Love Letter from Auschwitz

By Peter Kuhn 

Dear Friends,

Auschwitz, the site of the most notorious concentration camp in Nazi-occupied territory during World War II, may not sound like a vacation destination, but it is a powerful spot for retreat. Last summer, my wife Jackie and I joined the Zen Peacemakers for a five-day Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz, followed soon after with a trip to the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) where we joined the Living Happily Together Retreat with Thay and the Dutch Sangha.

Bearing witness is an attempt to see all sides with equanimity, surrender attachment and aversion, and embrace the seamless nature of all that is. There were no Dharma talks or teachers leading our experience in Auschwitz; rather, the idea was to be present and process the experience personally, arriving at our own conclusions. On most days there was a period of silent meditation and chanting the names of the dead, but other than that, the idea was to be fully present, to “listen” to the voices of the camp and to be open to whatever arose.

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As we toured Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp that is now a museum, I practiced mindfulness to feel my emo-tions but not drown in them as we viewed the gallows, the torture chambers,  and  the buildings where experiments on women and twins were performed. I came back  to my breath as we clustered in a genuine gas chamber, holding those who had gone before us in our hearts as we said prayers for the dead. In stunned silence, I walked out past the large ovens in the crematorium room, opening to the inconceivable reality of what had transpired in that very place. I made incense offerings at various spots throughout the camp, inviting the buddhas and bodhisattvas to join in my own acts of healing, purification, and love.

Walking through rooms filled with artifacts, I tried to remain mindful of my breath and grounded on my feet. In truth, I was often numb as we passed through rooms full of suitcases, razors, hair brushes, shoes, and children’s clothing. One room was full of empty Zyklon B cans. They were not saved as souvenirs; the machinery of death was working so fast there was no means to get rid of all the evidence. These exhibits are stored behind glass and felt impersonal to me until I saw the mountain of human hair. Confronted with the relics of the countless dead, I broke down sobbing. Here were the remains of actual living beings, many of whom were my Jewish ancestors. The deep reality penetrated the walls of my defenses, and suddenly it was all very personal.

How Could “I” Do This? 

I wondered how “they” could do this. How could people ever perpetrate a Holocaust like this or allow it to happen? I heard the soft voice of our guide say, “All of this is because somebody thought they were better than somebody else.” His words chilled me. I realized I am guilty of that, too. I embraced that awareness and practiced coming back to my breath. I called on Avalokiteshvara. I breathed to soften my heart and cultivate some stability.

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Moments later, leaving the buildings in a narrow hall crowded with visitors, I grew impatient and irritated with the people ahead of me. “What’s wrong with them?” I thought. When someone sneezed on me in the passing crowd, I became angry and indignant. Breathing in, I recognized the seeds of violence in me; breathing out, I realized that I was condemning another man, for nothing more than sneezing or slowing the line down. How could “I” do this?

We spent the next four days at Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau. The size of a small city, it housed upwards of one hundred thousand prisoners at a time during World War II. I was surprised by the lush green beauty surrounding the countless rows of ruined barracks. I expected bare, fallow ground, but instead, noticed birds, grass, flowers, and even deer in the ruins of the gas chambers and incinerators. Experiencing a moment of joy, I wondered how I could possibly find happiness in such a place. How could there be such beauty in a place of such horror? In a moment of penetration that reached to my bones, it struck me that nothing is either all “this” or all “that.” All dharmas are both this and that, defiled and immaculate, as our teachers the Buddha and Thay frequently remind us.

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In the month prior to the retreat, I had sat with the Bat Nha koan that Thay had written, and continued to sit with it at Auschwitz. Meditating on the railroad tracks where incoming prisoners were unloaded and sorted for work or immediate death, I heard an ancient train whistle blow. I touched the part of me that is the Nazi officer, pumped up with arrogance and discrimination, lusting for power and domination, waiting for the next trainload of “sub-humans” to arrive. I touched the shadow of fear and shame as the crematoria were shut down every time a plane was flying overhead, for fear of discovery. I saw in this historic fact that even perpetrators who were convinced they were right knew the injustice deep in their heart.

I also saw myself as a Nazi camp guard, waiting for the same train with sadness and dread. I realized the Nazis were victims as well. Those who refused to serve were executed; many lived in fear for their lives and the safety of their families. Others were victims of ignorance, or were swept away in the collective consciousness of their time. The quiet voice of humanity was often drowned by blind obedience or the rationalized safety of conformity.

Seeing myself as a prisoner in a boxcar, I thought I would commit suicide rather than endure the degradation of the camp.

Then I realized that if I killed myself, I would destroy my capacity to help others and offer even the slightest comfort. I saw myself— the potential political, religious, or sexual prisoner—as both victim and potential victimizer. Succumbing to a survival instinct twisted by fear and greed, I could easily have become a kapo, a head of prisoners serving as informer and enforcer over other prisoners for favor, food, or the hope of another day’s life. I also saw my potential as a bodhisattva prisoner, sharing a crust of bread while starving, saying a kind word or extending a comforting hand, and offering dignity in the face of demoralizing degradation as so many reportedly did at that time. Deep in the shadow, I came to understand how exquisitely precious even the smallest act of kindness can be.

