Letter from the Editor

mb45-LetterFromEditor1Dear Thây, dear Sangha,

The Buddha taught the nature of interbeing. In our own time scientists have discovered the non-local nature of elementary particles. We feel in our daily lives that one nation is deeply connected to all nations of the world — we call this globalization. As Thay travels the world we feel the appropriateness of this way of teaching.

Thay goes to Vietnam and whether we stay behind in the U.S. or buy an air ticket to join the Plum Village delegation in Vietnam, we share in the karma of Thay and Vietnam.

The Grand Offering Ceremonies Bringing Relief without Discrimination from Past Injustice taking place in Vietnam during Thay’s visit are certainly very grand and powerful. Here at home we can set up our own little altar and gather as a family or sangha to read the Five Mindfulness Trainings for the souls of those who laid down their lives willingly and unwillingly during, or as a result of, the war in Vietnam four decades ago. The souls find relief in our own home although it may be far from Vietnam because they are non-local and our commitment to practice sila, the mindfulness trainings, is strengthened. As we gather before the altar our compassion is aroused for beings who are visible or invisible, already born or yet to be born, alive or departed. Here in the U.S. we have our role to play in practicing the mindfulness trainings, so that the tremendous inequity that lies between developing countries like Vietnam and over-developed countries can be redressed.

Still, in developing countries material development is already damaging the spiritual and moral dimension of life as it has done in the overdeveloped countries. With the destruction of this dimension the family breaks up because communication breaks down. Sila no longer has its place. The three spiritual powers — putting an end to the mental poisons, understanding, and love — give way to worldly and material power. Globally we need a practice of redeeming the three spiritual powers; this is what Thay is teaching in Vietnam and teaching the whole world.

We are praying that in August we shall have enough good merit to receive Thay in the U.S. so that Thay can encourage us and show us how to develop the spiritual and moral dimensions and powers in our own lives.

On a local level the Maple Forest Monastery of Vermont will move to the Blue Cliff Monastery of New York at the beginning of May. We hope to see you there in a spacious, beautiful, and comfortable setting at our opening (June 2), Wesak (June 3), OI Retreat (June 29, if you are an ordained OI member), or at our Summer Opening (July 6-20, for anyone who cares to come). Thay has given us the name Blue Cliff, so that we can work on the koan of our life: the koan that has practical meaning in terms of our everyday suffering and obstacles. (The Blue Cliff Monastery in China is the monastery where the most famous record of koans was compiled in the 12th century.)

May the monks and nuns of Maple Forest take this opportunity to thank all of you who are so generously supporting the purchase of this monastery with your material and spiritual support.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Spanning a Bridge

For Love to Deepen

By Sister Dang Nghiem

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During Thich Nhat Hanh’s trip to Vietnam in early 2007, several Great Requiem Ceremonies were held, to help heal the wounds of war. Here, Sister Dang Nghiem continues her recollections of those powerful events and the deep transformation she experienced. (See part one of her article in the Autumn 2007 issue).

Each day when a ceremony began, the monastic Sangha would do walking meditation from outside the ancestral hall to the front courtyard, then to the main hall of Temple Vinh Nghiem (Adornment with Eternity). Sixty young monks from Prajna Temple walked in front, holding up ceremonial instruments, followed by the Chanting Master of Ceremony (Venerable Le Trang), Thay, the assisting chanting monks, the musicians, the high venerables, and over two hundred monks and nuns from Plum Village, Prajna, and Tu Hieu.

Thousands of people watched the procession in complete silence and respect. Most ceremonies took place in the main hall, and lay people could only observe them by looking in or by watching two big screens in the courtyard. Still, everyone participated wholeheartedly and offered up their concentrated energies to the souls of the departed. Some people had wondered why Thay, a Zen master, would have these ceremonies performed in the Vajrayana (Tantric) tradition. Suddenly, I appreciated the wonderful meaning of ‘‘skillful means.’’ With certainty, thousands of beginners like me would not be able to meditate and concentrate their minds continuously for three days, but they could more easily follow these Tantric ceremonies and benefit from them.

I Stand Still

My thorax feels like a heavy cement block. The in-breaths and out-breaths are superficial and laborious. I intentionally make my abdomen rise and fall, but oxygen seems not to have enough space to enter the lower parts of the lungs. Strange, I had assisted in surgical procedures that were eight to ten hours long when I did have back pain and abdominal pain, but I never experienced chest pain like this. I relax my shoulders and arms, and I continue to follow my breathing.

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The powerful chanting of the monks stirs my deep consciousness: I see thousands of skeleton figures standing on the water and heading towards the shore without moving. The immense ocean is without waves. Everything about those skeletons and about the space around them is gray and foggy. Suddenly, I realize that I saw these images fifteen years ago, when I was still a medical student at UCSF. There were afternoons when I wandered aimlessly along the beach. I stood watching those gray skeleton figures, not knowing how they were related to me and to the pervasive sadness always haunting me. I had written about them in a poem, titled “Dreams”:

…These days my limbs guide me near the waters.
The sky is gray.
Still, the waves are grayer.
I see stick figures through the mist.
Forever claimed by the sea,
They walk without moving.
Something whispers:
‘‘Walk straight. Walk straight.’’
My heart pulsates, but I am drawn to silence.

I also see people falling down in an open field; I see little children screaming wide-mouthed and lying exhausted on their mothers’ corpses; I see a naked woman curling up in a bush; I see layers of people stacked on each other. I see.

I continue to follow my breathing. I did not know that these images and the innumerable possible deaths were stored in my consciousness. Everything I had ever seen, heard, and perceived; everything my parents, ancestors and society had ever seen, heard, and perceived — they all have been imprinted in my mind. Tears stream down. Sweat oozes in big droplets, even from places I had not known could perspire. My whole body seems to be excreting, and purifying.

