Dharma Talk: Unified Buddhist Church – Community of Mindful Living Merger

 Transcription of a Dharma Talk Given by Thich Nhat Hanh on March 2, 1999 at Plum Village Monastery, Dieulivol, France

Dear Friends, it is now the beginning of March 1999, and we are in Floating Clouds Meditation Hall, New Hamlet, Plum Village. We have just completed the Transmission of the Lamp ceremony for twelve monastics. Their training has been very steady, including a three month retreat each year. Of the twelve Dharma teachers that we ordained yesterday, many of them are very young. Most of them began practicing at the age of 22 or 23 as a monk or nun, and they have spent six or seven years practicing as monastics. Last year, the Sangha appointed 17 apprentice Dharma teachers. Out of this 17, the Sangha selected ten here in Plum Village and two in America to become this year’s ordained Dharma teachers.

Each year we will be able to produce new Dharma teachers. The plum trees are beginning to yield fruit. The procedure used to select Dharma teachers is that, rather than being nominated by Thay, they are now selected by the Sangha. It is the Sangha who has decided who will be  a Dharma teacher this year. Every year, the Sangha will appoint new apprentice Dharma teachers, and each year we will give the Lamp Transmission to a number of new Dharma teachers. We do it by way of voting. We have applied democracy to the foundation of our Sangha. One week before the Transmission of the Lamp, no one knew who would be selected to be this year’s new Dharma teachers. We prepared the ordination ceremony for the Transmission not knowing who would actually receive the Lamp and become Dharma teachers this year.

Each hamlet and each temple received instructions on how to select the Dharma teachers. I only suggested to the community how Dharma teachers should be selected using two criteria. The first is that future Dharma teachers must be people who can teach with their own life as an example and not just with words. The second criteria is that the Dharma teacher should demonstrate his or her ability to live in harmony with the Sangha and be able to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.

Everyone in the community considered these two criteria, and they were given time to meditate, to think about, and then to vote to select which apprentices met these qualifications and criteria. Thay did not have anything to do except to add up the votes and to announce the names to the community of the new Dharma teachers. All of these votes and records are in our files here. Anyone can consult them. This has been a wonderful experience, especially to see that a few Dharma teachers got a unanimous vote of the Sangha, to see that everyone thought that this person or that person is a good candidate to be a Dharma teacher. We are very happy, because of this new democratic development. We are very happy that we are now able to combine the principles of democracy and the principle of seniorship.

The training here at Plum Village and at the Green Mountain Dharma Center is very steady. It is training not just of retreats from time to time, but a training 24 hours a day for many, many years. Living together 24 hours a day, we understand and know each other very well. Therefore our judgment and our selection of Dharma teachers is based upon direct experience of each person. Living in the Sangha, we have the opportunity to try out things we have learned and to succeed or to fail. And everyone knows of and can see our success or failure.

The Transmission of the Lamp was not a big ceremony this time. We only had in attendance people who were here for our retreat. There are over 100 monastics living here and in the Green Mountain and Maple Forest Monasteries. We also have a number of laypeople who practice with us during the winter retreat.

The night of the vote and the selection of the Dharma teachers, I stayed up very late. Of course, I had my own ideas about who I thought should be the Dharma teachers and be selected this year. But I chose to practice taking refuge in the Sangha. We all have to rely on our Sangha, because we believe that the Sangha eyes are always brighter than the eyes of anyone individual, including the teacher. So I stayed up very late that night in order to count the votes. I told Sister Chan Khong that we were like being in the U.S. Congress or in the French Parliament-staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning in order to attend a meeting and make an historic vote.

You know we have three temples here, three hamlets here, and there were temples that replied very quickly and brought us their votes very quickly. But, there were also temples which took a long time to send me the results of the vote. In particular, Maple Forest Monastery took a long time. The first time, they did not understand the instructions properly. That is why they did not select according to the kind of criteria that I suggested, and we had to ask them to do it again. So it was 2:00 in the morning before I knew the names of the new Dharma teachers that had been selected. But even at that late hour, I immediately sent the names to the three temples here and the temple in Vermont at the Green Mountain Dharma Center, and I asked the abbots and abbesses to please release the results in the early morning. Of course, there were some people who were disappointed because they were not selected this year. They know that they have to begin to practice again with the Sangha in such a way that next year they will be accepted. So there will be great efforts on the part of these candidates.

I feel wonderful that this is the way we are now choosing our Dharma teachers, and this takes a lot of weight off of my shoulders. It is not Thay who decides, but the Sangha who decides. Thay of course has the right to veto, but I very rarely do. So, the community chooses, and they inform Thay of the names of the new novices and the names of the new Dharma teachers, and then Thay informs them of the date of ordination.

If the community of monks and nuns judges that a monk or nun is ripe, then they will decide and send the nomination to Thay. For the Dharma teachers, we will do it in the same way. Dharma teachers are selected and nominated by the Sangha.

Offering Guidance

I would like to talk about a very important practice here at Plum Village, the practice of offering guidance and in the principle of Sangha eyes. The Sangha eyes can see thoroughly. Many people think that the Sangha does not know, but the Sangha knows. It can see much better than you can. This practice comes directly from the tradition that on the last day of the winter retreat, the rainy season retreat, a monk should bow down in front of his brother and ask him, “Please with compassion shine light on me so that I can see my strength and my weakness during the past three months of this retreat.” He must prostrate deeply in order to receive this guidance. Here at Plum Village, we have developed it into a practice that is not only used at the end of the winter season retreat, but also, from time to time, when any of us needs the guidance of the Sangha. We can come forward and make deep prostrations and ask for guidance. Even senior teachers, like Sister Annabel Laity, come from time to time to the Sangha and prostrate, and she asks her younger sisters to shine light on her practice. Most of the people who were there, whom she bows before, are her students.

Before anyone receives full ordination, they receive guidance so they can prepare themselves for ordination, and we have seen that in only a few days, a person can make a lot of progress and undergo considerable transformation. In the beginning many people are afraid of guidance because they do not like to see their weaknesses. But everyone, after having received their guidance, has realized that this is the voice of the Buddha telling him or her how to practice, how to advance.

In the newsletter that we recently published, we printed a few letters about guidance and the experience of those who received guidance and how they practiced in order to overcome their difficulties. In Plum Village, I think we have a laboratory to try out new methods. After we have succeeded in the methods of practice, we share it with the communities outside.

One of the things we have done is to deal with attachment. For instance, when someone in the community falls in love with someone else in the community, especially in the case of a monk or nun, in the past, if the teacher and the board of teachers realized that there was this attachment on the part of a monk or nun, then that person would be expelled. They would not be allowed to stay in the monastery any more. When I was a novice, one of my fellow monks wrote two lines of poetry and gave it to a young girl down the hill from the temple. When the faculty learned about it, he was expelled from the monastery, and he went back to his lay life. I thought this was much, much too strict. He was not given the chance to begin anew and to learn. I was only 18 years old, and I saw that as a kind of injustice.

So I have been thinking about it for many years, and at Plum Village we have found many methods to help people who have gotten themselves into situations of attachment. Because we think that falling in love is an accident, you should help this person who had this accident and not kill him. It is like when a friend is struck with malaria, you have to help the person to kill the bacteria in the blood and not to kill the person.