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Unfathomable Love 

The last day at Auschwitz was a peak experience for me. As we walked across the consecrated ground of the camp, where every inch had been kissed by the ashes of cremated prisoners, I felt myself walking with all of you, my Sangha, at my side. I felt myself walking with Thay’s footsteps, and the Buddha breathed with my lungs, bringing peace in the midst of grief and sorrow. I walked with all my ancestors, with Poles, Germans, gypsies and Jews, with my spiritual ancestors, and with all of my descendants. With mindfulness and concentration, each step was a blossom of love and forgiveness. Each step was a moment of exquisite healing from the very heart of my practice, the fruit of our lineage, and the Plum Village tradition. I experienced unfathomable love in Auschwitz, the signature of my whole true self.

A week later, in a Dharma sharing group at the EIAB in Germany, someone asked, “Why would you go to Auschwitz?” I didn’t know how to answer. It became evident to me over the next few days: I went to heal. Out of the ashes, I came to realize that even what I found unacceptable or abhorrent was worthy of my compassion. Looking deeply into other, I saw self. Listening to the echoes and voices at Auschwitz, I heard small silent parts of myself. In my outrage, I greeted the tyrant within. In my anger at the atrocity, I saw the seeds of war in me. Holding grief with warmth, I grew in my capacity to love. Embracing intolerance, I watered the seeds of understanding and forgiveness. These insights allowed me to arrive at a new standard of tolerance and forgiveness. If my compassion could arise at Auschwitz, I could certainly offer the same grace at home, in the community, or to myself.

We live in the shadow of World War II. Even at the EIAB, we walk in the echoes of Nazi jackboots and clacking Gestapo heels, but thanks to our teacher, we can add our signature with each mindful breath and step, planting seeds of peace and harmony.

I see the war’s continuation in Vietnam, Bat Nha, Darfur, Tibet, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Arizona, and in each of us. I aspire to hear the voice of judgment with soft ears of compassion instead of fear or arrogance. May I remember that in the diversity of the all is oneness and in the one is all.

mb57-LoveLetter6Peter Kuhn, True Ocean of Joy, lives in San Diego, CA. He coordinates “True Freedom: Prison Dharma Sharing (pen-pal) Practice” at Deer Park and is active with the Prison Meditation Project of San Diego. He practices with the Shared Breath Sangha in Donovan State Prison and the Still Ripening Sangha in Escondido.

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The True Musician

An Interview with Sister Trai Nghiem

By Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai

 

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Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai interviewed Sister Trai Nghiem at Plum Village in the spring of 2011.

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Question: Were you always a Buddhist, you and your family?

Sister Trai Nghiem: By birth, yes. But not practicing. In Japan, we call it “funeral Buddhism.” Most people go to the temple for the first time when someone in their family dies, for a funeral.

I was twenty-eight when my mom died from cancer. I had contemplated death and impermanence before, but it’s completely different when somebody close to you is actually dying. The comfortable world that I was used to was falling apart. It was really her death that brought me to Buddhism.

Q: As a professional violinist, how has your music motivated you?

TN: I wanted to create something beautiful and to see how far I could reach as a violinist in the world of classical music. I wanted to be part of a world-class orchestra and I enjoyed the years I traveled and performed as a member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It was truly a beautiful experience.

Q: Did you have doubts about how far music could take you?

TN: When I was in college, I came across the following quote by Plato: “It is not he who produces a beautiful harmony in playing the lyre or other instruments whom one should consider as the true musician, but he who knows how to make of his own life a perfect harmony in establishing an accord between his feelings, his words, and his acts.” These words shook me violently, as I knew in my heart that I was not the true musician that I wanted to be. Even though I was enjoying a successful career and a lifestyle I had dreamed of, I was feeling stuck. The only way out was to completely let that go. When I decided to ordain as a nun, and was cleaning up my apartment, I found Plato’s quote again. This time his words brought me a smile. I still keep that piece of paper with me.

Q: What brought you to Plum Village?

TN: When I was younger, I saw beauty in fighting and going against the flow. But when my mom died, I ran out of energy to fight, and I decided to just let myself be carried in the flow of life and see what would happen. At that time, Thay’s books came into my life and they brought me a lot of comfort. I came to Plum Village for the first time in the winter of 2007 and I immediately felt at home.

Q: Did it feel like a paradise?

TN: To be honest, I couldn’t stand the practice songs, like “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” at first. And when I heard the monks and nuns chanting, it was so out of tune! But there was something else. There was this sweetness and warmth.

Before Plum Village I went to some zazen meditation sessions and yoga retreats. But it seemed that we were all caught up in ourselves, in our own pursuit of whatever we were trying to attain. And at Plum Village it was just a bunch of people living simply, being kind to each other, just like the way human beings are supposed to be. I fell in love with it.

mb58-TheTrue3Q: With the songs, too?

TN: Not immediately… but then I realized that this was my practice and saw that I needed to practice letting go of my judgmental, analytical, and cynical mind in order to just enjoy the present moment. Today I realize that the practice songs are one of the most clever methods of practice in our tradition. The moment I find myself in a foul mood, a song like “Happiness” comes to my rescue. Because we sing the songs every day, they are embedded in our store consciousness and become available whenever we are carried away in forgetfulness. Knowing their powerful “medicinal” effect, now I sing songs wholeheartedly with the gestures and everything.