For My Mother in Me

I stand still. So that the young girl in my mother can be absolved from injustice. That young girl had left her arid homeland Quang Ngai to go to Saigon for work. She became a maid, and she saved every penny to send home to her mother. Each night, the owner came to her little corner at the back of the house. She curled up under her bamboo bed, but he would not let her be. He used a broom to poke her and get her out. The young girl wandered on the street; her education was minimal, she had no skills, and circumstances pushed her as they had pushed countless young girls in war time. She worked for American soldiers, and she gave birth to my brother and me — Amerasian children who did not know their fathers’ faces. Then she became mistress to a rich old man, in order to take care of her children and relatives.

There were times when my mother would yell at me and beat me up as if I were her enemy. Afterwards, while I was sleeping, she would rub green oil on my bruises and cry. Her dream was to go to America, and all she thought about was leaving. One day in May 1980, my mother went to the market for work as usual, but she never came back. She disappeared at the age of thirty-six. I was only twelve. I remember squatting on the toilet seat, thinking: “Good, from now on she will not abuse me anymore!”

For My Father in My Brother

I stand still. So that the father inside my brother can be absolved from injustice. My brother was born with blond hair and fair skin. He was so beautiful that I used to wrap the embroidered tablecloth around his face and body. He looked like a princess and I carried him on my hip everywhere. Yet children in the neighborhood yelled at him, ‘‘Amerasian with twelve butt holes!’’ They spit on him; they made him the American prisoner in their war games. Sending him to the United States was like severing her own intestines, but my grandmother was well aware that if my brother had remained in Vietnam, he would be teased and shamed and exploited his whole life.

When he got to the United States, children in school yelled at him, ‘‘V.C. go home!’’ because he did not speak any English. Like a wounded animal, my brother lashed out in fury and beat up those kids with all his might. The psychologist diagnosed him as having ‘‘uncontrolled extreme anger.’’ The United States government paid money to put my brother in a rehabilitation center for rich kids who had problems with drug addiction, gang, and other violence. My brother is thirty-five years old now, and he is built like a football player. In his house, there are over sixty guns of different sizes; stacks of bullets lie all over the room. He is a licensed gun dealer. In his house, there are over a hundred videos about the Vietnam War and other violent crimes. My brother cannot sleep without the television on all night. His eyes are gentle and bright, and he smiles often. Yet, my brother’s mind has a dark side, which continues to damage and torment him.

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For My Uncles

I stand still. So that my uncles can be absolved from injustice. My eldest uncle (Uncle Number Two) ran away from home to the North to become a Communist. Every so often, soldiers of the [South] Vietnam Republic would call my grandmother to their post, beating her and harassing her about my uncle. After the fall of Vietnam Republic in 1975, my uncle returned to look for his mother and siblings. He brought with him a white pillowcase with red words ‘‘Returning to Motherland”; he had embroidered it while he was serving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. My uncle enthusiastically took my grandmother to the North to meet his wife and three children. However, he died within six months. Years of suffering from malnutrition, bouts of malaria, tons of bombs and chemical warfare had damaged his heart, lungs, liver, and intestines. My grandmother had to return to the South alone, too stunned to cry.

My youngest uncle (Uncle Number Six) ran away from home to go to Saigon when he was thirteen years old. Not being able to find my mother, he lived on the streets, polishing shoes, stealing things, involved in reckless sexual activities, and later he joined the Vietnam Republic Army. After the fall of [South] Vietnam, my mother sent him to a distant farmland, so that he could avoid the communist rehabilitation camp. He got involved in drinking and womanizing again. The neighbors were angry, and they turned him in to the police. My uncle escaped from prison, swimming over twenty-five kilometers along the river to reach my grandmother’s house. My uncle died before he turned fifty-five. Cigarettes, liquor, and women had drained all of his life energy.

For All the Dead

And I stand still. So that the Vows to the Dead and the compassionate energy of the Three Jewels can absolve injustice for all my people – the people with names but bodies unfound, and the people with bodies but names untraceable. Dying in injustice, and living in repression. Whether or not living people like me are aware, the injustice endured by the dead continues to be choked and repressed in our consciousness. Sometimes we can only breathe at the neck or chest level; our bodies are tense and restless. Sometimes we feel stressed and agitated. We do not understand at times why we think, speak, and behave so negatively and cynically. The undercurrents from countless generations, although invisible, still ravage our lives. Recognizing these forces and calling them by their true names is to span a bridge into the deep consciousness, so that the dead in the living can live with lightness, and so that the living in the dead can truly live.

Tears stream down, but I do not suffer. I give thanks to Thay. He was able to untie the knots in himself, so that today he can establish Requiem Ceremonies to Pray Equally for All People and to Untie the Knots of Injustice in them – creating the favorable conditions for his disciples and his people to uproot and remove these deep internal formations.

mb48-Spanning6Sister Dang Nghiem currently lives at Deer Park Monastery; before she became a nun she was a medical doctor.

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A Day in the Life of a Catholic Zen Monk in Plum Village

December 8, 2007 — Feast of the Immaculate Conception

By Brother Phap De

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This morning, I awaken and smile, saying “Twenty-four brand new hours are before me! I vow to live each moment fully, mindfully, and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Then, I light a candle and a stick of incense before a picture of Mom, Dad, and my brothers and sisters, saying, “In gratitude, I offer this incense to you and all my ancestors. May it be fragrant as flowers, reflecting my loving reverence and gratitude. May we all be companions of the saints, especially Mary, our Mother of Compassion, on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception.”

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Thanks to Thay and to the Vietnamese practice of ancestor worship, this Catholic now feels connected to his ancestors and is nourished by reverential gratitude to his parents and other ancestors

— a practice that the misguided Catholic bishops and priests tried to stop in Vietnam. When I light a candle and make the incense offering in front of their picture, I know that they are not actually in the picture. Rather, I know that they are actually in me. I know that the real altar of my ancestors is my body/mind on which I honor them by the way I live, particularly as expressed in the Fifth Mindfulness Training, mindful consumption. This living connection to my ancestors is helping me let go of my attachment to my ego, my notion of being a separate self and somebody special.

