the Sangha. I still got very excited like a child receiving a gift each time I had a chance to play/be with Thay. I still worried about Thay’s fragile health because I was such a baby stumbling on my feet. I still anxiously wondered how Plum Village would be without Thay.

Those days, Thay talked about Vietnam, or the root temple, or the traditional protocols from when Thay was still a novice, without expecting that one day he would be able to set foot in his homeland. And I sat there, listening with a soft heart. I loved Vietnam, loved those intelligent novices who were very keen in learning and practicing, loved my beloved Dharma sisters and brothers whom I had never met, and who were trying to preserve the Buddhist conduct in Vietnam.

Inheriting the Fruits

Now, Thay has been able to go back to our homeland, although his returns were full of difficulties and challenges. I too have gotten to know Vietnam. I was there for more than four years, living in a traditional temple and being close to the root temple.

Now, Plum Village has turned thirty years old. Ten years is long enough for a child to mature; thirty years is sufficient for a newborn baby to become a well-established adult in society. And the children of Plum Village—Upper Hamlet, Lower Hamlet, New Hamlet, Maison de l’Inspire, Deer Park, Green Mountain, Blue Cliff, Magnolia Grove, EIAB, AIAB—although being born in different times, have already started to stand firmly on two feet, self-sufficient and contributing peace to the world.

In the early days of Thay’s Dharma tours, Thay was assisted by just a few lay and monastic Dharma teachers. Today, Thay’s presence is inseparable with the image of a big Sangha and retreats with approximately 1,000 attendees. Not only has Thay conducted Dharma tours, but our young Dharma teachers have also been to many different places to provide teachings. Additionally, various centers have organized many retreats. In recent years, both the Wake Up movement, which has introduced mindfulness to young people in schools and universities, and health retreats have developed strongly and have been very well received. And our very young novices have played a really active role in this work.

At this present time, Thay continues to generate new insight. For many years, the tree of wisdom has flourished and has been fruitful. Now, at the age of eighty-five, Thay has still not stopped. Thay would like us to be solid on the path to renew Buddhism. Thay would like us to bring Thay into the future.

mb61-AncientTree3It is the image of an ancient tree that suddenly produces a fragrant flower. How I love this image! The fruits of meditation practice, of daily enlightenment from Thay, have been inherited. And the fragrance will be spreading in countless directions, even if the tree grows against the wind, and regardless of storms.

Sister Thoai Nghiem resides in New Hamlet, has been with Plum Village since 1993, and likes to take care of the gardens.

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Twenty-two Years of Plum Village

By Paul Tingen  

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My first visit to Plum Village, twenty-two years ago, is still as vividly engrained in my memory as if it happened last week, probably because it was packed with surprises, ranging from the eyebrow-raising to the jaw-dropping. I arrived in Lower Hamlet on a warm evening in July 1990 during the Summer Opening. The first person I encountered was Shantum Seth, who looked rather splendid in his Indian outfit and who seemed to be the only one who had an overview of what was happening. As I put my ruck- sack down, I asked him where I could sleep, and he replied, “You can put your tent anywhere, or sleep in a room.” I looked around for where I could pitch up my tent, but Shantum’s next question stopped me in my tracks. “You want to join the evening meditation? It starts in half an hour.”

I’d just hitchhiked from London and was tired, but I was also eager for my first experience of what Plum Village was about, so I said yes. Half an hour later I sat in the Red Candle Hall, puzzled by the fact that we were facing the wall and not one another, and impressed by the sound of the big bell. The session turned out to be a guided meditation on death, with phrases like: “Breathing out, I see my dead body festering.” The whole meditation was a visualisation of the process of one’s own corpse decaying until it turned to dust. I was shocked. Some part of me guessed that this was about training our minds to get used to the idea of physical death and to chip off bits of the big rock of our fear of death, but at the same time, as a horror show of images paraded through my mind, I thought, “Are these people morbid or something? Have I ended up in the clutches of some crazy religious sect?”

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears2Fateful Decision 

The fact was, at that point I knew nothing about the practice. The reason I was in Plum Village was that a few months earlier, in April, I had attended a talk by Thay in London. At that time a series of mostly New Age talks was held every Monday night in St. James’ Church, near Piccadilly Circus. I was on a spiritual search for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and I also had a lot of suffering that I didn’t know how to transform, so I went every Monday night, looking for answers. I had no idea who Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong were. After everyone had taken their seats, Sister Chan Khong sang to us and explained the practice of the bell, and there was a lot of stopping, going slowly, and breathing. I recall thinking, a bit impatiently, “This is going to be a long evening.” I looked at the exit and considered going to a local café to have some cake and coffee and coming back later to meet some friends. Then Thay came forward, and from halfway down the church he looked like he was thirty-five years old. Add his gap-toothed smile, soft voice, and extremely simple language, and I remember thinking, “Who is this young upstart and what does he know?” My decision to delay my exit for coffee and cake for a few more minutes turned out to be one of the most fateful of my life.

Ten minutes later I was hooked. Not long afterwards, I started to cry. I cried for the rest of Thay’s talk. When I occasionally looked around me, I saw that at least half the people in the audience were actively weeping. Thay’s talk was extraordinary, and as he kept talking, I realised that there was a wealth of experience, wisdom, depth, and insight behind his very simple words. The main thing I recall is that I was deeply touched by his attitude toward suffering. He acknowledged suffering with compassion and without judgment. It was okay to suffer. Thay showed a way that accepted and embraced suffering with tenderness, but he also offered a way out of suffering that was light, simple, and delicious. As he talked I kept being stunned at how much of what he said was common sense. I recognised everything he said as obvious life truths, yet I’d never heard anyone formulate them before. At that point I had an inkling that I’d found my teacher, and to this day my life is separated into the time before and the time after that April evening.

Naturally, when I found out that Thay had a centre in the south of France, one of my favourite areas in the world, I decided to go. And so a few months later I found myself sitting in the Lower Hamlet Red Candle Hall with horror movie images running through my head. I didn’t immediately plan my exit, but I did go to sleep with mixed feelings. The next morning we all went to Upper Hamlet for Thay’s Dharma talk, which was in the Transformation Hall. The Summer Retreat was attended by perhaps two hundred people, and while most fit in the hall, a couple of dozen listened under the linden tree. Thay was only five minutes into his talk when I experienced the same feelings I had had in London a few months earlier. I was deeply touched, and the doubts that had arisen the evening before fell away. He was indeed my teacher. I had arrived.

A New Direction

Life in Plum Village in 1990 was very different than it is now—for starters, the schedule. I remember that we got up at approximately 6:30 a.m. and began practice at 7:00 a.m. Morning practice consisted of the round of sitting-walking-sitting meditation, followed by sutra reading with sometimes a bit of chanting. Breakfast started at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. Thay’s Dharma talk was planned for 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., but because he took so long to casually stroll towards the hall, while chatting with people on the way, he often didn’t start until later. Thay’s Dharma talks often were long, so lunch tended to be at 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., after which there was rest time. Walking meditation was usually at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., and after dinner there was another sitting-walking-sitting meditation session beginning at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. (I invite those with better memories than mine to correct these times if I haven’t got them quite right.)

In addition to Thay, there were only three other monastics living at Plum Village: Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Jina (who was still walking around in very striking black and white Japanese robes). Thay and Sister Chan Khong were very available and approachable. Thay would chat with loads of people, particularly before his Dharma talks. Very early on during my stay, he heard me playing my acoustic guitar under the linden tree, and he approached me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar in the meditation hall before the Dharma talk, to calm people down and keep chatting to a minimum while they waited for him. I was very happy to oblige, and it was the beginning of a whole new musical direction for me. When he arrived thirty to forty-five minutes later, he’d sit next to me, listening and waiting for me to finish my piece, after which we bowed to each other and I left the stage.

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It was fairly easily organized in those days to have tea with Thay, and during this occasion I remember being struck by seeing Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving among the five books on his bookshelf. Sister Chan Khong was also very approachable, and I regularly sat next to her in an old Peugeot 505, mostly driving between Upper and Lower Hamlet. I have no idea why we went up and down so often, but it gave me a chance to talk about what was bothering me. She was always very present, and many of her pearls of wisdom are still with me today. I was practicing in an esoteric Christian tradition at the time, and in response to my feeling uneasy about the Buddhist aspects of Plum Village she replied, “You don’t need to feel this is your home; just relax and regard it as a hospital for you to heal.” To my question about how to stay mindful when playing rock and roll on my electric guitar, she advised, “Just breathe before you play, and breathe again after you play.” Simple, and no judgment. She also told me, “Don’t think about what’s bothering you all the time. Breathe and focus on other things, and then, when you’re no longer thinking about it, a solution will suddenly pop into your head.”

It was also Sister Chan Khong who at one point tapped me on the shoulder and gently asked, “Why don’t you join the walking meditation?” As a left-leaning young man who had been strongly influenced by the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, I had a strong habit energy of rebellion and non-conformism, and didn’t immediately join in with all the practices. The immense tolerance in Plum Village was therefore a godsend for me. For example, for more than a year I refused to bow. Once someone gently asked me why and then appeared to happily accept my answer. There was no pressure to do anything or be anything other than myself. This gave me the space to discover for myself what bowing is about, and when I realised that honouring the Buddha in the other person is a very beautiful practice, I could bow from a place of total authenticity. To this day, bowing is an important practice for me that feels completely comfortable and genuine.

I felt that Thay and Sister Chan Khong personally took me under their wing and opened doors for my Plum Village experience—Sister Chan Khong with her compassionate listening and wisdom, and Thay in encouraging me to follow the new musical direction I had taken. Until my first visit to Plum Village, I was involved in making rock music, but it never felt quite right. With Thay’s encouragement, more and more acoustic guitar pieces came rolling out of me, and I eventually realised that this was my true musical voice. I recorded parts of my first CD in Plum Village in 1993, something that Thay personally made possible, saying that he wanted the community to be able to support artists.

Presence of Compassion 

Until I (temporarily) moved to the U.S. in 1999, I travelled several times a year from England to Plum Village, and every time I arrived I noticed changes that were not to my liking. For example, the wake-up time became earlier and earlier; there were more people, more buildings, and stricter practice; men and women were separated between the hamlets; and gradually Sister Chan Khong and particularly Thay became less available to laypeople. Every time I initially thought, “Oh, no!” And yet, every time, this reaction dropped away within hours as I noticed that the energy of the practice and the presence of compassion and understanding were the same as the last time I visited.

However, as the morning wake-up time became earlier and earlier, I did become a morning meditation truant, eventually abandoning that practice altogether. I could barely function for the rest of the day when I did attend. And after my first child was born in 2002, and sleepless nights became the norm, I learned to grab every second of sleep that I could.

And then, one summer morning in Upper Hamlet a few years ago, I woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I went to the big meditation hall, arriving fifteen minutes early for the morning meditation. A few people were already there, and I sat down far away from them, in a quiet corner where I expected to have a lot of space to myself. I had just settled in my meditation when I heard someone enter the hall, move slowly in my direction, and sit down right beside me. I wondered who would choose, out of all the free places in the hall, the seat immediately to my left. I glanced sideways. It was Thay.

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears4Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of a book about the electric music of Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.

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Summer Camp of the Pure Land

By David Lawrence 

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Getting to Plum Village was not easy. I had a strong desire to go, but the prospect of leaving my many activities created doubts that I would actually be able to make the trip. Yet the anticipation of being with the greater Sangha and deepening my practice helped me to say yes.

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My flight arrived late at Charles de Gaulle Airport and was followed by a crazy bus ride into Paris. I frantically tried to find the right railway station for the TGV and then transfer to a smaller train that took me to Ste Foy. Finally, I remembered Thay’s words to the exhausted and impatient traveler: “Continue to breathe and smile.”

At Ste Foy, I was greeted by a very kind monk who understood how tired I was. Our trip to Upper Hamlet was quiet and reflective. As we approached Plum Village on a narrow tree-lined road, I saw the sign in Thay’s calligraphy: You have arrived, you are home. The words were very comforting after my long trip. I took my first real breath in quite a while.

Throughout the Summer Opening, I deeply enjoyed the delight and laughter of children playing, held in safety by the community. I loved sharing meals outside. The chiming clocks, announcing breathing opportunities every fifteen minutes, became my bells of mindfulness. Practice flowed with fun and ease. At the end of each day, I would lie down in my tent feeling totally content and ready for sleep. I wondered: Could this be the Summer Camp of the Pure Land?

Kindred Spirit 

Retreatants came to Plum Village for a minimum of one week. Many came for the full four-week period of the Summer Opening. It was extraordinary how quickly we all became a Sangha family. People left Plum Village on Saturday and it was always a very emotional time. Much of the Sangha would come to say goodbye. We practiced hugging meditation and shed a few tears as friends boarded the bus. People waved out of the windows until the bus was out of view. Shortly after they left, new people arrived and the process of deep connection started over again.

Almost every day, I saw a man who I knew was a kindred spirit. Whenever I saw him, we both stopped and looked at each other in a profound way without any self-consciousness. I never actually met him in the “normal” way. There was no need to know anything about this person, where he came from, or who he was, and no need to connect in any other way. In the act of bowing deeply, there was self-recognition and deep knowing.

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Among the many connections I made, two special people stand out; they helped me see more clearly during my stay in Plum Village. Thay Giac Thanh was a senior monk in charge of practice in the Upper Hamlet. He had a large smile that lit up his whole face. I was privileged to be invited to his hut for tea and have wonderful playful conversations. He was soft and joyful and also could be like a tiger. His combination of sweetness and strength was extraordinary. I will always be grateful for his friendship. Thay Doji, a French Zen monk who had practiced in Japan for many years, helped me in my times of doubt. He was solid as a mountain. I bow to his willingness to share his experiences and insights in a deep way.

A Space of Freedom

Once each week, we had a lazy day. It was a day to do anything we liked. We could sleep all day, meditate, go for a walk, or be with friends. There was no schedule. Some of the Sangha would gather under the large linden tree in the Upper Hamlet, enjoying the sunshine, gentle breezes, tea, silence, or quiet conversation.

Thay said in a Dharma talk that the lazy day was the most difficult day of the week for Westerners. How often do we allow ourselves to truly be lazy, without any agenda? It was a real practice for me to let go of thinking about doing something better and anticipating what was next. Yet it was so simple and pleasurable to just sit and let the moments pass, one after another. This feeling of being content, just being and breathing, was new. A smile came from a deeper part of myself.

Plum Village had a strong current of insight generated by mindfulness and it was always available if I turned to it. What magic it was to see things from a space of freedom and not of fear. Sometimes I would go and look over the hillside at the sunflower fields. I would close my eyes and then open them after some moments, and I understood that the inside was the same as the outside. The concept of interbeing became an experience.

mb61-SummerCamp4David Lawrence, True Land of Harmony, lives in Santa Cruz, California with his wife Marianne Benforado, Awakened Lamp of the Heart. Chuli, their sweet doggie companion, gives them daily Dharma lessons in living joyfully. The Heart Sangha of Santa Cruz is their practice community.

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Full Moon Ceremony with Plum Village

By Joann Malone and Patrick Smith 

mb61-FullMoon1Ten years ago this summer, my husband and I learned a mindfulness practice at Plum Village that has since nourished our home and our marriage. The leader of our Avatamsaka family group, Shantum Seth, suggested that all the couples in our group renew their wedding vows each month on the full moon. After several beautiful talks on love by Thay, a signing of the Peace Treaty, and a Beginning Anew Ceremony in our large family group, we couples gathered in the evening around the lotus pond. As the full moon rose over the trees, children exclaimed and songs burst forth from hundreds of people from dozens of countries. Supported by the entire PV community and summer retreat participants, we pledged to love one another with loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The children released paper boats they had made onto the pond and brought us special full moon treats to feed one another.