Q: What attracted you to becoming a nun?

TN: I was always interested in some kind of spiritual life. But I could not imagine letting go of this wonderful life as a professional musician. I also didn’t want to disappoint people around me. I had a consultation with a sister on my first visit to Plum Village and she said, “You don’t need to think about it now, because when the moment comes, you will know.”

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Three months later, there was a retreat in Rome, and luckily I happened to be working in Italy so I went. On the last day of the retreat I was taking a train back to my work, and got a phone call from Japan, saying my father was very ill and was hospitalized. So I cancelled my work and went back to Japan to be with my father.

That summer, my father passed away. I had a lot to take care of around his death as well as with my work. I felt like I was running and running and could not stop. I knew that I could not go on like this for too long without damaging myself completely. I decided to be compassionate with myself and signed up for the Winter Retreat. I told myself, I don’t need to do anything, just let myself rest. Every night I’d sit in the Buddha Hall for a long time, alone. I wanted quietness. No music, no talking. After about a month of living with the sisters in New Hamlet, I knew this was it. The question, “Do I want to quit my job and become a nun?” was no longer there because I was already on the path even though my head was not yet shaved.

Q: What happened to your relationship to your music when you became an aspirant?

TN: One night I was sitting and I understood for the first time what it means to have “nowhere to go, nothing to do.” And then I realized, “Oh, I’m actually letting go of all the things that used to mean so much to me.” I had had no desire to listen to music since I arrived at Plum Village, but suddenly I had a desire to listen to a Brahms symphony. In my bed, I turned on the iPod and tears kept flowing. I realized, this is the world I was living in, and I have never appreciated it the way I could have. This incredible world of music had been with me since I was five. And now I was listening to the music and it touched me in a completely different way. I knew that the music was in me, but at the same time I was already standing outside of that world I was so used to. I knew there was no going back. I realized how lucky I had been my whole life to have music to take refuge in and to guide me.

Q: Do you see a similarity between being a musician and a monastic?

TN: Very much so. The Sangha is like an orchestra. Each member has a unique role and is irreplaceable. There is a percussionist who may play only one note in the entire symphony, while the violinists are playing the whole time without any rest. We’d never think of complaining that it’s not fair because that’s what makes the music so beautiful. To live happily in the Sangha, we also have to accept that each person has his or her own role. Some work more hours than others, but that’s just how it is. We suffer when we get caught in the complex of equality. When the orchestra is in harmony, we hear the sound of the orchestra as a whole, as one big instrument. If you heard the individual sound of each violinist in the orchestra, it wouldn’t be pleasant. We melt our individual sounds into the collective sound, so that there is no longer the distinction between “my sound” and “others’ sounds.”

One time, Sir Colin Davis, a wonderful English conductor, said during a rehearsal, when things weren’t quite jelling together: “Whoever tries to prove himself right is a terrorist!” Miraculously, we played in perfect harmony after this proclamation. Each member of an orchestra is an artist in his or her own right, yet when we try to convince others how it should be done, it never works. This teaching can very well be applied to Sangha life. In order not to create suffering for myself or others, I need to monitor my thoughts constantly, to see if I am caught in my own ideas.

If Sangha is an orchestra, Thay is a conductor. A skillful conductor never tries to control the musicians. He just lets the orchestra play. That’s exactly what Thay says to us all the time: “Di choi!” The literal translation is “go play!” It can also be translated as “go hang out and have fun.” Thay, just like a skillful conductor, trusts the Sangha, and based on that trust, he can bring out the best in each member of the Sangha. A layperson asked me once why Thay travels with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour. I said, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra. We inter-are.”

When the whole Sangha is sitting together in the morning, it’s like an orchestra tuning up before a concert. I never tried to play the violin without tuning. Why should it be different with my body and mind? If I start out a day by tuning myself with the Sangha, the whole day is so much more harmonious and pleasant.

Q: You’ve lived and worked in many countries, and it seems like you led a very independent lifestyle, choosing your own schedule. The Sangha has a more mannered and restrained lifestyle. How does that feel?

TN: I used to have an idea about what it meant to be a monastic. I told my colleagues that I was quitting this traveling lifestyle and going into a quiet monastery in France, and for the first two years I wouldn’t go anywhere. And suddenly Thay says, okay, you’re going on tour. And I thought, this is not very different from what I was doing before. That’s what makes Thay a Zen master, because as soon as you get caught in your idea of how things should be, he will give you the Zen ax with a smile. I was caught in my idea of what monastic life as a novice was, a quiet life, out in the countryside, tending the vegetable garden.

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Actually, the practice doesn’t depend on outer form at all. It’s not what you do but how you do it. If I choose to be fully mindful when traveling and going out on retreats, I can make progress on the path. If there is no mindfulness, it’s a waste of time to be sitting, walking slowly, and studying sutras, even in a monastery. No matter what I do, whether cooking, cleaning, studying, or traveling, I remind myself to be mindful and enjoy doing it.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a novice?

