From Soldier to Buddhist Monk

Brother Phap Uyen shares his path of practice

from Brother Phap Uyen’s writings and an interview by Sister Steadiness

My mom and I met Thay at a retreat in Redlands, California in 1989. I took the five mindfulness trainings and received the name Tam Houng,

Strength of the Heart. Two years later I joined the military. I was seventeen and a half and I didn’t really practice the five mindfulness trainings. Though my friends didn’t understand why I went into the military, it was my way of repaying the American servicemen that came to Vietnam and gave their lives so that I could come to the United States when I was two and have a better chance for education and a better way of living.

mb34-From1

Entering Monastic Life

After coming home from the military and getting married I worked long hours every day because it helped me not to think about the problems I was having. Soon after Deer Park Monastery opened, my mom sent me there for two and half months to relax and try to change this habit.

My step dad and I had a hard time communicating when I was growing up. He went to Plum Village for the 2001 winter retreat, and when he returned we started trying to improve our communication. He suggested I go to Plum Village, so I went in the spring of 2002. I had fun during the Francophone retreat and the Vietnamese retreat. I started spending more and more time with the brothers.

I was planning to stay for the summer retreat and then return to the U.S. to start Chinese medicine school. After being trained to kill people in the military, I realized that I would rather use my hands to help heal people than use my hands to hurt people. I went to school for massage therapy and I wanted to study Chinese medicine as well. But when Thay’s Dharma talks started sinking in, I began to realize that if I became a monastic then I could help heal people’s mental problems or problems within themselves.

I wrote my letter requesting to be a monastic about two weeks before my ordination. I called my mom and when she heard that I was getting ordained she was very happy. She and my step dad, my sister, and my grandma came to Plum Village for my ordination, which made me very happy. My mom said, “If you love me then you will always take care of yourself and I hope being a monastic will make you happy.” Every time my mom calls me she asks, “Are you happy?”

Military  Training

It was January of 1992. I had just arrived at the Naval Recruit Training Center. It was 0200 hours. We were all tired, but there was a drill instructor yelling and screaming at us. We were up until 0400 hours filling out papers, being put into companies, and finding out where we would be staying while we were being processed. We arrived at our barracks at 0415 hours and at 0530 hours a drill instructor came in banging on a metal trashcan to wake us up. We were the low-life of the military; we had not yet earned the right to be called sailors.

We had three months of training to learn to go into full combat situations with firing practice and live rounds. We had biological weapons classes and had to go through the gas chamber without our gas masks on. We also studied firefighting. Putting our lives in the hands of one another really united us. It broke our habit of being individuals and taught us to work together to achieve our goals.

After graduation from basic training I went to SEALS Training School. SEALS stands for Sea, Air, and Land. I enjoyed my time in the SEALS Training Program. I was in the best physical shape of my life. But there was something missing. I was getting physically stronger, but I was also becoming a non-human being. I was trained to do one thing: to kill and ask questions later. We were taught many ways to get into enemy lines undetected, blow things up, and neutralize targets and people. So when I was almost through with my training I reported that I wanted to leave.

During my SEALS training we would run, swim, and learn to paddle inflatable boats against the waves.  We did a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, and ran five miles a day in the sand carrying eighty-pound packs. We studied first aid, hand-to-hand combat, a martial art called ninjitsu, firing different guns, blowing things up with explosives, and learning to make our own bombs. We learned how to use special weapons like machine guns, handguns, and knives. We were trained to kill people without them making a sound. We learned different joint locks and pressure points, how to jump out of planes, free fall sky diving, face first rappelling, map reading, how to communicate using military sign language, and how to disarm missiles, rockets, and bombs. We went through a survival program twenty-one day exer cise, where we were supposed to rescue a helicopter unit that had crashed on an island. Our instructors played the enemies. If we were caught we would become prisoners of war.  They would torture us by hitting us with sticks, put bamboo sticks in between our fingers and squeeze them together, give us electric shock treatment, starve us, or lock us in small cages.  They would try to get information from us, like where our command post was, which person was in command of the operation, or our mission briefing information. If our focus was strong then we would state our rank, our military branch, and our social security number, repeating this until we passed out. We were graded on this exercise and our leadership abilities as part of our graduation requirements.

In the last part of our training we went through hell week where we stayed up for the whole week, taking vitamins to help stay awake. To test our leadership abilities, we were put in a combat environment with guns and grenades exploding everywhere. We were trained to always rescue our fallen comrades and bring them home with us.

After making it through hell week, I had two weeks left of training before graduation. But instead I left. I saw that a lot of my friends were becoming meaner and more aggressive. It felt as if we had a switch that we could flip to change from being a nice person to a very dangerous, killing machine. Sometimes I saw that the switch could get stuck and we could not change back into a nice person. I felt like a wild animal because all I was doing was being trained to kill. Usually a SEALS class starts with about 300 to 500 people, but only ten to fifteen people graduate. I would have graduated at the top of my class.

Comparing Monastic Life to Military Life

The military and the monastic life are similar in some ways. In the military we woke up at five in the morning. In monastic life we also wake up at five o’clock to do sitting meditation. It helps us to concentrate and to reflect on ourselves. That is what I spend a lot of my time doing. In the military we didn’t have time for self-reflection because we were always busy.

As monastics we have time to rest. We do walking meditation, which I enjoy. We study our fine manners and our ten novice precepts.1 One of the most important things we do in Upper Hamlet is to build brotherhood. We also have a novice council. We talk with the elder brothers and decide what we want to do as novices. That way we have a say. When I was in the military we didn’t have a say in anything. The officers of the unit would just tell the lower ranks what to do.

Transforming  Unwholesome  Habits and Anger

I picked up some bad habits while I was in the service, like drinking and smoking, which I now have given up. A lot of special services people engage in unwholesome things like drinking, having casual sexual relationships, gambling, and spending money. Instead of living our lives to the fullest, knowing that we might not be around the next day, we did these things to forget and to not feel.

After I left the military my life was not good. I saw that I was losing some of my human qualities. Since I didn’t get along with my father, I didn’t go home. I hung around with some people that weren’t very nice. Some of those people still write to me, but I don’t respond to them like I do to other friends.

Military life is very aggressive. When I was in the military we were taught to react first and ask questions later. For example, if we had a problem with somebody else we wouldn’t talk to that person. Usually we would go to the bottom of the ship at night and fight it out until only one person was left standing. Other people would come down and watch the fight.

Even though I am a monastic now, still sometimes that energy of anger arises in me.  When that happens, I try to come back to my breathing.  I know that I shouldn’t say anything when I am angry. Instead, I do walking meditation or I go back to my room, make some tea, light some candles and incense and just sit there and enjoy the tea, looking out my window. Now I can control my temper much better. That is a big change for me. Another practice that I like is Beginning Anew. Every night before I go to bed I light some incense and candles on the altar in my room and I practice Beginning Anew from our Plum Village chanting book. I begin with the incense offering and go through the whole ceremony. In it, you repent for things that you have done wrong in the past, not just in this lifetime but for countless lifetimes before.  You want to be brand new again.  I also do Touching the Earth, which has helped me release a lot of anger and resentment towards a lot of things that have happened in the past between me and my family.2 It is also a big help to have supportive brothers and sisters, and my mentor who I can always talk to and ask for help.

mb34-From2

Practicing with Physical Pain

One difficulty I have struggled with is that my knee, my ankles, and my back are pretty messed up due to the violent nature of my military and martial arts training. When I was younger I never thought about the effects that this training would have on my body. When I was training in martial arts, my instructor would make us break bricks and wooden boards with our bodies.  As you advance in rank you can’t just punch the board or chop the brick with your hands, you have to use different parts of your body. I would always use my legs, since they were the strongest part of my body. That is why my knees are pretty messed up.

In addition, the bones on both sides of my vertebrae are cracked, so often it hurts a lot, especially at night when I sleep. I can get up in the morning to go to sitting meditation, but it hurts. Also I don’t want to disturb my brothers when they are sitting in meditation so I just sit in my room.

As monastics one of the main things we do is sit in meditation. Since I can’t sit very long, I feel isolated from the Sangha in some ways. But Thay Abbot, my mentor, has encouraged me to sit with the whole Sangha. If I can’t sit for the duration, he said to just sit for half the time and then do walking meditation. Or he suggested that when everybody else is sitting, that I do walking meditation instead of staying in my room. That is why I like to go for long walks as my way of doing meditation. I practice to embrace my pain when it is there. I am also aware that my pain is not always here; I can run; I can play volleyball too.

My Relationship with My Mentor

I can talk with my mentor, Brother Nguyen Hai (Thay Abbot), about problems that I am having or about problems with any of the brothers. I ask him for suggestions on how I can help build brotherhood between the Western brothers and the Vietnamese brothers. He is very understanding about the problem with my back.

I am also his attendant. It is a great opportunity for me because it helps me focus on the practice. When I walk with him it is like walking with my teacher and I am mindful of my steps and aware of what I am doing. He told me that I still need to learn to walk in a gentler way, because from the military I developed a strong way of walking.