We have continued to practice with Plum Village each month in our home, simply by gathering our candle, bell, and chant book, and standing near the kitchen window where we have the best view of the moon. We light the candle, invite the bell, and recite the Five Awarenesses:

  1. We are aware that all generations of our ancestors and all future generations are present in us.
  2. We are aware of the expectations that our ancestors, our children, and their children have of us.
  3. We are aware that our joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are the joy, peace, freedom, and harmony of our ancestors, our children, and their children.
  4. We are aware that understanding is the very foundation of love.
  5. We are aware that blaming and arguing never help us and only create a wider gap between us, that only understanding, trust, and love can help us change and grow.

These deep truths have seeped into our consciousness with our monthly renewal, allowing us to wake up more quickly when challenged by blaming or becoming angry at one another. Our deepening awareness helps us stop, breathe, and look at one another with more love and understanding. We remember that joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are possible in any moment. We are always loved and supported by our ancestors, our children, their children, and the worldwide Sangha. Our love for one another helps transform our ancestors, our children, their children, and the world.

Our monthly vow renewal was particularly powerful for us when we were in Miami to memorialize my niece, who had passed away at age thirty-eight from a brain aneurism. This sudden death, caused by lack of medical insurance for high blood pressure medication, brought great sadness to our family.  Additionally, as the family gathered, secrets were revealed that possibly could have led to violence. The night before the memorial service, the full moon appeared over the ocean and reminded me that it was time to recite the Five Awarenesses. We invited my brothers, sister-in- law, and other niece to join us. The words “understanding is the very foundation of love,” recited by family members feeling deep conflict with one another, brought enough peace into our midst to hold off actions that might have further divided us and increased our suffering.

The Full Moon Ceremony, along with daily meditation together, the Peace Treaty, the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, our teachers, and our  Sangha (the Washington Mindfulness Community), brings stability and peace to our family. We are so grateful to Thay and Plum Village for supporting us on this path of love. Happy 30th Anniversary.

mb61-FullMoon2Joann Malone and Patrick Smith, True Collective Practice and True Collectie Beauty, live in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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More Joy and Less Suffering

An Interview with Chau Yoder 

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ChauYoder, Tam Luu Ly / Chan Tham Tue, was born in Hanoi, Vietnam and lives in Walnut Creek, California with her husband Jim, to whom she has been married since 1971. They have two adult daughters, Ann and Lynn. Chau earned her Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Electronic Engineering (B.S.E.E.E.) from California State University at Fresno and worked for twenty-five years at Chevron Corporation—as a manager in Chevron Information Technology, then Manager of Network Operations, and later as a consultant in Applied Behavioral Science.

Chau has a deep aspiration to share specific and important methods and techniques for enhancing mindful living, all emphasizing self-awareness of body and mind. She studied with Master Ce Hang Truong to become a trainer in Integral Tai Chi and learned MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. She is currently an active Dharma Teacher, ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2003. Since 1989, she has offered workshops and classes on mindful leadership, mindful living, and qigong to promote healthy and happy living. She has presented her programs in youth, corporate, and retreat environments.

ChauYoder was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 17, 2012, for this special anniversary issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share a meaningful experience from your time there?

Chau Yoder: In 1997 I went to Plum Village for the first time, and in Thay’s first Dharma talk, he encouraged everybody to be in extended silence. I spent about ten days in silence except during Dharma discussions. I discovered the power of silence. Once during the week, a young nun misunderstood my actions and she scolded me, but I hadn’t done what she was accusing me of. I caught myself ready to respond and heard my inner voice: “Oh! I’m in silence.” So I just stayed quiet. I was so free. I felt so good. That’s why now I talk about the power of silence.

MB: Did you notice a deeper silence internally because of the external silence?

CY: I recognize that I catch my own thinking more. I am able to sort it out, able to understand myself better. I call it peeling the onion. I recognize my bad seeds and my good seeds.

mb61-MoreJoy3MB: When and how did you first meet Thay? As a young practitioner, did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CY: In 1987 I read Thay’s books, Peace Is Every Step and Being Peace. His writing is so clear. Thay’s Dharma body exhibits a peace and calmness that I really like. I observed his mindful walk—he was so there in the moment. I felt like when I found Thay’s teaching I returned to my roots, both with blood and spiritual ancestors.

In 1991, I had a pivotal moment during a five-day retreat at Kim Son Monastery in Watsonville, California. I was sitting with my mom next to me when Thay Phap Dang chanted a sutra. Suddenly, tears poured down my face and I couldn’t stop crying through the lunch that followed. I couldn’t eat.  After lunch, I wrote a letter to Thay and put it in the bell.

When you ask Thay a question, he’ll often answer it in public somewhere, and you feel like, “Oh, he’s talking to me.” That afternoon Thay said in his talk, “Watch out for your desire. Don’t think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” I felt like he was talking to me. I had signed my name to the letter, so the abbot of Kim Son, Thay Tinh Tu, came out and touched my head and talked to me, trying to console me. That was a pivotal moment. That’s when I recognized that the seeds in me of wanting to be a nun were so strong.

Years later, Thay talked to me when I was at his hut in Plum Village with a few others. Thay was talking about people like me, who are married. He turned to me and said, “If your will is strong, then you can do it. Right, Chau?” I knew he was right. I knew that my will was not strong enough to become a nun. More and more, people keep encouraging me to nurture the seeds inside of me to be a monastic and maybe one of these days, one of these years, at least next lifetime, I can be. And that’s my vow. Next lifetime, I want to be a little boy novice. [Smiles.]

mb61-MoreJoy4My parents didn’t want me to be a monastic, so I studied hard to get a scholarship and came from Vietnam to the U.S. The first day I arrived at California State University, Fresno (which was about two weeks after I arrived in the U.S.), I saw my husband, Jim, and fell in love and that was it!

MB: You’ve devoted your life to the practice as a layperson. How have you manifested a devout daily practice?

CY: I believe that practicing with Thay Tu Luc, the abbot of the Compassion Meditation Center in Hayward, California, is one of my key activities that help me to be on the path of mindfulness. I am lucky to have this condition in my life, so I don’t have to go to Deer Park Monastery or wait until Thay Nhat Hanh comes. Thay Tu Luc represents Thay Nhat Hanh’s teaching here for me.

When I went to the retreat with Thay at Kim Son Monastery in 1989, the abbot, Thay Tinh Tu, taught us the sixteen health stick exercises, the ones that Plum Village does now. Every morning, I went and practiced with him at 5:30, before Thay’s events. One morning, he handed the stick to me and said, “Take this home and practice.” So I took it home, practiced, and eventually taught it along with meditation to my work colleagues at Chevron. It really helped them with their stress. That started my teaching career.

Then Jim and I went to the retreat for business people at Plum Village in 1999. There, Sister Chan Khong asked me to lead La Boi Publishing [publishers of Thay’s books in Vietnamese]. The more I got to edit Thay’s books, the deeper I got into his teaching. I really treasure that.

MB: Can you tell me a little bit more about La Boi Publishing?

CY: At the beginning, I headed a team of volunteers. Every year for a while, we published two or three books of Thay’s in Vietnamese. It was really active. But in 2005, when Thay started to go to Vietnam, more books were printed in Vietnam. They’re much cheaper to publish there. Eventually we lost our free storage space for La Boi, so it became more practical to print all the books in Vietnam.

Thay also encouraged us to share the Dharma and to practice together. In 1999, we created a monthly meditation group called La Boi Sangha. At first it was purely Vietnamese, and then a few English-speaking people joined us. We became bilingual. But now we’ve returned to only Vietnamese. I feel like I’m a bridge between Vietnamese and English, so I encourage people to do both.

MB: I am curious about your work with bridging between the Vietnamese and Western cultures. How are you a bridge, and how does that feel for you?

CY: It’s just natural, I think, because I’m married to Jim and because I came here when I went to school in 1967. My English speaking and understanding is pretty good, so I can connect with English-speaking people and I still have the roots of Vietnamese, especially after I started to edit and publish Thay’s books in Vietnamese. Also conditions have been right, because in 1999 I started to be more involved with the English-speaking Community of Mindful Living in Northern California and with Parallax Press.

MB: Did you find that your practice changed after you received the Lamp Transmission?

CY: Not really. Like I mentioned, I have been teaching since 1989. After the Lamp Transmission, maybe people notice you more. Thay said that we are all Dharma teachers already, and we just have to share what we learn. The key thing is that we have to stay fresh and joyful and we have to watch out for becoming cocky. Of course, I’m very honored. The lamp is in the front of my house, so I’m reminded and thankful for Thay and the community to keep the trust in me, to give me that opportunity.

MB: What activities are you involved in that bring the Dharma to life for you?

CY: For sixteen years I have been teaching mindful leadership to 147 senior high school students and twenty adults at an annual Rotary Leadership camp. Since 2007, about once a year I travel with my husband to a foreign country to deliver several hundred prosthetic hands and train people who have lost their hands.

MB: Your email address includes the phrase “high spirits.” In my perception, you’re a person of very high spirits and joy. How do you keep your joy alive every day?

CY: Every day I lie down and appreciate the Buddhas in the ten thousand directions who help me and the people around me to see and follow the path. Namo Amitabha, Namo  Avalokiteshvara. I also write in a little notebook all the affirmations for my five organs, for my mind and body, to stay centered and happy. Every morning before I get up, I recite in Vietnamese the waking-up gatha that Thay wrote. I pray that beings around me help themselves and protect themselves, and if I accidentally harm any beings, then please help them to go to nirvana. That’s my normal routine. Then I get up, and I sit and meditate and pray and chant and invite the bell. I walk here and there mindfully every day. For exercise I do tai chi, qigong, and yoga.

I remember Thay said it is important to be fresh as flowers. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Morning and night, I focus on my joyful and beneficial daily spirit with a beginner’s mind vow and appreciation. Since 1989, I’ve been teaching at a weekly cancer support group. I also teach at a Jewish old folks’ home, and I still teach at Chevron once a month. I’ve pretty much surrounded myself with these things. I’m just so thankful, sitting here, looking out the window, thankful for this little awesome place we have to remind me of nature and practice.

Since I began to practice with Thay, I’ve learned to enjoy nature so much more. I used to be a city girl. And I used to be very scared of death—of my family’s death, of my own death. I had a one-year-old brother who died when I was only five; I cried and cried. When I studied with Thay and understood better about no coming, no going, that helped me so much. I no longer feel fear of death or worry about my loved ones. I learned from Thay and other teachers that we are nothing but energy. That helped me survive raising my two daughters. Now they are thirty-seven and thirty-three. Otherwise I would just worry about them so much. When I learned these things, I would pray to Avalokiteshvara, send Avalokiteshvara energy through me, in me, and then I’d give them loving energy and prayer energy. So I feel much more at peace. All of these practices help me to be in the moment.

Since I began to study with Thay and the community, I understand my body reactions much faster. I used to have pain from worry, from anxiety. I used to be a super Type A person. I know some of that energy is still in me, but I’m a calmer Type A! [Laughter.]

Before I studied with Thay, I learned from another practice how to transform my migraine headaches into nothing. No more migraine headaches! If I don’t do the mindful practices, both physical and mental, I can see the impact on my body.

MB: It sounds like you’ve had some deep transformations thanks to the practice.

CY: Yes, definitely. Someone who worked for me told me, “I used to be very scared of you.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, we used to call you dragon lady! We were so scared of you.” If they didn’t perform, I would nail them, I guess. But then he said, “But now you’re very nice. You’re the best manager. We love you now.” So I learned to listen to people better, and understand them better, and empathize better. I know that when I first studied these things, I was so critical of myself. I was a perfectionist, and very critical of myself and of others. So I just created suffering for myself and others.

I have to agree; I have transformed a lot. My life is much more peaceful and joyful. I still yell back at Jim sometimes, but I know how to apologize and I stop myself much faster. I rarely have the blow-ups that I used to have frequently! I still have fear, anger, and anxiety when dealing with the difficulties of life; however, I feel that they are much less than before. I have to constantly work on being mindful and peeling my onion to transform my bad habit energy.

I am so thankful to the practice for my transformation. This is the momentum that helps me help others. I have found this path helps me have more joy and less suffering. That’s my vow, now—to help others and equally, myself, to have more joy and less suffering in life.

MB: What guidance would you like to share with young practitioners?

CY: PBS (Pause, Breathe, and Smile). Practice mindful breathing even just ten minutes a day to be a balanced, ethical, and compassionate leader—a leader of yourself. Treasure your greatness. Appreciate your youth and live mindfully in the moment. Practice when you are young; then you will have a much fuller life and balance in all areas of your life. You will definitely be happier. Practice a new routine for twenty-eight days straight to change your habits.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Jim Yoder

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My Beloved Teacher

By Chan Luong

My teacher was a famous writer in Vietnam. The Buddhist and non-Buddhist young people of my generation knew Thay by his renowned book, A Dialogue with Young Adult.* Over fifty years ago, he called for reform in Buddhist practice in Vietnam and focused on the essence of the teachings rather than the manifold forms. I see him as a revolutionist monk.

Thich Nhat Hanh Many people talk about the enlightened beings of our century. My comment is the common Vietnamese saying: A teacher like Thay appears only once every few hundred years. Like other great beings, Thay has embodied compassionate living throughout his life. Since the day he founded the School of Youth for Social Service in 1964, Thay and Sister Chan Khong have ceaselessly reached out to people who suffered during and after wartime. Many of us already know about Thay’s books, his teachings, and his influence on numerous lives. I would like to share with you some of my fondest memories of Thay.

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 The Mindful Way

One time, during a retreat in the early days of Plum Village, some of us young people spent an afternoon with Thay, collating pages of a book for binding and publishing. After he had explained how to carry out the task, we all followed Thay around a large table, picking up pages and putting them together to complete the book. Thay walked slowly and mindfully with great ease. At the end, we realized the number of books each of us had collated was less than Thay’s. With surprise and wonder, we asked Thay how that could be. Thay gently smiled to us and said it was simply because he had more experience than we did. I thought how sweet he was! However, this experience helped me to understand that with practice, one can be mindful and productive at the same time.

During the time when I was fortunate enough to be Thay’s assistant in the Lower Hamlet, I saw how Thay spoke, taught, and played with young people. They were happy and delighted, and they adored Thay. There was never a wall between this most venerable monk and the youngsters. I felt the communication between them was deep, and Thay could easily transmit his teachings directly to them. They were called “mini OI members.” I have worked with teenagers for over twenty years as a clinician. If I have been able to help them make changes in their lives, I attribute it to the loving, compassionate, and mindful way that Thay has taught me. I know that I need to keep the light of mindfulness and compassion shining and learn ways to take care when the light dims.

One year when we celebrated Christmas at Plum Village, the monastics and laypeople spent hours creating the festive occasion. Tables were beautifully decorated with leaves and dried flowers. Food was abundant. Thay mindfully walked to the table to invite the bell marking the beginning of dinner. Then we suddenly noticed him calmly holding a big spoon to invite the bell, as the inviter was not available. There were no reprimands, no interruptions of the celebration.

I thought Thay felt that his lay students may be a little shy about their compassionate actions in life. One day, in a question and answer session, Thay responded to the big question, “What is compassion?” He simply said: “Compassion is like when you are inside your home, warm and comfortable with a cup of hot tea in your hand. It is cold and dark outside. You hear a calling, put the cup of tea down, and walk out in that cold, dark, and windy place to help.” Thay’s words have profoundly affected my ordinary and humble life as an OI member.

Those of us who live “down under,” far from France, often receive a special treat before our departure from Plum Village: having tea or walking with Thay. Moments of sitting or walking meditation with Thay remain fresh and vivid in my memory. When we walk beside him, we feel his presence; his energy of mindfulness is so powerful that peace emerges in us.

Life-Changing Pilgrimage 

In 1988 I went to India with Thay and a delegation of just over thirty people. We arrived at the Lumbini Motel in a remote village after a long and dusty trip. The showers didn’t have hot water. I managed to get some help from motel staff and carried a bucket of hot water to the shower room. When I accidentally crossed paths with Thay, he gently asked me where I had found the hot water. I offered to fetch some for him. But he quietly said, “Thay already had a shower with cold water.” We had all forgotten to look after our teacher, but still he had kind words for us.