Only Zen Monks Stop

At 4:45 a.m., I quietly brew a cup of tea, without waking up my roommate. Drinking my tea, I gratefully remember that it was Mom who first taught me the devotion to Mary. As a boy, I prayed to Mary for many different things—even for assistance in winning basketball games.

After this, our ordinary day begins with sitting meditation (Holy Hour) at 5:30 a.m.

At 7:00 a.m., the centuries-old church bells sound the Angelus, calling us to stop and remember that Mary said “Let it be” to the Angel, and became the mother of Jesus. In the old days, everyone stopped at the sound of the bells and recited three Ave Marias. Nowadays, only the Zen monks stop. I love the sound and recite an Ave. Hearing the Angelus bells is like hearing the voice of Christ, calling me back to my true self and inviting me to be like Mary: with the energy of the Holy Spirit, to give birth to Christ in my own life, in my own soul and body. I know that if I don’t, then what she did will have been wasted as far as my life is concerned.

As the Angelus bells continue, I remember the Gospel story of how the newly pregnant Mary “set out and walked with haste” (she had not yet learned slow walking meditation) to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth, who greeted her with: “Blessed are you among women.” (Luke 1:39 and 42) The sound of the Angelus bells wakes me up to the realization that like Mary, my brothers and sisters embody Christ-consciousness here and now. Thus, like Elizabeth, I say to my sisters and brothers: “Blessed are you.” How lucky we are!

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Then, breakfast at 7:30. We sit, in a circle, on cushions on the floor — twenty monks and six laypersons, breaking bread together. I am surrounded by my companions. I remember that the word “companion” comes from com (together) and pan (bread), that is, breaking bread together. I remember Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. This morning I see the abbot’s mother sitting and eating with us — like Mary did with Jesus and his companions. I look gratefully at the two cooks, a New Zealander and a Vietnamese, who prepared the food, even though they understand very little of each other’s language. This is the Holy Thursday brotherhood meal and Pentecost (enlightenment) in the here and now.

Walking with Mother Mary

We study from 9:15 a.m. until we gather for walking meditation at 11:00. I usually invite Dad and Mom to walk with me. How can they not, for they are in me. Dad is learning how to walk more slowly, keeping his attention on the flowers and surroundings, not on the destination or job waiting ahead.

Today, I also invite Mother Mary to walk with me. After all, she is my spiritual ancestor and I am blessed with her spiritual DNA — the Christ-consciousness in me. Today, holding my hand, Mother Mary no longer walks “with haste.”

The divine feminine energy of Mary is very much with me in this Zen Buddhist monastery. (Buddhists know Mother Mary as Avalokita or Quan The Am or Kwan Yin.) Many of us can experience Mary’s spiritual DNA through our practice of touching the earth, when we lie on Mother Earth and reflect on the presence of her healing energy in each of us and in the body of our community. We chant Namo Bo Tat Quan The Am and send her healing energy to people around the world. This chant often brings tears of joy and gratitude to the listeners. To me, it feels like it generates the same energy that’s found in Lourdes and Fatima, energy that once seemed lost to me.

Now, it is 4:00 p.m. and time to do my working meditation: clean the meditation hall before the community arrives for the evening sitting meditation and chanting. When I was a priest forty years ago, lay persons cleaned the church after I celebrated Mass. Now, it’s my turn. I am learning humility — like Mary. They used to call me Father Adrian, now I am called Phap De, Young Brother. Five years ago, Thay told me that to become a monk I would have to give up my stock portfolio, property, bank accounts, and cars, and he said, “You will learn humility.” It has been surprisingly easy. Phap De is living joyfully and peacefully.

Her Wondrous Light

6:00 p.m. — Tonight, on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I was delighted when my Vietnamese brother led us in a chant of praise to the Great Saint of Compassion, Mary. Here are the lyrics:

From the depths of understanding, the flower of great eloquence blooms:
The bodhisattva stands majestically upon the waves of birth and death,
free from all afflictions.
Her great compassion eliminates all sickness, even that once thought of as incurable.
Her wondrous light sweeps away all obstacles and dangers.
Her willow branch, once waved, reveals countless heavens,
Her lotus flower blossoms a multitude of practice centers.
We bow to her. We see her true presence in the here and now.
We offer her the incense of our heart. May the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening embrace us all with great compassion.
Praise to thee, Mary, Our Mother of Compassion.

9:00 p.m. — I am aware that I have come a long way and have let go of some old theological notions about Original Sin and the Fall/Redemption paradigm. “We have entered a broken and torn and sinful world — that’s for sure,” writes theologian Matthew Fox. “But we do not enter as blotches on existence, as sinful creatures. We burst into the world as original blessings.” Now I can see the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary was conceived without original sin) as an effort to help us wake up to the magnificence of Mary.

The Buddha’s gift of the communal practice of the mindfulness trainings helps this Catholic to live up to the example of Mary and the teachings of Jesus. We may be ordinary persons, but, like Mary, we are all Immaculate Conceptions. The joyful Angelus Bells repeatedly invite us to wake up to this Good News!

Brother Phap De (Brother Adrian) lives in Son Ha at Plum Village. Once upon a time, he worked as a Roman Catholic parish priest and teacher.

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Dharma Rain

Practice as Inspiration for Artists

By Denys Candy

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Stonehill College, Massachusetts, August 2000

It is some ungodly hour of the morning, the room is already warm — it can’t be time to get up already? In the nether world between sleep and waking, I intone, “Twenty-four brand new hours!”

“Are you awake?” asks my Sangha brother Tony, who’s sharing the room.

“I think so.”

“I wasn’t sure if you were awake or just talking,” he says.

I roll to the edge of the bed and peer out the window into the half-light. Figures walk slowly by the trees and buildings, random streams of people converging — a sight I will recall later in the day as two lines come to me:

The scorched earth is waiting,
There’s a stirring in the trees.