Facing Another Challenge

During winter retreat one of my close friends came to visit. She’s been a practitioner of Plum Village for a long time. It was a little hard to be with her now that I am a monastic. During the holiday season she asked to give me a hug. I went over and asked my mentor and he said, I guess she can hug you, but it would be best if she didn’t. So I asked him to come and stand next to us while she gave me a hug.

She kept forgetting that I am a monastic now, so while we were walking together she would try to hold onto my robe. I would have to remind her not to do this. The feelings that came up in me were there for a couple of weeks after she left. Talking to my mentor and reflecting on my life I see that I care for her still, but my love for her is not romantic now. As Thay has said, we are human beings so sometimes that energy still arises and we have to know how to take care of it. I have talked to my mentor about it a lot.

Re-establishing  Communication with my Dad

One of the biggest things that happened for me as a monastic is that I wrote a letter to my real dad in Arizona. It was the first letter I have ever written him. It has been really hard for us to communicate because he is a very traditional Vietnamese and he has a hot temper. That is probably where I get my temper. I have been trying to keep in contact with him because I know that my dad and his side of the family are suffering a lot. My dad is the eldest son in the family, which makes me the eldest grandson and I am the one who is supposed to carry on the family line. But now that I am a monastic that is not happening. My only sibling is my sister and my only child is a daughter, so I have no descendants that carry the family name. I know that has hurt my father. I try to explain that I have become a monastic because I don’t want to be a monster of society anymore; I want to help people and their suffering, and first I have to help myself.

It was very hard for me to talk to my dad because he regarded his viewpoint as the best one and he didn’t listen to what I said. In Asian culture when the grown-ups talk the children are expected to just go out and play. In the past when I tried to talk to my dad we would begin arguing after five minutes because we didn’t understand each other. But slowly that has changed. I call my dad every once in a while and ask how he is doing, and I tell him about my happiness. I don’t preach to him because I know a lot of my family members on my father’s side don’t have a strong faith in the church or in the Buddhist religion. Being Vietnamese, since we were small my grandma took us to the temple, so we say that we are Buddhist but a lot of my father’s family doesn’t have energy or faith in the practice. My mom has said that my being a monastic can hopefully change that energy on my dad’s side of the family.

My Relationship with My Daughter

My daughter’s mother and I divorced when my daughter was less than a year old due to our cultural differences. Her mother is Catholic and Hispanic and I am Buddhist and Vietnamese. We didn’t understand each other so it was really hard for us. When my daughter was born I was working and going to school at the same time. I would get home at eleven o’clock at night. As soon as my key touched the lock my daughter would wake up. I would play with her and she would smile. When we divorced my ex-wife moved to another city with my daughter, so I didn’t get to see her very often. Before I became a monastic I sold a car and set aside that money to pay my daughter’s child support. My sister and other relatives offered to help visit and take care of my daughter so I could become a monastic.

mb34-From3

My mom is coming to Plum Village this summer and she will try to bring my daughter with her. In some ways I feel that being a monastic is the best way that I can help my daughter. I would rather be fully present for her one month of the year than to be around her twelve months out of the year and not truly be present for her.

Serving in Kuwait / The Suffering of War

I was in Kuwait from June to December of 1992. I now see that we were over there not because of the suffering of the people of Kuwait, but for the oil. I have met a lot of Iraqi people. They are great people, some are very friendly. Yet I also remember meeting some Iraqi villagers that were very hostile towards us American soldiers, and I couldn’t understand why. I thought we were trying to help them end the suffering that their government was causing them. I now know that they might have rather put up with the treatment from their government than have us come and cause more suffering.

In 1985 the United States sold biological weapons to Iraq. Iraq then attacked us in the Gulf War with our own weapons. A violent act towards others will bring a violent act towards you. So when the United States attacked Iraq during the Gulf War it helped September 11th to manifest for the United States. And when Iraq attacked the United States they were also causing suffering for their own people. They launched biological weapons into the air, which infected the Iraqi people and their food as well as their enemies. That is a big price to pay for oil and holding onto a point of view.

The biological weapons used in Kuwait on the United States service people affected some of my friends. The United States won’t admit that some of us contracted this illness, called Desert Storm Syndrome. I have two friends that have severe problems.

One is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. Two weeks after returning from Kuwait he lost forty pounds and experiences a burning sensation inside his body. His wife told me that he may have only two years before he continues in a new manifestation. He is only twenty-eight years old.

Another friend is also a sergeant in the Marine Corps. She has burning, red spots on her skin that break open and leak yellow pus. The doctors have given her some experimental medicine, but it is not helping. She is having problems with her boyfriend because she can no longer have a child. She is suffering a lot. She feels very alone now. I told her that she is never alone. She always has her parents, herself, and her close friends to help her and that we will always be by her side.

Insights From the War

When I look back on being a soldier, I see that we do protect the freedom of our country. But we must also protect the freedom of all other people and things. We shouldn’t see ourselves as higher or better than anyone else. All of us have come to be what we are due to a lot of things. The rich are not separate from the poor, the just from the unjust, the first world from the third world countries. We are like this because they are like that; they are like that because we are like this. To protect and support ourselves, we have to protect and support others. We are made of each other. We are each other. We experience the same suffering of violence, fear, anger, hatred, and discrimination. My experience in Kuwait taught me that much.

I believe that if our president and political leaders were the ones leading us into battle, putting their own lives on the line, then they would think more carefully before they go to war. They would have seen first-hand, for example, the suffering and destruction that happened when our missiles went off target and wiped out small towns.

I believe instead of fighting each other we should work together to end poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and homelessness. We should educate the children, care for the sick and old, and work towards peace for the world instead of fighting over oil, which doesn’t really belong to anyone except the cosmos. We cannot take oil with us when we die. We fight so hard for oil because we are greedy and fixed in our own point of view. Instead we need to focus on what is actually worth working for: peace and harmony in the world.

Serving as a Monastic / Helping Others

My martial arts training has helped me come back to myself. I don’t practice the styles that I learned in the military because they can easily make a person become violent. Now I practice tai chi and aikido to become centered. I am beginning to share this practice with the Sangha. I also learned how to cook in the military, and now I cook and bake cakes for the Sangha.

mb34-From4

I am very interested in helping teenagers. When I got out of the military, I thought about becoming a teacher. I see that if we help the younger generation to build their wholesome seeds then we don’t need to be afraid. But if we help them to water their negative or harmful seeds then we have a lot to worry about because they are going to be our future leaders.

It brings me great joy, especially during summer retreat, to help Vietnamese teenagers. Even though I am twenty-nine years old I am still young, and at the same time, I have had a lot of life experience. I have been through the military, I have been married twice, I have a seven year-old daughter, and I have lived on my own. Many young people think that their parents are old and don’t understand what they are going through. They think they want to get away from their parents and live on their own, but they don’t understand what it is like to live on their own. Hopefully, by sharing my experience they can understand both the positive and negative sides of leaving home.

I know that I have a lot of transforming to do. A lot of people joke about my name, Dharma Garden. I asked Thay one day when I was his attendant, why Dharma Garden? He said, because you have a lot of seeds in you, both wholesome and unwholesome. As the gardener you have to transform the unwholesome seeds.

My Joy as a Monk

My biggest joy as a monk is being around Thay and my brothers and sisters. Sometimes I am sad about what is going on around me, because occasionally my brothers and sisters don’t act as I expect them to. But I am reminded by my elders in Upper Hamlet that just because we are monastics, we’re not saints, and we all have shortcomings. Sometimes I get discouraged because a brother might talk to me a bit harshly. But, if I truly care about that brother I will find out why he is acting that way. Often it is just because he is tired or has something on his mind.

One of my joys is offering massages to my brothers. Sometimes a brother will ask me why I don’t get tired, giving so many massages. But I don’t feel tired because doing this helps me connect to the brother that I am massaging. When we massage Thay, we follow Thay’s breath, and that is how I massage my brothers. Sometimes when I massage my mentor and I am not following my breath he will stop me and say, “What are you thinking about?” And I become aware that I am not totally focused on what I am doing.

Another joy is drinking tea with my brothers. Every day it is busy in my room because all the brothers stop by and we drink tea, we laugh and play. My room is like grand central station for the brothers before they go to other activities in Upper Hamlet. It is a real joy to have my brothers around.

Brother Chan Phap Uyen, True Dharma Garden, ordained as a monk in 2002 and lives in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Sister Chan Thuong Nghiem (Sister Steadiness), is a nun in Plum Village.

(Endnotes)

  1. To read the ten novice precepts and the forty-nine chapters of fine manners for novices see Stepping into Freedom by Thich Nhat Hanh.
  2. See article in the Mindfulness Bell 33 about “Touching the Earth” practice and A text of Touching the Earth is also in the Plum Village Chanting Book (Berkeley: Parallax, 1999.)