TN: It’s like being a protected baby in a family. There are so many older brothers and sisters who can teach and guide me in different ways. I enjoy having the space to make mistakes. I have the habit energy of wanting to achieve something, so I’m practicing to let go of my idea of what it means to be a “good nun.” There’s a kind of collective idea of what a good monastic is, just as there is a collective agreement of what a good musician is. If I try to become “a good nun,” I will get stuck in the same place where I got stuck as a musician.

Since I was small, everything I did, I did quite well. So I still have the feeling that whatever I do, I should be able to do well. Even though I am aware of this habit energy and am carefully monitoring it by recognizing the motivation for my actions, it’s still there on a deeper level and is the cause of some basic underlying stress.

Q: Is pride an issue for you? Does it manifest sometimes as feeling superior towards others in the community?

TN: It manifests with self-disgust. It’s probably one of the most shameful things to admit. But a superiority complex is nothing more than another face of an inferiority complex. They are like two sides of one coin. Whenever I notice the complex of inferiority manifesting, I tell myself, “You ARE enough.”

I am happy to acknowledge that in the fifteen months since I became a nun, I’ve reduced my level of judgment and criticism towards myself and other people greatly. Having negative thoughts like judgments is a great waste of precious energy. Just as I take care not to waste natural resources like water and food, I also try to conserve my own energy so it can be used for something more beneficial. As a result, I feel much more relaxed than before and many people have shared with me that they notice the difference. Thanks to the Sangha, one thing I have learned so far in my novice life is this: being kind is so much more important than being good at something.

Q: Do you have any aspirations?

TN: To be happy. I didn’t always have a good relationship with my parents, but after they passed away I realized how much unconditional love they gave me. Whatever they did, I feel the only thing they wanted was for me to be happy. But because I was not able to recognize it until they were gone in their physical form, I had this regret; I wanted to make them happier, to do something for them. Now I know the way to pay respect to my parents is to just be happy. I’m practicing with and for my parents.

After their death, I’m so much more in contact with them. This sounds kind of cheesy, but I feel like they’re guiding me in every moment. I really feel their presence a lot more than I used to. If I don’t know what to do, I take refuge in my parents and let them do things. If I listen deeply, they always guide me to the right direction. I really feel that my parents brought me to this point in my life right now. And not only my parents, but all my ancestors—blood, land, and spiritual ancestors. And that includes all the wonderful musicians I have encountered in my life, like Bach and Mozart.

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Book Reviews

mb58-BookReviews1Reconciliation
Healing the Inner Child

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2010
174 pages

Reviewed by Zachiah Murray and Natascha Bruckner

If the Buddha arrived at full enlightenment it’s because he suffered a lot.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

In this simple, clear, and practical book, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to use mindfulness to overcome the mind and its suffering. He describes the Asian bitter melon, a vegetable with medicinal qualities, and explains, “Chinese medicine believes that bitterness is good for your health.” Likewise, our suffering is good for us; when we embrace it, we cultivate compassion.

Thay suggests that we turn toward our inner child to embrace our own suffering and become fully present. He offers four practices we can do with our inner child: talk, walk, write, and invite. First, we talk with our inner child—even out loud. Second, we practice walking meditation with the child within. Third, we listen to what our inner child has to say, and write it down. We might also write a letter to our inner five-year-old. Last, we invite our inner child into the present moment, to experience the wonders of life here and now.

Thay defines reconciliation as “leaving behind our dualistic view and our tendency to punish. It opposes all forms of ambition but doesn’t take sides.” Once we’ve reached reconciliation within ourselves, we’re able to reconcile with others. With the insight of interbeing, we know that just as a kernel of corn is in a corn stalk, our mother is alive in us. Therefore, when we reconcile with our own inner child, we also make peace with our ancestors.

In Part Two, four Sangha sisters and brothers—Lillian Alnev, Joanne Friday, Glen Schneider, and Elmar Vogt—share deeply personal stories about turning toward the inner child. These beautiful stories are real-life applications of the practice of embracing suffering; they show us that the inner child is always there and can never be taken away. Part Three is a collection of seven lovely practices to connect with the inner child, including the Five Earth Touchings and a sample letter to one’s inner child. “Without suffering, without understanding our suffering, true happiness is not possible,” Thay explains. This book is a wonderful guide to embracing our suffering, our inner child, and our world.

mb58-BookReviews2Mindfulness and the 12 Steps
Living Recovery in the Present Moment

By Therese Jacobs- Stewart
Hazelden, 2010
Paperback, 181 pages

Reviewed by Peter Kuhn

The Twelve Step model of Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of people find freedom from a wide range of afflictions. The principles of the Twelve Steps are spiritual, rather than religious, in nature, and present a simple course of action for complicated people. The “program,” as it is commonly known, has been embraced globally and practiced by people of all religions and social classes.

In Mindfulness and the 12 Steps: Living Recovery in the Present Moment, Therese Jacobs-Stewart shines the light of mindfulness on the Twelve Steps and eloquently presents a view of them from a Buddhist perspective. With a mix of personal history, stories from Buddhist teachers, and refections from her regular Twelve Step Mindfulness Group meetings, she beautifully shows how the Dharma and the Steps inter-are. She writes, “The traditions of mindfulness and Alcoholics Anonymous have a similar view as to the source of our suffering: Bill W. called it ‘self-will run riot,’ while the Buddha described it as a delusion of separateness from others. Both agree that our suffering contains the seeds of our liberation. And, we can learn to live with serenity in any set of circumstances.”