We have been successful in dealing with this in some circumstances, and we are confident that later on we can share the method with other communities. Without the support of the Sangha, you cannot solve these problems. If I did not have a loving Sangha, I would have been expelled also. You may have read my book Cultivating the Mind of Love. In it, I tell the story of when I was a young monk, and I fell in love with a nun. It is surprising that now the mainland Chinese have chosen to translate this very book. I will be very famous in China!

Autonomy

Here in Plum Village, we have three temples: the temple we are sitting in is called “Adornment with Loving Kindness.” Each of the three temples has its autonomy. Each temple has an abbot or abbess. The office of an abbot is like being an accountant-handling accounting and bookkeeping-and each temple is free to make projects or building more dormitories, Buddha Halls, etc., and if they are short of funds and need help they can get the help from the other temples.

But, there are things that concern the whole Sangha, that need the whole Sangha to decide, and there are other things that can be resolved just in one’s own temple. Like the temple of Thay Nguyen Hai; we call it the Dharma Cloud Temple or the Upper Hamlet. They select their own head of community, they select their own treasurer, they select their own registrar, they do everything. They can decide about all these activities within the temple. But when it comes to a major decision-one that has to do with and effects the other temples-the Upper Hamlet Abbot, of course, will consult with the other abbots and abbesses.

There is only an intervention by me or by the greater Sangha of monks and nuns only when things are not going in the right direction of practice. Otherwise, each of the temples has its own autonomy, and its own independence. The schedule of the Winter Retreat is very much the same in each Hamlet, because we need to have it so in order for the three temples to join together in activities that necessitate the presence of everyone. Therefore, these decisions are made collectively. As you know, twice a week there is a Dharma talk from Thay, and everyone from every temple has to arrange it so that everyone can be present at the same time. Even the cook has the opportunity to sit in the Dharma talk, and this is possible because we work together. Here at Plum Village we do not have a special cook because everyone has the opportunity to practice mindful cooking. We always arrange our cooking in such a way that everyone has an opportunity to participate in all the activities of the Sangha.

Transfer to UBC

I would like to tell you about a night recently I had at the Hermitage. I received a fax from our lawyer, he was working on my estate plan and the tax-exemption documents for our organization in the United States. He sent me a transfer document to sign that would transfer my copyrights to the UBC, the Unified Buddhist Church. In it, he was talking about my death. He was talking in the same way that the Sutra says that death comes without warning. So, he suggested that it was better for me to sign this right away, because legally, under French law, one of my nephews or one of my nieces or some other relative could come in and claim the copyrights to my books. Instead of my copyrights being owned by the Unified Buddhist Church, which is my intention, my relatives could claim the copyrights, and that would be a pity. I would not want one of my nieces or my nephews to come in and make such a claim.

So, at 11 :00 p.m., I stayed up and signed the document and faxed it back to my attorney. It’s funny that the Dharma comes to me from lawyers, that lawyers can teach us about impermanence. Although the document was not perfect, and we have made some later revisions, the document could have been used in case that very night I passed away.

A Bell of Mindfulness

As you know, I am, in principle, a lazy monk. If you do not force me to look deeply into matters, I may not do it because there are many other things I would like to do. The day after I signed my Will, I received another document from my attorney to sign. This, as you know, was a contract that he proposed between Thay and Parallax Press so that Parallax would pay royalties to UBC for my books. I signed this document upon the urging of my estate attorney.

The following day, I received a letter from CML/Parallax Press’s attorney, Mr. Bunnin, making a counterproposal to my attorney’s contract. Reading the letter from Mr. Bunnin and reviewing the contract that I had signed, I could not sleep. Mr. Bonnin’s letter was to me a bell of mindfulness. I could not believe the tone of Mr. Bunnin’ s letter and that things could turn out this way-that I had to ask an attorney to help me, that Arnie and Therese of CML had to ask an attorney to help them; that I had to negotiate with Parallax Press and CML and Arnie, my student, and that Arnie would have to sign a contract with me.

I thought, This is so stupid. How had I allowed things to go this far. What if the younger generation looked back upon my time here and thought, What kind of teacher was Thay? He signs contracts with his disciples; he has a lawyer on his side; and his disciple has a lawyer on his side.

I could not accept this. So that night, I did not sleep. I said to myself, I must practice looking deeply into this matter. In the morning I knew what I was going to do. I realized that I was not going to sign any contract with Arnie because he and I are teacher and student; we are one. From my point of view, it is fine for me, in the name of the UBC, to sign a contract with an outside publishing house, such as Riverhead Press, Broadway Books, etc., but I knew that I could not sign a contract with Arnie or with Parallax Press.

I asked Sister Chiln Khong to please withdraw the proposal that my lawyer had written up and that I had actually signed. I felt shameful to have signed that document. I realized this was the wrong thing to do. My practice is the practice of inclusiveness. When the left hand gets hurt, the right hand comes and takes care of the wound. The left hand does not say, “I am helping you, you are the person that is getting help from me. You have to be kind to me.” No, there is no negotiation between the two hands.

If I sign a contract with my student, with my own Press and my own Community of Mindful Living, this is not in the spirit of Buddhism. We have to look in such a way to see that Arnie is Thay and Thay is Arnie and that whatever Thay does, Arnie does, and whatever Arnie does, Thay does. That is what today we beg you to understand and to help us to work with. We should do this in such a way that we can reflect a spirit of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination, so there is only continuation. This is our tradition.

We cannot say to Thay Nguyen Hai, the abbot of Upper Hamlet, we will sign a contract with you. He is the abbot, he has the right of an abbot, and he has daily work, but I do not have to sign anything with him. The Sangha does not have to sign anything with him, because the Vinaya is there, the precepts are there, the teaching is there, and there is no need of signing any contract.

As far as Thay Nguyen Hai is concerned, he practices well as a monk, as an abbot, and he does not violate any precepts. If he does not sleep with any of his female disciples, if he does not break any of the precepts, then no one can evict him from the position of the abbot. I believe we would never allow him to be evicted by anyone if he practices well as a monk and as an abbot and all other monks are helping him to do that and protecting him. So there is no need to fear anything in terms of expulsion.

The same thing is true with Sister Jina. She is not afraid of losing her abbesship. She is abbess of the Dharma Nectar Temple in the Lower Hamlet. She is actually hoping that someone can replace her so that she can travel more. She knows the Vinaya, the Mindfulness Trainings, and the daily practice is formed and created for a nun like her. We do not feel that we have to sign any agreements with Sister Jina.

The same is true with Sister Trung Chinh here, the abbess of “Adornment with Loving Kindness” and also with Sister Annabel. You have met Sister Annabel Laity in the Green Mountain Dharma Center. She is a scholar. She knows Sanskrit and Pali, and she is a scholar on Buddhism. She has been director of practice and a teacher in Plum Village for many years. She was ordained on the holy Gridakuta Mountain at the same time as Sister Chan Khong.

Between Thay and Sister Chan Duc there is something that you cannot describe; it is a perfect trust. I do not think that Sister Chan Duc has to protect herself, has to sign any agreements or contracts with me, and I think that this is thanks to the Dharma, to the Vinaya.

We are together here as a river and not as a drop of water. As a drop of
water, we cannot go far, we cannot arrive at the ocean. But, as a river, we will always arrive. So, our practice is to be a river and not a drop of water.