PDF of this article

An Explosion of Grace

The First Retreat for Young People at Plum Village

By Susan Rooke

mb41-AnExplosion1

Thay has often spoken of the tragic situation in France, where thirty-three young people commit suicide every day. He has asked us, “What are we doing today for those who are going to kill themselves tomorrow or the day after?”

A year ago, Anne-Marie Ascencio, a French member of the Order of Interbeing, shared with Sister Chan Khong her dream of initiating a retreat for young people run by the fourfold Sangha at Plum Village. Her idea was received with enthusiasm, so a small group of young monastics and members of the French OI organized, over the Internet, the first young persons’ retreat in Plum Village. It was held during the last week of June 2005 at the Middle Hamlet and thirty-two young people came, ages thirteen to twenty-six. Of the twenty staff members, there were five monks, three lay Plum Village residents and seven members of the French OI. A group of young nuns and aspirants visited and offered daily support.

We divided into three families, one of which was English-speaking. We had planned to include only French speakers to avoid translation problems, but retreatants took turns translating for friends, and the international flavor was a bonus.

This was a typical day:
6:00  Wake up; exercise with bamboo poles, or yoga
7:30  Sitting meditation
8:00  Breakfast; working meditation; questions & answers with monks and nuns
11:00 Free time
12:00 Lunch
14:30 Sharing in families
16:30 Creative workshops (drawing, painting, writing, calligraphy, collage, dance, music…)
18:00 Dinner
20:00 Deep relaxation; evening activity 22:00 Noble silence
23:00 Lights out

The creative workshops were new for Plum Village. A nun gave a dance workshop under the trees, the music offered spontaneously by two young people. An array of paints, brushes, pencils, and paper was provided in the painting area, along with piles of old magazines for collages. On the dining veranda a large white wall displayed the creative works as they were made; before long the veranda was decorated with paintings, poems, and calligraphy. Retreatants were encouraged to create spontaneously, in a relaxed, non-academic way, working on pieces alone or in groups.

mb41-AnExplosion2

One evening we participated in a percussion workshop, creating rhythms on drums, saucepans, wash bowls, bells, wooden spoons, and blocks of wood. Another evening, around a bonfire we enjoyed pancakes cooked by a group of young retreatants as a gift to the community.

mb41-AnExplosion3

The practice was offered in formal and informal ways. Youngsters were taught sitting and walking meditation, stopping and listening to the bell, and eating in silence. The informal teaching was also important: a long conversation with a monk over a cup of hot chocolate; visiting together around a group painting; talking and really listening to each other. This atmosphere of freedom and peace was created with a minimum of structure so the young people had a safe space to talk, be creative, make music, or just be together.

mb41-AnExplosion4

During the week, Thay gave two teachings that were attended by the Plum Village community and a question and answer session for the young people. Appreciative of this special opportunity, the young people asked good questions about violence, anger, and monastic life. Thay finished the session asking the young people to continue the spirit of the retreat by forming a “committee of the heart.” This new committee will operate over the Internet. For information about future retreats, keep an eye on the Plum Village Web site.

mb41-AnExplosion5

The ultimate expression of gratitude for this wonderful retreat came on the last evening, when fifty of us practiced Beginning Anew. Seated under the oak trees, with the evening light fading, we shared the transformations of the past six days. A younger and elder brother reconciled with deep, loving words and a hug. Many shared long-hidden, hurt feelings, brought into this compassionate space to be held gently, listened to, and respected. Finding understanding, forgiveness, and healing. Heard over and over: “This has been the best week of my life.”

mb41-AnExplosion6

On the first day, the young people arrived anxious, fearful, and stressed from school exams and the pace of city life. They were noisy and talked a lot. It was a joy to watch their faces transform; to see their shy smiles and hear their laughter; to enjoy the noble silence becoming more silent; to hear their language become more gentle. For the sake of the young people, and for our sake, I hope others will organize young persons’ retreats all over the world.

Susan Rooke, True Joyful Stream, lives in the foothills of the French Alps.

PDF of this article

Healing in Vietnam

mb45-Healing3

In early 2007 Thich Nhat Hanh led a ninety-day pilgrimage to Vietnam. Fifty monks and nuns from the monasteries in the U.S. and France accompanied him, along with a hundred lay Westerners, in each of four three-week segments. On this second historic visit to his homeland, Thay was also accompanied by Vietnamese monks and nuns numbering in the hundreds, from the three monasteries in Vietnam that practice in the tradition of Plum Village.

As of this writing, Thay has offered two Great Ceremonies of Healing, also called Grand Requiem Masses, for the souls of those who perished during the Vietnam War. Never before has Vietnam seen such ceremonies. In the first ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City, as many as ten thousand people participated.

Here are writings and photos from two lay participants. David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, recently retired after eighteen years working in public health on Indian reservations in the southwestern U.S. He now practices with the Organic Garden and Ripening Sanghas in southern California. Madeline Dangerfield-Cha from Cleveland, Ohio, will enter Columbia University next fall; she has four half-brothers and one half-sister under the age of seven. Look for more about this historic trip in the next issue of the Mindfulness Bell, and view additional photos by David Nelson at www.flickr.com/photos/rezdog/. Hear Dharma talks and interviews from the Vietnam trip at www.dpcast.org.

mb45-Healing1

mb45-Healing2

Arrival Day in Ho Chi Minh City

At the Quang Duc Temple, there was a great welcoming ceremony for Thay and the sangha. After a long formal procession, Touching the Earth was offered to the temple’s venerables for a long life to the patriarch that may continue to benefit many. The most venerable offered warm greetings and wishes for a successful trip. Next we took buses to An Quang temple. Thay shared that at this temple he became a Dharma teacher, giving hundreds of Dharma talks in that hall. Afterwards our procession slowly passed by smiling and bowing crowds and made its way to a most delicious Vietnamese feast. We dined to the sounds of up-beat popular music. That night at Phap Van, Thay gave his first talk of the trip. We in the lay sangha were fortunate to witness the talk from directly behind Thay, and to see the faces in the audience. Thay encouraged us to practice coming back to our breath as taught by the Buddha in the Anapanasati Sutra on mindful breathing. [Read part of this Dharma talk on page 4.]

—David Nelson

All photos in this section by David Nelson and Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

mb45-Healing4

Thousands on a Few Green Acres

The five-day lay retreat at Prajna Temple near Bao Loc was a wonderful gift. I hardly expected such intense practice! And so many people! Upwards of seven thousand Vietnamese retreatants came. You’d think it would be chaos, thousands of people on a few green acres. How on earth could seven thousand people remain meditative and quiet for five days in 90-degree heat? But these people are truly devoted: three thousand could cram into the meditation hall for Thay’s Dharma talks, the rest sprawling on the steps and lawn outside. Thay was so inspiring, so down to earth.

mb45-Healing5

For Dharma discussion, I was lucky enough to be included in a bilingual, multi-cultural, youth exchange extravaganza! A large group of monks, nuns, Vietnamese, and young Westerners, we discussed our experiences and challenges. The Vietnamese young people were slow to share, really hesitant, since “sharing,” they explained, is not a part of their culture. Yet after just a few minutes on the first day they began to share their suffering so we could join their journey. We played high energy games and goofy challenges. Everyone could shout and laugh, Vietnamese or English!

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

mb45-Healing6

Jungle School Adventure

Ha! I can’t even begin to describe the joy from yesterday’s adventure! The plan for the day was to visit schools in the central highlands around Bao Loc. Plum Village funds the construction, staff, and supplies of over a thousand schools in the whole of Vietnam, a million-dollar charity organization. Yesterday, we visited nine of them, real schools with real kids and real teachers. Just single room, no-frills buildings. Some have desks, some have chalkboards. No books, no toys. But they’re clean, and they’re built! The kids get one well-rounded, nutritious meal per day. Our first stop was a tribal village where most of the inhabitants spoke the local dialect. I played tag with more than forty six- and seven-year-olds. I felt like I was playing with my little brothers. You should have seen their smiles!

But the real adventure began in the jungle. No more plumbing, no more pavement, no more cars of any kind. A nun turned to me and said, “You know, this road gets completely unpassable when it rains. Turns into nothing but mud. The tires can’t move at all. Hey, look it’s raining in the distance!” It did rain cats and dogs — torrential, tropical, southeast-Asian rain, for thirty-five minutes. We were completely frozen, stuck in a muddy river the whole time, twelve of us tucked in our little monastic van. We passed around boiled peanuts and rice cakes and purified water. It was a beautiful storm, like a fever breaking, as the heat and humidity dropped.

mb45-Healing7

As soon as the rain slowed, Sister Chan Khong (the one and only! this woman has lived!) said “Alright, let’s go. The kids are waiting for us!” Our poor driver got us as far as he could, which was about a kilometer down the road. We left the other two vans behind. Sister said, “Can’t drive any further. We walk!” and jumped out of the van. The sky had cleared by this time, and all the dusty vegetation had been rinsed clean and was glowing with color. Muddy red earth, big gray sky.

mb45-Healing8

The walk was long and sticky. I almost lost a shoe at one point, so ended up barefoot in red mud — cool and fresh. Local kids in blue and red uniforms whizzed by us on motorbikes. A man on a motorbike stopped by, asking us if we needed a hand. Sister Chan Khong was all about it! This seventy-year old Vietnamese rock star just tucked up her robes and was off.

mb45-Healing9

The rest of us walked up and down muddy hills through the brush. Coffee plants taller than men. Little kids joining us, then peeling off on tiny paths, presumably to their homes hidden among the plantlife and mist.