While in India, we pilgrims followed Thay to Vulture Peak. Every day we walked up the mountain, listened to Thay’s Dharma talks, and watched the sunset together in silence. Gazing into the distance with my mindful breath, I felt the beauty of the sunset flow through me, and I didn’t need it to last forever. We also felt the presence of the Buddha on Vulture Peak through Thay’s words. Since that day, when I encounter difficulties in life, I silently say, “Namo Shakyamunaye Buddhaya” to get in touch with the Buddha in myself.

One day, others were busy at the Indian market or resting, and I sat with my teacher on the rocks. We enjoyed the silence together. Unexpectedly, Thay said, “Just breathe, dear.” Thay’s gentle words left a deep imprint in my mind. Years later, I read the book Breath By Breath. The author, Larry Rosenberg, commented that Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I have watched my breath [for] over fifty years [and it has]…only grown in interest.”

That pilgrimage to India with Thay changed my life forever. While traveling on a full moon day, we stopped so that Thay could recite the precepts. There were no candles, no table. Thay gathered some Bodhi leaves and rocks to make an altar under the tree. With some simple incense, he conducted the most beautiful ceremony I ever attended. That experience taught me that we could create something beautiful with our mindful energy, and that without mindfulness, ceremonies could become empty rituals.

A Rare Combination

Our teacher is a rare combination of a great poet and a venerable monk. Therefore his teachings are profound, yet gentle, loving, and compassionate. His teachings and ways of organising have never been doctrinaire. Many of us feel like we have come home when we hear him talk.

Thay is a kind teacher, and he sees that the teachings of impermanence and non-self are not easy for many of us to practice. His insight about the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is incredible. Thay says that without impermanence, a young plant cannot grow into a tree, a child cannot grow to be an adult. Personally, I had never heard anyone talk about impermanence in that way before. His Dharma talks about non-self are very clear. He helps us see the ultimate dimension of life through the historical dimension, leading to the ending of our suffering.

Thay can be fierce in his teaching. He has told us many times that he doesn’t like us to be like parrots that repeat words they do not understand or like empty husks of grain that practice outer forms and have no substance inside. He’s also a sweet and loving teacher who wants to know whether each Plum Village hamlet has enough firewood and food for winter days.

Thay sees interbeing in all things. He often tells us that each of us is a flower in the garden of mankind; each kind of flower has its own beauty. If you are a chrysanthemum, a daffodil, an orchid, or a rose, be a beautiful chrysanthemum, daffodil, orchid, or rose; do not strive to be a different kind of flower, making yourself unhappy. He also says a garden is beautiful because it has different kinds of flowers.

Many practitioners may still seek the bliss of entering Jhana, detached moments from the world. But I love my teacher’s incredible “stillness in action,” a testament to his solidity and deep peace. Larry Rosenberg writes, “Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage draws on both Theravada and Mahayana teaching. He more than anyone else demonstrates the importance of bringing breath awareness into daily life, of staying awake in the midst of all our activities. He is unrelenting in his teaching, and it took such a strong message to get through to me.” Such a message is as vital to us, Thay’s students, as it is to Larry.

Lightness Fills My Path

Plum Village has grown so rapidly; nowadays, even when you stay on a retreat, you only get a glimpse of Thay. As he is approaching his senior years, everyone contributes to protect and preserve Thay’s energy for the Dharma. The new generation of practitioners may not have as much teaching of mindfulness directly from Thay as in the early days.

We know that Thay is growing in years, and we know deeply the universal law of impermanence. I remember that one year, at the end of a June retreat for OI members in Plum Village, Thay conducted a simple closing ceremony. Afterwards, we all stood up and offered a lotus flower with our joined palms as our way of saying goodbye to Thay. While Thay slowly walked out of the hall, suddenly, in that solemn silence, a voice arose: “We love you, Thay.” I thought that loving voice spoke for all of us that day.

* Noi Voi Tuoi Hai Muoi

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Mai Than-Trong, Chan Luong, became an OI member in 1988 and ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. She was one of the founders of the Lotus Bud Sangha based in Sydney, Australia. Mai is currently a semi-retired senior psychologist in Sydney.

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

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Her original name is Phuong; her monastic name is Chan Khong (True Emptiness). Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong started Plum Village together in 1982. That Plum Village has become what it is today and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s teachings is, to a great extent, a result of Sister Chan Khong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath.

I first met Thay and Sister Phuong in 1984, during a meditation weekend in Amsterdam. In the evening, there was a special program with Vietnamese music. At one point, the music stopped abruptly, and Sister Phuong began to sing. I was deeply touched by her voice. Never had I heard someone sing like that. She sang my heart open, and I cried and cried, not understanding what was happening to me.

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During the first summer I spent in Plum Village, Sister Phuong wasn’t yet a nun. She had lovely long black hair that, when in her way, she would casually put up in a bun by sticking a pen through it. She warmly welcomed the few Westerners that visited Plum Village in those days, and she did what she could to make us feel at home. At that time, she was the only person able to translate from Vietnamese into English or French. When Thay gave a Dharma talk, or when there was an event in Vietnamese, she would sit next to us and translate for hours on end without ever appearing to get tired. Sister Phuong’s way of translating was so expressive that, even after having translated for hours, her voice sounded as colorful as it did when she began.

mb61-NotDifferent3Three years later, when I moved to Plum Village, I was often the only one during the winter season who didn’t understand Vietnamese. There were about ten of us by then, and after dinner, as we were enjoying countless cups of tea, there was usually a lot of conversation, all in Vietnamese. During those moments, I felt so left out, but when Sister Phuong was around she would always come sit next to me and, while participating wholeheartedly in the conversation, she would translate for me at the same time. I savored those moments in her presence.

She strengthened my confidence that there is always a solution to any problem. One winter, I had promised to make a flower arrangement for a Tea Meditation in the Lower Hamlet. I looked all over and could not find a single flower. When everyone was seated in the zendo and Sister Phuong was about to enter, I ran to her with an empty bowl in my hands, telling her, quite unhappily, that I had not succeeded in making the flower arrangement. Even before I had finished speaking, she picked up some tufts of grass that were growing along the path, added a few handfuls of pebbles from the path we were standing on, picked up a stick lying nearby, planted it in the middle, and . . . voila! Her creation was complete, and the Tea Meditation could begin. While we entered, she gave me a mischievous wink and whispered, “Pure nature.”

As the years passed, more and more people came to Plum Village, and new sleeping quarters needed to be created. One of the places chosen for a future dormitory was the attic of the house where my room was. Cleaning it was a gigantic job, with spider webs from floor to ceiling and the dust of ages everywhere. After cleaning for just a few minutes, I looked like a mineworker. Many hours of scrubbing and sweeping later, I seemed to have made no progress at all. One afternoon, after a few days of lonesome work in that cheerless place, Sister Phuong suddenly appeared, joining me in my work with great swiftness. Her help and enthusiasm were most welcome, but at the same time I felt embarrassed that she was there mopping the floor with me while she had countless other things to do. No matter what I said, she was not at all receptive to my urging that she spend her time in a different way; she continued until the job was done. She never felt that any job was beneath her.

I was often amazed by her inexhaustible energy. If something needed to be finished, she simply continued until it was done, if necessary beyond midnight, without eating and often all by herself. When packages of medicine needed to be sent to Vietnam, she sat for hours on the stone floor, addressing labels and writing uplifting words to each family. Others came and joined her in her work, but when they left she continued. And never have I detected a glimpse of self-pity in her. Despite all she has to do, I never heard her complain that she was too busy. I also never heard her complain of feeling cold, although in the wintertime in the drafty rooms of Plum Village there is certainly reason enough to do so. In early autumn, when I was already wearing two pairs of socks, I saw her walking without any. She never gave the slightest attention to her own discomfort.

mb61-NotDifferent4During a Tea Meditation, many years ago, I remember her telling us that she had just received a message from Vietnam that a number of artists had been imprisoned. She cried openly as she spoke. I felt so touched. While I suffer from my own pain, I saw her suffer from the pain of others. Far more often though, I saw her laughing, because she is very open to the comical aspects of a situation. Once a small group of very important Vietnamese monks from America paid a short visit to Plum Village. On the morning of their departure, we were all, about twelve people, called to the zendo. We sat in a circle while Thay spoke for a while in Vietnamese. We had just adopted a new routine in Plum Village; when someone was leaving, in order to say goodbye to him or her on behalf of the whole Sangha, one of the permanent residents would practice “hugging meditation” with the parting friend during a communal meeting. Hugging meditation is done in the following way: you first bow to each other, aware of your breath and forming a lotus bud with your hands to offer to the other person. Then you embrace the other person, holding him or her during three in- and out-breaths, fully aware of the fact that (1) you yourself are still alive, (2) the friend in your arms is still alive, and (3) you are lucky to be able to hold each other. Well, that morning Thay asked one of the nuns to come up to say goodbye to one of the visiting monks. In the meantime, he explained to the monk how hugging meditation was done. Only those who know the tradition well can gather how revolutionary Thay was at that moment. It was obvious to us that the monk in question was clearly not accustomed to this form of meditation. And certainly not with a nun! They both stood in front of each other. After exchanging a short, uneasy glance, they started bowing very deeply, and the inevitable happened: their heads collided. It took all of us great pains to refrain from laughing out loud; and like us, Sister Phuong sat for a long time with a twisted face that she just couldn’t manage to get back into the right expression, however hard she tried.

mb61-NotDifferent5Though countless practical things continuously demanded her attention, Sister Phuong also kept an eye on how we were doing. And if she suspected that something was wrong with one of us, she asked straightaway about it. Whatever it was she wanted to discuss, she always came immediately to the heart of the matter. When I wanted to tell her something, she usually got the point long before I had finished. Her way of listening was very attentive and without judging. When I spoke with her, I always felt a lot of space. Yet I also know from experience that her way of communicating has its own rules, and at times that has been quite difficult for me. The hardest to digest was her sudden way of stopping a conversation—completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a story, in the middle of a sentence. Since I learned that this moment could arrive at any time, I brought up what I wanted to talk about right away, or else she’d be gone long before I’d touched the topic I’d wanted to discuss. And that would be really bad luck. Because she was so busy, you’d never know when your next chance would be.

She could abruptly cut off a conversation on the telephone as well. Just like that. It has happened to me more than once. In the middle of a sentence, I would suddenly hear “beep, beep, beep” in my ear, the connection having been broken. At first I felt really hurt, but as time passed I learned to see that as her “suchness” and to simply accept it as just one of her many sides.

As far as I could see, the contact between Thay and Sister Phuong was very harmonious and without tension. Once, however, at the end of dinner, Thay spoke to her in an unusually stern voice: “Finish your meal!” Because it was so different from how Thay normally spoke to her or to any of us, I never forgot it. There were a few grains of rice (maybe eight or twelve) left on her plate, and Thay further said something like, “Many people are hungry at this moment.” To my surprise, Sister Phuong, with a look of remorse, proceeded to eat the remaining grains of rice on her plate, without any protest at having been addressed that way.

The first year I lived in Plum Village, Thay was the only monastic. But after their trip to India in 1988, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Chan Vi returned with shaved heads—they had become nuns. This unexpected change was a great shock to me. Thay must have noticed, because soon after their return, when I happened to be alone in a room with him and Sister Chan Khong, he invited me to touch Sister Chan Khong’s head to feel for myself how it felt without hair. While I was very carefully touching her head, she laughed at me in a playful way and then took me warmly into her arms and said, “I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference at all between us.”

I felt that something had changed in Sister Chan Khong. I felt the practice had really become number one in her life and that she had made a vow to try with all her heart to live as mindfully as possible. I noticed, for example, that in the middle of a conversation that was getting too noisy, she would become quieter, or while doing something very quickly, she would suddenly slow down. Because I so clearly felt the change that took place in her, it was quite natural for me to start calling her “Sister” instead of just “Phuong.” Speaking about her new position as a nun, she once told me that she wanted to be careful that she didn’t become proud. She explained to me that in the Vietnamese community this could easily happen because, as a monastic, Vietnamese people have the tendency to look up to you very much.

I have always known Sister Chan Khong as a jack-of-all-trades. According to her, she has much less energy than ten years ago, but when I see how much she takes on, seemingly without any effort, I am truly amazed. During a retreat some years ago in a Tibetan monastery in France, Thay fell ill. From that moment on, Sister Phuong took care of every aspect of the program, including the Dharma talk. On top of that, she cooked twice a day for Thay and the three Plum Village residents who had come to take care of the children’s program. In her remaining time, she was available for retreatants who wanted to discuss their problems with her. And when the children’s program didn’t run so smoothly, she took care of that as well. She was the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, and she continued to be in good spirits.

I have often wondered where her endless supply of energy comes from. I partly attribute it to the fact that she truly lives in the present; from moment to moment she deals with what is coming up, and she doesn’t lose energy in worrying about what may come next, which to me is a reflection of a deeply rooted faith. Even more important though, I think, is her compassion. When she became a nun, she received from Thay the name “Chan Khong,” “True Emptiness.” “My happiness is your happiness” and “your pain is my pain” is something that she truly lives. Seeing the self in the non-self is not a theory for her but the very ground of her being. 

Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I am Home  (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

mb61-NotDifferent6Eveline Beumkes, True Harmony/Peace, lived in Plum Village for three years from 1988 to 1991. She helped to organize the practice in Amsterdam, Holland and helped translate Thay’s books into Dutch. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. 

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Poem: Celebration

(for the ten-year anniversary of Plum Village, 1992)

By Svein Myreng

I want to celebrate chaos.
I want to celebrate old worn-out cars,
Broken tiles, ever-shifting
Schedules, misplaced letters,
And nettles next to flower-beds;
To celebrate toilets out of order,
As well as friends who will remind me
That mistakes are good, failures a success,
And that a pure heart may prevail
In the non-end.
I want to celebrate being left alone,
Or assailed by talkers
(Or, disturbing others’ quiet).
I want to celebrate gentle smiles,
Good intentions, and especially,
One step after the other.
“If arrow number 100 hits the target,
How can you say the first 99 were failures?”

mb61-Celebration1Svein Myreng, True Door, lived in Oslo, Norway. Svein was ordained a Dharma teacher in 1994. He wrote Plum Poems and A Handbook of Meditation, and translated two of Thay’s books into Norwegian. He passed away in 2007.

From Plum Poems, Parallax Press, 1999. Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I am Home (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

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Plum Village Smiles

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During the Summer Opening in the first years, I stayed in the room above the bookshop in Upper Hamlet. We had very few rooms then, and I had to share the room with four or five children. They stayed in the room with me and at night they sprawled out on the floor.

I thought that children needed to sing; that chanting alone was not enough. I intended to write the song, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life…” for the children. One afternoon we did sitting meditation in the Bamboo Hall. The walls are made of stone. Facing a big block of stone, the tune for the song came to me. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life, Namo Buddhaya.” I thought to myself, “I am here to do sitting meditation and not to make up songs. Let’s continue it after the sitting meditation.” However, after a few minutes, the music returned to me. I thought, “If it’s going to be like this, I might as well compose the song now.” So I continued writing that song and, after the meditation, I recorded in order not to forget it.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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In the past I taught several generations of monastic disciples, but I was never as happy as I am now, with teacher and disciple living together and practicing together. Every day I find ways to transmit all that I have realized for myself to my disciples, like the first banana leaf transmitting to the second and the third. The happiness that monks and nuns give me is very great. Monks and nuns in Plum Village all have beauty, sweetness, bright smiles, and twinkling eyes.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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We have been able to present the teachings in such a way that young people and Westerners can understand them, accept them, and apply them. That is a big success of Plum Village, but it is not the work of one person alone or just the work of a few years. It is the work of thirty-five years that includes twenty years of Plum Village and the work of the entire Sanhga.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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Photos courtesy of Plum Village, Jeanne Anselmo, Lyn Fine, Eileen Kiera, and David Lawrence. Quotes reprinted from I Have Arrived, I Am Home (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

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Transforming Self, Transforming Society

An Interview with Cheri Maples

mb61-Transform1 Cheri Maples was given the Lamp Transmission in 2008, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She worked for twenty-five years in the criminal justice system. She was a police officer for twenty years, ending her career as the Captain of Personnel and Training for the Madison Police Department. She was also the head of probation and parole for the State of Wisconsin and an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. She is a licensed attorney and a licensed clinical social worker.