Here every monk, every nun, every layperson does the same and everyone contributes to the collective work to help our entire community. I cherish the presence of everyone here, even a very young novice. A novice, even if she is a novice only for three days, can already make many people happy by the way she walks, the way she sits, the way she smiles, the way she takes care of her sisters. I do not underestimate the value or contribution of even the newest person who comes to our Sangha. Our happiness comes from this, and not from any particular achievement or of such and such work.

I think that if we follow that same kind of practice and behavior, then we will be able to prevent misunderstanding and the kind of suffering that is completely useless. Then we will be able to take at least 90 percent of the burden of worrying from our shoulders.

Unification and Inclusiveness 

Who is the UBC? The UBC is all of us. The UBC is not monastics alone, because the UBC is also for the Order of Interbeing and laypeople. The UBC is for the entire Fourfold Sangha. The UBC is for every one of us.

That is why I propose that every organization, every institution that we and our friends have set up, that we all come together and adopt the same kind of attitude and procedure as are used in Maple Forest, Lotus Bud Village, Maple Village, Green Mountain Dharma Center, and the three hamlets and temples of Plum Village. That we come together as one organization, but within that organization, each one of us can keep our autonomy, just as we do here in Plum Village. We can go on as we have before, but now we can join together and gain the support of everyone in the Sangha.

Suppose this circle represents UBC (Figure 1). Before we set up the UBC in America last year, we had already set up the UBC here in France in 1969, during the war in Vietnam. Then we set up Sweet Potatoes in 1975 and then Plum Village in 1982 in France. Then, we added the  Dharma Cloud Temple and the Dharma Nectar Temple in 1988 and the Adornment with Loving Kindness Temple in 1995. And now, in 1998, we have added the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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Each endeavor has its own authority and autonomy, but each is linked intricately to the UBC. Within the Unified Buddhist Church, we have a monastery for monks and a monastery for nuns. I drew these monastic institutions inside to show that they are monasteries only for monastics. I would like to see the Community of Mindful Living become one of the institutions that is part of ourselves, and that Parallax Press also becomes one of these institutions within the UBC.

It is my hope to transform The Mindfulness Bell into a magazine, and we may ask Leslie Rawls to continue to be editor. We can then add the support of all of us so that we can make this into a real magazine. We can send articles for it; we can invest a lot of energy in this new magazine because it can play a very important role in North America; it can help many people. In Europe, we have lntersein magazine which serves the German-speaking world. It is a beautiful magazine and lci & Maintenant, a French-language magazine, very professionally designed by a good artist in Belgium who is also a member of the Order of Interbeing. With the help of every temple, we can make The Mindfulness Bell into a real magazine, and we can ask Leslie to continue to be editor. But, we also could create an advisory board to help her, to get more news, more articles, more input. That is something that is very easy to do.

The role of Parallax Press, as in the past, remains very important. We want Parallax Press to continue and to grow. In my mind, although Arnie may have to take care of the new Great Island Center, we would wish that he also continue to be the director of Parallax Press. As the director of Parallax Press within UBC, he will be able to sign contracts not only with the United States and the English-speaking world, but also with Germany, France, Italy, everywhere, because now he will be signing in the name of the Unified Buddhist Church.

Together with other friends and advisors in the Sangha who will collaborate with him, he will publish books by Parallax Press, and he also can work together with these friends to determine which books should be published by mainstream publishing houses, such as Riverhead, Ballentine, Doubleday, and Dell and which should be published by Parallax. In this task, Arnie will be supported financially, spiritually, and technically by laypeople and monastics.

I would like to repeat what I said at the beginning, that here we try to combine the principle of seniorship and democracy. I would like to see this principle implemented at all levels of the Sangha. Because in the lay Sangha, there are many people who are very experienced in practice and in Sangha building, they should be given special status in decision-making. Because there are people who just come to practice, and they know very little about Sangha building and about the Dharma, they will not be given the same vote as a very senior member of the Sangha.

In the spirit of seniorship, each level of our Sangha will have its own boards of advisors. We will have democracy, but we would like to respect seniorship. If we can incorporate the spirit of democracy that would be a plus to the Sangha. I would like to see the same kind of practice realized in the circle of the lay Sangha as is practiced by the monastic Sangha. In the monastic community, every monk or nun is supposed to attend the Rainy Season Retreat which lasts three months. Here in Plum Village, we make the Winter Retreat the equivalent to the Rainy Season Retreat. Without participating for three months in this retreat, we would not be able to count the particular monk’s or nun’s year in assessing seniority.

In the tradition, it is written like this: five Rainy Season Retreats allow you to be a teacher; your position is equivalent to the position of a teacher; you have the right to share the Dharma after five Rainy Season Retreats. After the tenth Rainy Season Retreat, your position will be equivalent to Upadhyaya. This term refers to someone who can transmit the precepts. It was written in the Vinaya like that. But, you cannot count any year alone. A year without a three month retreat is an empty year. If you are a monk, you should be able to tell us how many Rainy Season Retreats you have done and so what your position might be. Even if you are ordained before another monk, you cannot sit on the right because we count in terms of retreats. We do not count in terms of years.

I think that the same type of practice could be applied to laypeople. You may have someone who has been ordained as an Order of Interbeing member for ten years, but during those ten years she does not recite her precepts and she does not attend any of the mindfulness retreats, and so those ten years are considered as empty. She cannot count those years in terms of seniority. That principle is already there in the tradition. You only need to apply it to your daily life. In the time of the Buddha, decision-making was only done by fully ordained monks and nuns, by the procedure called Sanghakarma.

In Plum Village, the novices and those who have been accepted into the family of monastics but are not fully ordained are consulted for every decision. We allow them to speak out and to share their insight. Then the fully ordained monastics will meet in private to make the decision. Last month, when we decided who would be nominated to receive the Dharma Lamp Transmission, we allowed the novices to vote, but after the voting, only the fully ordained monastics met in private to review and qualify the votes, because they have the ultimate right to make such decisions.

Because monastics and laypeople have to be together in order to serve the Dharma, that is why it is called the Fourfold Sangha. Although the UBC has two monasteries here, which contain only monks and nuns, we still need laypeople as friends, advisors, and practitioners. So the Fourfold Sangha is present everywhere. If we organize our entire community like this, Thay, the UBC, does not have to sign anything with Thay Nguyen Hai, and with Sister Jina and with Sister Trung Chinh, or with Arnie. We are all together as one river.

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One Small Bowl

A Commentary on Eating Meditation

by David Percival

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At Plum Village and Deer Park, the food is delicious, nutritious, and abundant. During the first week of the Summer Opening at Plum Village, I was sitting outside waiting for everyone in my family group to arrive before starting to eat. In front of me was a large plate piled high with food, a large bowl full of food, and a bowl of soup.

In the wonderful silence before starting to eat, I became aware that many of the monks at our table had just one bowl in front of them. Across from me was a slender, trim, happy monk with one small bowl of food; I had enough food to fill four small bowls. Some of the other retreatants at our table had equally impressive quantities of food. Over the next few days, I continued to observe that most monastics used only one bowl when serving themselves.