At the school, since we couldn’t bring the gifts, a few people offered crackers. Someone had a brick of cheese. We dumped what we had into a cone hat and passed it around to the children, who ate with joy. In one of the poorest areas that Plum Village supports, these people are happy, functioning. They don’t need plumbing or cars in order to live.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

mb45-Healing10

Powerful and Jubilant Alms Round

In Bao Loc today, the alms round led by Thay in a black Highlander — the Buddha-mobile — was powerful, jubilant! Two thousand monks and nuns passed through streets mobbed by old women, children, and families offering toothpaste, medicine, sweet treats, yogurt, fruit, and the traditional boiled rice wrapped in a banana leaf with sesame salt. The Western lay delegation stood on the sidelines with Vietnamese locals; we helped collect the unbelievable excess of food, stuffing it into army sacks for later donations.

Playing with small children, we had our pictures taken by the locals, who love taking photos of us. My friends Brant and Ray are both six feet four inches — giants here in Asia. People run up to them and measure themselves, waving their hands over their heads and matching them up with the middle of Brant’s forearm. It’s hilarious.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

mb45-Healing11

The First Great Requiem Ceremony

Thich Nhat Hanh declares during his Dharma talk at Vinh Nghiem Temple on this second day of ceremony that we will continue to open the throats of hungry ghosts. Along with powerful chants led by a chant master specializing in inviting spirits, the souls of those who died during the war, whether as heroes, in prison, of sickness, on land or sea, will be purified by the compassion and energy of the Dharma.

Day two begins with chants from the discourse on love, to detach the souls from the bodies. Everyone is requested to bring themselves wholeheartedly into the chants and not disturb the energy by moving around and taking pictures. First there is the Beginning Anew gatha of forgiveness, lightness and freedom. From the depths of understanding, with great emotion and steadfastness, the chants roar and pulsate throughout this huge temple. In the afternoon there is chanting to invoke the presence of the Medicine King, a previous incarnation of the Buddha. Led by the chant master, local traditional chants flow like a mighty river of heart-felt sound, non-stop for nearly two hours, echoing inside and outside among thousands in the courtyard. So many thousands of voices giving energy to the healing! Thay declares that as Beginning Anew transforms our hearts and those of the loved ones departed, the nightmare of the Vietnam War is over. The squash and the pumpkin co-exist peacefully on the same vine.

In the evening we in the lay sangha are amazed to become part of the lotus lamp ceremony. The procession line forms, with colorful umbrellas, flags, and other ceremonial poles. I stand near the beginning with my palms together to show respect to the monastics as they file by. As Thay arrives, looking over at me, he smiles. Raising his hand, he waves, wiggling his fingers in a cute gesture. I return the wave and smile. As our lay sangha follows, filing through a narrow opening, we pass shrines and a wishing well altar. The people offer us lotus bows and big smiles.

This evening is lit with spotlights, colored lanterns, the booming sounds of a big drum, cymbals, and bells, accompanying chants from the monastics and crowd. After a half-hour of waiting, our line is ushered quickly past attendants who offer us hand-made paper lotuses containing candles. Circling the temple, we glow, a beautiful candle-lit lane awaiting the chant master. More monastics, an entourage of musicians and traditionally dressed young women pass, smiling. We follow them to the Saigon River behind the temple, passing by big, bowing crowds. We place our glowing lotuses into the river where they float like beacons to light the souls lost in darkness — that they may join us during this transformative healing and reconciliation ceremony.

The dead have been invited to the temple to begin anew with us. On day three Thay states that this is the largest such ceremony ever in Vietnam — an action of love to bring individuals, families, and the nation into harmony and peace. We join in untying knots of injustice for all beings. Thay offers prayers for those who lost their precious bodies, that through our consciouness, they might be healed. Thay helps the audience understand how to walk and breathe as he does, with the energy of lightness and freedom.

Sister Chan Khong sings a song of Beginning Anew, teaching it to the audience. With tears in their eyes, they sing along. Greed, anger, passion, and ignorance are offered a chance to transform. People comfort one another. A large indoor screen projects the crowd’s faces of regret, forgiveness, and hope. Thay tells us that even the Communist party has admitted their mistakes of taking land and killing so many, although they refer to it as a correction rather than Beginning Anew. Everyone learns that once the mind is purified there is no trace of past unskillfulness, no guilt, no sin. Sitting in the spring breeze, teacher and students are happy as a family.

—David Nelson

Thank God for Thich Nhat Hanh’

Hue is the closest city to the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which remains the most heavily bombed piece of earth on this planet. Slowly, I’m formulating a sense of the real devastation of this war and all wars. Agent Orange is still wreaking havoc. Even today, babies are born with terrible deformities due to exposure. Many older Agent Orange victims beg here on the streets of Hue and in the temples where we go to practice. The suffering, I see, is enormous, continuous.

mb45-Healing12

The response that keeps re-surfacing is “Thank God for Thich Nhat Hanh” — a leader, a visionary. He’s fighting the bureaucracy with peace and love and compassion and understanding. Without resentment or cynicism or demand. He is fighting and he will win. It may take many more generations, but his message is true. Love all beings. Prevent all possible suffering. Act with compassion. Do not kill. Do not discriminate. The Communist officials here breathe down his neck. For thirty years, they repressed him and killed his supporters. Yet he is here, now, and he will not stop fighting with love and grace and dedication.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

Coming Home to Hue

When we arrived at Tu Hieu, Thay was just finishing an impromptu tour of the grounds, explaining his activities as a young novice. Walking through the front gate, he motioned to the left-most of three stone arches and recounted the details of his first entrance when he was only 16 years old. His older brother was already a novice, and had brought Thay to study with him. His brother instructed Thay to walk through the arch in full awareness of every step and of every breath, invoking the name of the Buddha. Right, I am breathing in. Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya. Left, I am breathing out. Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya. Those, he said, were his first steps on the path of mindfulness. He invited each of us to do as he had done.

mb45-Healing13

Sitting together on the shady grass, monastics and international lay friends, we are all smiling as a great family. Thay is cupping a flower in his left hand, which he brings up to his face every so often, breathing in with great joy. He motions to a young monk, maybe ten or eleven years old, to sit close to him, extending the flower to the boy, sharing its beautiful fragrance. The young novice is nervous and smiling, his legs curled beneath him, his back upright and erect. Thay puts an arm around his shoulders, and invites another young monastic to share a song. Many have been singing traditional folk songs or older Buddhist chants. This young monk sings a popular Vietnamese love song. His voice is warbling and full of laughter. His Vietnamese brothers and sisters laugh through the whole song. Our teacher is bright with joy and humor.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

PDF of this article

Relationship Dharma

By Janelle Combelic

We need to create environments where people can succeed in the practice. Interpersonal relationships are the key. With the support of even one person, you develop stability, and later you can reach out to others.
—Thich Nhat Hanh

mb47-Relationship1

I sit on the patio across the table from my housemate of three weeks, Carol. A vase of orange and white cosmos, pink zinnias, and blue salvia sits on the table; a candle burns fitfully in the warm evening breeze. Carol and I sit in silence a few moments, eyes closed, and then I invite the bell.

This is our first session of Beginning Anew.

We’ve rented a big old house together in the middle of town –she, escaping from the dissolution of a twenty-five-year marriage; me, leaving the refuge of my mother’s house a block away, where I had lived since my return from Plum Village. We don’t know each other very well and before we moved in together, I told Carol I wanted to have a weekly “house meeting” to do a practice called Beginning Anew. At Plum Village I had frequently heard Thay speak about the importance of doing this practice once a week with one’s family or partner.

I know myself well enough by now (there are blessings to growing older) to accept that I like things done a certain way. I have extremely high standards, for myself and everyone else — this is a blessing in my work as an editor, it’s a curse in my relationships. I also tend to hold things in, especially irritation and hurt and anger. I would ten times rather turn it against myself than hurt someone’s feelings. So when something bothers me — like dirty dishes in the sink, clutter on the dining table, or a messy cupboard — I don’t speak, I seethe.

Moving in with Carol I knew that I needed some formal process for resolving whatever differences might arise. Little did I realize that the process of Beginning Anew would produce miracle after miracle and become in itself an essential part of my spiritual practice.