Cheri has learned peace in one’s own heart is a prerequisite to providing true justice and com passion to others. She specializes in translating the language and practice of mindfulness into an understandable framework for criminal justice professionals. Cheri also helps health-care workers, teachers, and employees of social service agencies to manage the emotional effects of their work, while maintaining an open heart and healthy boundaries

Cheri Maples was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 11, 2012, for this special issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share some of the meaningful experiences from your time there?

Cheri Maples: I’ve only been in Plum Village twice—once for a summer retreat in 2002, when I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, and again when Thay transmitted the Lamp to me in January of 2008. It seems like yesterday.

When I went on my first retreat with Thay in 1991, it was the beginning of a self-transformation that continues to this day. I wouldn’t have had the kind of career I had as a police officer and as head of probation and parole or as the Assistant Attorney General without Thay’s teachings.

The most significant experience I had at Plum Village was writing Thay a letter about my aspirations and putting that letter in the bell. I was in a challenging place as a police officer at the time, feeling very much on the victim continuum at times and the oppressor continuum at other times. The next day I was sitting in the back of the meditation hall during Thay’s Dharma talk. He spoke about the different faces of love and about fierce compassion and gentle compassion, and the need for wisdom and skillful means to combine them in the job of police officer. I sat in the back with tears streaming down my face. My heart was blown wide open.

Somethig very significant happened that day that affected the way I did things after that.

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MB: Did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CM: At that retreat I asked Thay during the question and answer session if he would do a retreat for police officers. He agreed, and the next year we had a retreat for criminal justice and helping professionals in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Just as memorable was receiving the Transmission of the Lamp. Thay said to me that carrying a gun with compassion in one’s heart can be an act of love. He gave me a directive to take mindfulness practice to police officers and criminal justice professionals.

Another highlight was Thay meeting with the police officers at the retreat. When they first arrived, they were so angry that Thay was saying things like, “You can never fight violence with violence.” They asked me, “Cheri, what are we supposed to do when we go to a call and people are beating each other up?”

So Thay met with them for an hour and it was incredible to watch the energy in the room change. At the end of the retreat, the police officers were asked to do a presentation to the community. I’ve never seen police officers so open, sharing what it is like for them. It was a lesson to me in how understanding can be created by just getting people talking to each other.

After the retreat, the sixteen officers from my department who attended held hands and did walking meditation. Sixteen police officers holding hands, creating peaceful steps on the earth together, forming a circle afterwards, and bowing to each other, and hugging each other. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d ever see anything like that.

A couple of weeks later, a friend who had attended the retreat told me: “I saw two of your young officers who had been at the retreat; they were arresting somebody and they very gently put the person in the back of the car, then they turned and bowed to me.” That’s what interbeing has come to mean to me—no separation. No separation between the person bowing and the person who is bowed to, between the person we are arresting and the person we are protecting. Each of us has all the elements in us and we have to take good care of all the elements.

The other experience that has been particularly transformative to me is Thay’s emphasis on practicing mindfulness in daily life. I knew nothing about any of the intellectual concepts or frameworks of Buddhism when I went to that first retreat. Now all of them make sense to me, and I’ve learned them intuitively by practicing. At first my life was so busy, I could only find moments here and there to walk or eat or meditate. I was in law school and raising two young children and working full time and I still found a way to preserve my sanity with the practice. And over the years that just got stronger and stronger.

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MB: What does “the Plum Village tradition” mean to you?

CM: I think the strongest part of our tradition that I don’t see in other Buddhist traditions in the same way, is the emphasis on Sangha and community. And also, the emphasis on engaged practice, taking your practice out into the world but being part of the practice organism. What that means to me is to build community wherever I am. To build relationships with all the people I work with and all the people I interact with, not just in the practice Sangha but in the workplace. It means seeing community and interbeing everywhere.

MB: Could you give a couple of specific examples?

CM: Our Sangha has taken on a prison project where several of us teach meditation and mindfulness. We have two people who do prison chaplaincy work and we have a number of people who run circles of support for people coming out into the community. We’ve had a few people released from prison who have become members of our Sangha.

I also travel around the country talking to different agencies in the public and private sectors about how to bring mindfulness to their organization and their daily lives. This includes attorneys, judges, and police and correctional officers, as well as people in social services who work with the families of children who have been neglected and abused. People who see horrible things that many people in society don’t see. People are starting to understand that the employees who experience trauma as the result of the violence they see over and over need help to do their job compassionately.

I also lead unconscious bias workshops as a way of personally committing myself to doing something about the incredible racial disparities in the criminal justice system throughout this country.

The thing that I am most excited about right now is an organization called the Dane County Time Bank, working to change the agreements around money in community through creating a bartering system. Many of the organizations and agencies in Madison (Wisconsin) belong, as well as over two thousand individuals. The philosophy is that one hour of my time is worth one hour of your time, so whether you’re a lawyer or work at McDonald’s, your time is valued the same.

When I spend an hour teaching somebody mindfulness, I get an hour building a website or learning accounting, having electrical work done, having the oil in my car changed. When you see this working in challenged neighborhoods, it creates public safety, because people start to see themselves as part of the community rather than just consumers and critics. Now I’m working to take time banking into a prison in Wisconsin. This is such a great way to transform the underground economy, which is usually based on drugs, to one based on human relational skills. They could provide hospice care for each other, they could tutor each other, they could sit with each other when they’re sick, they could provide legal work for each other. There are so many things that can be done.

MB: It’s moving to hear about this. It sounds revolutionary.

CM: When you start practicing in this tradition deeply, and you begin to see the connections, and you begin to do things from a place of compassion and caring, your heart gets so much more open. It gets really fun.

I’ve been honored to be part of restorative justice days in prisons; they have been phenomenal. When I deal with victims who are only interested in punishing the perpetrator, they don’t heal. But when they start looking for some meaning from the experience, which includes forgiveness and reconciliation, they begin to heal.

MB: How have you been able to be in the midst of violence and all of the emotions that go along with it, while maintaining your own inner peace and being a peacemaker as well?

CM: Fierce compassion means knowing how to set high quality boundaries while continuing to be part of stopping violence. It’s being clear about the intention in my heart. Am I angry at this person and wanting an eye for an eye? Or do I want to protect this person from the karma of their unconscious behavior as well as the people they might hurt? That’s a very different set of values to be armed with.

And it is very difficult and there are times when I feel angry and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the wounded view of my own self, not being attached to that view. And then helping others do that.

When we do unskillful things, it’s often because we’re attached to a wounded self. Victims can develop a sense of entitlement that can be just as dangerous as the oppressor’s abuse of power. We also have to learn to have faith in our Buddha nature and accept our humanity. I encourage people to ask themselves, “When will I be enough? What would make me enough?”

Although I do have the faith that the energy of the universe is always available to me, I also know it is important to take care of myself. I can’t expose myself to violence and suffering every day. I take time to water the seeds of joy and engage in the things that to me are very refreshing and healing.

In order to engage with compassion, which means to have an open heart in response to suffering, one has to have the tools of equanimity or you’ll get lost in anger. I see myself as a drop of water in this ocean of consciousness, that can be relied upon. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my ups and downs, but they don’t scare me anymore. I’m not trying to fence myself off from them.

Everything in life to me is the Dharma; everything is an opportunity to learn something.

MB: How do you water your own seeds of joy?

CM: I bicycle, I boogie board, I go on sailing trips with friends, I go on solo motorcycle camping trips, I spend time with my family and the people that I love. I live in a place that allows me easy access to nature. Meditating to me is a joy. I make sure I take time to go on a couple of personal retreats each year where I’m not teaching but I’m just a member. Sometimes I go on very long personal retreats. I’m a big baseball fan. Baseball waters the seeds of joy for me. To me, it’s a very Buddhist sport because it’s a timeless game and the goal is to come home. Most important, I get my next year’s calendar ahead of time, and I put in all the things I want to do to nourish myself; then all my teaching and work experiences are scheduled around those things, so I make sure that I have time for me.

mb61-Transform4I’m very committed to making sure the most important things for me are not at the mercy of the things that are less important. I try to live consciously in that way. And that has meant renouncing, giving up living in fast forward. I feel like I’ve found that balance of being of service and making sure that I take care of myself. “When I take care of me, I take care of you; when I take care of you, I take and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the care of me.”

MB: Do you have any advice for people whose lives are stuck on fast forward and don’t know how to transition to a more sane life where they’re taking care of themselves?

CM: To understand that being on fast forward is a choice. It might be an unconscious choice; it certainly was for me. This culture rewards us for striving, for achieving, for being competitive. Here are three pieces of advice: 1) Look at your attachment to a wounded self. Is it there? It doesn’t have to be. 2) Proactively manage your time so that the things that matter the most are not at the mercy of the things that matter the least. 3) Understand that everything you do is a choice. Being exposed to this practice and the tools that allow us to work deeply with our own capacity for freedom is a privilege, so take advantage of it.

MB: Is there anything you would like to add?

CM: I would like to send my love to the entire Order of Interbeing and particularly to Thay and the monastics, who have been so crucial to my self-transformation.

Edited by Barbara Casey 

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Free Where I Am

By Patrick Doyle

I’m currently serving my fifth year of a ten-year sentence for armed burglary. I can get out in 2016. When I got arrested in 2007, I was an angry, young, confused gang member looking at a life sentence. I didn’t care about life anymore.

mb61-FreeWhereIAm1I was adopted at age five. Never really bonded with my “parents.” I got arrested for the first time when I was thirteen. Ever since, it’s been a continual battle to stay un-incarcerated. I got married at eighteen; that too didn’t work out. Two daughters later, after a lot of violence and hatred, we separated.

“Failed love,” gang banging, hatred, violence, and revenge were my life. Trust no one because they all want to hurt you. I’ve been stabbed and beat up more times than I can count. And done likewise back, numerous times. I was a ticking time-bomb waiting for an excuse to explode.

Then July 23, 2007 came. I got caught with about eight stolen rifles and some handguns. My co-defendant testified that I did everything. A complete lie, but it didn’t matter because for the state of Florida, I was a habitual felony offender who fell under the Prison Release Reoffender Act and I had committed a life felony.

December 2007, my now ex-girlfriend informed me that I had a son on the way. One DNA test later confirmed she was right. Now the state was not only determining my future, but my son’s as well. I got to see my son (born March 20, 2008) only twice. I wasn’t communicating with his mother or my parents except when I needed money. In January 2010, I decided to file for divorce. So my prison account was hit with a legal claim for $400. I was unable to pay anyone to serve my wife divorce papers.

Now I couldn’t get money, which only made me angrier. When I first came to prison I was a gang member who had rank and was doing drugs, smuggling cell phones onto the compound, selling drugs, and fighting. Now I increased the drug selling and smuggling. December 8, 2010, I got caught with a cell phone. I went into confinement, lost all the good conduct time I had, and got transferred to Controlled Management for six months. I hit rock bottom like a freight train. No money, no stamps, no mail, and unable to use the phone for almost ninety days. I completely crumbled inside.

I finally got to use the phone one day, and when my father picked up the phone, I didn’t know what to say. I asked how things were going. He informed me that he had had a heart attack and two surgeries, and that my mother was in the hospital with a blood infection and no use of her legs. Both were seventy-seven at the time. I was completely shocked, unsure what to do.

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Then one day I found two books on the book cart: The Dham mapada translated by Easwaran, and Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das. I was positive that this was the right path I was supposed to walk. With nothing but time on my hands, I started meditating and reading only Dharma books. I made the decision to fulfill any necessary obligations within the gang so I could get out, and did so. I got transferred to my current compound where I immediately covered up my gang tattoos with a lotus, a sun, a moon, the letter Om in Sanskrit, a Buddha, and a Dharma wheel saying “Eight Fold Path” with the Japanese character for karma in the center. I also got a tattoo saying “Om Mani Padme Hum” in Sanskrit. There is only one other Buddhist here at the work camp with me on a compound of three hundred. We just started a meditation session on Wednesdays.

My mother’s been in the hospital for almost nineteen months. She’s seventy-nine years old and her health is currently stable, as is my father’s. Our relationship has changed dramatically. My father, with whom I hadn’t had a full conversation in about six years, talks with me for fifteen minutes every week. We tell each other we love one another, something I never thought would happen. My mother and I write to each other lovingly.

I’m no longer confused, angry, vengeful, or hateful. I practice mindfulness in everything I do. I wake up daily feeling peaceful, happy, and calm. I sit zazen in the morning and at night. During the day I do walking, laughing, and working meditation. I chant Om Mani Padme Hum all day, as well as the Medicine Buddha’s mantra.

I have a future and a purpose in life, and nothing can take that Buddha nature away from me. I have read Thay’s book Be Free Where You Are, and one issue of the Mindfulness Bell. I love children, as does Thay, and I hope upon my release to not only meet Thay, but to visit Plum Village and become an OI member. I can truly say that I am free where I am, and that I have arrived, I am home. I have a great love for Zen and all Buddhist teachings. Thank you, Plum Village, Thay, and the whole Sangha.

Patrick Doyle lives in a correctional institution in Florida. He wrote this letter in response to the questions: When and how did you meet and fall in love with the practice? How have you transformed difficulty into peace amongst your family and loved ones?

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Why I Became a Buddhist

By Ruth Fishel 

mb61-WhyIBecame1Many people have asked me why I became a Buddhist. To be honest, if you told me I would do this ten or twenty years ago, I would have laughed! Not I, I would say. Although I read everything I could get my hands on about the Buddhist philosophy, I had no plans at all to become a Buddhist.

I was born into the Jewish faith but haven’t practiced this religion since I was a kid. Over the years I became an agnostic. Finally, disaster hit. After a great deal of pain and suffering from the disease of alcoholism, I found a self-help program and was able to find sobriety. Because the main purpose was to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety, with gratitude for a new purpose, I became deeply committed to helping other people recover as well.

My spiritual search led to meditating daily and reading countless books. I found myself strongly attracted to the writings and teachings of Buddhism and to author and meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. While attending a retreat, I heard him say the simple words: “Our purpose is to stop our own suffering and to help stop the suffering of everyone.” His words resonated in my heart. An indescribable feeling of peace poured over me. Everything around me disappeared and I was only aware of these words and the meaning they had in my life. I knew I was on a new, yet parallel path. While I would continue to help people suffering from the disease of alcoholism, I now would reach out to help anyone I could through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhism.

After four years of studying, I had the privilege of being ordained into Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing in August 2009. It has been a perfect fit. 

mb61-WhyIBecame2Ruth Fishel, True Land of Virtue, is a retreat leader and meditation teacher. She is the author of Peace In Our Hearts, Peace In the World and Wrinkles Don’t Hurt: The Joy of Aging Mindfully. For more information, go to: www.ruthfishel.com. 

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The Hands of the Bodhisattvas

By Sister Hy Nghiem 

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Dear Thay, dear Brothers, dear Sisters, and dear Sangha,

Today is February 19, 2012, and we are in our final week of the winter retreat here at Magnolia Grove Monastery. Today we continue our investigation of the Fifth and Sixth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing.

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THE FIFTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING: COMPASSIONATE, HEALTHY LIVING

Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, we are determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying, nor to take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair. We will practice looking deeply into how we nourish our body and mind with edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. We are committed not to gamble or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness, such as certain websites, electronic games, music, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. We will consume in a way that preserves compassion, well-being, and joy in our body and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of our families, our society, and the earth.