On the table was a small folded piece of cardboard with the important words I have been repeating for years, but somehow overlooked at this meal:

This food is the gift of the whole universe—
the earth, the sky, and much hard work.
May we be worthy to receive it.
May we transform unskillful states of mind,
especially the habit of eating without moderation.
May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent
illness.
We accept this food to realize the path of understanding
and love.

As I sat there, the Fifth Mindfulness Training played in my mind. What am I doing with this much food? By the time we began the meal, I wasn’t very hungry and I couldn’t eat it all. I waited until everyone had finished so I could steal away and discreetly put the remainder in the compost bucket. A wasteful but useful experience.

That evening during walking meditation I further contemplated this experience. Later, in Stepping into Freedom I read about the monastic eating bowl. Thay states that “…the monk’s eating bowl is often called ‘the vessel of appropriate measure’. It should be big enough to hold a suitable amount of food, but not too big as to encourage greed.”

Food portions served in restaurants at home seem to be escalating. I thought about the plague of obesity, eating disorders and addictions, diabetes, heart disease, loss of self-esteem, and other illnesses caused by being overweight. Reports suggest that two-thirds of adults in the

U.S. are overweight. There are untold numbers of diet plans, hundreds of books on how to lose weight, and millions of people desperately struggling to change. Food is a major attachment and can cause great suffering.

In this sea of suffering and despair is there a diet of mindfulness we can have with us always? Can we practice the Fifth Mindfulness Training at every meal?

The key is to practice as a monastic: wherever you go, keep your bowl carefully stored away in your consciousness. When you can, get used to using one small bowl or a salad plate for your meal. At home I have a Deer Park bowl as the centerpiece on our table and I look at it each time I sit down to eat.

When you can, serve yourself just what you need or perhaps a little less. Then practice walking meditation to where you sit, even if it’s just a few steps in your kitchen. Sit with your back straight, and practicing mindful breathing, recite the Five Contemplations. Bring yourself into the present moment so you can touch your food, your family, and your community deeply. Thay tells us that “eating in mindfulness nourishes your happiness, and you feel as though you are sharing a meal with the Buddha and his disciples in the Jeta Grove.”

Discussing the First Novice Precept, On Protecting Life, Thay says, “When a novice practices this precept, he or she learns to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion and thereby transforms the seeds of violence and hatred and nourishes the seeds of love. Violence and hatred cause boundless suffering. While a novice walks, sits, stands, lies down, works, speaks, eats, or drinks, she does not forget that all species are suffering. Protecting life is the first practice of someone cultivating her bodhichitta, her mind of love.” We can bring this teaching into our life by choosing a vegetarian diet.

My practice of eating moderate amounts of wholesome vegetarian food combined with exercise is a practice of love, compassion, and happiness. I begin to realize that craving for food is not an element of happiness. When I started this practice, I thought that I would need to give up many things. But over time I understood that when I let go of craving and attachments, I haven’t lost anything. Instead, a beautiful space opens in my mind as I become free from my food cravings and attachments. As Thay said at the Winter Retreat at Deer Park in March 2004, “Live in such a way that there is beauty in each moment—all our actions are our continuation (our karma). Do not wait!” And, never forget your bowl.

References:

Thich Nhat Hanh, Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1997. Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future to Be Possible – Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1993.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is the subscription manager for the Mindfulness Bell.

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Fragrance of Tea Flowers

By Sister Dang Nghiem

Before she became a nun, Sister Dang Nghiem was a physician in the United States. She has been at Prajna Temple (Bat Nha) near Bao Loc since September and she wrote this letter to Thay on December 12, 2005.

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Beloved Thay,

I have wanted to write to you several times. However, the personal time that I have is extremely limited, and when I actually have some, the electricity is out for power conservation.

I am very happy here at Prajna Temple. I keep praising quietly, “The dharma is truly deep and lovely!”

The first night when I arrived in Prajna, at the Sisters’ Hamlet, Red Fireplace Hamlet, the monastery was in total silence. I was very surprised, because I had been informed that 170 people were there. Once I came in the room, so many sisters stopped by to greet me and we had a joyful moment.

How Many Share a Room?

After a while, I bowed deeply and smiled to the bright and friendly faces in sign of farewell, but I was surprised to see that there were still many sisters standing around my newly assigned bed. So I said to them, “Dear sisters, please return to your room to rest. I probably need to rest, too.” Do you know what their reply was? “Elder sister, we all live in this room!!!” Sixteen people live in a room five meters by five meters, which includes an indoor restroom with one toilet, a sink, and a showerhead. This restroom is divided into three sections by two curtains, so that one person can use the toilet, one to three people can use the sink, and one person can shower or wash clothes, simultaneously.

When I climbed onto my upper bunk bed for the first time, I hung my weight on it as I had often done in my dormitory in college. Unexpectedly, the whole bed tipped towards me, and I jumped down quickly to catch the bed. I have enough experience by now, and I can climb onto it skillfully like a cat.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Every morning I wake up at three to do my toilet, to avoid waiting in line. Then I come out to the balcony to enjoy sipping half a liter of warm water, before I do yoga. The wind blows wildly, howling in waves. The stream and waterfalls flow continuously and forcefully nearby. I do the exercise Sun Salutation and the headstand pose, as I quietly recite the Three Refuges. However tired I may feel some mornings, I still strive to wake up early to do yoga, and I also run in the evenings. I am aware that for me to continue on this life-long path of practice, I must take good care of this body. My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to the Three Jewels for giving me enough strength, faith, and every opportunity to practice.

A small bell is invited at 4:00 a.m. to wake up the Sangha. The Great Temple Bell is also invited at that time. The sounds of the Great Bell and the chants reverberate throughout the mountains. Local people also take these sounds to wake up and prepare for the new day. At 4:20 a.m., the activity bell is invited to announce exercise time. Everyone quietly does walking meditation to the meditation hall (on the upper level) and the dining hall (on the lower level) in the adjacent building, to do the Ten Mindfulness Movements. Every level is full of people. There are young aspirants who are still sleepy, standing like zombies and raising their arms only occasionally. Even though sitting meditation begins at 5:00 a.m., most are already at their cushions by 4:50 a.m.

Our sisters chant energetically and powerfully! In Plum Village, I often felt self-conscious of my loud chanting voice. I do not have to worry about this here, because my voice blends in with the Sangha’s like milk in water.

Stories About Food

We eat breakfast at 6 a.m. Everyone leaves her shoes outside and walks barefoot into the dining hall. The shoes are aligned neatly next to each other, and sometimes when I come out, I see my shoes have been moved closer to the door threshold; I am touched by these quiet kind gestures. There are three serving tables (for

170 people), narrow and only one meter long each, because our food is simple and without much variety. We usually have rice at all three meals, with a stir-fry dish and a vegetable dish. There is soup at lunch, but sometimes we have just one dish. The sisters ask to have rice, instead of noodle soup of some sorts, because they get hungry very quickly, and they cannot work or sleep well at night.

In the dining hall at Deer Park, there is a separate table full of bottles and containers of soy sauce, olive oil, chilies, peanuts, sesame seeds, and so on. Here in Prajna, food is flavored with enough salt, and only occasionally there is a bowl of soy sauce or tomato sauce on the serving table (tomatoes are too expensive for cooking). The shopping sisters also try to roast sesame for the Sangha, but the jar is emptied so quickly that only two or three days later we see another jar. In principle, we can talk after two sounds of the bell, but everyone remains silent throughout three meals; some whisper if it’s very necessary to exchange something. I am happy with this, because that little tiny dining hall would be like an open market place if everyone talked.