The Pull of Community

During half of my adult life I’ve lived alone. In recent years, especially since my fourteen months in and around Plum Village, I’ve felt drawn to living in community. In one Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet Thay said that lay people should try living together, in order to share resources, live more simply, and learn to co-exist in peace. “I hope,” he writes in Teachings on Love, “that communities of practice [like Plum Village] will form in the West, with the warmth and flavor of an extended family, as brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts… We have to work together to find ways to help each other. If we can do that, everyone will enjoy the practice.”

This is one of Thay’s most important teachings, one that he has made manifest through his monks and nuns in Plum Village and the other monasteries: it is possible — and necessary — to live together in harmony and love.

To live in harmony one needs three things, as I see it: a spiritual foundation, a conscious intention to create community, and tools for resolving conflict. As Carol and I discussed living together I wanted to make sure that these conditions were present. Carol is fairly new to the practice but she loves Thay’s books, enjoys meditation and yoga, and expressed a keen desire to learn more and to experiment with our spiritual community of two.

I’m happy to play teacher, but I really have no idea what I’m doing. Except for the ritual Beginning Anew ceremony practiced in small groups during retreats, I’ve never actually done Beginning Anew. I’ve heard Sister Chan Khong and other Dharma teachers explain it, I’ve read about it in Anger, in Joyfully Together, and on the Deer Park website [see sidebar page 26], but that’s a far cry from doing it.

Doing the Practice

While Carol and I sit silently in our back yard, serenaded by robins and finches, I pray for guidance. Returning to my breath,

I pray that I might speak the words that need to be spoken while holding back those that do not. A deep peace fills me, trust in the truth of the Dharma.

We begin.

On a piece of paper I have written out the four steps as I understand them:

  1. Flower watering
  2. Expressing regrets
  3. Hurts/anger/peeves (I added that last part)
  4. Asking for help

I take the first turn. Timidly, I look at Carol and tell her what I like and admire about her: her courage in the face of great emotional strain, her devotion to her two young adult children, her sense of humor, her delicious cooking, her easy-going nature. I can tell she is pleased, and when she takes her turn to water my positive seeds, I feel the same. It’s wonderful to be openly appreciated!

Next I express my regrets. Life has been pretty smooth these first three weeks together, but in my own head the Judge and Jury have convicted my gentle housemate on a variety of counts. Leaving crumbs on the kitchen counter — guilty. Loading the dishwasher wrong — guilty. Speaking to me in the morning when I want to be left alone — guilty. Of course these petty concerns are too silly to mention, so I never say anything to her at the time, and the trial just goes on in my own mind, endlessly. It is exhausting, and also cumulative, as I find the irritation getting closer and closer to the surface as it grows. So I express the regret that I have a very critical mind, and it is a struggle for me to relax and live with a little disorder, with someone else’s habits. Carol then expresses regret that she has been emotional lately, prone to fits of weeping and rage toward her inexplicably cruel ex-husband.

We haven’t quite mastered deep listening yet, so we interrupt and reassure one another that we understand. In later sessions we will use the flower bouquet as a “talking stick” and try not to interrupt. But for two people who love to talk, that’s an ongoing challenge.

Now comes the really really hard part: expressing angers and hurts (and pet peeves, of which I have hundreds, thousands). I’m embarrassed to do so, but I mention just a couple of my concerns, mostly involving the kitchen, which don’t phase her in the least. She frowns at first, then smiles. Then it is her turn, and she says she wishes I weren’t quite so grumpy in the morning. I can live with that.

The fourth step comes to us easily: I ask for help in being more flexible and easy-going, she asks for help being more calm and centered. We stand, both of us glowing, and hug. What’s happened for me is that in the space of forty-five minutes our relationship has deepened from a casual cohabitation to a spiritual friendship. There’s a level of trust between us, that came from sharing painful and scary things, that might have taken years to establish without this process.

The Blessings of Beginning Anew

Because we understand each other better, we have more compassion. As the calligraphy in the meditation hall at New Hamlet says so beautifully, “Listen well to understand deeply, look deeply to love well.” Because we are learning to love our little Sangha of two, we want the other person to be happy. Carol tries to accommodate my need for order, and I’ve let go of a lot of my pet peeves. Amazingly, I’m even learning to speak up — skillfully — when something really does bother me.

An even bigger miracle occurred during our third Beginning Anew. Several weeks had passed since our second session — in spite of our intentions, we don’t manage to do it weekly — and my irritation at small things was eating away at me. On this day, I really needed to do Beginning Anew. It was her turn to start, and when she came to the second step she hesitated a long time. Then she confessed that she had done something she regretted deeply: on her husband’s birthday earlier in the week, with her family celebrating in a nearby restaurant without her, she had started feeling suicidal; while I was at our weekly Sangha she overindulged in alcohol (neither one of us ordinarily drinks). I knew nothing of any of this until Carol tearfully confided it during Beginning Anew.

Immediately my irritations vanished, to be replaced with a wave of compassion and tenderness. We talked, listening deeply to one another and providing support for each other’s healing. In the sacred space of the ritual, surprising insights arose, as if the process took us to a deep place of shared wisdom.

Several months have passed since then, and we are scheduled to do Beginning Anew tomorrow morning. We’ve become rather lax, and we paid for it the other day when we had our first fight. Of course it was over something relatively minor, and we’re both sorry we lost our tempers. We’ve patched it over, but I’m looking forward to working through it more deeply.

Well, it’s not entirely true that I’m looking forward to it. Beginning Anew is not easy, especially for those of us who never learned how to express our anger and hurt. It’s a challenging practice, but one that yields profound results, and not for ourselves alone. “We should live our daily lives,” writes Thay, “so that there is Beginning Anew in every minute. If everyone practices, there is hope for the future. Look deeply to make renewal possible. Sangha building is the most important art for us to learn.”

In our little community of two, I am looking deeply at my expectations, my irritations, my control issues — the neurotic dance of my mind. Beginning Anew is a powerful tool for manifesting the practice of mindfulness in relationship. It’s allowing me to have more trust, more love in my life.

And a messy kitchen no longer summons the Judge and Jury. I can actually walk through it and smile. Such freedom!

Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, lives in Longmont, Colorado with her dog Serafina. All quotes in this essay are from the “Community” chapter of  Teachings on Love, Parallax Press, 2007.

PDF of this article

Family Day at Deer Park

By Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

mb47-Family1On December 17, 2006, Deer Park held its first family day of mindfulness. The intent was to offer a full day of activities for both parents and children to enjoy together. Since January 2006, we have offered a regular children’s program at Deer Park, on every first and third Sunday. However, the children’s activities are mostly separate from the adults’ so parents are not always familiar with the mindfulness practices we share with their children, and rarely have the chance to explore them together as a family.

The day was filled with lots of joy and meaning. Although adults outnumbered children, it was hard sometimes to distinguish between the two because we had so much fun that everyone’s inner child was very alive!

Dharma Adventure

We began with an introduction to the day. Then we divided into five groups to begin our Dharma Adventure, each group visiting one of five different stations around the monastery and then rotating. Nuns, monks, and lay practitioners were already at each station to receive the groups. Everyone in the Deer Park Sangha was enthusiastic and participated in the day; even the cooks prepared lunch early so they could join one of the groups!

One station offered pebble meditation,* which was actually acorn meditation because acorns are so plentiful and beautiful. There, families learned a little about anatomy and how the lungs and breathing process works. Gently holding a single acorn, they visualized: “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower, breathing out, I feel fresh.” Then they continued to breathe and visualize mountain — solid; still water — reflecting things as they are; and space — free.

Another station engaged everyone in making a collective artwork: a wheel of Tibetan prayer flags decorated with play dough figurines in all colors, shapes, and sizes. The beautiful structure brightened up the tea room in Solidity Hamlet for many months afterwards.

An outdoor station had everyone playing cooperative games, which ranged from story-telling, to relay races, to standing in a circle with cups in our mouths and without hands, pouring water from cup to cup. Very memorable!

mb47-Family2

Then there was the dining hall station, where everyone got their hands messy making and mindfully eating peanut butter balls, with lively discussions about each ingredient and its interconnectedness with other things.

mb47-Family3

At the last station, families were skillfully facilitated in role-playing difficulty they encounter in their everyday family life. They acted out situations like miscommunication or venting their anger and frustration, and then had an opportunity to play out the same situation again, with more calm and awareness.

Deep and Simple Practices

After a joyful, sort-of-silent lunch together in the dining hall, the children offered the Sangha total relaxation! As all the adults and children lay quietly resting in the Ocean of Peace meditation hall, four children slowly guided everyone in relaxing the different parts of the body. They also sang beautiful lullabies.

Then Sister Susan guided everyone in the children’s version of Touching the Earth. We were all moved by the depth of the words; the concentration and sincerity in the room was palpable. Several adults came up to me at the end of the day asking for a copy of the text, saying they liked it better than the adult version [see Mindfulness Bell issue 45, Summer 2007].

We ended the day with a session of Beginning Anew. Passing a flower around the circle, parents and children expressed their gratitude and appreciation for each other as well as what things they wanted to do to bring more happiness to each other. Sharings were concrete and from the heart. Laughter, tears, and peaceful silences left us all feeling very full, very rich in the Dharma.

