Meditating with Mary

By Starr DiCiurcio

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Volunteering for Hospice brings a wealth of deep experiences, including opportunities for practice. Two years ago I was asked to visit Mary, who was dying of bone cancer and suffering from dementia. She lived with her daughter and son-in-law in a quiet, small village home, and her family needed support.

Before each visit, I sat in the car and did metta meditation for myself, Mary, those caring for Mary, and all beings. With peaceful steps, I walked to the house and introduced myself.

Mary was a charming woman with great stories of her family and travels. She was intelligent and asked insightful questions about my life and work. But then, on most visits, she would get lost in her own mind. Her dementia was a torment. When she felt it coming on, she would often realize what was happening and comment on losing her mind. As it progressed, she would become fearful of strangers breaking into the house and would weep over the death of her very alive daughter. This was heartbreaking to witness. Although her physical pain was well under control, her mind was far from it. Together we took deep breaths and held hands. This was never quite enough to bring her back to the room.

Her family told me that she used to practice as a Catholic, my root tradition. They thought she might like me to pray with her, but didn’t think she knew a lot of prayers herself. When asked, they told me she hadn’t said a rosary in years. I asked permission to give it a try. With little confidence, they agreed.

First I had to find a rosary, which I did—buried in my bedside table. My parents had had it blessed for me by Pope Pius XII and I’d never had the heart to part with it. Now was its time to shine! Then I had to find a prayer book that covered the rosary, since I was more than rusty. One of these was also waiting on a bookshelf. Things were coming together for my experiment.

As an interfaith minister, it is my work to find bridges between faith experiences. I thought the rosary was quite similar to the mala. In our tradition, to the best of my knowledge, the mala beads are used by monks to follow their breath. Our practice centers on the breath, and I wanted to find a way to bring this to Mary in a manner that she could understand and apply without introducing a Buddhist concept.

In time we were able to effectively use the breath to ease her suffering, with her rosary beads as a sustaining guide. It was like a miracle to see her agitation settling down and calm taking root. But it wasn’t a miracle at all. It was solid practice beyond the terminology and labels of traditions. As Mary took her prayer beads, we paused and followed our breath. In, out. After each short prayer, so familiar and comfortable to her, we took another breath. In, out. Steadying. Integrating. Mary found her way back to her true self.

When Mary transitioned, I felt a real loss. But in the last months of her life she was able to be more present and more peaceful thanks to the practice of mindfulness, the practice she never knew by name. It was the gift of my own practice, that I could share it and pass it along. Why else are we alive?

mb53-Meditating2Starr DiCiurcio, True Understanding of the Sangha, practices with Kingfisher Sangha of Schenectady and Greenwich, New York. She and her husband recently moved to Glens Falls, New York, where she works as an interfaith minister.

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Equanimity in the Classroom

By Shelley Murphy

Raymond skips through the door of our classroom. He is talking from the moment he arrives, providing a running commentary on everything he sees. Raymond has a hard time “making the thoughts in my head stop,” as he puts it. When we take our seats, his wide eyes fix on the Tibetan-like bells at the front of the class. I can almost see the thoughts begin to slow in his mind. When I first introduced the bells to our class, eight-year-old Raymond had a thousand comments and questions: “Where are they from? What are they made of? Can I ring them? Are they a musical instrument? I play the recorder… what do you play?”

We are now months into the school year. Each day begins and ends with the chiming of the bells. I chime the bells a few times, and each student becomes increasingly more aware of his or her breathing. Raymond listens—and keeps listening until he can no longer hear the sound and vibration of the bells. His eyes are closed, his attention concentrated on his belly rising and falling and on his in-breath and out-breath. The thoughts that were monopolizing his attention appear to have receded to the periphery of his consciousness.

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Raymond is learning to touch the silence and stillness within himself. He is learning that there is a place inside him where he can go when he’s overwhelmed by thoughts or when he’s feeling angry, sad, or upset. He is easily able to articulate what the ringing of the bells and breathing mean to him: “I feel relaxed and calm, and it helps when I have too many thoughts in my head at once.”

What if this kind of experience could be seamlessly woven into the elementary school day and children could be taught to notice their thoughts rather than be drawn into them? What if they could be taught to use their breath to find equanimity, to be more self-aware and less reactive, and to meet each moment with more attention and presence?