Before Sister Thoai Nghiem left Deer Park to return to Prajna this last October, she told us that the sisters in Prajna crave sweets. Upon hearing this, some sisters thought that this craving for sweets was due to them being teenagers. I myself thought it could be because they were malnourished. After a few days in Prajna, I found myself craving sweets as well! Sister Nhu Hieu shared that the other day she had a lollipop, and it tasted better than any candy she had ever had in France! We both laughed together, because we are far from being teenagers. Each time when our brothers and sisters from Plum Village are together for a meeting, we bring all our sweets, place them on the table, and eat together. The truth is that none of us has the heart to enjoy these sweets alone, if we don’t have enough to share with those in our room.

Last week we had a meeting with the Venerable Abbot of Prajna Temple, and he said he felt much love for us coming from Plum Village, because we all become darker and thinner here. “Even brother Pháp Kham, who was fair and round when he first arrived, now also looks so dark and thin!” (“He’s looking more like a mountain person [a montagnard, mountain tribesman] now,” a sister whispered, and all of us giggled). “Well, we have given seventy, eighty percent of ourselves, so we can give up to ninety, one hundred percent of ourselves. We just continue to stretch our arms a little longer. So many people desperately need our practice. Centers like ours must be present everywhere in Vietnam in order to rebuild our country….” The Venerable spoke with such enthusiasm, and with such a charismatic smile, we looked at each other and laughed, admiring the Venerable for his talent for giving us effective spiritual boosters.

Letting Go of Attachments

Before I came to Prajna Temple, I heard Sister Thoai Nghiem say that the biggest problem here is attachment. I reacted strongly, believing that people with that tendency should be expelled from the community. However, living together with the sisters and listening to them, I understand better the causes of their tendency for attachment.

I practice Noble Silence each Lazy Monday for at least half a day, because I conduct an anatomy class for our sisters later in the afternoon. Last Sunday evening, it was past 10 p.m. already when one of my mentees came to my room, asking me to help her with her insomnia because, she said, “I know you’ll be practicing Noble Silence tomorrow.” I told her to return to her bed, lie down, and follow her breathing. If she could not sleep that night, it would be okay; she’s had this problem several years, and we were not going to solve it that night. She walked away angry, and her steps were heavy. A few days later, I asked her if she was still mad at me, and she said her anger resolved after she had been following her breathing for a while. I asked if she knew why I sent her back to her room that night. “Because you want me to practice taking refuge in myself,” she replied.

Because all of us, monastics as well as aspirants, live in one building, the sisters have the tendency to “stop by” your room anytime they want. Some also tend to “hang out” nearby or at a distance, looking at you with curious and affectionate eyes. Sometimes I return to my room late, feeling exhausted, and I see some young aspirants knocking on my window, waving and smiling!!! I have requested a couple of my mentees to memorize the sutra “Taking Refuge in the Island of Self.” They are to recite it to me by memory, to contemplate on this sutra, and to apply this teaching in their daily lives.

Having lived with the sisters and listened to their life stories, I understand more why some of them are prone to attachment. Many of them do not receive love or positive communication in their families and in their previous temples. Therefore, when they happen to meet a person who has some freshness and who spends time to take care of them, they want to attach themselves to that person. They want to attach their hearts, fragile and full of sadness, to a person they think they can trust. I see clearly that as older brothers and sisters, we must practice to nourish stability and space within ourselves, so that we can understand others more deeply with time, and so that our love entails no “hook” that others can “attach” to.

Background of Our Monastics

These past three weeks our dharma teachers have begun to interview the aspirants and visiting nuns who request to stay and practice with us. I also participate in these interviews to help assess their health condition. Each day, we use the working period, an afternoon activity, and the evening sitting session to conduct interviews. I have learned a great deal from these sessions.

There are sisters who are so innocent and pure; they want to become monastics because they have seen how beautiful the monastics can be in their fine manners, behavior, and speech. There are also those who come from unhappy families; their parents abuse and neglect each other, and the young people do not want to repeat this cycle of suffering. There is one girl who spent most of her tender years caring for a mother with mental illness, begging for food, working as a maid, and defending her mother and herself from perverse men. There are those who came to live in a temple when they were only three or four years old. Yet their faces are somber, their hearts closed off, because they have witnessed such division and abuse in their root temples.

Dear Thay, it is very painful to hear all of these stories and more. In his last minutes before the Buddha died, he was so compassionate as to ordain Subhadda as his last disciple and to advise the new monk to practice diligently towards liberation. Suddenly, I touch the immense love in your heart, and I understand why it pains you when we have to turn someone away from our practice center here—though our facilities are stretched beyond limit. Our environment of practice has the capacity to nourish and enliven the faith and aspiration in people. I sincerely hope that my brothers and sisters, monastic as well as lay, will come and help build true practicing communities in Vietnam.

Beloved Teacher, you are here in every second and every minute. You are the tea flowers emitting fragrance throughout the mountains and valleys. You are the stream that flows through all paths. Even though our center is newly established, with your wisdom of Sangha building, the support of the Buddha and the patriarchs, the wholehearted care of lay friends, and the diligent practice of our brothers and sisters, Prajna is growing quickly and tremendously  strong.

Every late afternoon during the exercise period, some of us practice martial arts, some weed the tea hillsides, and some jog along the creeks. Our sisters’ clear laughter intertwines with the luscious green of the mountains. A chanting voice is heard nearby:

Now that I have entered this holy place
I must use the sacred medicine to enlighten my spirit
before I go out again.

mb42-Fragrance2To you our deepest gratitude.
Brothers and sisters at Prajna Temple,

Dang Nghiem

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Dharma Talk: The Art of Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh

mb65-DharmaTalk1mb65-DharmaTalk2These questions and answers are from the 2013 retreats at Blue Cliff Monastery, Magnolia Grove Monastery, and Deer Park Monastery. For video and audio of the 2013 teaching tour, including Dharma talks and Q&A sessions, visit www.tnhaudio.org.

Q: Why do people have to suffer?

A: Thay is breathing in and out to allow the question to go deep in him before he offers an answer. Why do people have to suffer? Because suffering and happiness are part of life.

Suffering and happiness have to be together. This is a very deep teaching of the Buddha. It’s like the left and the right. If the left is there, the right must be there also, and if there is no left, there cannot be a right.

To grow lotus flowers, you need mud. Suffering is the mud and the lotus is happiness. The mud does not smell good, but the lotus flower smells very good. If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow a beautiful lotus. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can create happiness. We need some suffering in order to create happiness, but we already have enough suffering. We don’t need to create more.

If we know the art of suffering, we will suffer much less; we will suffer only a little, and we will use our mud to grow our lotus flowers. Suffering is useful because when you look deeply at suffering, you understand, and suddenly compassion and love are born in you. So suffering is not entirely negative. It is helpful, like the mud. I hope that schools will teach the art of how to make good use of suffering to create happiness.

When you grow vegetables organically, you don’t throw the garbage away. You make it into compost to nourish flowers and vegetables. It is the same with suffering. You transform suffering into compost that grows the flower of happiness.