We all enjoyed the day very much and look forward to offering more events like this in the future. We hope other sanghas will benefit from what we are learning and we also want to learn from the innovations of other sanghas as we open the new Dharma door of family mindfulness practices.

Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem, is now in residence at Plum Village in France.

*This practice is explained in depth in Pebble for Your Pocket by Thich Nhat Hanh.

PDF of this article

Helping Obama, Helping Others

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Responding to questions from lay friends on June 13 during the Path of the Buddha retreat, Thay spoke about supporting President Obama and assisting those in need across the globe.

mb52-Helping1

Helping Obama

Many of us are very pleased to have Obama as president of the United States of America. I have not seen any politician like him who knows how to use loving speech, to speak in a humble way. The presence of Obama also tells us of the presence of a group of people who agree with him — not only Americans but also Europeans, Africans, and Asians. This is very important.

Obama, with his good intentions and his nonviolent approach to the problems of the planet, did not just happen. In the past forty or fifty years many of us have been working ceaselessly to sow the seeds of peace, reconciliation, and preservation of the planet. Sometimes we have felt that the work has not brought any results. But then the increased suffering and despair helped to wake people up and to see there is another way to deal with conflict in America and the world.

On Obama’s inauguration day, we felt hope. We want Obama to succeed; whether we are Americans or non-Americans we have invested in him and we are afraid that he will not succeed. In order to help him, we have to organize ourselves. We have to strengthen our Sangha, and the Sangha in America. Wherever we are, we can always do something to help. Obama may not call his team a Sangha but it is a Sangha. If not they are not capable of preserving their compassion, insight, and determination, they will not be able to help Obama, and then Obama will disappoint us.

I think President Obama doesn’t need to come to Plum Village and follow a retreat; he got his training somewhere in his own way. He used the word “mindfulness” in his inauguration, and in his speech at Cairo University he used “beginning anew.” He said, “I want to have a new beginning with Islam.” He knows how to use loving speech. Maybe he does not need formal training but he needs a strong Sangha surrounding him and helping to support him.

Helping Others Across the Globe

We all want to help people in Tibet and Burma and other places throughout the world. Forty thousand children die every day because of the lack of food and nutrition. Many of us are aware of that; and yet not many of us do anything to help. How can we reach out and help these children who are dying? How can we reach out to our brothers who feel left alone in the struggle for democracy and independence?

The problem is that we are so busy. We are running to get what we want. We have no time, no energy: that is the main obstacle. How can we rearrange our lives so that we have time to help our brothers and sisters who are caught in difficult situations?

We should liberate ourselves from our too-busy lives. We have to reorganize our lives, individually and collectively, in order to be with each other in a more intimate way.

We can begin with Sanghas. Members of a Sangha belong to society and have jobs, family, community, aspirations, and plans. But we still find a way to come and sit together for twenty-one days. If other people make an effort they can do the same. Imagine for twenty-one days all the cars stop. We don’t eat the flesh of animals. We enjoy the fresh air, the song of the birds. We allow our bodies to release tension; we listen to the sound of the bell. We cultivate brotherhood and sisterhood. We are truly making peace within ourselves, making peace with the environment and with one another. If 500 people can do that, other groups can do it also, whether they are Christians, Muslims, or Jews.

What we do here we are not doing for ourselves alone. We do it for everyone. We show people that another way of life is possible. They can release their habit energy, slow down and begin to change so that they have more time for themselves, for their family, for members of their Sangha. And then naturally problems like those concerning the hungry children, the environment, Burma, Tibet, will be more easily solved.

PDF of this article

Mindfulness in Marriage

By Lynda Bidlake and Lewis BrightHeart Headrick

mb56-Mindfulness1

mb56-Mindfulness2I join my husband for a late lunch in a local restaurant. The waitress comes back again and again to refill our water glasses, even though we’ve only sipped. At our booth by the window, we are softly reading to each other. Transparently, the waitress is straining to see what title engrosses us. I recognize that hunger. Once I spied an elderly couple gazing at each other in open, unbounded joy and love. I knew I was eavesdropping on a private exchange, but I would have given anything to have someone with whom to share such a look. Now I’ve accomplished that vision, and this young woman sees the same caring exchange pass between my husband and me.

Seeing her clear interest, we start talking with the waitress; she forgets all about the water. We tell her that a good relationship requires both time and attention. “We’ve been married for five years, but we meet for lunch when our lives get busy.” She talks breathlessly and fast. She has almost given up hope for her relationship with her boyfriend of five years; it’s gotten tired and stale. He won’t even talk, much less read to her. She avidly asks, “What are you reading? What else do you do?”

 

Our Shared Practice

We tell her about our practice. Most mornings we get up at 5:30 a.m. She winces, but we jocularly point out that it’s important to find a time when nothing will distract us. Our spiritual life, interwoven with our relationship, comes first. Each morning we take our coffee into our small meditation room. Our altar has cards on it with the names of loved ones in need. An image of Avalokiteshvara hangs on the wall above it. We light a stick of incense and stand it in a small misshapen glass, made by my husband years ago. We light the candle in its salt cylinder, a wedding gift. We ring a bell. These rituals help remind us to be present. We sit, facing the window to the east, and quietly watch the first flickers of dawn.

mb56-Mindfulness3

After twenty minutes, one of us rings the bell again, and we move to sit on our living room couch, between two of Thay’s calligraphies: “I have arrived, I am home,” and “I know you are there, and I am very happy.” There we read to each other. We pull a book off the shelf, letting it fall open where it will; it’s uncanny how often this provides exactly what we need.

The waitress pulls out her order pad and jots down the names of our favorite books, making a heroic attempt to spell Thich Nhat Hanh. We tell her we started with Teachings on Love, which we read at a pace of three or four pages a day. True Love has also been invaluable, providing precisely scripted words to say to each other, no matter the situation. In difficulty, just finding the passage and saying it aloud reassures us that we both intend to work on whatever has tripped us up this time. On easier days, it helps us express our love and appreciation.

Relationship-Building

We recall how we resisted Thay’s instruction to “make an appointment”: when one of you feels hurt by the other’s words or actions, you acknowledge the injury, then give yourselves time to look deeply at it. You make an appointment, say for the next Friday evening, to talk about it. At first we did not see how this idea could work. We were accustomed to talking about difficulties right away, and we feared that the tension would remain high if we waited for an appointment. But we tried it—and we found it very effective. In this way we have avoided making impulsive and possibly hurtful statements; and often by the time the appointment comes, we have already found new understanding and solutions.

We don’t tell her everything we do to nurture our relationship. We don’t tell her about the poetry (including Rumi) that we read to each other, or that we do Sufi and peace dances. We don’t mention retreats or community. We do tell her how difficult this relationship-building can be, and how much time and energy it takes. And that sometimes we slip away from our intentions. But she can see our deep and vibrant love. We wish her well.

mb56-Mindfulness4Lynda Bidlake, Wholesome Reunion of the Heart, recently retired from a career as a school psychologist. Lewis BrightHeart Headrick, Open Garden of the Heart, is working in mental health after receiving his bachelors in social work at the age of fifty-five.

PDF of this article

Relationship as Engaged Buddhism

By Nathaniel Vose

Of the different forms of activism I’ve practiced in my life, the most transformative, perhaps, is the relationship activism I practice with my partner, Liz. Our partnership acts as a microcosm for our relationships with all beings. We practice to nourish not only the happiness of one another but also the happiness of the world. It is very real, engaged Buddhism.

My grandfather, an educator and Methodist minister, was a mentor to me. I once asked how he and my grandma had made it through fifty-five-plus years together. He offered me his sage counsel: “Every morning you can sit down at the breakfast table and look across to your partner and say, ‘Why did I marry her? She is not what I really wanted,’ or you can say, ‘Wow, how lucky I am to have her here to share this life with!’ The choice is yours.”

With mindfulness, I have realized that I do have the power to choose my own reality. When I was new to the practice, I focused on suffering. But I came to discover that suffering is only one of thousands of Dharma doors. Without sunshine, we will not have lotuses. Mindfulness gives permission to relish joy in relationship.

Liz and I practice Beginning Anew on each new moon. We practice hugging meditation in the morning and share appreciations before we go to bed at night. Our mindfulness rituals create a container for transformation and when we feel their fruits, we only want to practice more! That is why I see our relationship as a practice center. It brings us home to ourselves and we become each other’s mirrors and mindfulness bells.