This mindfulness training wants us to know that true happiness is not something that we can find outside of us. If we want to have true happiness, then we need to know how to create the conditions for happiness to manifest. The Buddha taught that we must know how to take care of our body and our mind. He showed us how to do that through the practice of mindful breathing.

We depend on our breathing to live. If we breathe in and we cannot breathe out, then our life ends. Sometimes when we are busy in our daily lives, we don’t have the capacity to get in touch with our breathing. That is why in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha taught us a very simple and concrete practice: “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Awareness of breathing helps us to cultivate and establish wisdom, and that wisdom gives us the capacity to recognize what really brings us happiness. Do money, fame, or praise bring us happiness?

Recently, the famous singer Whitney Houston died. She had a special voice and she could sing many styles of music. She was very famous and very wealthy. But let us ask ourselves, did these conditions bring her happiness? Even though she used her money to help organizations that alleviate hunger in Africa, she was not able to find peace and happiness. The loneliness in her was too immense. She used drugs to cover that loneliness and one day she overdosed and died.

We may have looked at her talent, wealth, and fame, and wanted to be like her. But the truth is that all those things didn’t alleviate her loneliness and sadness; they were not able to give her true happiness and peace. If we want true happiness, then we must live with mindfulness. And if we want to be mindful, we must use many methods to help ourselves, to develop peace in our body and in our mind. The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing teaches us to become aware of our in-breath and our out-breath, and in this way, to calm our whole body and mind. Our mind’s tendency is to think about the past and the future instead of staying in the present moment. We only need to be dwelling in the present moment and we find happiness here. We see that happiness is very simple.

Offering Dharma to Ourselves 

In 1999 there was a flood in Vietnam and many people died. When I first entered the monastery I really wanted to do charity work, so I helped with the Love and Understanding program. In this program, we send letters to our friends who have participated in our retreats, inviting them to give us a helping hand to alleviate the suffering in Vietnam. I worked with so much love and inspiration. And in one day I received hundreds of letters from friends. When we receive a donation, we send out a thank you letter. But one day I received so many letters, and I began to feel, “How come no one is helping me?” And suddenly I began to blame others, and sadness and anger arose.

So I lost my peace for a few minutes. Fortunately, I did not let that energy carry me for long. A few minutes were enough to destroy me. I could see that I was making myself suffer because of blaming. As practitioners, we bring our compassion to many places, but if we lose our peace, then the work we do only becomes an outer form. No real helping can happen.

And that is the lesson I learned. From then on, each time I worked I became more aware of bringing my practice into the work that I did. When we want to offer compassion to other people, the first thing we must do is to learn to love ourselves. We come back to our breathing to calm down the negative thoughts, the negative mental formations. That is why the Buddha taught us to use mindful breathing to calm our body.

This precept also says that we do not take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Our practice is to know how to live satisfied with what fulfills simple needs. In the Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, the third realization says that the human mind is always searching outside itself and never feels fulfilled. This searching brings about unwholesome activity. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, know the value of having few desires. They regard the realization of perfect understanding to be their only career. For example, sometimes we need electronic devices to keep in touch with the news, but we should not waste too much time with them. We should not think that in order to have happiness we need them. We should not run after them.

So first we must offer the Dharma to ourselves, transform our suffering, transform our pain, transform what has become stuck in our heart. When we are able to practice like this, then the spirit of this precept will give us happiness in the present moment and we won’t need to seek material goods, wealth, or fame.

THE SIXTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING: TAKING CARE OF ANGER

Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are committed to taking care of the energy of anger when it arises, and to recognizing and transforming the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger manifests, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking to acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We know that the roots of anger are not outside of ourselves but can be found in our wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in ourselves and others. By contemplating impermanence, we will be able to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger, and to recognize the preciousness of our relationships. We will practice Right Diligence in order to nourish our capacity of understanding, love, joy, and inclusive- ness, gradually transforming our anger, violence, and fear, and helping others do the same.
When our anger arises, we must use our eyes of compassion to look at the situation. For example, when a person does or says something that makes us suffer, if we can look with compassion at that situation, then we are able to understand the reasons why this person acted that way. And if we know how to practice, to nourish that peace inside of us, then this becomes a source of energy that can help us to deal with our strong emotions. If we do not practice, then suffering will always be there. The Buddha taught us in the Four Noble Truths that there is suffering, and that we have a path to overcome that suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the path of practice.

There is a story about a couple who didn’t know how to speak lovingly or nourish each other’s happiness, so, day by day a distance grew between them. They lost their ability to communicate, and irritation, loneliness, and fear manifested. The husband began to go out and get drunk, then came home and hit his wife and reprimanded her for being the cause of his misery.

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The wife suffered so much she decided to go to the temple. She told the abbot her family situation. The wise abbot told her, “Let me give you the nectar of compassion and if you use it right you will suffer less. Each time your husband comes home and yells at you, you must drink it but don’t swallow; just let it stay in your mouth. If you swallow it, the sacredness will not be there to protect you.”

When her husband came home, she took a sip of the nectar of compassion and kept it in her mouth. No matter what her husband said, she could not say anything in return. For many days he came home and yelled at her, and when she didn’t respond, he fell asleep. And then one day the husband thought to himself: Why is my wife being so kind? Before, whenever I came home and said something to her, she would say something back. And if I threw a small bowl, then she would throw a pot. He told her, “My darling, recently you seem kinder, you are not angry like before. And thanks to your kindness, today I am able to transform.”

The wife told her husband about the nectar of compassion given to her by the abbot. So the husband went to the temple and told the abbot the nectar of compassion given to his wife was wonderful. The abbot responded, “It is not the nectar of compassion; it’s just water! When you are both angry, you can create a fire that will burn the whole house. But when you hold the water in your mouth, you cannot say anything, and your anger dies.”

This method helped the family to reestablish harmony, but they still didn’t know how to transform their anger. To do this we must know how to look deeply to find the roots of suffering. When we see someone act in anger, we bring our mind of compassion to look deeply into it. Then we do not blame or punish the person, but we want to find the best ways to help them transform their suffering and find happiness. This is the practice called Right View that leads to Right Thinking and Right Speech, through which communication can be established.

Refuge in the Practice

If our anger is triggered, we must take refuge in the practice; we must come back to our breathing so that we can control our body and our mind. Then we can bring the energy of love so that we can understand the situation. To do that we must know how to stop. We stop our bodily movements and our speech, and then we stop what is not so beautiful in our mind. And then we are able to see the roots of the suffering in this person: their family history and the long process that has created this person. And we are able to let go of that anger.

This precept tells us that each time we have anger we should not do or say anything. We take refuge in our breathing; we practice walking meditation. When we are calm, we are able to reconcile what is in ourselves and we learn to look at other people with eyes of compassion.

Once there was a young gentleman who got angry very easily.  And each time he got angry, he would hit things. His mother could not stand it. One day he went into the forest, where he found a cave. Into the cave, he yelled, “I hate you.” The echo from the cave came back to him, saying, “I hate you.” When he heard this, he was so disappointed and so sad. He went back home and asked his mom, “Why does everybody hate me?” When his mother asked what had happened, he told her about the message from the cave, and that it meant that in the whole world, nobody loved him. The mother told him to go back to the cave, and this time to say, “I love you.” When he did this, of course the cave answered back with love. When your mind has love, your eyes shine, and when you shine with love, the world responds with love.

These two precepts show us how to live the simple and healthy life of a practitioner. When we know how to take care of our body and our mind, our understanding and love grow. When we are able to make one step in peace, when we sit with our minds peaceful, the person next to us can feel that energy.  As practitioners we must know how to love ourselves, to establish peace in our body and our mind. Then we have the capacity to share our practice with the world. We can be the hands of the bodhisattvas.

Translated by Sister Boi Nghiem Edited by Barbara Casey

mb61-Hands4Sister Hy Nghiem (Sister True Joy) is from the U.S. and ordained as a nun in 1996. Sister Joy enjoys coming back to herself to be present for her body and mind. Reading sutras from the Buddha is also a source of nourishment for her daily practice.

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Healthy and Free

By Jerome Freedman, Ph.D.

On Superbowl Sunday in 1997, I was admitted to the hospital with what turned out to be bladder cancer. On the day of the vernal equinox, I felt a remarkable healing take place during a session of guided imagery. Every year, the equinox reminds me of the famous Zenrin:

Sitting quietly, doing nothing
Spring comes, and the grass grows all by itself.  

During the guided imagery session, I had a tremendous insight, which allowed me to transform this Zenrin to reflect my situation:

Lying still, breathing in, breathing out,
Healthy cells grow all by themselves, and I am free of cancer.

This insight was followed by a practice that I still maintain today. Every time I place my left foot—at least, when I am mindful—I think: Healthy. Whenever I place my right foot, I think: Free. I also use these words to trigger mindfulness when doing meditation. These mindfulness practices were naturally a result of my understanding and love of Thay and his simple method of teaching the Dharma.

Seven months later, I was able to attend one of Thay’s retreats at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I walked on the beach with Thay, practicing “healthy/free” while holding his hand. I feel that his willingness to allow this to happen was inspirational in my recovery. In addition, I had a conversation with Sister Chan Khong about cancer and my use of mindfulness in dealing with the pain and suffering I was experiencing. Her compassion, attentiveness, and loving kindness helped me cope with the rough road ahead of me.

In February 2000, I visited Plum Village for a few days. During the period after my visit to Plum Village in 2000 until my visit in 2006, I was a founding member of the Mountain Sangha in Marin County, California and participated in Lyn Fine’s aspirant group. I also had no recurrence of cancer and wanted to teach a class on mindfulness in healing as part of my aspiration to be ordained in the Order of Interbeing.

When the possibility of visiting Plum Village came up in March 2006, I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could participate in the Spring Retreat. It took several phone calls and an email to Sister Chan Khong to get the answer I was hoping for. She responded, in part: “Please come, I guarantee that you can see me, but for Thay it depends on his health.”

Thursday, March 23 was a day of mindfulness with Thay. His talk was in Vietnamese, with Sister Chan Khong translating into English. After the Dharma talk, I approached Sister Chan Khong and reminded her who I was. She asked me to get my shoes and follow her to get my breakfast. Then she took me to Thay’s room! She told me not to eat until Thay came down for breakfast. I was literally beside myself, so I merely drank my cup of tea until he came down. Sister Chan Khong asked me how I would work with someone who had metastatic cancer, and as I fumbled with my answer, Thay came down the stairs.

I jumped up to hug him and sat down when he did. His first words were for me to share his sticky buns with him and the two attendant nuns by my side. I told Thay that I thought the Dharma was in good hands with the likes of Brothers Phap Dung and Phap An teaching as well as they did. He said to me, “I think you are doing very well yourself!” A little while later, I reviewed my practices with Thay and began to answer Sister Chan Khong’s question about cancer, starting with the famous Zenrin mentioned above.

Most of the time, I noticed Thay sitting quite calmly in a posture of complete equanimity. He was really enjoying his break- fast. At other times, other subjects were discussed, but when Thay finished his breakfast, he needed to rest before walking meditation. I left feeling the joy of being with such remarkable beings. Thay is a man of peace and he inspires me every day. His loving kind- ness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and generosity have penetrated my being.

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Jerome Freedman, True Precious Light, has been a student of Thay’s since 1985 and was ordained as an OI member in 2008. He was a founding member of the Mountain Sangha (www.mountainsangha.org). For more information about his illness and recovery, visit www.yellowstream.org.

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The Spirit of Non-Self

Living in Sangha Paradise 

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

A mist thickly covers the forests and mountains of Deer Park Monastery. The entire practice center is embraced by an atmosphere of stillness. The activity bell wakes all from slumber at exactly 5:00 a.m., followed by reverberating sounds of the Great Temple Bell in front of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. The powerful sounds of the bell, harmonizing with the light and flowing voice of a sister chanting, enhance the peacefulness of a new day.

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Today is the fourth day of a five-day retreat, “Opening the Door of Your Heart,” for people who speak Vietnamese. In the tranquil atmosphere of the morning, the Sangha queues up to get a packed breakfast in preparation for hiking up the misty mountain and enjoying their first meal of the day.  About 500 monastic and lay friends practice walking meditation along the winding path. When the Sangha reaches Elephant Peak, some people are, perhaps, surprised to see Thay already seated in meditation with    his attendants. Standing here, one faces an ocean of clouds that covers an area of the city of Escondido. It feels as if one is hovering among the clouds of a faraway land of enchantment. It is truly a Zen experience to be in the spaciousness of earth and grand open sky. Everyone finds a comfortable place to sit among the huge flat rock formations that have been here for hundreds of years.

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After practicing sitting meditation for half an hour, I slowly open my eyes to see that the sun has risen and made the sea of clouds appear even clearer. The Sangha begins eating breakfast in silence. After some time, Thay shows me a cluster of tiny ants carrying crumbs dropped from our rice cakes. They carry their food in just one direction. Some ants move rice cake crumbs or potato skins many times larger than themselves. Sometimes two or three ants clutch one piece together. Thay compassionately gives them some more food that they can bring back to their nest for the colony to enjoy.

Thay tells me to take a photo of these ants. I do so and feel curious about where they are taking these provisions and how big their colony is. I follow their trail and feel pity to see how small they are, because they have to carry food so much larger than their bodies. Their paths wind up and down the rock surface. Some lose their balance and topple over due to their heavy load. I just let them be and don’t interfere, as if I were not there. My observation takes me to the entrance of their nest, a crack in the rock with a lot of sand surrounding it. I feel despondent that I can’t continue farther while they unaffectedly carry on their task. A sense of curiosity continues in my store consciousness for the next few days.

Like A Colony of Ants

Recently, I saw a short documentary film called “Animal Planet,” which examined the life and activities of a colony of ants. Thousands of them followed each other in a meadow of tall green grass that resembled the young plants in a rice paddy. Many climbed grass stems and bit off young shoots, while those on the ground carried the shoots back to the nest. Each had its own particular task to do, be it to bite off the shoots, transport provisions, or remain inside to build the underground nest from the grass that had been carried back. They seemed to work like an ensemble without a leader or discrimination. None of them seemed to complain about each other. The way they lived reminded me of our Sangha.

As brothers and sisters in the Dharma, we work together like ants in a colony, or like cells in a body. In a body, there is no single cell that is considered the leader of all other cells. A retreatant once asked one of our sisters who plays the violin, “Why does Thay travel with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour?” She replied, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra.” The conductor would not attract an audience by himself; yet if there were no conductor, the quality of music produced by the orchestra would not be very high. Thay has never wanted to control us. He only seeks to open doors and clear obstacles for us. Thay just allows things to unfold naturally and tries to find the best way to help all of us develop our various talents. We inter-depend on one another; we inter-are with each other. When our individual skills are combined, they no longer belong to any particular person, but become the effectiveness of the whole Sangha.

Whether we are at our monastery or on the road, and especially during the recent retreats in North America, our brothers and sisters live and work together like a colony of ants; we flow as a river. Our 2011 U.S. Tour, which spanned three months, included five public talks, eight Days of Mindfulness (DOM), an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, seven retreats in as many states, a half DOM with the Google staff at their headquarters in California, and a talk for congressmen and women in Washington, D.C. Each retreat had from eight hundred to one thousand participants, the DOMs had from one thousand to sixteen hundred people, and the public talks attracted approximately twenty five hundred attendees. The majority of activities were organized by monastic brothers and sisters. The tour took the organizing team two years to plan.

We work together as an ensemble, and each person is allocated a task: some oversee logistics, others take care of registration, and others welcome and orient retreatants. Some brothers and sisters do the grocery shopping while others cook. Some manage the accommodations and others are in charge of hygiene. We have a transportation coordinator and children’s program supervisors. A team films the Dharma talks, a team produces the DVDs, and a team sells Thay’s calligraphies and books. All these tasks are tightly coordinated, and they all relate to each other.