Eventually, I manage to stumble into the procession toward the meditation hall. I slip off my shoes and stepping inside, I smile to the sound of the huge round air-conditioning tubes cranking up.

I’ve come to see Thay again — to be in his presence — to try to wake up a little. Once in a while during his Dharma talk I think I get it — I sort of feel what he is saying, like a smile in my body — impermanence — how beautiful — a fleeting moment — I’m really in it — I’m feeling it! Oops — it’s That’s okay. Thay says don’t worry about all of that. He says something like, “Soak it all in like Dharma Rain.”

Next day, a full verse emerges along with a melody, and after another day there’s a chorus:

People slowly walking, aware of any breeze,
They’re hearing a monk’s message — it’s simple and it’s plain,
Today’s the day we walk in the Dharma Rain.
Happy day today and every day
We dance in the Dharma Rain!
Celebrate the here and now — it’s simple and it’s plain,
Today’s the day we walk in the Dharma Rain.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 2004

Another early morning finds me walking slowly from the meditation hall to breakfast. It’s my birthday. I sense my mother’s presence and the stirrings of lyrics for another song:

I see the love-light in your eyes,
Your smile is mist upon the pine,
I miss you every single day,
As I continue on my way.

My friends of Laughing Rivers Sangha organize two retreats a year and Dharma teacher Chan Huy (True Radiance) flies in from Canada to support us. Today, connecting is not a theory. My senses can taste my relatives, feel their blood in mine. My body tunes in to a walk with my cousin Ailbe by the California coast — talking of our parents.

The ocean rain’s touch is fleeting,
Wild lilies bloom, kissed by the spray,
Your love is wind upon the bay,
It blows on my continuation day.

At breakfast, people are smiling at me and we are sharing little bows all over the place. Sometimes I think all that smiling and bowing is a bit much, but today it’s fine. I am dropping nicely down, increasingly aware of my feet on the ground and the aromas at the table.

As part of his Dharma talk, Chan Huy tells stories of his family. His kitchen and his wife and daughters come alive to us, while outside the window deer are nuzzling the ground for tasty morsels beyond the pines.

The scent of my parents is on the air. What is love without attachment? I wonder.

Another verse plays in my mind, and here comes the sun!

They shine, they shine,
They shine on our continuation day.

Estes Park, Colorado, August 2005

On my first retreat here two years ago, Thay reminded us we were on a “Dharma platform eight thousand feet high.” The Rockies held me entranced and the mountain-solid vistas inspired a rock beat, but I hadn’t brought my guitar. Luckily, the monastics lent me theirs:

I have arrived somehow, I am alive somehow,
I am solid, I am free in the here and now,
Back to my breath I did roam,
I have arrived, I am home.

This time my guitar is with me and the mornings have my dear friend Brother Phap Lai and me in a lullaby state of mind. Fiona, my beloved, a writer, takes in the sun nearby, keeping an eye on us to make sure we don’t succumb to too many clichés in our songwriting. I met Phap Lai in Deer Park Monastery the year before at a retreat for artists. Our shared experience of growing up in the same cultural orbit, me in Ireland and he in England, drew us together, along with our love of music. “What’s a nice Yorkshire lad like you doing in a place like this?” I wanted to know, as soon as I heard his voice.

Now we corral time to work on a song — a melody I’ve been messing with for several months has gotten hold of me. At the evening gathering, Phap Lai and I play together:

Ring that bell, soft sweet sound, ringing clarity.

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Claymont Court, West Virginia, October  2006

Fiona and I have come to feel part of the “extended family” that gathers from neighboring states to retreat in the rolling hills with Thay’s niece Anh Huong and her family.

Sometimes I am calm at retreats, other times on the edge of bliss. This time, however, I am emotionally wrought. The practice and the landscape — nearby Antietem and Charlestown evoking the unspeakably bloody battles of the American Civil War — combine to bring forth wisps of submerged sadness. I reach for my guitar and sit alone at the side of the building in the sun. Strumming, I think of the day’s passage — meditation facing a window at dawn, sitting on rocks and feeling paths taken and foregone, managing to stay present, ultimately grateful for all of it:

Dawn is grey upon the new day,
A West Virginia field reveals itself
As the sun comes up,
Morning light, sun is on the rocks,
Paused in time is a place for stopping,
A place for resting.

Glory, glory Halleluiah.

What I notice about Buddhist practice as refined by Thay is the careful attention paid to establishing the right environment. What is the most important thing to attend to if we want to live mindfully? “It’s the environment, stupid!” Thay joked at one retreat. Silence, mindful breathing, walking, eating — stopping, calming, resting — together lay the ground for an altered, more satisfying, and more real way of moving in the world. They also lay the ground for artistic practice. Vision and inspiration are as important to the artist as are the skills of a given craft. It is crucial to attend to how we feed our creative environment. “What are you feeding?” Thay asks. “Nothing can exist without food.”

At retreats, the artist in me loves to dive deep. It’s like swimming in the Irish Sea when I was a boy — I duck my head under, frolic, and float. Perhaps I should not be surprised at those times when, surrounded by noble silence, a string bean might reveal its true nature, available all along but finally witnessed, and I am moved by a seemingly distant melody that now arises — asking to be sung.

Denys Candy, True Mountain of Loving Kindness, practices with Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh, PA. You can hear his songs on the CD “Dharma Rain,” featuring his band and other Laughing Rivers Sangha members; available from Denys DMCandy@aol.com or Sangha member Patricia Redshaw redshaw@zoominternet.com.

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The Journey Home

By Van Khanh Ha

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In May, Van Khanh Ha traveled to Vietnam with her daughter Lauren and her friend Karen Hilsberg. Here are excerpts from the journal she wrote to her loved ones back in the United States.