Writing from direct experience in a clear, personal voice, Jacobs-Stewart infuses her book with the lightness and healing energy that characterize mindfulness practice. She looks deeply at each of the Twelve Steps, offering insight and clarity from her study of the Dharma, and guidance toward the practical application of the Steps in daily life. Mindfulness exercises are presented at the conclusion of each chapter. The Twelfth Step states: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.” This is a powerful bodhisattva vow, and in this book Therese Jacobs-Stewart honors it with understanding and love.

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Healing the Past in the Present

By David Ostwald 

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

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

Old Knots Loosening 

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

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

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

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

Embracing my Inner Child 

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

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

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

Embracing my Mother 

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

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

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

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

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Poem: The Gift of Non-Fear

Three Moments on the Way to Dwelling in Equanimity

By Lyn Fine

1: Sumb60-TheGift1nday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village, France.
Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

We are sitting together in the Meditation Hall at the Lower Hamlet.
Listening, we are aware of our breathing.
We are present together.

In the midst of your Dharma talk, you pause.
Quietly, you strike a match.
You touch the flame to a sheet of paper.
Smoke wafts into the air. Flames appear.
The paper is burning.
Now there is only black charcoal ash.

Gently, between the thumb and two fingers of your right hand,
You pick up the charred remains.
“It’s hot,” you say softly, calmly.
On your lips, there is a half-smile.
You hold the black charcoal for an instant.
Then, releasing your fingers, you let the burnt remains drop into the bell.

In mindfulness I watch, aware of my breathing.

Breathing in, I am aware that ancestors are present
Jewish ancestors burning in ovens — here, now
Vietnamese sisters and brothers burning in self-immolation to stop the bombs of war — here, now
wise-woman witches burning at the stake — here, now
churches of African-American brothers and sisters burning in the United States — here, now
ancient trees burning from human forgetfulness — here, now
Breathing out, I do my best to smile with equanimity and compassion — but I cannot — not yet.

Breathing in, I know I am touching seeds of pain and suffering in me from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness — seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief
Breathing out, I am aware that I am unable to smile — nor to cry, nor to cry out. I cannot — not yet.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in
Breathing out, I am aware: conscious breathing is my anchor.

Suddenly, your gentle voice penetrates the clouded-over sky-mind.
“We will put these [charred remains] in the garden,” I hear you say.
Tears come and a half-smile.
Fear has released. The heart opens.

mb60-TheGift22: Sunday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village.
Outdoor Walking Meditation

It is Sunday, September 15, 1996.
It is the second day of the Jewish New Year, 5757.
This year at Plum Village, during a three-week retreat,

— “The Heart of the Buddha,” it is called —
We are observing the highest holy days of the Jewish people, in the way that they — or some of them — would observe them.

The seed you planted more than a decade ago has borne fruit.
“To make peace on the planet,” you said at a Reverence for Life Conference in 1982,
“each religious group should observe the most important holiday of each other religious group
in the way that group would observe the holiday.”

For the seed and for the fruit,
And for all the conditions which have allowed the gradual ripening of the fruit
I am grateful.

Now we are walking together in walking meditation.
Hand in hand, we walk through orchards of plum trees in the Lower Hamlet.
The trees are bearing fruit — sweet purple plums.
Our steps touch the Earth gently.
We are embraced by sunshine and blue sky.

Breathing in, I know that sunshine and rain, blue sky and Earth have nourished the fruit
and its gradual ripening
that residents of Plum Village, lay and monastic, have cared for the trees, harvested the fruit, and turned it into plum jam
that children in France gave money to plant these trees so that children in Vietnam could have medical supplies and food
Breathing out, I am aware that present in us in this moment
are all of our ancestors
and all of our descendants
We are the sunshine.
We are the blue sky.
We are the trees bearing fruit.

Here, now, we walk, hand in hand.
We are walking as a community, a Sangha.
We are walking with each other, we are walking for each other.
I walk for you. I know you are walking for me.

“Touching, touching”
“Connecting, connecting, connecting”
With each in-breath, I am walking two steps.
With each out-breath, I am walking three steps.
Step by step I am walking, breathing in, breathing out.
But I am aware that I am not truly present — not yet.

I walk in peace, but the mind goes in a million directions.
The energy of seeds from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness
remains strong.
The mind remains caught
In a net of burnings.

Breathing in, I am aware of regret:
There is sadness in me. I am caught.
Present in me — here, now — are blue sky, white clouds.
But I am not wholehearted. The mind is caught
In the past. The wounds of suffering, still present.

mb60-TheGift3Breathing out, my resolution deepens:
I vow to cultivate mindfulness with determination
I aspire to be fully present to the miracle
of being alive — here, now.
I aspire to open, wholehearted, in joy, to this present moment.

Crossing a narrow plank bridge, we arrive at the pond.
Human beings and trees, we encircle the water.
Together we stand, in the stillness.
Listening.
Waiting.
Breathing in, I am aware: breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware: breathing out.
We hear the silence.