When we’re on big teaching tours and retreats, the brothers and sisters do much work, but there are rarely complaints or criticism. Glitches are opportunities for us to learn new things and better understand each other. One brother is the treasurer, and he is on a cooking team, the CD producing team, and the organizing team. He has such a lot of work to do, but he is always fresh, smiling, and full of energy! One time when I saw that he had a great deal of bookkeeping work to do, I said to him, “Dear brother, you have so much work to do. May I give you a hand?” He looked at me kindly and replied, “The paperwork is a bit complicated. It’s okay, I’ll do it.” I continued, “But please take care of your health.” He smiled and said in his humorous way, “There’s no need to live a long life. Forty years is enough!” Matching his wit, I replied, “Thay has said that whoever goes before he does is not showing enough filial piety! The Buddha and Thay have entrusted their mission to us, so we can’t go so early!” We both laughed.

Recognizing Paradise

During our retreats there is much joy, and peals of laughter can be heard everywhere, especially in the kitchen. Each kitchen team has only five or six people, but they cook for over a thousand retreatants. They do so with happiness cultivated from the love of brotherhood and sisterhood. One day I went into the kitchen and saw a sister at the stove frying tofu. I was surprised at how tall she was that day, and then I realized that she was standing on a step in order to comfortably reach the stove top. I saw the large tray of delicious fried tofu pieces, and thought it must have taken her quite some time to fry all of that tofu in the midday heat, yet her face was still fresh. I said to her, “Sister, you are so good!”

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An elder brother had been assigned to that same cooking team. He was cooking a huge pot of curry and using a large wooden ladle to stir. The curry was appealing, but the most amusing sight was that the pot was as tall as his ribs! This pot surely would need to be carried by three or four people. I had a funny thought: Cooking like this, one does not need to go to the gym and lift weights! I felt very happy because I knew for sure that the food cooked by the brothers and sisters had a lot of love in it, and that the retreatants would be able to taste and enjoy it.

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When I have a bit of spare time during a tour, I like to watch children play together; I think they look like innocent angels. I particularly relish hearing their spontaneous laughter echoing in the summer air. At least a few dozen children come with their parents to each retreat. Brothers and sisters take care of the children’s program very skillfully; they are mostly “baby monks” or “baby nuns” who have grown up in the monastery. They wholeheartedly guide, play with, and offer their presence to the children. That’s why the children who attend Plum Village retreats are so happy. When I look into the bright eyes of these children, I know that we are sowing good seeds in them—seeds of peace, happiness, and liberation.

I also like to drop by the bookshop to see Thay’s new calligraphy, which helps remind people to practice mindfulness at home. The calligraphies may say, for example, “Breathe, my dear,” or “Peace is every step,” or “Happiness begins with your lovely smile.” The calligraphy stand is always full of people. An elder sister is happily helping her younger sisters distribute the calligraphies, even though she has many other things to do. Promoting calligraphy involves more than just selling individual sheets; there are also elements of practice and play. People often have many questions about the meaning of Thay’s calligraphies; therefore the stand is like a Dharma hall. This is an opportunity for elder sisters to pass on their experience to younger ones, while also working to serve and liberate all beings. The elder sisters explain the calligraphies in a dynamic way, while the younger sisters’ fresh faces and witty comments attract visitors, as well.

Despite the crowds, the atmosphere at retreats is serene and peaceful. One practitioner commented, “Even though there are about a thousand retreatants here, it doesn’t feel like it. The atmosphere here is totally different from outside.” There are not only those who are experienced in the practices of Plum Village, but also many newcomers. The long-time practitioners are a much-needed foundation and source of support for newer practitioners. During one walking meditation session full of people, one retreatant exclaimed, “This is a miracle! We are walking in paradise!” Thanks to the mindful presence and collective energy of the Sangha, we can recognize this paradise.

Our Source of Energy

mb61-Spirit5During a Dharma sharing session at Estes Park, Colorado, one retreatant commented, “In this retreat there are up to eight hundred people and everything is done by the brothers and sisters. I’m truly surprised to see that you do all of these things so wholeheartedly. I’m curious to know how you all have so much energy.” I looked at her and simply replied, “Your tears and smiles are our source of energy.” It is true that there are tears from pain and suffering, but there are also tears born of happiness. And smiles are signs of joy, peace, happiness, and transformation. Both tears and smiles are a source of inspiration that nourishes our mind of love. That is why we have so much energy to continue what we are doing. I feel so nourished and happy as a monastic because my brothers and sisters and I have come across a way of practice that is relevant to us. We are able to continue the Buddha’s task of liberating beings in the way that Thay has transmitted to us.

Personally, I think we monastics benefit the most from these retreats. When we conduct such retreats, we have the opportunity to come in contact with the suffering of people from many sectors of society. As monastics, there are places that we cannot go; there are things that only laypeople can do. However, through our interactions with lay friends, and listening to their life experiences and suffering, we are able to see different aspects of life more clearly. Sometimes, just by listening, we alleviate much of their pain and suffering. When I’m able to sit and listen to people’s deepest pain and hidden difficulties, then naturally the energy of compassion arises within me. This kind of energy makes me so happy whenever I’m able to generate it.

I think it’s truly wonderful to be a monastic, especially when I have the chance to help others. In my opinion, “miraculous” things don’t need to be lofty; it is what I can do every day that counts. To be able to help others benefit from their practice, to bring about healing, transformation, happiness, peace, and joy in others is already a miracle. My life is so fulfilling and happy. What else is there to search for?

The Spirit of Sangha

We monastics spend much time learning, practicing, and conducting retreats. Another art needs to be nourished every day, as well: the art of developing brotherhood and sisterhood. This is the foundation of happiness in our daily practice. Everything we do holds the purpose of building brotherhood and sisterhood, and drinking tea together is one of our favourite methods for doing so. Drinking tea is a meditation practice. Each pot of tea contains so many joyful stories that we share with each other, especially after a session of sitting meditation and chanting. And nothing beats hiking up a mountain and drinking tea together there. Our daily activities have all the elements of mindfulness practice, play, work, and learning. It is only when we live and work in this spirit of inclusiveness and inter-relatedness that large-scale teaching tours can be successful and beneficial for practitioners.

Living and practicing in the Sangha, as well as going on teaching tours with Thay, have given me a precious lesson—anything can be accomplished when we have ideals, aspirations, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Further, when we are able to let go of our individualism, then we can easily flow with togetherness. That is the spirit of living in the Sangha, the spirit of non-self. That is the love of brotherhood and sisterhood.

There is a popular proverb in Vietnamese: “One stick cannot make a mountain, but three sticks together create a solid peak.” It is a sensible proverb that everyone likes and appreciates. Before I was ordained, it did not hold much meaning for me. It was merely a nice idea. But after becoming a monk, having lived and practiced with the Sangha, I realize its depth and truth. I appreciate this proverb, thanks to the miraculous power of the Sangha and the wonders of a lifestyle of non-self. This lifestyle is truly a Sangha paradise.

mb61-Spirit6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

 

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One Flame or Two?

Lamp Transmission at Deer Park Monastery 

By Leslie Rawls

It was late March 2012 at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California. Outside, wind and rain lashed the trees and rattled the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall doors. Inside, lay and monastic friends gathered to celebrate the monastery’s first Lamp Transmission Ceremony, the blossoming of new lay and monastic Dharma teachers in North America.

A Lamp Transmission ceremony is an encouragement from teacher to student, formally inviting the student to teach. During the ceremony, the transmitting teacher invites each prospective Dharma teacher forward one by one with the words: “The Sangha is calling ______.”  The prospective teacher and her two attendants approach the transmitting teacher, who is seated on a platform. With the sounds of the bell, they bow to Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Then they kneel directly in front of the teacher, with the attendants slightly behind.

The prospective Dharma teacher reads an insight verse that reflects her understanding. Often the verse is rolled up and tied with a beautiful ribbon or strand of grass. The transmitting teacher may reread the verse and comment briefly, accepting it on behalf of the ancestors. Then, the transmitting teacher responds to the insight verse by reading a verse from the Lamp Transmission certificate. The teacher hands the certificate to the new Dharma teacher, who passes it to one attendant. The second attendant hands an unlit lamp to the new teacher, having picked up the lamp as they approached the platform. The new teacher offers the lamp to the transmitting teacher. He lights a long stick of incense from his large Dharma lamp and uses it to ignite the new Dharma teacher’s lamp, raising awareness of continuation: one flame or two?

Historically, our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) has transmitted Lamps to new Dharma teachers. But in March, Thay was in Plum Village. The Most Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh and the Venerable Thich Tu Luc were the transmitting teachers in joyful ceremonies that evoked Thay’s own presence in the transmission and reminded us of the Sangha’s involvement.

The Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall had two platforms for the transmitting teachers. The slightly higher one held an empty cushion for Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Phuoc Tinh and Thich Tu Luc sat on a platform just in front of Thay’s cushion. Offering fourfold community support, lay and monastic Dharma teachers sat in crescent-shaped rows to the right and left of the open area at the front of the hall where the transmissions occurred. Each Dharma teacher in the rows had a lit candle, which he or she raised as the transmitting teacher lit the new Dharma teacher’s lamp and passed it on. Family and friends rounded out the warmth of the hall.

The presence of loved ones, a particularly special part of the Deer Park ceremonies, was possible because the transmissions were in California. Traveling to and practicing in Plum Village is wonderful, yet it can be expensive. It may be difficult for loved ones to leave work and for children to get out of school for the trip, even for an event as special as a Lamp Transmission ceremony.

With so many loved ones able to come to Deer Park, we could offer a unique welcome to the new Dharma teachers. The night before their transmission ceremonies, we asked the new teachers to meet at the office for some “last minute paperwork.” It was a loving ruse. Several other friends met them at the office, and then took them on a trust walk—eyes closed, trusting their friends to guide them—to the small meditation hall. There, family and friends had gathered in a circle around some chairs. The guides took each prospective Dharma teacher, eyes closed, to a chair in the middle and carefully guided them to sit. When the seats were filled, we sang “Dear Friends” to our soon-to-be teachers as they opened their eyes. We enjoyed an informal tea ceremony as the prospective teachers introduced themselves and their loved ones to the circle of friends.

The next day, the meditation hall glowed with lamps and with the loving hearts of many family members and friends who came to support and celebrate. Several family members and partners were assistants for their loved one’s ceremony. When I spoke with the new Dharma teachers afterward, gratitude for having their loved ones with them came up again and again. The warmth and love inside the hall that day seemed the perfect setting, even with the wind howling its song outside.

The new Dharma teachers are: Chan Phap Nha, Kenley Neufeld, Joann Rosen, Sr. Chan Dong Doan, Br. Chan Phap Tuyen, Sr. Chan Tanh Nghiem, Karen Hilsberg, John Salerno-White, Ha Phan, Anthony Silvestre, Terry Cortes Vega, Jim Scott Behrends, Br. Chan Man Tue, and Sr. Chan Ung Nghiem.

mb61-OneFlameOrTwo3Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Awakening, received Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2009. She was ordained into the Order of  Interbeing in 1995. She practices with the Charlotte (NC) Community of Mindfulness and with inmate Sanghas. She is a member of the Caretaking Council for the North American Plum Village Dharma Teachers’ Sangha.

 

Most Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh

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The Most Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh was born in 1947 in Dong Thap, Vietnam, to a family of rice farmers. His father was shot and killed while farming during what is called in Vietnam the American War. At that time, the Most Venerable was a boy and he somehow managed to escape injury, although he was present in the rice paddies on that day. The Most Venerable continued to farm rice and support his family until 1962, when his mother gave him permission to ordain as a novice monk at a Buddhist    temple. He received full ordination as a bhikkhu in 1972 and then went to Saigon to study at Phat Quang University from 1972-1973. The Most Venerable received full ordination in 1980 and became abbot at the Temple of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Quan The Am) in Da Lat in 1993. After spending his life in Vietnam, he was invited by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to live at Deer Park Monastery in Southern California in 2001. He began to offer teachings in Vietnamese to monastic and lay practitioners in San Diego County, Orange County, and Los Angeles County, and at Deer Park in Escondido, where he continues to reside. Collections of his talks in English are presented in Be Like A Tree: Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh and The Ten Oxherding Paintings: Zen Talk by Thich Phuoc Tinh. He is also the author of two books in Vietnamese, one on the Forty-Two Chapters Sutra and one of Dharma talks sharing wisdom for everyday life.

Venerable Thich Tu Luc

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The Venerable Thich Tu Luc was born in 1955, in Hue, Vietnam, to a traditional Buddhist and Confucian family. In 1975 he went to the U.S. as a refugee. In 1977 he became a Buddhist monk as a student of the Most Venerable Thich Tinh Tu, now the abbot of Kim Son Monastery in Watsonville, California. In 1983 the Venerable received the Ten  Monastic  Precepts  at  the Vietnam pagoda in Los Angeles, and in 1985 he received Full Ordination at the Grand Vow Ceremony at Kim Quang pagoda in Sacramento. He received the Dharma Teacher’s Lamp Transmission from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994. Thay Tu Luc graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Library Management and Creative Arts. In 1998, he completed the Church Operations Certificate Program at University of the Pacific, Stockton. He founded the Hayward Buddhist Center in 1986 and the Compassion Meditation Center in 2000. Just recently, in June 2012, he founded the Wisdom Dharma Center in Vacaville, California. He also formed an English-speaking Sangha called the Four-Fold Sangha, which has met weekly for many years. Thay Tu Luc was one of the founders of the three Buddhist Youth groups in Northern California. The Venerable published One Hundred Poems, a collection of spiritual poems from various authors, in 1990. He wrote and published Looking Back Deeply (Lang Long Nhin Lai) in 1999, Deep Love of Buddhist Youth Organization (Dam Net Tinh Lam) in 2005, Love for the Path and Gratitude for Life (Tinh Dao, Nghia Doi) in 2007, and Why I Became a Monk (Tai Sao Toi Di Tu) in 2008.

 

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Leaving a Legacy of Love and Compassion

An Interview with Brandy Sacks

mb61-LegacyMindfulness Bell: Brandy, where did you grow up and what were your first religious experiences?

Brandy Sacks: I’ve lived all my adult life in San Diego, California. My parents were non-practicing Jews, and I really wasn’t raised with any spirituality. As I grew up, however, I was attracted to Buddhism, but most of what I saw here in California was Japanese Zen practice. The Zen Center in San Francisco was very prominent. Japanese Zen really didn’t click for me; it seemed too strict, with too many rules. I did, however, become a Reiki Master. 

MB: How did you first encounter the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh? 

BS: I first became aware of Thich Nhat Hanh through my Reiki teacher, who would quote from Thay’s writings and talks. In 1993, I heard Thay was coming to Malibu to lead a Day of Mindfulness. It was one of his earliest retreats on the West Coast; there was no Sangha in Los Angeles or San Diego at the time, and we might get a hundred people for a multi-day retreat, several hundred for a one-day event—much smaller than now. I went to the ‘93 Day of Mindfulness. 

MB: Obviously it was a life-changing experience. 

BS: It was. What really resonated for me were the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thay’s vision for a global spirituality and ethic: reverence for life, true happiness, true love, loving speech and deep listening, and nourishment and healing. They were clear, direct, but not ten commandments. We weren’t striving for perfection, but by following these trainings we could become happier. That really made sense to me. I wanted a spiritual practice that emphasized happiness. So I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings at that retreat. 

MB: Where did you go from there? 

BS: I began reading Thay’s books and continued my sitting here on the West Coast. Then I heard he was coming in 1997 to lead a multi-day retreat in Santa Barbara. We had a huge turnout. People still talk about that one and the one that followed in 1999 as solidifying the West Coast community.

There was still no San Diego Sangha in 1997, but after the retreat there was a lot of talk about Sangha building. Thay stressed that if you wanted to become a member of the Order of Interbeing you had to lead or start a Sangha. About the same time, Christopher Reed, a lay Dharma teacher, started a meditation class that became the first San Diego Sangha. We later moved to the Wat Lau Temple for the Sangha’s meetings and I began leading it. I took the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings at the retreat in 1999. 

MB: How has your personal commitment to Buddhism influenced your professional career? 