3 May — Returning Home Again

Yesterday morning our plane landed in Hanoi smoothly. My heart was filled with joy and peace. As I walked out, I was welcomed by so many sweet familiar faces and warm and humid air. The memories of war and its destruction are fad-ing. Hanoi today is alive more than ever.

I stopped and breathed deeply to the fact that, yes, I’m returning home again, after thirty-seven years.

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5 May — A Dream Come True

Hanoi impresses me with its beauty and wonderful culture. I’m taking each step, each breath with deep gratitude to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Lauren and I are happy here. Everyone is wearing the temple robe — ao trang — Lauren is so cute in this outfit.

We continued to explore the historical sights of Hanoi: Chua Tran Quoc, Den Ly Thai To, the botanical garden, and the water puppet show. As I listened to the classical opera, I felt as if Papa was there listening with me and embracing  me  with  his tender love.

This was a promise that I made to  him  before  his death — that some day I would return home to his beloved village of La Chu, to visit his ancestors’ tombstones. And now this is it. My dream has come true for myself and for my dear Papa.

Last night we had our orientation with Thich Nhat Hanh. There were four hundred retreatants from more than forty different countries.  I  looked  around the  room filled with people, as this small, simple, and humble monk talked. His Dharma talk was deep, lovely and with a great sense of humor. He gave wholeheartedly and I received his words with gladness, with joy and tears. The theme was “dwelling happily in the present moment.”

9 May — Peace in Ourselves, Peace in the World

The Golden Lotus Hotel where we are staying has 450 rooms and only two computers for guests to share. So it’s a challenge and we are learning to be very skillful with our time.

The retreat here with Thich Nhat Hanh is wonderful. Early every morning, we start our day with walking meditation. Thay walks mindfully with each step and we follow him with our breath and our smiles. Outside of the hotel, the streets are crowded with people going to work. The sound of silence is mixing with the sound of cars and motorcycles to become an orchestra of real life.

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After breakfast is the Dharma talk. Imagine a big room filled with hundreds of people and it’s quiet except for Thay’s voice. His voice is gentle, yet his message and his mission for peace are very powerful: “With deep listening and loving speech, we can transform our suffering. Peace in ourselves, peace in the world.”

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Last night Lauren woke me up to say: “I love Hanoi, I enjoy Vietnam so much. Thank you, Mommy.” At that moment, I knew deep inside my heart that I’ve made a good decision — for both of us to return to our roots, to our ancestors, and to discover Vietnam together. We are very grateful to be here and to receive the beautiful teachings of love and compassion from Thay with many of our friends.

12 May — Friendliness to Foreigners

The retreat ended, leaving a great impression on me and many others — looking at this gentle monk in his eighties who puts out so much energy for mankind with one simple wish: that the world be a better place to live for all beings.

Today is the beginning of the UN celebration of Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. The theme this year is “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society.”

Yesterday Lauren, Karen, and I went to the One Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature. Again, we went to our favorite Indian restaurant. We also had a chance to have ao dai [the traditional long silk tunic] made at the tailor shop; they are going to be so beautiful!

Despite the crowds and noise, Lauren and I embrace Vietnam with the connection to our ancestors. This trip has made me appreciate even more the old values and virtues of Confucius. I still see the happiness of the people, and the friendliness they offer to foreigners, even Americans. Life is difficult for most of the people here, but they accept and find peace in their lives.

16 May — Wholesome Seeds of Compassion and Peace

Today is the conclusion of the United Nations Day of Vesak Celebration 2008. The last three days have been so amazing. Being here helped to water and cultivate the wholesome seeds of compassion and peace in me. Many representatives and guest speakers from over sixty countries came together for one purpose — to promote peace in the world. We are united as one to bring happiness and love to all beings on this Earth.

I feel so blessed to witness such a sacred event. This is the first time for Vietnam to host this special event, and the organization did a wonderful job. Every meal, we were served with a banquet of delicious foods, desserts, and fresh fruits. The entertainments were excellent — a combination of old and new — from traditional music and songs to modern dance.

Tomorrow we go to the Avalokiteshvara Cave, Chua Huong and then to Ha Long Bay for two days.

18 May — Ha Long Bay

Today we went to Ha Long Bay. It’s so beautiful. We visited the caves and walked up to the mountain, the scenery is unbelievable. Every moment living in Vietnam made me appreciate the beauty of this land even more. Lauren and I are sharing a room with ocean view.

People here are simple and so loving. They are glad to know that I’m Vietnamese. I thought after living in the U.S. for most of my life, I had lost touch with my own roots but the first step in Hanoi, I know I’m home, with my own brothers and sisters.

20 May — Proud to Be Both

We are in Hue now. It is much more quiet and tranquil, even though our hotel is located in the heart of downtown. Meals are served with many types of special dishes. The dining area is on the balcony of the top floor overlooking the city and the Perfume River. It’s so nice, especially at nighttime.

Yesterday we went to Tu Hieu Temple. Thay with his gentle steps on the ground of his root temple brought tears to my eyes. This trip is more meaningful for us because of the practice and of his teachings. I’m forever thankful.

In the afternoon we visited preschools in the remote areas of Hue. The children sang songs and danced for us. They live on small boats or on stilt homes by the river. The living conditions are very poor but they are full of laughter and big smiles.

Last night we went on a boat to celebrate Vesak. We chanted and then released fish back to the river under the light of the full moon.

This trip continues to nurture my deep connection to my homeland and its beauty. I treasure my time here and just like Papa said: “You should be proud to be an American, but never forget your roots and your values.” He’s a wise man and I know in my heart that I’m proud to be both.

24 May — Visiting Ancestors

Yesterday Lauren and I went to visit my parents’ birthplaces near Hue with my relatives Chu Phu and Cu Chau’s children that I have not seen for over forty years. We went to La Chu, my father’s village, then later to Vi Da where my mother was born ninety-three years ago. Being by my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ graves, I felt the deep connection to them, even those I never met.