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Q: If you had a chance to live your life again, would you choose the same path or would you like to experience a new life?

A: I believe that I am not living just one life, I am living many lives at the same time. I am living the life of a monk, but also I live the life of a tree, of a bird, of a person in society, because I am in touch. When we have a retreat like this, many friends come and share with us their suffering and their happiness. In that sharing, we live their lives. Your happiness becomes my happiness, your suffering is my suffering. And when we do walking meditation, we get in touch with trees and rivers and flowers. When we eat, we get in touch with the cosmos.

As monks, we have more time to enjoy life. If I have to take care of a family, paying rent, having a car, I have to work hard. Not much time is left for me to enjoy being with nature or other people. As a monk, I have time not only for myself, but for my community, my disciples, my friends, and I can offer them my energy, my teaching, my time. That is very satisfying because when you can help other people to suffer less and to be joyful, you are rewarded with joy and happiness. I believe that to practice as a monk is much easier than to practice as a layperson. I chose the easiest way. [Laughs.] So next life, I will continue as a monk.

Q: What is the hardest thing that you practice?

A: Not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by despair; that is the worst thing that can happen to you. When the war in Vietnam was going on, it seemed it would last forever. Young people asked, “Dear Thay, do you think that the war will end soon?”

It was very difficult to answer because if Thay said, “I don’t know,” then the seed of despair would be watered in them. So Thay had to breathe in and out a few times, and then say: “Dear friends, the Buddha said that everything is impermanent, so the war must be impermanent also. It will end someday. Let us continue to work for peace.”

During the war, we organized the School of Youth for Social Service, similar to the Peace Corps created by John F. Kennedy. We went into the war zone and helped wounded people, created refugee centers, and rebuilt villages that had been bombed. We gave people a chance to return to a normal life.

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There is a village not far from the military zone separating the north and south. It was bombed and completely destroyed, so we helped rebuild it. Then it was bombed and destroyed again. Our social workers asked whether they should rebuild it. We said, “Rebuild it.” We rebuilt it four times. We kept rebuilding because if you give up, it will create a feeling of despair.

The hardest thing is not to lose hope, not to give in to despair. Through two wars, we saw French soldiers come to kill and be killed, and young Americans come to kill and be killed. Fifty thousand young Americans were killed in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands were wounded, both physically and emotionally. In a situation of utmost suffering like that, we practice in such a way that we preserve our hope and our compassion. If we don’t have a practice, we cannot survive. When the journalists asked us how we felt about young Americans coming to kill and die in Vietnam, we said that we didn’t hate them because they were victims of a policy based on the fear that the communists would take over Southeast Asia.

In 1966, Thay was invited to come to America and talk to people about the war. There was a peace movement opposing the war in Vietnam, but as people demanded peace and did not get it, they got very angry. Thay told these groups, “If you have a lot of anger in you, you cannot achieve peace. You have to be peace before you can do peace. You need to know how to write a love letter to your president and your congress, to tell them that you don’t want the war. If you write a strong, angry letter, they will not read it.” Thay was able to help end the war in that way. If you understand suffering and can help compassion to be born in you, you will be free from despair and anger, and you can help the cause of peace.

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Q: How have you detached from your strongest attachments in life?

A: I think meditation can help. When you look at the object of your attachment, if you see it is bringing you happiness and joy and making people around you happy and joyful, there’s no reason to remove that attachment. If you notice that the object of your attachment brings suffering to you and to the world, that kind of enlightenment will help you detach from it.

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Q: I lost my only son, Jesse, on December 14th at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I struggle with that every day and I’ve had some pretty bad days. There’s no way to describe the suffering, the heartbreak. I keep thinking, what could have prevented what happened that day? It wasn’t an act of war, it wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t an illness. It happened for no reason, a horrendous act of violence and loss of lives. My question is, what could have prevented what happened that day? What changes can we all make to prevent suffering like that in the future?

A: I think that if we do not do something, that will happen again somewhere else in America and in other places. Young men or women will bring guns into school and shoot them. Your son is telling you and telling us that the person who did the killing was a victim. His parents and teachers did not instruct him how to handle the energy of violence and anger within him. When we look into a young person, we may see the possibilities of being loving and of being violent. Your son is telling us that we should do something to prevent that from happening again.

We should practice so we know how to handle the violence and anger in us. And we should transmit that practice to the younger generation. This is the purpose of these retreats: to learn how to be happy, how to handle our suffering, the violence, fear, and anger in us. Many of us are working with schoolteachers and parents to teach those skills, so they can transmit them to their students and children. I think your son is telling you to support us in this work. We have helped thousands of schoolteachers in India, America, and other countries. Governor Brown of California allowed us to experiment with this teaching in private schools in California. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to learn how to handle fear, violence, and despair in yourself, how to speak in a way that can restore communication and reconciliation. You don’t need to embrace a religion to practice this.

We suffer the same kind of suffering that you have experienced. But there is a way to suffer. With mindfulness and concentration and insight, we suffer less. The period of suffering might be shortened, and then we can develop our understanding and compassion. We can transform our suffering into something more positive and help other people, especially the younger generation.

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Q: Our daughter, Casey, was nineteen when she died from leukemia. I try very hard to remember that she is with me, that she is in every cell in my body. But still I feel waves of such deep sorrow and longing. I want to be with her. Is it possible to ever be truly happy again?

A: The other day we spoke about a cloud in the sky. When the cloud transforms herself into rain, it’s hard for you to recognize your cloud in the rain. You need to have the kind of eyes, the wisdom of signlessness, to recognize your beloved in her new form. But she is there. If you know how to look deeply, she is still with you. It is impossible for her to die. She just manifests herself in new forms. But we suffer if we can only recognize her in her old appearance. If we are open, if we can see our cloud in the rain, we can stop our suffering and we can restore our joy.

Before giving birth to me, my mother miscarried my older brother. When I was young, I often asked whether the boy she miscarried was me or another boy. It could have been me saying, “I don’t want to come out yet. I want to wait.” So maybe she really did not miscarry anyone.

One winter doing walking meditation, I saw many buds on a tree. It was warm at the time, so the buds came out beautifully. I said, “This new year, we will have flowers to decorate the Buddha’s altar.” If you cut a few branches to bring into the warmth, they will blossom. But before I could cut them, there was a wave of cold and all of them died. So I said, “This new year, we will have no flowers to decorate the Buddha’s altar.” But later it became warm again and new buds appeared on the branches. The old buds that seemed to have died had not really died. Life is stronger than death. Are the new buds the same or different from the old ones?

If we are mindful, if we are concentrated, we can recognize our beloved one right here and now in her new form. We can restore our joy and happiness. She is always here, but she may not be just one, she might be in two, three, four, or five forms. If you come and live a few months with us, you will recognize her in this monastery, and you will have three, four, or five daughters instead of one.

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Q: Honorable Thay, dear Sangha, I think that the influence you had on Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is undeniable; one year later, he gave an important statement against the war in Vietnam. I have a heavy heart seeing that fifty years later, the United States is on the brink of yet another military intervention, this time in Syria. If you were the president’s spiritual advisor, what would you tell him?