Hearing, hearing.
Breathing in, aware of birds chirping.
Breathing out, aware of leaves rustling.
Jacqueline begins to play her violin — the ancient Jewish melody Avinu Malkeinu.
We sing. No boundary.
Touching Jewish ancestors. No boundary.
Touching all ancestors. No boundary.
For some of us, this moment is the first time
To touch our ancestors.

In silence,
We pick up small sticks and stones, take lint from our pockets.
We name the times when we have missed the mark.
We acknowledge that we have sinned, as individuals and as communities.
By omission and by commission, we have caused suffering.
One by one, and together, we cast our sticks and stones and lint into the water.
One by one and together as a Sangha we transform consciousness.

Breathing in, I am aware of our multiple origins —
We are from Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Israel, Egypt, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark,
Romania, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, England, Spain, the Netherlands,
Canada, U.S.A., Indigenous Peoples, New Zealand, Australia
Breathing out, I realize: not two, not one.

Breathing in, I am aware that in our Buddhist retreat center
We are observing tashlich, an ancient Jewish custom of renewal.
We are observing tashlich as Jews would observe it.
We are observing tashlich as Jews around the world are observing it, on this day.
We are observing tashlich amidst the trees, around a pond.
We are observing tashlich with friends from numerous countries — former enemies.
Breathing out, I know we are returning home, to our true origin and Source.

mb60-TheGift43: Sunday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village.
After Outdoor Walking Meditation

Now the walk is over and tashlich too.
We have cast into the water
Our unwholesome states of mind

And those times when we have missed the mark — sinned —
Individually and collectively.
We have deepened our determination
To cultivate wholesome states of mind,
Deep listening, deep looking, and wise action that meets the mark.

A novice monk thanks me for the tashlich observance.
He speaks to me from a place of love.
He speaks to me from the depth of his experience.
I hear what he is saying, and I am very happy.
We breathe together.
I speak softly of the burning of the paper,
Of the seeds from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness
which arose in me, and remained so strongly present.

I speak of the black charcoal remains,
Of your suggestion that we would put them in the Plum Village garden —
“We will put these [charred ashes] in the garden,” you had said —
I speak of the release in me when I heard you say that.
For a moment, we breathe together in silence.
“The ashes have been put in the Plum Village garden,”
My Dharma brother says with a gentle smile.
And I wonder — is it only by chance that I am speaking to the very monk
Who was given the ashes, who himself scattered them in the garden?

So —
Now it is done.
In nurturing soil of love and remembrance and compassion
In a small hamlet in southern France
Burned ancestors, brothers, and sisters, and children
Rest now. Charred remains renew the Earth.
Burned and burners: not two, not one.

A meditation appears:
Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of suffering in me from my [Jewish and other] ancestors —
seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief
Breathing out, I vow, for the well-being of all beings, to transform these seeds
with gentle caring

Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of well-being in me
from my [Jewish and other] ancestors —
seeds of joy, seeds of love, seeds of wisdom
Breathing out, I vow, for the benefit of all beings, to discover and nourish these seeds with tenderness

Breathing in, I touch no birth, no death
Breathing out, I go beyond fear
Breathing in, I touch the Ground of All Being
Breathing out, I know that in this moment I have returned home, to my true self
A smile appears.
The precious gift of non-fear, always offered, has been received.
Thank you, my dear friends, for our observance together.

 

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

Lyn Fine, True Goodness, is from New York City and now lives in Berkeley, California. She received Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in 1994.

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Dharma Talk: Returning Home

By Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I have arrived.
I am home,
In the here
And the now.
I feel solid.
I feel free.
In the ultimate
I dwell.

 

mb10-dharma1

It is important for us to return home — to come back to the here and the now — and make peace with ourselves, our society, and those we love.

At times we suffer so much we want to run away. We feel burned out, overwhelmed, and so we take refuge in our projects, even our projects for social change. At these times we need a source of peace and joy, but when we arrive home, we may find a lot of violence and suffering there. We begin to practice mindful breathing, and, after a while, we are able to touch real peace and joy. Going home and touching peace is a source of great nourishment. The practice is to arrive home in each moment, to touch the peace and joy that are within us, and to open our eyes to the wonders of life around us — the blue sky, the sunset, the eyes of our beloved. When we do this, we experience real happiness.

Touching our eyes with mindfulness, we know that our eyes are a condition for peace and joy. Touching the beautiful trees, we realize how wonderful they are. We feel nourished, and we vow to do whatever we can to protect them and keep them healthy. Then, when our mindfulness has become strong enough, we can touch the war that is also going on inside us. But we must be careful. If we touch the suffering too soon, before we have developed concentration, stability, and the energy of mindfulness, we may be overwhelmed.

Sometimes when we suffer, we blame another person — our partner, our son, our daughter, our parents — as the cause. But when we look deeply in mindfulness we can see that they too are suffering. We see that our enemy is not the person. It is the seed of despair, anger, frustration, or fear in us. In Buddhism, we describe consciousness in terms of “seeds” — seeds of peace, joy, and happiness, and seeds of war, anger, despair, and hatred. All of these are in us. I know that you are not my enemy. In fact, I need you to help me transform my seeds of suffering. We are both victims of our own suffering, so why don’t we come together and touch some of the positive things instead? Looking deeply, we can see seeds of peace, joy, talent, and happiness in each other, and we can tell each other how much we appreciate these things.