Early in the morning we walked on a narrow dirt road leading to my grandmother’s last resting place. Both sides of the road were rice fields ready to be harvested. The wet roads were so slippery, Lauren almost fell into the ditch. We burned incense and touched the earth three times to each of the tombstones.

Later, we went to Nguyen Khoa cemetery where my maternal grandparents are buried. I knew that Lauren and I are the continuation of our ancestors. There is no birth and no death. They are in us, in our every cell, and in every breath we take. And I could feel their love sent to us from above.

Central Vietnam is hot, with humid weather, and we were dripping with sweat. But we looked forward to being with our ancestors, so we just smiled and embraced the moment.

Today we visited the Emperors’ tombs and the Forbidden City. When Chi Hoa, Mu Chuc’s daughter, found out that we were here, she came to visit us in the hotel. She told us many stories about my family and she warmly greeted us with deep true love.

1 June — Memories and Gratitude

After Hoi An we went to Da Nang, where I spent most of my childhood and where I finished my education from elementary to high school. It brought back many warm memories — of family, friends, and the beautiful beaches. My Papa often took us to the ocean so my sisters and I could play in the water.

Lauren and I took a tour to the Cham Museum. It has artifacts that are thousands of years old. Then we visited my beloved math teacher’s home — Mr. Bui passed away years ago but his lovely wife welcomed us warmly. I sat there holding her soft hands, and her heartbeat and mine became one. We did not say much, but deep inside our love was interconnected. It was a hot, humid day, and our visit was sweet. I was touched by her tranquility and her kindness.

After that, we stopped to see my high school, Phan Chu Trinh. I used to walk with my friends to class; we shared our teenage years with so much laughter and silly jokes. Another stop was the courthouse where my father worked as a judge for twenty years. I could not find our old home in Da Nang because it’s now an office building.

The last stop in Da Nang was My Khe beach. Lauren and I were so happy when our feet touched the white sand and warm water. It was a perfect day, the sky was blue with patches of white clouds. Warm summer breezes caressed our faces softly. I picked up some seashells and feathers on the beach. I took a few deep breaths to treasure my youth, and my presence in the here and the now.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) three days ago. It’s a lovely break: we called our time here are our “lazy days” — great food, and nice times spent with my brother’s family. We also visited with Uncle Tu’s children, Aunt Dieu Phuong’s daughter, and my dear friend Thuy Anh that I have not seen for forty-five years.

Lauren and I feel very fortunate to be able to take this trip together. Vietnam has helped us to open our hearts and our souls, to be touched by the kindness of many people and to be proud of my homeland’s natural beauty.

I’m looking forward to being back in America soon. May all beings be at peace.

Van Khanh Ha, True Attainment of the Fruit of the Practice, left Vietnam in 1971 to study in the United States, where she married and had a daughter, Lauren Mai. Her father, who had been a federal judge before the war, and her mother were able to come to the U.S. and live with Van in their old age. Van practices with Sanghas in Maryland and Virginia.

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Resurrection in the Present Moment

By Sr. Chau Nghiem

March 23, 2008, Cape Mountain Retreat Center, South Africa

Happy Easter to everyone! Easter is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection — resurrection is coming back to life, starting over. We each have a chance to come back to life in every moment. When we come back to our breath, when we really come back to our steps, to the food we are putting in our mouths, to what we are drinking, to what we are saying, we have a chance to come back to life. We can be there in that moment and not be dead to the reality in front of us — not lost in thoughts and worries. The only moment we have is the present moment. It’s the only place where we can really be alive and touch life.

So as we celebrate Easter and the renewing of life, we can touch the resurrection of each of our lives. This retreat is a kind of coming back to life, to touch what is really good and true and beautiful in each of us, in our lineage, our ancestors, and descendants.

We can always begin anew and return to the goodness in us. The present moment contains the past and also the future. What is the present moment but a continuation of the past? What is the future but a continuation of this present moment?

What we do in this present moment is extremely important.

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The past can be healed in the present moment; we don’t have to worry about the future if we know how to dwell solidly in each breath, in each step.

The past is not separate from the present. What happened in the past still exists in us — things we have done and said, things that we may not have had control over, things that other people have done or said. In fact our cells carry memories. By dwelling deeply in the present moment, we can massage those things in our body and consciousness and liberate ourselves from the wounds of the past — individually and collectively.

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Rediscovering Grandparents

I want to tell you a story of a time when I was able to heal wounds from my past. When I was not yet a nun, I went on a twenty-one-day retreat with my dad, led by Thay and the monastics in the U.S. He had been talking about the Five Touchings of the Earth and explained how we can heal our ancestors in us.

My father married my mother in the late nineteen-sixties. My mother is African-American. You know that my father [Dharma teacher Al Lingo] is European-American. My parents are black and white. My father’s parents were very upset. They never met my mother and they didn’t want to meet us when we were born (my brother is three and a half years older than me). When my parents divorced when I was seven or eight, my dad made contact again with my grandparents and we were able to visit them in Houston, Texas. I was eight when I first met them, and my brother was eleven. They were lovely and very warm to us. We were their only grandchildren. We visited them every year. Six years later, when I was fourteen, my granddad died. My grandmother passed away ten years after this so I got to be with her for another ten years. They were very kind to us. They helped my dad treat us to trips to amusement parks and they made sure we had all the foods we liked to eat.

I didn’t think too much about that experience growing up. I was at that retreat and one afternoon I went to the meditation hall to sit by myself and get in touch with my ancestors, as Thay had been teaching us. I just sat and began to breathe and think about my grandparents. A feeling of deep suffering came up towards my grandparents, a huge anger that they had excluded us from their life for eleven years. I felt a deep sense of rejection. I breathed with it as ) had been learning to do. ) embraced it; ) allowed it space to be there. I cried and cried, and I held it with tenderness.