A: President Obama has his own Sangha, his advisors and ministers and party. He may see the wisdom in what I tell him, but he may not be able to follow it because he is not operating on his own, he has to operate as part of a group. You might believe that a person like the President of the United States has a lot of power and can do what he wants. That’s not true.

What I suggested to Dr. King is that we’ve got to have a Sangha that has a lot of understanding, compassion, and brotherhood. Then a war will not be possible because advisors, collaborators, friends, and supporters will see things in the light of understanding and compassion. I think President Obama tries to do his best. Sometimes he practices loving speech very well. We need loving speech, we need deep listening, but we also need the collective energy of a Sangha to support us. Otherwise you are under pressure to do what the collective consciousness wants. The country still has a lot of fear and anger and you operate on that collective energy.

To transform the way of thinking in the country spiritually, you begin with your group. You cultivate seeing with understanding and compassion. You change your thinking so you are capable of being together in harmony. Organizing retreats like this helps promote understanding, compassion, and harmony. This is helping the president and helping the country.

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Q: I work for the United Nations, in the department of peacekeeping operations, as a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration officer. I negotiate and prepare programs for combatants after conflict so they can transition to a civilian life. I spent the last month in Mogadishu and Somalia, mostly dealing with young men who are involved in armed groups. There are also groups such as Al-Qaeda asking them to join. People sometimes perceive this as a religious war, but I think they are appealing to very poor young people’s sense of being dispossessed. They have nothing and Al-Qaeda gives them something. They give them a little money, but they also offer for them to become a part of something. Even though it is a jihadi movement, the young people feel respected and perhaps feared; it is very hard to compete with that. How might we approach these young men? How might we design programs that convince them to put down their guns and join us in peace? We have so little means, and Al-Qaeda and others have more convincing arguments.

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A: Maybe we should begin by inviting some of them to come to a place where there are kind people, people who have compassion and understanding. These young people need to survive and they need some money, but one of the things we can show them is that you do not need a lot of money to live happily. Suppose they come to Plum Village and see that there is true brotherhood and sisterhood, and the feeling of being useful to society. There is the happiness that comes when you have compassion and understanding. They need to come and see for themselves. If some of them have a direct experience with this kind of living and serving, they will go back and tell the rest.

The practice of looking and listening to the suffering inside us and in the other person or group is very important. We can find ways to show them that not only we suffer, but the people we are about to punish suffer also. That is the practice of the precept regarding understanding suffering. You can recognize and understand the suffering in the world, even in the people you are told are your enemies or are representing evil. That kind of understanding of suffering will bring about compassion. Compassion helps us to suffer less. When you suffer less, you can help another person to suffer less. There must be a kind of strategy in order to really help people. Money is just a small part of it.

If you are surrounded by friends and co-workers who have the same kind of vision and understanding, you will succeed. You cannot do it alone. You have to have a Sangha behind you, supporting you, supplying you with the energy of understanding and compassion. Otherwise you will give up eventually. It is very important. If you want to do something, build a Sangha. If President Obama has a Sangha like that, he will be able to do a lot of good things. The same is true for all of us. If you want to achieve something in your life, you need a Sangha. The Buddha knew that. That is why after enlightenment, the first thing he did was to look for elements of a Sangha.

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Q: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve had much suffering, observing and participating with the consumption here at the retreat. Many of the products we’ve been using and eating are not of the highest integrity, two of which are the toilet paper––no recycled content––and the food, much of which is not organic. One example of extreme concern is the bananas we’ve been eating, from a company called Chiquita, that’s known to have participated in genocide in Central America until 1988. The people who perpetrated these crimes were never brought to justice: they’re still free, they’re still wealthy. Many of the products were bought from places like Wal-Mart, which are known for human rights abuses, especially in Southeast Asian countries where their manufacturing takes place. We’re living in a time of economic warfare, with manipulation of currency and easy money flowing to these companies. I have spoken with monastics who are doing purchasing. One brother said the Sangha is limited in resources and money, and potentially limited in options to source higher quality, ethical products. This is the most common answer given around the world: “I can’t afford to eat organic food or to support local farms.” Is that an excuse? What do we do?

A: It’s not exactly lack of money but lack of understanding and love. When we organize a retreat like this, something very positive happens. No one eats meat or drinks alcohol for six days in a row. No one tries to insult or say angry words to another person. Everyone is trying to restore peace in their body and their feelings. That is very good. If we do this, we have more peace, we have more loving kindness. Then it’s easier to change other things, like buying toilet paper that is less polluting.

I have seen ecologists who are very angry. There’s a lot of pollution in them––anger, impatience, hate, and violence. They cannot serve the cause of the environment with those kinds of energies. The activist should change himself first; he should have a lot of understanding and compassion in his way of thinking and speaking. Then instead of criticizing and demanding, he can begin to help.

We have to recognize that we are making a lot of progress on the path. We have been refraining from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products for many years. In the monastic community, no one has a bank account, no one has a private car, no one has a private home. Everyone is sharing; this is very positive. We have to recognize these positive things. The most difficult thing is to live happily as a Sangha. If you have that, everything positive will happen. Use your time and energy to build a happy Sangha with brotherhood and sisterhood.

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Q: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I am here with my daughter and my grandbaby. I am a new grandmother and my heart has gotten bigger and filled with so much love, and I feel a sacred responsibility to my grandchildren. I try to breathe and enjoy the beauty and the joy of these babies, and of this life, and of this world. I am also an activist and recently read your book, Love Letter to the Earth. The research on what is predicted for life on this planet is very painful, partly because I feel quite alone. I do take action and there are some positive changes happening, but I don’t feel like there are a lot of places where I can talk about this. I don’t want to be angry. I want to talk from my heart with others about how to make positive changes. How we can do that in the Sangha? It seems there is some attitude that talking about these things is too political or too social, and I feel alone in my suffering around this. Thank you.

A: Sangha building is very important work. Sangha means “harmonious community” and the main task of the Sangha is not to organize events; it is to build brotherhood and sisterhood. Through deep listening and loving speech, we should be able to communicate with each other easily, and as we share our ideas we can come to collective insight. Sitting in the Sangha you feel nourished, you feel stronger; that is real Sangha building. With a Sangha like that, everything is possible, because you don’t lose your hope.

In Sangha building we need a lot of patience, and patience is a mark of love. In Plum Village we spend a lot of time and energy building Sangha. We sit together, eat together, drink together, walk together, and share our ills and sorrow. We know that if we do not have enough harmony and happiness in our Sangha, it will not mean anything to get a lot of people to participate. Even a Buddha cannot do much without a Sangha. The Buddha was a perfect Sangha builder and spent a lot of time building his Sangha. It is not easy to build a Sangha, as the Buddha knew. But with compassion and patience, he was able to build a beautiful Sangha.

When the Buddha and King Prasenajit were both eighty, and were both traveling through the country, one day they happened to meet in the north. King Prasenajit praised the Buddha, saying, “Dear Teacher, every time I see the Sangha, I appreciate you more. I bow to you because you have such a beautiful Sangha. Once I went to a place with two carpenters who were your disciples. That night we slept in the same room and they turned their head to the direction they believed you were and they turned their feet toward me. They revered you more than they revered their king, so I know you are loved dearly by members of your Sangha.”