When two warring parties arrive at a peace conference, they always begin by accusing each other, touching the negative seeds. A third party, someone who can practice “flower watering” — pointing out the positive jewels in the traditions of both sides — is needed. Both sides need more respect and appreciation for each other. These kinds of negotiations can drag on for months just disputing procedures. Why not devote the first days to flower watering? When two individuals are in conflict, when their fears and frustrations are too great for them to reconcile alone, the practice of touching peace and flower watering is also very helpful. In fact, in any relationship, this is a useful practice. Psychotherapists can practice walking meditation, looking at the beautiful sky, and touching the seeds of joy, peace, and happiness that have not been touched in a long time, with their clients. Then, when the balance is restored, it will be much easier to touch the pain, the war going on inside.

There is no need to be afraid to go home. At home, we can touch the most beautiful things. Home is in the present moment, the only moment we can touch life. If we do not go back to the present moment, how can we touch the beautiful sky, the sunset, or the eyes of our dear child? If we do not go home, how can we touch our heart, our lungs, our liver, and our eyes to give them a chance to be healthy? At home, we can touch all the wonders of life, the refreshing, beautiful, and healing elements.

Touching the present moment deeply, we also touch the past, and any damage that was done in the past can be repaired in that moment. We see that the future is also made of the present moment. There is no need to worry about the future. The way to take care of the future is to take good care of the present moment.

According to the Buddha, most of our suffering is caused by wrong perceptions. One man I know believed that the baby his wife gave birth to was really the child of his neighbor, and he held onto that wrong perception for twelve years, too proud to talk about it with anyone. The man became distant and cold to his wife, and the whole family suffered deeply. Then one day, after twelve years, a house guest observed that the twelve-year-old boy looked exactly like his father, and only then did the man abandon his wrong perception. A lot of damage was done during those twelve years. Wrong perceptions, like walking in the twilight and mistaking a length of rope for a snake, are common in our daily lives. That is why it is so important to practice mindfulness and stay in close touch with our perceptions.

Each of us has habit energies that cause us difficulties. One Frenchwoman I know left home at the age of seventeen to live in England, because she was so angry at her mother. Thirty years later, after reading a book on Buddhism, she felt the desire to return home and reconcile with her mother. Her mother also felt the desire to reconcile, but every time the two of them met, there was a kind of explosion. Their seeds of suffering had been cultivated over a long time, and there was a lot of habit energy. The willingness to make peace is not enough. We also need to practice.

So I invited her to come to Plum Village to practice sitting, walking, breathing, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness. Through that daily practice, she was able to touch the seeds of her anger and her habit energies. Then she wrote a letter of reconciliation to her mother. Without her mother present, it was easier to write such a letter. When her mother read it, she tasted the fruit of her daughter’s flower watering, and peace was finally possible.

If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give is your presence. If you are not really there, how can you love? The most meaningful declaration you can offer is, “Darling, I am here for you.” You breathe in and out mindfully, and when you are really present, you recognize the presence of the other. To embrace someone with the energy of mindfulness is the most nourishing thing you can offer. If the person you love does not get your attention, she may die slowly. When she is suffering, you have to make yourself available right away: “Darling, I know that you suffer. I am here for you.” This is the practice of mindfulness.

If you yourself suffer, you have to go to the person you love and tell him, “Darling, I am suffering. Please help.” If you cannot say that, something is wrong in your relation­ship. Pride does not have a place in true love. Pride should not prevent you from going to him and saying that you suffer and need his help. We need each other.

One day in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village, I saw a young woman walking alone who looked like a ghost. I thought she must be from a broken family, from a society that does not appreciate her, and from a tradition not capable of nourishing her. I have met many people like that, without roots. They are angry, and they want to leave their parents, their society, and their nation behind and find something else that is good, beautiful, and true. They want something they can believe in. Many people like that come to medita­tion centers, but because they have no roots, it is difficult for them to absorb the teaching. They do not trust easily, so the first thing to do is to earn their trust.

In many Asian countries, we pay a lot of respect to our ancestors. We have an ancestors’ altar in each home. On the full moon day of the seventh month, we offer flowers, fruits, and drink to them. It is a happy day, because we feel that our ancestors are with us. But, at the same time, we are aware that many souls, “hungry ghosts,” have no home to go back to. So we set up a table for them in the front yard and offer them food and drink. Hungry ghosts are hungry for love, understanding, and something to believe in. They have not received love, and no one understands them. They have large bellies and their throats are as small as a needle. Even if we offer them food, water, or love, it is difficult for them to receive it. They are very suspicious. Our society produces thousands of hungry ghosts like that every day. We have to look deeply if we want to understand them, and not just blame them.