It is difficult to teach these kinds of life lessons if we haven’t authentically embraced the experiences ourselves. My own mindfulness practice began eight years ago. I had recently been diagnosed with a physically debilitating disease and was in search of something that might help my physical healing. Looking back now, I realize I was grasping for anything that might shield me from the sharp edges of pain and illness. Not long after the diagnosis, a friend of mine introduced me to a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called Peace Is Every Step. His teachings held transformative lessons for me and, to my surprise, they helped propel me toward an inner balance that included my pain and illness. His powerful poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” still resonates with me. One stanza reads:

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and others, including Pema Chodron and Jon Kabat-Zinn, I have learned to lean into all of life’s experiences. I have learned to use my breath to encounter and accept life in the present moment and to find equanimity. I am much less reactive and am better able to meet life’s daily challenges with calm, clarity, and perspective. As a teacher and teacher educator, I embody these experiences, and I am better able to share them with students like Raymond.

Raymond gradually became comfortable with his mindfulness practice. He looked forward to it and expected it to be part of his day. He learned that he didn’t have to react to every thought that came into his mind. He, his mother, and I noticed his newfound ability to tap into deeper states of concentration. He was less restless and more easily able to deal with classroom stimulation and distraction. He was more at peace.

I imagine Raymond continuing to learn how to live in the present moment, to respond consciously in the world instead of reacting automatically, and to focus without being distracted by the chatter of continuous thoughts. Our schools are fertile grounds for seeds of mindfulness. If we offer these lessons to our children, we will, in some measure, better prepare them for each moment of their unpredictable, joyous, painful, confusing, beautiful, everyday lives, both in school and in the world beyond.

mb54-Equanimity2Shelley Murphy is completing her doctorate in Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at the University of Toronto. A former inner city elementary teacher, she is currently a teacher educator.

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Tending the Whole Garden

Teaching Yourself, Teaching Children

By Christopher Willard

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“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
-Frederick Douglass

I’ve often found dealing with myself and my own expectations a more difficult challenge than dealing with some of the toughest children. I’ve worked for a long time with troubled children, and when I started out I had high expectations for the power of mindfulness, imagining the chaotic classroom I taught in at a mental hospital suddenly transformed into an oasis of peace to rival any monastery. In the fantasy, not only did the kids come to practice mindfulness on their own—their emotional and behavioral issues cured—but the other teachers and staff sought out my wisdom in classroom management and clinical theories. This hardly happened, but once I let go of the struggle, I came to appreciate the somewhat more frequent moments of peace that came with patience and practice. And though I don’t know how those kids turned out, I sometimes encounter people who have come out the other side. I worked with a man who had recently been released from prison. He remembered and clearly treasured a visit from a yoga instructor who had paid a visit to the prison many years before. The man had practiced almost daily since then, and was one of the most engaged members of the mindfulness group at the halfway house. Someone had planted the seeds of freedom and taught him to water them. We were both fortunate to have found each other in the halfway house where the conditions arose to cultivate and strengthen his practice that had been planted years ago.

It is vital to keep checking in with ourselves and our intentions, as well as our expectations for the children. Ask yourself: What are my goals? Are they reasonable given the child I am working with? Have I become too attached to the idea of this child changing or learning to meditate? Have I become too attached to my role as a teacher? And no matter how important meditation or mindfulness practice may be to you personally, it may not be the right time for the child you are trying to teach. Pema Chodron writes: “The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new,” and often we blind ourselves by clinging to the idea that meditation is the one answer. Remain aware of your own hopes for them and encourage, but do not push or get over-attached to, certain outcomes. Realistic expectations are very different from low expectations, and hopes and intentions should not be confused with expectations. This practice is challenging for lifelong practitioners, so will certainly be difficult for children. But remember too that frustration and failure have often been the best teachers of the masters.

Hold realistic hopes and intentions for yourself and for the children—be patient, challenge yourself and those you work with, but do not push too hard. Experience (and research) suggests that children do best with shorter meditative activities practiced more often. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests letting children mindfully walk five or ten steps, and then rest and run around a bit before trying again.

If you work with young people, you probably know that patience and a good sense of humor are two of your best tools for yourself and the kids. Teaching adults to meditate takes enormous reserves of these, and teaching children takes even more. Take the children seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Do not be afraid to have a sense of humor about yourself and even your students in a respectful way; it’s a great way to role model acceptance and how to handle frustration, and to show that meditation, and life, is fun. If humor isn’t your strength, you can work on it, but more importantly, work on your strength—whether that be language or generosity or just your compassionate presence.