The Sangha is a jewel, and with a Sangha you can accomplish much in the world. With a happy Sangha, many people can come and take refuge and profit from the collective energy of peace and happiness and compassion and mindfulness.

With a Sangha like that, you can nourish your grandchildren. That is the safest place for your children. If our children are raised in such an environment, they will become instruments of peace. We have to believe that our children have Buddha nature; we need to focus our efforts on watering the seeds of love, compassion, and talent in them. We should offer our best to them, not worrying about the future. Invest all your energy into the present and nourish your children and grandchildren with the energy of hope, compassion, and insight.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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

To Meet My Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh

By Glenn Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodh Gaya Is Everywhere

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

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

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

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

An Open Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lamp in the Mountains

An Interview with Eileen Kiera

By Tracey Pickup

I first met Dharmacarya Eileen Kiera (True Lamp) at Deer Park Monastery when she was giving a Dharma talk. I found myself drawn in by her simple and illuminating presence and the intimate way that she spoke about the natural environment of the rural practice center, Mountain Lamp, where she lives in northern Washington. Since that time I have returned to Mountain Lamp regularly to practice with her, the Sangha, the trees, and the forest creatures. On a late February day with the snow falling on firs and cedars, we sat down to talk about her life of practice.

Tracey Pickup: How and why did you start your spiritual journey?

Eileen Kiera: I believe I always had a spiritual draw toward stillness and the beauty of nature. That led to my eventual career as an ecologist specializing in arctic/alpine ecology. I began my meditation practice while working in the Arctic, where there was the vast spaciousness and deep stillness of the place. Only the periodic call of a bird or whistle of the wind broke the silence. I spent hours sitting behind a spotting scope watching the nesting sites of the Black Brant, and other activity in the salt marshes I was studying. In the summer the sun never sets, and I would sit through the days of bright, white sunlight and the golden nights when the sun ran along the northern horizon.

TP: What inspired you to follow Thay in those early years?

EK: Thay feels like a being of love. And peace. He emanates that, even in the face of all that he and Sister Chan Khong went through in Vietnam. When he talked about what he had gone through in the war, I always asked myself, “What would I have done in that situation?” I was challenged by his example as well as moved by his love.

TP: Was there any memorable moment or interaction that illuminated that?

EK: There were many. When we were at KokoAn, Thay noticed a beautiful calligraphy by Zen master Hannya Gempo. We walked up to look at it, so Thay could read the characters. I stood one step behind him out of respect, but he stepped back to stand equal with me. He wouldn’t let me stand behind him. Through the years, he has consistently shown me great kindness. At the same time, he cut me no slack when I’ve done something wrong. He told me when I was being foolish. He helped me see and transform so many habit energies and for that, I am eternally grateful.

TP: What are the general principles that he would consider foolish?

EK: Excluding other people, jealousy, competition, arguing, and picking and choosing who you did and did not want to associate with.

TP: What did you learn from being with him?

EK: I’ve learned to let go and to look with the eyes of love.

TP: You sought and found instruction in meditation. Why was it important to have teachers in your life? Couldn’t you have found this by seeking on your own?

EK: I couldn’t have. I continually get too caught in myself and my ideas and my constructs. I need a form and a teacher to challenge me to let those ideas, constructs, viewpoints, and attachments go.

TP: And by letting go of those attachments, what happened?

EK: Many layers of personality have fallen away, bit by bit, over the years. I feel more free, and in that freedom, there is a sense of peace and the connection that love gives.

TP: For most of your life you have been struggling with chronic celiac disease. How did you practice with the pain and the impact it had on you?

EK: I was sick without knowing why for many years. Before I was diagnosed, my practice allowed me to rest, and to transform personal pain and losses, kind of on a moment-by-moment basis—I didn’t know why life was so difficult, but practice allowed me to be there with whatever came. After I was diagnosed, and I under stood my difficulties better, my practice helped me to grieve and accept the losses. Mostly, however, celiac disease strengthened my determination and intention in practice.

TP: How did you touch that intention when you were so sick?

EK: When I was most sick, shortly before diagnosis, I couldn’t sustain a sitting meditation practice. I didn’t have the energy to sit upright for any amount of time, but I could practice when I took a step from the bed. I could be completely there in that step. That’s what became my practice—just this breath, just this step. I couldn’t do what I thought of as practice, ideas like “now I do twenty-five minutes of sitting meditation,” or “now I need to go on a retreat.” I couldn’t do any of that. I could just take this step. It was really very helpful. My intention to practice became really strong. When I got diagnosed and began the journey back to health, that deep aspiration and strength of intention carried me through other ob­stacles. I knew I could practice with any circumstances: healthy or not healthy, living or dying, with suffering or with joy. Fewer things got in the way of being mindful.

TP: Do you find you still carry that same intention?

EK: Of course it has changed now, but yes. It kept my practice alive and constant through working in the world, raising a daughter, being with my father over the years of his illness and death. It was also the wellspring that gave rise to the vision of Mountain Lamp.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, Eileen Kiera, Jack Duggy, and Sangha at a retreat held by Aitken Roshi (seated beside That), KokoAn Zendo, Honolulu, Hawaii, November 1985

TP: In addition to supporting local Sanghas, working with stu­dents to deepen their practice, and leading retreats both here and in other countries, you are also developing a rural practice center in Washington for laypeople called Mountain Lamp. What gave you the inspiration to do this and why do you think it is important?

EK: A lot of it came from Jack and I wanting a lifestyle we came to know at KokoAn and Plum Village. We wanted to live in com­munity, to have people to sit with and walk with, and to have the support of others in practice. We knew there were some things that were essential for practice—having a spiritual home, having a teacher, having a Sangha that shares an ethical basis of precepts and mindfulness trainings. So the aspiration is to create a life of practice that has the potential to support other laypeople and create community—a spiritual home for many people.

Photo by Dzung Vo

TP: What is happening with the community of Mountain Lamp right now?

EK: We have a daily schedule of sitting meditation in the morn­ing, followed by breakfast in community and a period of work meditation. There are regular Days of Mindfulness and an annual one-month retreat. People come for personal retreats, and some people stay longer as residents.

In addition, my husband is a teacher in the lineage of Aitken Roshi. We hold Zen sesshin at Mountain Lamp as well as mind­fulness retreats. In some things, Jack and I co-teach, but mostly we keep the forms of the traditions pure in their own right. Ad­ditionally there are Sangha-led events, like Days of Mindfulness, Buddha’s birthday, and the annual harvest festival.

Over the years, we’ve welcomed Sister Jina, Sister Annabel, Thay Phap Dung, and Thay Phap Tri to teach and lead the com­munity in practice. We were grateful to have two brothers from Deer Park, Brother Phap Ho and Brother Phap De, lead a Day of Mindfulness at Mountain Lamp in May. In the years to come, we look forward to many more visits from our monastic brothers and sisters.

We are moving toward a more structured schedule with the awareness that as laypeople we need to work, and we have commitments outside of Mountain Lamp. We live together in an atmosphere of trust that we are together for the same purpose—to support each other and offer joy in practice.

More information about Mountain Lamp can be found at www.mountainlamp.org.

Tracey Pickup, True Fragrant Field, started the Wild Rose Sangha (www.wildrosesangha.ca) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and is currently residing at Mountain Lamp as the Temple Keeper.

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