To be happy and stable, we need two families — a blood family and a spiritual family. If our parents are happy with each other, they will be able to transmit to us the love, trust, and the values of our ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, we are connected with our ancestors through them. But if we are not, we can easily become a hungry ghost, rootless. In our spiritual family, we have ancestors, too, those who represent the tradition. If they are not happy, if they have not been lucky enough to receive the jewels of the tradition, they will not be able to transmit them to us. If we are not on good terms with our rabbi, our pastor, or our priest, we will want to run away. Disconnected from our spiritual ancestors, we will suffer, and our children will suffer too. We have to look deeply to see what is wrong. If those who represent our tradition do not embody the best values of the tradition, there must be causes, and when we see the causes, insight, acceptance, and compassion will arise. Then we will be able to return home, reconnect with them, and help them.

Transmission has three components — the one who transmits, the object transmitted, and the receiver. Our body and our consciousness are objects transmitted to us; our parents are the transmitters; and we are the receiver of the transmission. Looking deeply, we can see that the three components are one — this is called the “emptiness of transmission.” Our body and many of the seeds we carry in our consciousness are actually our parents. They did not transmit anything less than themselves — seeds of suffering, happiness, and talent, many of which they received from their ancestors. We cannot escape the fact that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. To be angry at our parents is to be angry at ourselves. To reconcile with our father and mother is to make peace with ourselves.

One young American man who came to Plum Village told me that he was so angry at his father that even after his father passed away, he still could not reconcile with him. The young man put a photo of his father on his desk, with a small lamp near it, and every time he got close to the desk, he would look into the eyes of his father and practice conscious breathing. Doing this, he was able to see that he is his father, a true continuation of his father. He also saw that his father was incapable of transmitting seeds of love and trust to him, because his father had not been helped by anyone to touch these seeds in himself, seeds that were covered over by many layers of suffering. When the young man became aware of that, he was able to understand and forgive. His father had been the victim of his father. He knew that if he did not practice mindfulness and deep looking, the seeds of love and trust in him would remain buried, and then when he had a child, he would behave exactly as his father did, continuing the wheel of samsara. The only thing to do is to go back and make peace with his own parents, and through his parents, reconnect with all of his ancestors.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we can also discover important jewels and values in our spiritual traditions. In Christianity, for example, Holy Communion is an act of mindfulness — eating a piece of bread deeply in order to touch the entire cosmos. In Judaism, you practice mindfulness when you set the table or pour tea, doing everything in the presence of God. Even the equivalents of the Three Jewels and the Five Wonderful Precepts can be found in Christianity, Judaism, and other great traditions. After you practice mindfulness according to the Buddhist tradition, you will be able to return home and discover the jewels in your own tradition. I urge you to do so — for your nourishment and the nourishment of your children.

Without roots, we cannot be happy. If we return home and touch the wondrous jewels that are there in our traditions — blood and spiritual — we can become whole.

I would like to offer an exercise that can help us do this. It is called Touching the Earth. In each of us, there are many kinds of ideas, notions, attachments, and discrimination. The practice is to bow down and touch the Earth, emptying ourselves, and surrendering to Earth. You touch the Earth with your forehead, your two hands, and your two feet, and you surrender to your true nature, accepting any form of life your true nature offers you. Surrender your pride, hopes, ideas, fears, and notions. Empty yourself of any resentments you feel toward anyone. Surrender everything, and empty yourself completely. To do this is the best way to get replenished. If you do not exhale and empty your lungs, how can fresh air come in? In this practice, the body and the mind are working together, in harmony, to form a perfect whole.

We prostrate ourselves six times to help us realize our deep connection to our own roots. The first bow is directed towards all generations of ancestors in our blood family. Our parents are the youngest, closest ancestors, and through them we connect with other generations of ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, the connection is easy. But if we are not, we have to empty our resentments and reconnect with them. Our parents had seeds of love and trust they wanted to transmit to us, perhaps they were not able to do so. Instead of transmitting loving kindness and trust, they transmitted suffering and anger. The practice is to look deeply and see that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. When we understand the “emptiness of transmission,” reconciliation is possible. Bowing down, touching the Earth, we should be able to surrender the idea of our separate self and become one with our ancestors. Only then should true communion become possible and the energy of our ancestors able to flow into us.

The second bow is directed towards Buddhist ancestors who came before us, those who have transmitted these teachings and practices to us for more than 25 centuries. The third bow is directed towards our land and the ancestors who made it available to us. The fourth is to channel and transmit the energy of loving kindness to those we love. We touch the Earth, look deeply into our relationship, and see how we can improve it. The fifth bow is directed towards those who have made us suffer. Looking deeply, we see that these people suffer also, and do not have the insight to prevent their suffering from spilling over onto others. Motivated by compassion, we want to share our energy with them, hoping it will help them suffer less and be able to enjoy some peace and happiness.

The sixth bow is directed towards our own spiritual ancestors. If we are lucky, it may be easy for us to connect with the representatives of our spiritual tradition — our rabbi, pastor, or priest. But if we have had problems with them, our effort is to understand how they themselves were not able to receive the jewels of the tradition. Instead of feeling resentment toward them, we vow to go back and rediscover the jewels of our tradition ourselves. Getting connected with our church, synagogue, rabbi, or priest will enable us to touch all our spiritual ancestors.

Photos:
First photo by Karen Hagen Liste.
Second photo by Stuart Rodgers.

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