Transforming Self, Transforming Society

An Interview with Cheri Maples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: Could you give a couple of specific examples?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: Is there anything you would like to add?

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

Edited by Barbara Casey 

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Leaving a Legacy of Love and Compassion

An Interview with Brandy Sacks

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

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

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

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

MB: Obviously it was a life-changing experience. 

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

MB: Where did you go from there? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mb61-Legacy2How to Leave a Legacy of Love and Compassion

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

What is legacy giving or planned giving?

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

Who can make a bequest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whom should I consult about making a planned gift?

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

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

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

Community Liaison, Lorri Houston
Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido, CA 92026
Phone: 760-291-1003 ext. 104
Email:   Info@ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org
Website:  ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org
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Breathing and Smiling with Brother Phap Kinh

By J.E. Combelic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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