Right Relationship with Sexuality

Mindfulness helps in practicing with sexual energy. I grew up feeling ashamed of my sexuality. In my experience, sexuality was often used as a weapon or status symbol. I remember walking down the halls of high school, being taunted with names like “fag,” and listening to guys talk about their latest sexual escapades. I went through puberty during the advent of pornography on the Internet. It fascinated and confused many of us young people. Luckily, other seeds were watered in me, and I was able to channel my energies into music, theatre, sports, and supportive friendships.

mb56-Relationship1

Upon receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, sadly, I found myself condemning my sexuality as I tried to emulate my brother and sister monastics. My misunderstanding pitted me against my self, my body, and others. I’ve learned that committed relationship and the Mindfulness Trainings are manifestations of true love; both work to push suffering up to the surface so it may be healed. Inevitably, my mindfulness practice and relationship invited me to come into right relationship with my sexuality, embracing these intense energies with care. My partner, the trainings, and Sangha provided protection and antidotes to fear and confusion.

Although sexual energy contains no suffering in itself, my habit of contracting around it can create hell on Earth. Holding this energy with mindfulness, I feel a natural respect and love. Sexual energy puts me in touch with my capacities of generativity and creativity. How amazing that this energy of vitality and creativity is alive in me! “Breathing in, I recognize sexual energy as a wonder of life! Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I let it expand throughout my body, nourishing my cells with life. Breathing out, I relax.” Working with the energy in this way helps me give birth to my self, my ancestors, and future beings anew in the present moment. Mindfulness is the essence of true intimacy. Cultivating appropriate attention, I connect with the vital and creative source of life.

mb56-Relationship2

mb56-Relationship3Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and female friends have taught me about masculine and feminine principles. This empowers me with a sense of inclusiveness. “Breathing in, I recognize I have both masculine and feminine within me. Breathing out, I feel solid and whole.” Both mother and father are in me; nothing is lost. Understanding this, I can relax and approach Liz with my wholeness.

Two Hands of the Same Body

I have found that true love has no limits. Partnership has taught me the necessity of cultivating self-love in order to love and nourish Liz. Similarly, it has taught me that love is more powerful than I am. Many times, Liz becomes prajnaparamita herself, and her love allows me to accept myself to an extent I did not know was possible. Gradually, I am able to love better. The wisdom of non-discrimination works like this. Liz and I are two hands of the same, greater body.

Recently, Liz and I decided to start a couples’ Sangha. The challenges our relationship brings to the surface made us realize that it is not an individual matter, nor is it a two-person matter! It is bigger than us. It involves the transformation of endless ancestors, causes, and conditions. That is why we need Sangha. Understanding relationship as engaged Buddhism, we honor its potential for individual and collective transformation. It is truly a potent and nourishing form of activism!

mb56-Relationship4Nathaniel Vose, True Land of Compassion, works as a chaplain and lives in Oakland, CA with his partner Liz Turkel, Radiant Commitment of the Heart.

PDF of this article

Beginning Anew at Two

By Lennis Lyon

mb64-Beginning1

“I kiss him to sleep,” I reply when my daughter-in-law asks me how I get my two-year-old grandson to take a nap. We read a story, I rub his back, I tell Mateus the names of people who love him, and then I say, “I will watch over you; I will keep you safe.” He is usually asleep by then. But if not, I plant tender kisses on his cheeks and forehead until he lolls to sleep.

With the birth of this grandchild, I saw an opening to heal my family and myself. I became a single parent when my son was a year old. My reaction to the trauma of a painful divorce was pervasive fear. I walked on eggshells of unspoken nightly terror and sought the urgency of distraction. I continually pursued social outlets and had difficulty focusing on my growing child. Now with the practice of mindfulness, I know that what children want is our presence, and what I want is to be there to truly enjoy Mateus. With gratitude to the Sangha, I know what being present feels like.

When Mateus comes to my house for the day, I get everything ready: the toys laid out, the diapers on hand, the lunch prepared, so that I can give him my full attention. During his visit I don’t wash dishes, clean the house, or wash clothes. I only answer the phone when it’s his parents calling.

I’m lucky because I have an ease of love for Mateus. At age two and a half, he has been coming to my house every Tuesday for more than two years. I haven’t shown anger; I haven’t raised my voice or used a less-than-friendly tone. So I am in shock when I have a sudden outburst of aggression toward him.

We are at my mom’s apartment. I am changing Mateus’ diaper as he lies on his back on my mom’s bed. Suddenly Mateus reaches up and bites me on my arm, something he has not done before. I instantaneously feel my hand slap him on the face. It is neither a gentle slap nor a strong one, but it must sting. Mateus dissolves in heaves of sobs. I understand that it is the change in our relationship, not the force of the slap, that hurts him so. I cradle him, repeating, “I’m so sorry, Mateus. I’m so sorry.”

When I bring Mateus home, I tell his mom, Tamara. She offers, “But he bit you.”

“Yes, but I did not want to slap him,” I reply. There is a softening, however, in my relationship with Tamara, as she tells me of the times she has felt frustrated as a mother and has regretted her actions.

At home that evening, I remember the teachings on Beginning Anew from Dharma teacher Lyn Fine. First, flower-watering: saying something true that is nourishing to the recipient. Second, expressing beneficial regret. Third, stating one’s intention to prevent similar actions. I write my letter. The next day I read it to Mateus:

“I like the powerful way you play the drums and sing to the music. I enjoy your drum concerts. I am very sorry that I hit you yesterday. I will practice taking good care of my anger so I will be gentle. I want you to be safe with Grandma. Please take good care of your anger. Please use your words when you are angry. I love you, dear grandson.” Mateus replies brightly, “Will you read it again?”

The next Tuesday when Mateus comes to my house, he asks, “Will you tell me when you are getting angry?” “Yes, I will.” When Mateus will not comply with some wish of mine, and I notice anger, I tell him, “I am beginning to get angry.” I expect him to do what I want. I try this several times until I have the insight: I am expecting a two-year-old to take care of my anger! I need to breathe in and out: “Hello, my anger. I see you are there.” I do my best to breathe and walk, or breathe and sit, until the feeling subsides.

It’s been three years since my outburst, and several times, Mateus has asked, “Remember when you hit me, Grandma?” “Yes, I remember,” I say. “I am taking good care of my anger.” I have kept Mateus safe. We have a meditation cave now, a raised closet in my bedroom with room for two cushions. Our paintings are on the closet walls. We have a bell. Either of us can go to the cave, and no one can bother us there. I do my best to notice my anger. I tell Mateus, “I need to go to the cave to calm myself.” I sit; I breathe for maybe ten breaths. When I return, Mateus sees a smile on my face.

Recently, as I was putting Mateus to bed during an overnight at my house, he told me, “Your whole body is in my heart.”

“I’m very happy to be in your heart,” I replied.

He continued, “And my whole body is in your heart.”

I can be present for Mateus because the Sangha is present for me and in me. Thay’s teachings show us the way. I cherish these gifts.

mb64-Beginning2Lennis Lyon, True Silent Forest, practices with Potluck Sangha in Oakland, California. She and Hac Nguyen recently started a Walking in Nature Family Sangha. She met Thay in 1995. 

PDF of this article

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Pardoning an Imperfect Church 

By Brother Phap Kinh 

mb63-Forgive1

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

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

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

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

A Living Church 

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

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

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

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

mb63-Forgive2

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

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

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

Rooted in Gratitude 

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

mb63-Forgive3

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

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

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

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

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

PDF of this article

Retreat Among Jacarandas

By María Jiménez

mb62-Retreat1

The Felicidad family, originally from Mexico City, was spread out. Some of us had known each other a long time; others, however, weren’t aware of the existence of happy and enthusiastic brothers and sisters in search of someone with the same last name. But thanks to the efforts of our Sangha in February of 2012, hundreds of emails went out and arrived like rainfall of flowers inviting people to “Coming Home: The Road to Our Happiness,” the big family reunion to be held in April. The response was immediate. Thirty-six sisters and brothers accepted the invitation, because who wouldn’t want to come back home? Who wouldn’t want to find the road to happiness? Besides, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, two monks from Deer Park Monastery, would be coming to share ways of conscious living with us and to converse intimately with the earth.

The location of the retreat, Casa Xitla, is a big old house surrounded by gardens in the southern part of Mexico City. It is a spacious place that invites one to withdraw and reflect; silence is the order of the day here. Thanks to the infinite goodness of Mother Earth, our encounter is dressed in violet; at this time of the year the jacaranda trees are in their most conscious here and now. Our hosts, a community of people in charge of administering and caring for this place, are an example of interbeing. As in a colony of bees, they organize themselves to live in harmony: they care for the water, use solar energy, protect the vegetation, and maintain a compost heap.

On April 4, Casa Xitla begins to buzz with our arrival. The brothers and sisters who organized the retreat and the monks Phap Lac (Happiness Monk) and Phap De (Young Monk) await us with their conscious presence. The smiles with which they greet us are an unmistakable sign that we have arrived home. Adults, some in couples, some with their families, and the majority alone, begin to fill up the space and prepare for the experience of the next five days. The majority of us come from bustling cities; we are full of expectations, with our minds agitated. The sweet sound of the bell, the conscious embraces of our sisters and brothers, the dim lights in the hallway on the way to the bedrooms, the shade of the trees, and the night remind us that we have arrived home. In an instant, all these signs come together, form a stream, and invite us to flow as a single river. “Happiness is here and now,” they whisper in our ears.