Healing Ancient Wounds

As that emotion was being lullabied by my breathing and my mindfulness, it began to calm. I began to think, “Well, why were they like that? Why did they close their hearts to us?” I saw that they were raised in a completely segregated South, totally white. My grandfather was poor growing up and he made it into the upper middle class through his own intelligence and hard work and lots of help from a society that supported him. But he was a product of all the seeds that were watered in him in that time and place. I saw how much he loved my brother and me and how much excluding us from his life had hurt him. I saw that he was stuck, he didn’t want to be that way, but he didn’t know how to be different. I was also very grateful that he was able to break out of this trap to some extent before he died and have a genuine relationship with his grandchildren.

In that moment, the past was very available to me. I stayed with my breathing, and my grandfather was resurrected in me. I felt so much love for my grandfather. I knew he wasn’t gone to me and that we were still very connected. I’m so proud that I am my grandfather’s granddaughter! There were so many things he was talented at; there was a lot of gentleness, wisdom, and compassion in him. I benefit from that and I want to carry that on. And I know that’s what he wants me to do. I feel a great deal of support and love from and for him now, and my anger and resentment that was buried in me for all those years is completely transformed.

When we really take care of ourselves in the present moment and listen to our own pain and suffering, listen as a mother listens to her child — with tenderness, compassion, openness, acceptance — we can understand our suffering and we can heal our past.

Making Time for our Ancestors

The practice of Touching the Earth can help our ancestors be resurrected in us and help us start afresh, because we have a chance that they may not have had. So when we speak about collective healing — healing the suffering of our nation and our people — we can do that by being very mindful of how we live in this present moment. Our ancestors are us, so whatever we do our ancestors are doing.

One practice that we encourage everyone to do is to set up an ancestors’ altar in your home and spend time there every day.

In Vietnam people have an ancestors’ altar in their home; and anything of importance they report to their ancestors. When their child has his or her first day at school, the parents come before the altar, light a stick of incense, and let the ancestors know, “Today your grandchild or great-grandchild is going to school for the first time.” In many places throughout Africa, people do much the same thing.

It’s very healing to call upon our ancestors, because we are so much more than what we think; we are not this separate self.

When we can be in touch with this whole lineage of people who care about us, we have some energy. We don’t know where it comes from, but somehow we have energy to do things that we didn’t have energy to do before. We also have a sense of responsibility because we are aware of the expectations that our ancestors have of us and of the healing that they deeply need. So the choices that we make shift when that awareness deepens in us.

You could put a picture of your parents or your grandparents and just sit and breathe with your ancestors regularly. There is an illness in our society of isolation, loneliness, fear, the inability to connect to other people. When we can heal our connection to our ancestors, we’ll find more and more ways to make connections with people in our lives.

At times I can really touch my ancestors and I feel them very alive in me. They have a great sense of humor. They help me laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously. And they are full of love and compassion for me, too, when I am still enough to be available to them. They let me know that I will never be lost or abandoned, and they ask me to spend more time with them, to take more time to connect, to honor and remember them.

When we talk about healing collective suffering, collective trauma, it has to start with our own personal resurrection. To begin anew in history, to make a really different step as a human race, we start with being compassionate with our body, our mind, our ancestors, our family, our relationships.

The Pain of Exclusion

The experience on this retreat of exclusion, of feeling separate from the people in the village, I’m so grateful that it’s come up, painful and awkward and potentially volatile as it is. People have been coming here for some time and there wasn’t any event that brought the two groups together. Now this occasion of the village children being excluded from our bonfire last night has brought up the real suffering that exists, so we can’t go on with business as usual. It’s good that it’s painful, that this touches some deep suffering and confusion in us. It touches also a deep aspiration for things to change, for us to be able to connect and be free.

We have a chance to apply the practice — to take care of our own feelings, to speak mindfully with each other about it, and to look at how to respond with compassion. We don’t want to close our eyes before suffering, we don’t want to say “Well, that’s their business. We’re just here on retreat, why stir things up?”

Just as our own emotions need to be embraced, racism is a collective emotion that needs to be embraced — it is fear of the Other. We’re so used to thinking of discrimination as evil, so we don’t want to be associated with it. We know we are not like that! But we relate in the same way to our own difficult emotions — we push them away. Racism needs to be acknowledged and tenderly embraced as a collective. We have the compassion and wisdom, the Buddha seed in us, to look deeply at racism, classism, and all the various isms in us that tend to push others away.

We need to wake up together and look at it. People are already doing this in many places so it’s not something we have to create from scratch. The separation that exists in South Africa is no different from the separation that exists in other places. It may be felt quite acutely here, but it is everywhere. Our minds create the world. War and discrimination come from our minds. If we didn’t have violence in our minds, we wouldn’t create war.

The Grand Requiem Masses in Vietnam

I want to share about the Grand Requiem Masses that we did in Vietnam on our trip with Thay last year.

Thay returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2005. The Communist government thought he would cause an uprising against them, but he was so skillful and loving in his speech that they learned they didn’t need to fear him. Thay tenderly expressed the good qualities of the government and spoke very skillfully: “Why don’t you open up more? … You can do better and this will make people happier.” Because of his skillfulness, people listened. He gave talks to members of the Communist Party, and Thay said to them, “You know, the monks and nuns, we don’t have our own private cars, cell phones, or bank accounts. We’re the true Communists!” And they laughed, they weren’t angry. He was able in a very loving way to touch the need in the Communist Party to reduce corruption and materialism. So they allowed us to come back in 2007.

One of the main reasons we went was to engage in ceremonies to heal the suffering of the war. The pain had been suppressed, it was not allowed to come up and be expressed. They were three-day ceremonies of healing where people wrote down the names of their loved ones who had been killed in the war or who had been killed escaping by boat. We performed ceremonies in the South in Saigon, in the Center in Hue, and in the North in Hanoi. There were huge altars with food and fruit, and then pages and pages stapled to the altars with the names of thousands of people — where and how they died, some of starvation, some killed in the forest, some from a land mine.