BS: I was an elementary school teacher for a number of years. Later I became the manager of operations for a nonprofit called Bread for the Journey. I currently work for another nonprofit, GroundSpark, which uses documentary filmmaking to ignite social change. It’s a great organization and won an Academy Award in 1991 for Deadly Deception, its documentary film on the environmental and health dangers of creating nuclear weapons. Our current project is called Respect for All, a series of films aimed at elementary, middle, and high school audiences on respecting diversity. The middle school films focus quite a bit on stopping bullying; the high school films deal with bullying, sexuality, and other issues.

Around 2001, once the Community of Mindful Living office in Berkeley closed, I took over running the iamhome.org website. The website featured, as its successor still does, an international Sangha directory and a listing of retreats and talks by Thay.  After five or six years I appealed to Janelle Combelic, then editor of the Mindfulness Bell magazine, for assistance with content and direction for the website. We got together a small team of OI members, Dharma teachers, and monastics. We decided to broaden the focus of the website to include the online version of the Mindfulness Bell magazine. We changed the name to mindfulnessbell.org and I’ve been webmaster ever since. 

MB: You’ve been engaged in this practice now for almost twenty years. Looking back, what has it meant for you? 

BS: I’m very dedicated to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and once every six weeks I lead a recitation at our Sangha. They remain for me one of the most concrete and real aspects of our practice and underlie all Thay says in his books and all we do.

Looking back, I’m a lot happier, a lot less anxious and fearful, a lot more compassionate and caring. I got ninety percent of that from the practice. It helped me realize and stay mindful of the impact that my words and actions have on those around me. As Thay says, it’s not just about you, it’s about the community of family, friends, and colleagues around you, about the whole world, really, and the impact you have on it, moment to moment.

Thay talks about not turning away from suffering. That’s a continuing challenge for me, but I draw strength from his encouragement to have solidity, be mindful, be content and happy in myself so I have the energy and inner resources to look at the suffering in the world. It’s inspired me to have a career devoted to helping others. 

MB: And because of all this, you’ve decided to leave half of your estate to furthering the work Thay has begun. 

BS: Yes! As soon as I heard that the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation had been created, I decided making a planned gift was a really good thing to do. Planned gifts are going to be essential to helping the monastic and lay communities continue to grow and thrive. Many of us want to ensure that the teachings and the monastic order continue in the future, but we may not have the wealth to make a major gift at the present moment. That makes planned giving an attractive option: if you’ve got a retirement plan, you have assets that you can give after your lifetime.  All it takes is filling out a codicil to your will, and changing your beneficiaries if you have a retirement plan, which is what I did. It’s very easy to do.

mb61-Legacy2How to Leave a Legacy of Love and Compassion

You can leave a legacy of love for our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and his inspirational work around the world by making a bequest gift to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation. Your bequest allows the Sangha to care for our U.S. monastic practice centers, support worldwide humanitarian efforts, and promote programs that bring the practice of mindfulness into schools. Your gift transforms suffering into compassion—bringing peace and joy to millions around the world.

What is legacy giving or planned giving?

A legacy or planned gift is a gift that a donor decides to make available at some future date. Through your will, you can make a generous gift that might not be possible during your lifetime—and have a huge impact on continuing to spread mindfulness and peace around the world.

Who can make a bequest?

Anyone can make a bequest. You do not need to be wealthy; it does not cost a thing, and if you change your mind at any time, you can simply alter your will.

Is it possible to make a gift through my will, and do you want a gift like this?

Yes. A bequest is the most common type of legacy gift and is often the easiest way to make a significant contribution toward the continuation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of mindfulness and peace around the world. The suggested language below can help you and your advisors include us in your will or other estate-planning documents.

May I designate my gift for a specific purpose or practice center?

Yes. Your gift may be designated for any program or practice center supported by the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation. We would be happy to review your designation options with you.

Is it possible to name the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation as a beneficiary of my retirement plan?

Yes. Leaving a retirement plan or IRA (or a portion of it) is a tax-wise gift because you will avoid all estate and income taxes on the plan assets after your lifetime (or at the death of the survivor of you and your spouse). To make this gift, you simply notify your plan’s administrator of your wish to change the beneficiary. A “change of beneficiary” form will be required. The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation can be designated as a full or partial beneficiary of your plan.

Can I use my life insurance policy to benefit the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation?

Yes. You can name the Foundation as a primary, partial, or alternate beneficiary of your life insurance policy by filling out a change of beneficiary form with the insurance company. Furthermore, if you no longer need the policy proceeds in your estate, you can transfer ownership of the policy to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation.

What if I already have a will and I want to make a bequest to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation?

Generally, you would not need to rewrite your will, but you could create a sort of amendment called a codicil. It is very important to consult a lawyer where you live, so your codicil complies with local laws that will govern your estate.

The beneficiary should be designated as Trustees of the Unified Buddhist Church, a Vermont charitable corporation, tax identification number 03-0356845, (“UBC”), and if you like, you may designate that UBC shall use this gift: (examples)… at the discretion of the TNH Continuation and Legacy Foundation Board of Directors… for Blue Cliff Monastery… for Deer Park Monastery… for Magnolia Grove Monastery.

Whom should I consult about making a planned gift?

You may consult attorneys who practice estate planning, accountants, financial planners, trust officers, insurance agents, stockbrockers, and/or any professional advisor you know and trust who has knowledge about planned giving.

Your will is your legacy of love. Please take a moment to breathe and experience the joy of compassionate giving through a bequest gift that ensures the continuation of Thay’s work. We bow in gratitude for your compassionate heart and would be honored and grateful to be notified of your bequest intentions.

For more information on including the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation and Unified Buddhist Church in your bequest gift or estate plans, please contact:

Community Liaison, Lorri Houston
Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido, CA 92026
Phone: 760-291-1003 ext. 104
Email:   Info@ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org
Website:  ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org
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Sangha-that-Sings-to-Birds

By Laura Hunter

One of my favorite memories involves the time we were doing walking meditation at Deer Park Monastery soon after I had begun attending Days of Mindfulness there. We came to sit in the Oak Grove, and, looking up, we saw two Great Horned Owlets perched high in the trees. They were prehistoric looking marvels—all fluffy with their white down and patchy feathers, with big eyes open wide. Joy spread through the Sangha as we gazed up at them, and they down at us. Then, as if on cue, several monks and nuns stood up and starting singing to the owls—I am free, I am free, I am free. The owlets tilted their heads in wonder. Sitting there, under the cool oaks, bathed in the dappled forest light, surrounded by such loving people who sing to birds, I fell in love with the community at that moment. I knew I belonged with   this Sangha-that-Sings-to-Birds, and would forevermore be a part of it.

mb61-SanghaSingsLaura Hunter, True Ocean of Teachings, lives in Escondido, California with her husband Ron and Dharma dog Sprout. She sits with the World Beat Sangha, works for environmental justice, and is coordinator of the Deer Park Dharmacast (www.dpcast.net).

 

 

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Breathing and Smiling with Brother Phap Kinh

By J.E. Combelic

On the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, the Plum Village community was shaken by a tragic event. Ordinarily Tet is celebrated over three joyous days, the most festive season in the Vietnamese calendar. This year at Plum Village, it was an occasion for quiet reflection, for smiles through the tears.

mb61-BrPhapKinhBrother Phap Kinh, also known as Brother Christopher, died early in the morning of January 23 by his own hand. He was a middle-aged Western monk who ordained two years ago, was fluent in both French and English, and was responsible for the Upper Hamlet bookshop. Before he ordained he was very active as an OI member in the Paris Sangha. His sudden death sent shock waves through the worldwide Sangha.

Speaking to the assembled community in a special meeting at Plum Village, Thay said, “Brother Phap Kinh is a wonderful brother. He has been taking care of the Sangha in the Upper Hamlet in the best way he could; he behaved like an abbot, welcoming guests and taking good care of them. The news this morning was very shocking for Thay and the Sangha.” Thay went on to explain that “maybe a strong impulse or emotion took over Phap Kinh. While all the brothers were still sleeping, he left the residence and went to the forest, outside the boundaries of Plum Village, and took his own life in a hut used by hunters. That came as a big surprise to me and to the Sangha, because he was such a dedicated practitioner and devoted himself fully to the practice of a monk.”

In attempting to understand, Thay remembered that Phap Kinh’s mother had committed suicide years before, also in mid-winter. “All of us are in a big shock, so we need to practice breathing and walking to calm down. Breathing in, we have to be aware of our own body and the body of the Sangha. Breathing out, we have to calm our own body and help calm the body of the Sangha. Because when Phap Kinh dies, we all die with him somehow.”

Brother Phap Kinh was cremated in Bergerac on January 28, with many of his monastic brothers and sisters in attendance. The energy of the formal ceremony at the mortuary was powerful and full of love.

Many Sanghas around the world paid tribute to Phap Kinh with written messages and special ceremonies. Thousands of people who knew him in the Paris Sangha and at Plum Village reeled from the news and searched their hearts for understanding. Words of gratitude for his life of service and inspiration poured onto blogs and email lists, along with blessings for his continuation.

Friends who were at Plum Village during this difficult time marveled at the love that Thay radiated. He said, “If we know how to walk and breathe mindfully and become aware that Mother Earth is always embracing us with her wonderful and powerful energy, we will get the healing, we will transform our suffering. That is why, when we express homage to the Bodhisattva Mother Earth, we allow the Earth our mother to embrace us and calm and transform the suffering in us. Buddhists and non-Buddhists can practice the same.”

Brother Phap Ho, a senior Western monk and acting abbot of Deer Park Monastery, wrote: “The basic practice of mindful breathing and walking, touching the wonders of life, remembering all the reasons why life is beautiful and worth living is my insurance if monsters from the depths would appear…. I feel that this past week I have been more acutely aware in a relaxed way what seeds I water and give attention to. I have not left brother Phap Kinh behind, I still breathe and smile with him.”

For many of us, this tragedy precipitated deep soul-searching. We touch the earth in gratitude to Brother Phap Kinh, and pray that his continuation on this mysterious journey brings him the peace and joy that he brought to those he touched in life.

J.E. Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, lives near Findhorn, Scotland where she practices with Northern Lights Sangha.

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Book Reviews

mb61-BookReviews1Good Citizens
Creating Enlightened Society

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2012
Softcover, 129 pages 

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg and Alex Cline  

At the age of eighty-six, our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh continues to actively teach around the world and to publish several new books each year. His latest offering, Good Citizens, is profound. Deliberately published before the 2012 elections in the United States, this handbook offers guidance to take the practice of mindfulness and the reality of interbeing to a global level. Without being dogmatic or philosophical, Thay clearly explains how individuals can live an ethical way of life that will contribute to personal and societal well-being. This book is targeted to a broad audience and is sure to have very wide appeal.

Thay’s teaching works equally well for non-Buddhists and Buddhists. This book is a wonderful introductory text that clearly explains the practice, the logic, and the relevance of mindfulness in plain English. Thay presents the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path in a manner that is clear and relevant to our modern lives. He spells out how we can live our lives in order to contribute to an enlightened and peaceful society.

For readers who are familiar with Thay’s teachings, this book presents the essential elements of Buddhist practice in fresh and inspiring ways that are applicable to our daily lives. Thay shares meaningful and thought-provoking reflections on historical events in the context of a new global ethic. He offers insights into President Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009 and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His pithy commentary on the Five Mindfulness Trainings toward the end of the book is breathtaking in its lucidity and relevance.

mb61-BookReviews2Peace is Every Breath
A Practice for Our Busy Lives

By Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperOne, 2012
Hardcover, 147 pages
Softcover, 147 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

Under one cover, in one small primer, are Thich Nhat Hanh’s most poignant teachings, peppered with his charming calligraphy. Out of his great compassion for all beings, our teacher addresses the difficulties and suffering of modern society by offering us clear, concrete practices to transform pain and agitation into joy and serenity. “Allow this book to be your companion,” he writes in the Author’s Note. Designed to encourage us in the development of mindfulness and concentration, “the core energies of spiritual practice,” this handbook for living has the potential to lead to a deepening spiritual practice for all of us.

To introduce the wondrous practices of this book, Thay offers a sketch of his typical reader, describing all of us: “You have lots of work to do, and you like doing it. It’s interesting, and you enjoy being productive. But working too much, taking care of so many things, tires you out. You want to practice meditation, so you can be more relaxed and have more peace, happiness, and joy in your life. But you don’t have the time for daily meditation practice. It’s a dilemma—what can you do? This book is your answer.”

I keep Peace Is Every Breath by my bed. As I need them, I can turn to sections such as “Loving Speech,” “Boundless Love,” and “Contemplating No-Self and Emptiness,” and fall into a calm and quiet sleep. I cannot be reminded often enough to take care of my emotions, and that I need not be caught in pain. I can walk in such a way that each step is a miracle. In this small book are as many ways to wake up as we shall need for a lifetime—to touch enlightenment from moment to moment, even in our very busy and very ordinary lives.

All those on our Christmas list will receive a copy of this book in 2012, the most thoughtful gift for any loved one. It is our sincere hope that Peace Is Every Breath will be translated into every earthly language. And then we shall send it to the stars.

mb61-BookReviews3Not Quite Nirvana
A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness

By Rachel Neumann
Parallax Press, 2012
Softcover, 182 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

With great humor and a talent for anecdote, Rachel Neumann has compiled honest and homespun autobiographical essays, with snippets from her unusual childhood, on how she tripped into mindfulness practice by landing the job as full-time editor at Parallax Press.*

Raised on a “rural commune, surrounded by trees, goats, water, and a roving gang of other dirty, half-naked children,” the child of a father named Osha who works with the homeless, Neumann as we meet her is a self-proclaimed “outsider” and a skeptic. With daughters named Luna and Plum, and their father, she navigates the complicated waters of family life. She edits books about the Dharma with a babe in arms, learning to simultaneously nurse her baby and type. She admits that sometimes “the current moment is just in the way.” Yet it is clear that she learns as she goes.

Neumann, prompted by her early years on the commune, makes of her Bay Area home an international community center. She rents out a room to those who show up and gathers her neighbors for nettle tea and meals. One has the sense that her life is one happy accident after another—all of which she makes the most of.

Neumann is everywoman. We can all identify with her foiled attempts at mindfulness and compassion, as well as with her moments of true awareness. She begins one wonderful story like this: “I am walking to my office to work on a book about how interconnected everyone is and how we all need each other, when a man starts yelling at me out his car window.”

Neumann’s credits are amazing. She has worked as an editor with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Sylvia Boorstein, Sulak Sivaraksa, and for the past ten years as primary editor for Thay. She has written for Shambhala Sun, Village Voice, and The Nation. But reading her book, you would never know of her resume; you’d only know the truth of her everyday life with those who happen by. To get a sense of her storytelling abilities, visit Neumann’s blog at www.peaceandsleep.org.

* Parallax Press publishes the majority of Thay’s books in English.

mb61-BookReviews4Murder as a Call to Love
A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness

By Judith Toy
Cloud Cottage Editions, 2012
Softcover, 263 pages

Reviewed by Beth DeLap, Compassionate Path of the Heart

Judith Toy’s book, Murder as a Call to Love, will leave you forever moved and inspired. Her story is one of grace, courage, and diligence in the face of unspeakable loss. She does not portray herself as a super-human saint who is here to tell us what to do when someone we love has been murdered. She takes us with her. You’ll be amazed when you arrive, with Toy, at an unlikely and seemingly impossible teaching: forgiveness. This is a forgiveness for ourselves and for others. It is not stuck, like anger—it flows, like love.

Woven throughout are the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. Like gems in a tapestry, his words are placed in the story just as the author found them. We hear how she set out to apply them. As her story deepens and unfolds, Thay’s teachings on interbeing deepen and enfold into our hearts, his words taking on the nature of street signs that we notice at first, then begin to internalize. In our walk with Judith we discover the Five Mindfulness Trainings. We turn another page and there are the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings. Rounding a corner we find this reminder: “The Buddha gave us very effective instruments to put out the fire in us.” Thay patiently repeats his message of interbeing until we discover, along with Toy, that there is a powerful path to peace that is available to all.