The Fountain of Life

In the first Dharma talk, Brother Phap De delicately suggests that we observe in our inner selves the impulse to do things: eat, read, talk. He proposes, instead, that we walk or write. “Life comes from within ourselves; we can feel it; we can connect ourselves with the fountain of inner and outer life, all united.” Like an expert gardener, the brother knows that before planting the seed, we must loosen the dirt. He invites us to recite gathas. It’s impossible to turn down his invitation, knowing that we can cultivate flowers in the garden of the heart.

At five o’clock in the morning, the bell wakes us, and a half hour later we begin guided meditation. Our bodies are tired; the majority of us aren’t used to waking up so early. However, our conscious inhaling and exhaling wake us up and fill us with joy. At 6:30 a.m., our sister, Norma Inés, better known as Hapinés, guides us down the roads of Qigong. With the noble bamboo pole at hand and the sweetness of her voice, we travel to the interior of our bodies, feel how our muscles stretch, and begin a dance that connects us with the foliage of the jacarandas. The pivoting of legs, trunks, arms, and eyes lifts us to the clouds and slowly and softly allows us to take root in the earth.

The morning advances. The bell invites us to share a delicious breakfast, which we enjoy slowly from the silent line. We share the table and the reading of the Five Contemplations. We eat slowly, looking to feel in every mouthful the flavor and goodness of all the beings who prepared it and made it possible.

Work meditation offers us the opportunity to do chores in the garden, which for some of us are unusual; some chores are light, like picking up leaves and branches; others are heavy, like lifting and moving the compost. Cleaning and arranging the building and preparing food for the whole group are some of the other tasks at hand. We have the opportunity to learn and to teach, to lead and to follow, to see our old habits as we work, to smile, embrace, and be present in the here and now.

At ten in the morning, the bell calls us to walking meditation. Our sister Gaby shares her experience:

I remember that marvelous walk as an experience of conscious enjoyment that keeps love, peace, calm, serenity, and forgiveness alive in my memory. I return to live in plenitude and to understand and experience interbeing with my new Felicidad family, to feel myself as part of nature, to be present, feeling the caresses of the air and the heat of the sun on my skin. I feel how Mother Earth receives me and comforts my every step, and I see and feel the happiness of the monastic brothers.

I remember Phap Lac’s talk about forgiveness. Nine months ago I’d signed my divorce from the father of my children and I had such an emotional charge that I asked myself how I could forgive myself for the guilt that I felt. I asked: ‘Is it strange that after years of sharing a life with someone you loved, you now ask yourself how to forgive?’ The walk was about to start and the brother said that we should invite our loved ones to walk with us. He suggested that we take the hand of one of the members of the Felicidad family and even that we invite our absent loved ones to come with us.

The sensation I felt is indescribable: I imagined my little children, Emilio and Sofía, at each side, felt their still-tender hands, and felt the peace and love of being united as one. I advanced slowly and smiled genuinely and lovingly, with gratitude and respect. Later I invited my parents and sister to walk hand-in-hand and felt the same sensations. Finally, uninhibitedly, with thanks, and in peace, I invited the person who had been my partner for ten years. I embraced him while I walked, thanking him for having shared his time, space, and love, for having participated with me in giving life to these two gifts. I decided to forgive the things that we consciously or unconsciously did when we lived together that hurt or damaged us or made us uncomfortable and I smiled at him. We stayed together like that for a few moments. Then I let go of his hand and saw him go, smiling and relaxed.

Drops in a River

At the end of each morning, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, taking turns, offer us a Dharma talk. Next to them a Mexican sister or brother listens attentively and interprets simultaneously. During these talks, the words of Phap De and Phap Lac weave in interbeing. Phap De speaks of his own life experience and shares the stories of his parents and the seeds they deposited in him. He shows us how the spiritual life of our ancestors is connected with our own. And he invites us to recover the spirituality of the people who inhabited these lands before the arrival of white people. Our spiritual realization, he says, is a matter of integrating ourselves like drops of water in a river that has flowed for thousands of years. This moves us, because in Mexico, indigenous blood is an underground river that only awaits our glance to revitalize us with its powerful energy.

mb62-Retreat2

Thay Phap Lac offers other seeds. With soft strokes he recreates his experiences in the company of our dear master Thich Nhat Hanh. The words of Phap Lac have the power to bring Thay to our encounter: we can see and feel him; the voice of the brother becomes the voice of Thay. With simple stories of day-to-day life, Phap Lac reveals the efficacy of our practice. He shares a story of a single mother who learned to enjoy working meditation, and that of Thay, who, having suffered an injury in a crowd in Vietnam, sat down calmly to drink a cup of tea. Phap Lac is also a master of dispelling uncertainties. To a sister who has doubts about forgiveness, Phap Lac says sweetly: “The only help you have is your happiness. Only love can cure—love with compassion.” This teaching is an outstanding moment during the retreat.

mb62-Retreat3After lunch comes total guided relaxation. We lean our bodies against the earth, which generously receives our tensions, our tiredness, and our worries. With our minds we pass through each part of our body, we smile at it with thanks, we loosen it, and we relax. We listen to our guide from afar, as if in a dream. He sings to us a sweet song that rocks us and he brings us back, little by little, to the happiness of the present moment.

mb62-Retreat4

The Dharma sharing at mid-afternoon is a moment of encounters. Some of us know each other from long ago, others have seen each other a few times, and there are those who are meeting for the first time. In two groups, each guided by one of the monastic brothers, we focus on practicing compassionate listening and loving speech. Little by little, our hearts open as we share happiness and sadness, presences and absences, hope and despair. We offer our loving presence to our friends; we receive their experiences and their smiles.

After supper we have another guided meditation, and then go off to sleep smiling, crossing the garden of Casa Xitla in silence, now lighted by a moon full of the here and now.

Like Water Reflecting

The second night, five sisters and brothers who have taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings share their personal experiences and reflections. The struggles and the joys of the road of Dharma parade before us. We hear that the trainings are like the North Star, a light that orients us. As the days go by, the question continues to arise: Who will take the trainings? Many of us are confused. We don’t know if we can meet the goals, if we should or want to commit ourselves. Thus three days pass. In Dharma sharing, some people express their decision to take the trainings. Others reveal confusion or a negative decision. We all listen with care and attention. Eleven brothers and sisters take the vow to revere life, practice generosity, look for true love and fidelity, practice loving speech and deep listening, and procure a nutritious and healthy life. It is beautiful to share this intention, knowing that these trainings will take us all our lives, and that we are accompanied on this road.

One memorable practice is that of starting anew. One night, Laura and Jorge water their flowers in front of the community. At first, they look each other in the eyes and each says the virtues that she or he sees in the other. Then they offer apologies for the discomfort or suffering they have caused each other. We see how their words turn into sun and water, the nutrients of the seeds of love and compassion. They give us a living example of the fourth training: our eyes witness the fact that loving speech and compassionate listening are the tools of the artist who creates reconciliation and peace. Later, Thay Phap De invites us to practice in couples. Some of us are with our life companions and we practice with them. Some are with parents or children. Those who have come alone pair up and practice watering the flowers of an absent person. It’s an intimate time, deep and hopeful. We learn that it’s always possible to start over.

As the days pass, we cultivate silence, but also listening. Mónica, Hapinés, and Laura help us to sing in key, inspiring cantos. We give thanks to life with our Chilean sister Violeta Parra. With Mercedes Sosa we remember that everything changes and with Fito Páez we offer our heart. Phap De teaches us an Irish blessing: “May love hold you in the hollow of her hands.” During the last night’s gathering we all sing “Cielito Lindo,” a traditional Mexican song, which our monastic brothers love. Three children who have lent a special touch to our time together, David, Elías, and Sofía, sing the turtle song, and Fausto thrills us with a cappella numbers. His crystalline voice reminds us that we are like water that reflects what is beautiful and true.

The last day, we finish our meditation by walking under the shade of a jacaranda. With the children cross-legged at their sides, Phap Lac and Phap De teach us the art of waking up the bell. Only five days have passed, but the conditions of the retreat have let the people of the Mexican Felicidad family recognize each other in interbeing. Without coming or leaving, neither before nor after, we embrace firmly and then let each other go. We know that each of us is in the other and that the other is in us. We leave Casa Xitla wide awake. We have learned to recognize that the present moment is a wonderful moment.

Thank you, dear Thay; thank you, dear family.

mb62-Retreat5María Jiménez, Felicidad Valiente del Corazón (Courageous Happiness of the Heart), is a professor at Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM). Maria enjoyed the retreat among jacarandas twice: the first time while living it and the second while writing this article. Two other members of the Sangha in Mexico City, Jorge Hirsch and Gabriela Rosales, contributed. Their voices are a vehicle to convey the sound of a single river: the Felicidad Family.

PDF of this article

Full Moon Ceremony with Plum Village

By Joann Malone and Patrick Smith 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDF of this article