We began our chanting, inviting all these souls who had died violently in the war to be a part of this healing. And they came; we felt their presence. I was crying tears that weren’t mine and many of us experienced something coming through us to be released — some pain that had been kept down and was able to be released on a collective level. We were encouraged to practice very uprightly, to really be mindful and kind, to be aware of our speech and actions, during those three days. Everyone had to make a special altar outside of their house, to pray for the healing of their family members who had died, and Thay gave talks every morning. I experienced the healing of my own blood and land ancestors in those ceremonies. On the third day of the ceremony, after quite a heat wave, it rained. It did that at each of the three ceremonies — on the last day it rained.

Transformation of the Collective

We can create spaces of healing and resurrection in our communities, by allowing pain to be expressed but held in a very tender, loving, compassionate container of mindfulness. When I first heard about these ceremonies in Vietnam, right away I thought, “Oh, we need these ceremonies in the U.S.” So much suffering is being passed on from one generation to the next. The absurdity of violence in the U.S., with ten-year-old children shooting classmates and teachers in school, is pain from ancestors that has not been healed. The brutality of this deep separation here in South Africa is pain that has not been addressed from our ancestors. If we can address and release that, our future generations will be free to live a very different kind of life.

mb50-Resurrection3I’m thinking about how to do some kind of a spiritual healing ceremony that is appropriate for Americans to address the wounds of Native American genocide, slavery, segregation, the witch hunts, and other deep, national wounds. We can also think about this here. I want to invite us all to meditate together, particularly on the situation that has arisen in this retreat. It is clear that whatever we want to suppress will come up some how, some way. We are asked to walk around the village, but we end up meeting some children from the village on the detour we take to the meditation hall. We are so naturally attracted to them! The urge to separate, it can never win! We want to connect; we want to love each other. It’s so natural, so human.

I was very happy to hear some of you share before the walking meditation about how important it is to be skillful and look deeply — not just act out of our goodwill and good intention — but to really think about the best response to this difficult situation.

It’s just not true that we aren’t connected to the colored people in the village. It’s just not true that it doesn’t matter what happens, that we can go about our retreat here and not be impacted by that kind of inequality. To see this, that’s the practice.

Maybe we can find a way as a community to make a true and deep response to this suffering. We know the farmer feels it, the retreat caretakers feel it, the villagers feel it. Everyone is victimized by this kind of separation. Everyone is crippled somehow by this narrow heart, the inability to include. I hope that out of this retreat, we will have a beautiful, strong Sangha that meets regularly in Cape Town. We have a meeting Monday night to be together and offer our support to creating a Sangha. So we can continue to look at how we can respond to this on Monday night.

I want to close by expressing my gratitude to all of you for being here, for having the courage to come on this retreat — for having the willingness to love, to open yourself up to transformation for yourself, your family, your society. All of us who have come here feel enriched and grateful for this time with you.

Sister Jewel, Chan Chau Nghiem, received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2007 in Vietnam. She currently resides at the new European Institute for Applied Buddhism in Waldbroel, Germany.

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Healing Separation

 By Sr. Thuan Nghiem and Sr. Chau Nghiem

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We held our retreat at the Cape Mountain Retreat Center, a two-hour drive from Cape Town. Thirty adults and eight children came and practiced for three days, many of them for the first time in our tradition. They were professionals, and most were white, though there were a few Indian South Africans, a Burmese woman, and a Xhosa boy, adopted by a white South African mom. The three Dharma Teachers took turns leading the adults’ activities as well as the children’s program.

We experienced very directly the painful residues of apartheid during the retreat. The retreat center was on land rented from a local farmer. On our way to the large meditation hall was a village of colored people* who worked for the white farmer. We met a number of colored children on our walks there who smiled at us with so much desire to connect. We invited the village children to the bonfire we had planned for Saturday night. They happily agreed to come. They were very poor and we heard there was always a lot of drinking in the village over the Easter holiday, so we wanted to provide them with a more wholesome atmosphere and give a chance for the village children and retreat children to enjoy playing together. When the retreat caretakers learned we’d invited the colored children, they informed the farmer and he insisted that the caretakers let the children know that they couldn’t attend the bonfire as there was a farm policy of no contact between retreatants and villagers. We were told that this policy was due to misunderstandings in the past between the Buddhist retreatants and largely Christian colored community, but we also knew it was quite common on South African farms to hold onto traditions of racial separation and inequality. The caretakers went to the village Saturday afternoon and told the children they were not allowed to come.
They either didn’t get the message or disobeyed, because at dinnertime, fifteen or so very nicely dressed children came down to the bonfire. We went to greet them and begged the caretakers to let them join us. They were insistent that the farmer’s rules be followed as after all, we were on his land, and we wouldn’t be there to receive the fallout of our actions, either on the caretakers or the villagers. While we didn’t want to be intimidated, we wanted to be respectful of our hosts, but we felt extremely upset and helpless in the face of such blatant exclusion and discrimination. We continued with the bonfire, without the village children, but there was definitely something missing and the energy was dampened.

The next morning, before we transmitted the precepts, I asked everyone to join hands and requested that we send the merit of our transmission ceremony to the village children who had been excluded from the bonfire, to the retreat center caretakers and to the farmer. I asked that we use the merit of the ceremony to water the seed of inclusiveness in each of us and help us to find better ways to create connections with those that are different from us.

One beautiful thing happened after the kids’ Easter egg hunt: we invited the village children to share in the bounty of Easter eggs. We got to take pictures all together and enjoy their delight in the Easter eggs. There was a meeting at the end of the retreat in which we decided to draft a letter to the retreat center owners sharing about the painful experience we had and asking that action be taken to remedy this policy of separation. The letter has been delivered and the newly formed Cape Town Sangha is following up with the retreat owners.

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* ‘Colored’ is the term used in South Africa for people of mixed Dutch and African ancestry. They speak Afrikaans and consider themselves distinct from both white and black South Africans.

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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.

 

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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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