There are personal letters from abuser to victim, from victim to abuser. An appendix provides resources for those interested in the forgiveness path. I found much that I could relate to, much food for thought, and such an insistence on love that I remain captivated even now, after closing the book.

Toy has unwrapped, examined, suffered, and loved her way through to a personal peace that has the power to heal many. With her lovely word-crafting and talented storytelling, the author pulls us into what may be a lifelong practice of forgiveness. This book will benefit all beings as we continue our collective journey to peace.

mb61-BookReviews5Mindfulness in the Garden
Zen Tools for Digging in the Dirt

By Zachiah Murray
Parallax Press, 2012
Hardcover, 151 pages

Reviewed by T. Ambrose Desmond

Tending a garden is one of the core images used in teaching the path of mindfulness. We are taught to see our mind as a garden that needs tending, and we are taught how to play the role of gardener. Thay often speaks about his love of growing vegetables and how great a teacher a garden can be.

In Mindfulness in the Garden, Zachiah Murray invites us to fully experience all of the teachings that our gardens are trying to give us. The book includes a foreword by Thay and is structured around a collection of lovely new gathas that invite us to bring our practice into every aspect of gardening. From entering the garden to working with weeds to the harvest, we are guided to see the realities of impermanence and interbeing shining through our experience in the garden.

One of my favorite gathas in the book is the one for practicing with seeds that do not sprout:
Sometimes even with mindfulness,
my garden fails to thrive.
With breath, mind and hands free,
the seed of my equanimity emerges.

In her commentary, Zachiah reminds us that our practice is most strengthened when we are challenged. She calls these challenges “good medicine” and encourages us to see them as opportunities for learning and growth. With a calm and soothing voice, she helps us to let go of our attachments to outcome and arrive in the beautiful present.

Transforming our garden into both a meditation hall and a living sutra, the gathas contained in Mindfulness in the Garden help us to bring a sense of wonder and depth to our relationship with the natural world.

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Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain

How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice

By Paul Tingen

Around twenty-five years ago, neuroscience went through a dramatic change in perspective that had profound implications for mindfulness practitioners, and that can greatly deepen our understanding of our practice and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. To be able to describe neuroscience’s big discovery, first some basic facts: the brain is astoundingly complex, typically containing some 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron is capable of making thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of connections with other neurons using chemicals called neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals along complex cellular pathways. “Thoughts, memories,  emotions—all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons,” writes Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.1

Until the 1980s, conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed form that remained the same during adulthood. This belief in the brain’s static cellular circuitry gave rise to a very limited view of human consciousness, a “neurological nihilism,” in which consciousness was seen as no more than the byproduct of these fixed pathways. With the emergence of the computer, the analogy was made that the hardware of the brain determined and limited the software (our feelings and our thoughts).

However, due to pioneering research in the 1980s, most famously by Professor Michael Merzenich,2 this orthodoxy was turned on its head. Since then it has become widely accepted that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences, and the way we use our body. This phenomenon is referred to as the plasticity of the brain. In computer language, the software and the hardware inter-are: the software can shape the hardware, just as much as the other way around. Neuroscience today is governed by what is known as Hebb’s rule: “Cells that fire together wire together.” The brain gets less plastic as we grow older, but the capacity for rewiring remains.

The idea of neuroplasticity has given new hope to people with physical, emotional, and mental impairments that had hitherto been regarded as unchangeable. Conversely, just as it is possible for the software to change the hardware for the better, it can also change the hardware for the worse. Moreover, in Carr’s words, “plastic does not mean elastic.” Neural pathways become entrenched, and the more entrenched they become, the more they resist the process of rewiring. The older, entrenched pathways are paths of least resistance amongst which neurons like to communicate with each other, propelling us to keep repeating similar feelings, thoughts, and actions. Every time we use a particular pathway, it increases the likelihood that we will do it again.

Says Carr, “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick.” In short, whenever we’re stuck in habitual suffering, we’re not just wasting our life energy and time, we’re actively entrenching this suffering in our neurological pathways, making it more likely that we’ll suffer in the same way again. Suffering is not a free ride.

Rewiring for Well-being

There are many parallels between these theories of neuroscience and Thay’s teachings. The essence of our Buddhist practice is to use mindfulness to develop singularity of thought (concentration/samadhi), which can help us to get out of habitual thinking and feeling and help us to stop triggering our habitual neural pathways of suffering. Mindfulness, in effect, allows us to consciously rewire our brain for improved well-being.

Mindfulness is intentional and based on our free will. Free will can be applied in many ways. An athlete or musician will construct neural pathways in his or her brain through endless deliberate practice. However, the practice of an athlete or musician will rarely be self-aware, and while it may push pathways of suffering out of sight, it won’t transform them. Mindfulness may be the only state of mind that is wholly deliberate and wholly self-aware, and that is able to embrace other states of mind, transform them, and foster well-being, thereby allowing us to consciously rewire our brain.

The way we use the mantra, “This is a happy moment,” is a good example. We train the brain to create and deepen a neural pathway of well-being that might not otherwise be there. Conversely, if we focus on the negative, we keep firing and strengthening the neural pathways associated with our suffering. We know that certain ways of expressing our suffering can make us feel lighter and freer, while others appear to deepen it. One main reason for the difference between “rehearsing” suffering and transforming it lies in whether we embrace our suffering with mindfulness or not. Another factor is whether we look at our suffering with Right View; wrong views trigger the very thoughts that cause and entrench our suffering. If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness and with Right View, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering with Right View and mindfulness, and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being. The light of mindfulness cooks the raw potatoes, so they become a joy to eat.

Thay has always disagreed with a widespread view in Western society that we can get rid of unpleasant feelings, particularly anger, simply through expressing them. He often warns against the danger of rehearsing these feelings. Neuroplasticity shows us that repeatedly firing off our neurological pathways indeed risks strengthening those very pathways. And so, again contrary to a lot of Western thinking, Thay has long recommended that people who come to Plum Village don’t immediately start digging into their suffering, but instead begin with watering their seeds of well-being. Once we are stable and our sense of well-being is strong enough, we can look at our suffering again and have a chance to transform it, rather than risk being overwhelmed by it.

Our Sun of Mindfulness

To describe these processes more clearly, I would like to build on Thay’s analogy of our practice as that of a gardener. A gardener transforms compost (the mud) into flowers (the lotus). A skillful gardener knows how to create a pleasant garden with lots of flowers and just enough compost to feed them. Being a skillful gardener of our own inner garden is our spiritual work of self-love. To offer another analogy: neural pathways can be described as a collection of gullies, brooks, canals, and canyons; our feelings and thoughts can be considered the water in them. Mindfulness has often been described as a light, and in this case we could extend the analogy by describing mindfulness as the sun.

And so, it rains and a rivulet forms: the first arrow has hit and we suffer. The Buddha’s teachings tell us this is unavoidable; life will fire us arrows. Suffering is inevitable. But if we don’t handle this arrow correctly, if we add other arrows to it with wrong thinking, the rivulet turns into a stream, a river, and eventually a flood of suffering. The one neural connection has turned into a pathway and is likely to join with other similar pathways, and all of them may be deepened. As these neural pathways are strengthened, so are the corresponding mental formations, and they will be more difficult to transform. And once this gully or canal or canyon has formed, new rain will be drawn to it, deepening these pathways still further.

There is a belief in Western culture that we have to go through our suffering (the dark night of the soul), but from the perspective of neuroplasticity and our practice, we cannot transform our suffering from inside our suffering. We cannot affect the course of a canal while being caught in the stream. We cannot dissolve neural pathways while firing them simultaneously. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. We have to step out of the stream and shine our sun of mindfulness on it. Only with the healthy parts of ourselves can we heal our afflictions.

When we’re suffering, streams (or storms) of thoughts and feelings run through us; and when we manage to breathe and become mindful, these streams calm down to a gentle trickle. As the water slows down, as the storm abates to a gentle breeze, the neurons stop firing together, and we no longer strengthen our neural pathway of suffering. The suffering, the neural pathway, may still be there, but it is no longer a danger to us. It is like the mother embracing her angry child: she holds him firmly, so he can do no damage, and also lovingly, so he can come back to his true self. At that point, the water can mingle with the earth and turn into mud, or it can evaporate in the light of the sun of our mindfulness and fall down as rain (our tears) somewhere else in our garden. In both cases, the water will help grow flowers rather than deepen the pathway of suffering.

When we consider this analogy, it’s easy to see why Thay so often stresses that we should not judge or suppress our suffering. In seeing our suffering as water flowing through a canal, we realize that we need that water to tend our garden. If handled unskillfully, the water can deepen the groove of our suffering; if we know how to practice, we can use it to grow flowers in our garden. The analogy can be extended yet further. Sometimes our suffering has become frozen, hidden, inaccessible: we may have become bitter or repressed our feelings. One can’t grow flowers with ice, so we have to first melt our frozen feelings.

Mindfulness practice in general, and sitting meditation in particular, are ways of strengthening the power of the sun of our mindfulness, or the power of our concentration (samadhi). But sometimes, if our sun of mindfulness isn’t strong enough to transform our suffering, we need the compassionate and mindful presence of another person. As the water starts to flow, we cry, and we begin to disarm and transform our suffering with our collective mindfulness. This is one of several reasons why practicing in a Sangha is so important. Neuroscience offers an additional reason, emanating from its research of a particular class of neurons called mirror neurons, which are triggered when we observe the actions and/or feelings of others, and which then fire in corresponding ways. Neuroscientists have argued that mirror neurons make empathy possible; and even simply being in the company of other practitioners will trigger mirror neurons that strengthen our own practice.

What Thay calls our store consciousness can be seen as the network of neural pathways in our brain, much of it inherited from our ancestors, with each seed corresponding to a neural pathway. Intense feelings, addictions, and many of the noxious things we consume in our society can strengthen our neural pathways of suffering (hence the importance of the Fifth Mindfulness Training). By contrast, the calming nature of our entire practice makes it easier to rewire our brain. There are no magic formulas or strategies; the crucial point is that we need to be very mindful, at all times, of whether we’re transforming our suffering or merely rehearsing it.

Living lightly offers more freedom and clarity to practitioners and also makes it possible to turn neutral feelings into pleasant ones—in other words, to turn neutral and often forgotten neural pathways into pathways that trigger well-being. It is, so to speak, far easier to cultivate flowers in the gently rolling hills of Plum Village than in the steep crags of the Grand Canyon.

© 2012, Paul Tingen

1) All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010), which has been credited with giving one of the best descriptions of the concept of neuroplasticity available. The thesis of Carr’s book is that extensive use of the Internet rewires our brains to make it more difficult for us to handle deep thoughts and extended narratives. Some of Carr’s sources on neuroplasticity are:

* Pascual-Leone, A. Amedi, F. Fregni, and L.B. Merabet, “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28 (2005).
* Michael Greenberg, “Just Remember This,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008.
* Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science (New York: Penguin, 2007).
* Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Harper-Perrenial, 2002).

2) Carr, pages 24-26.

Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of  a book about the electric music of  Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album titled Metamorphosis. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.

Seven Interbeings

photo by Paul Davis

By Tetsunori Koizumi

Interbeing as a Binary Relation

“Interbeing” is a new word invented by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), which he employs to explain the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. A sheet of paper, for example, is an interbeing as it is connected with a cloud through a chain of relationships. “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper,” Thay writes in The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Things that appear totally unconnected to most people—a sheet of paper and a cloud, in this example—become connected with each other in a relationship which Thay calls “inter-are.”

Technically speaking, interbeing can be regarded as what mathematicians call a “binary relation,” a relationship established on a set of elements by pair-wise comparison of them, defined in this case on the set of all things in the universe, including our consciousness. It is not difficult to see that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity. First of all, it is obvious that anything inter-is with itself, albeit in a trivial sense of that word. Thus, the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the law of reflexivity, namely, xRx, where the symbol R designates the binary relation of interbeing.

The binary relation of interbeing also satisfies the law of commutativity, namely, xRy implies yRx, for if one thing inter-is with some other thing, then the second thing inter-is with the first. By bringing three things into consideration now and examining the applicability of interbeing among the three pairs of two things that result from them, we can see that the binary relation of interbeing further satisfies the law of transitivity; namely, xRy and yRz imply xRz. In the above example, a cloud inter-is with rain and rain inter-is with trees, implying that a cloud inter-is with trees.

Given that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity, it becomes a matter of logical exercise, aided by a modicum of poetic insight, to establish the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. Thus, roses and garbage inter-are, another favorite example used by Thay to illustrate the concept of interbeing. We can also appeal to P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) who employs poetic insight to express the same binary relation of interbeing in a poem entitled “Music:”

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed.

And that beloved’s bed, as we know, is the soil from which a new rose tree grows with a new set of rose leaves and flowers!

This Is Because That Is

The genius of Thay as a teacher of Buddhist thought becomes quite evident when he skillfully employs the concept of interbeing to explain the idea of sunyata, or emptiness, which is probably the most profound teaching of the Buddha on the nature of reality in the world around us. In terms of the binary relation of interbeing introduced above, the Buddha’s words as recorded in Samyukta Agama—“the Middle Way says that this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not”—can be expressed as follows: that x exists in M, or the manifest world, implies that there exists y, different from x, such that xRy; x does not exist in M if there does not exist y, different from x, such that xRy.

By applying this binary relation of interbeing repeatedly to all the other elements that connect a sheet of paper to a cloud, we derive another of Thay’s favorite expressions: “A sheet of paper is made of non-paper elements.” This can be expressed as: xR(~x), where x stands for a sheet of paper, and (~x) for non-paper elements. A natural conclusion that follows from this logical exercise is that a sheet of paper—indeed any thing, for that matter—does not exist as a separate and independent entity, and is therefore inherently empty.

The term interbeing, although it appears to designate something that lies in between being and nonbeing, is actually a word Thay invented to expound the Buddhist idea of the Middle Way. We must go beyond the concepts of both being and nonbeing if we are to understand the idea of emptiness. As he puts it in Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way: “The Middle Way goes beyond ideas of being and nonbeing, birth and death, one and many, coming and going, same and different.”

By going beyond our dualistic way of seeing things (either “something exists” or “something does not exist”), we are able to develop the right view to see things, not in the lokadhatu, or the manifest world where things appear to be born and to die and to exist independently of one another, but in the dharmadhatu, or the ultimate realm of things as they are. As we learn to see things as they are, it will become clear to us that there is neither being nor nonbeing, neither birth nor death.

A Child’s Wisdom

Let us now go back in time—as time is conceived in classical physics—to 1798 when Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a delightful poem titled “We Are Seven.” In this poem, Wordsworth writes about his encounter with an eight-year-old cottage girl:

A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

Asked by the poet how many sisters and brothers she has, this little girl answers:

“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”

The answer confounds the poet because two of the seven brothers and sisters are already dead and buried in the churchyard. To the poet who reminds her that only five boys and girls are left if two are buried in the churchyard, the little girl answers emphatically, “O Master! We are seven.” As far as this little cottage girl is concerned, two of the seven brothers and sisters who are buried beneath the churchyard tree are not dead, as she daily plays with them in the churchyard.

Can we reject this little cottage girl’s answer as a reflection of her ignorance and concur with Wordsworth that she knows nothing of death? What is more intriguing for us is to speculate how Wordsworth would have responded had she answered, “O Master! We are seven—seven interbeings.” The poet, to be sure, would have been even more confounded by this answer. On the other hand, we can easily imagine how Thay would nod approvingly with a smile on his face. It was this cottage girl with her innocence of a simple child, not the poet with his knowledge of a mature adult, who was able to see things as they are.

Tetsunori Koizumi, a member of Blue Heron Sangha, is Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies in Columbus, Ohio. This article was inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma talks during the “Science of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June 2012.

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