You may be familiar with the concept “don’t just do something, sit there.” All of us who work with children nowadays know this is far easier said than done. If the thought of getting your child to sit still and do nothing but breathe for an hour seems impossible—well, it probably is. It’s difficult for most adults.

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We are planting seeds in a child to blossom in the community, and we must tend our entire garden. If you are a parent, practice as a family. Recommend a mindfulness curriculum at school or in your place of worship. If they don’t have one, volunteer to come in and lead a meditation. Be a part of creating a mindful school community where teachers and students can all reinforce contemplative practice in each other. Advocate for the physical education teacher to incorporate yoga and tai chi into their lessons. If you are a therapist or doctor, teach the whole family you work with to practice together—the research shows that kids thrive in school when parents are involved, and the same holds true for medicine and psychotherapy. The more places that a child is reminded of mindful awareness, the more places the seeds you planted will be nurtured and can thrive.

The ancient teachers remind us to sit in meditation with no hope of fruition. Teach with no such hope either, but teach with the right intention. Teach from the heart because you believe this can help or heal, not because you have expectations or attachments to outcomes.

Excerpted from Child’s Mind: How Mindfulness Can Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm, and Relaxed, forthcoming from Parallax Press. Please see book review on page 46.

mb54-Tending4Christopher Willard received his bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University, and his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, where he studied the psychological applications of meditation and mindfulness practice. He considers the Engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh his spiritual home. He currently works at Tufts University as a psychotherapist.

Cloud Concentration Meditation

The first meditation I ever learned was a gift from my father, when I was about six years old. We were floating on a raft in a pond and gazing up at the blue summer sky. We were watching giant cumulous cloud slowly morph and change shape from one to another above us. My dad looked over at me and said, “Hey, want to see a magic trick?” Of course I did. “I’m going to make a cloud disappear with my mind.” “No way!” I responded. “Sure, I’ll do it. In fact, we can do it together. Pick a cloud, let’s start with a small one to practice.” I picked a smallish, puffy white cloud on the horizon. “Now, all you have to do is focus on that cloud and just breathe. With each breath, notice the cloud getting a little bit smaller.” We lay there in the sun looking at the cloud, breathing together, and sure enough, with each breath the cloud seemed to fade slightly. “Keep focusing on that cloud,” my father instructed me. “Bring your mind back if it wanders. You have to keep your mind on it or it won’t disappear.” We continued breathing, focusing, and sending our will at the cloud as it faded itself away over the course of the next few minutes. It was certainly magic to me.

Try this meditation yourself first to get a sense of the best clouds. It really only works with the puffy white cumulous ones (unless you have the patience to sit for what could be days!). I also have a personal bias that it be done on a perfect summer day while you’re drifting on an inflatable raft. You can even try placing your worries onto the cloud and letting them fade slowly away. But once you get the hang of it, pass it on to a child as my father did to me. Of course, I now understand that clouds will form and un-form in the sky regardless of my intention and willpower. But still, at that moment, my breath and mind seemed like the most powerful forces in the world. Later, as I grew older, that forming and un-forming, the ever-changing nature of the clouds, became a lesson in the ever-changing and impermanent nature of everything.

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Inner Change Is Social Change:

ADHD and Mindfulness Activism

By Armen Kassabian

In elementary school I was diagnosed as being Emotionally Disturbed (ED) and Learning Disabled (LD), and having Attention Defi Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I was kicked out of school twice and had interactions with the law due to impulsive behavior. My first experience with paying attention to the present moment occurred at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. At weekly mindfulness meditation group meetings I noticed how the practice of paying attention to my breath helped me gain selfcontrol. I also spent time in Plum Village, where a fellow meditator said he saw a lot of growth in me, and noticed that I had calmed down greatly.

As a hyperactive young man I was deeply affected by mindfulness practice. Practicing mindfulness with my breath, thoughts, and body during my freshman year at college, I noticed that my impulsiveness and emotional reactivity were not as severe as they had been before. I began to realize that my ailments, once debilitating, were directly soothed by mindfulness practice. I learned to sit with my experiences, accept them, and work constructively with them rather than fight with them. Mindfulness had an immense impact on my concentration and emotional stability.

When I biked to my meditation group every week, I would pass the most socially unstable areas in the city, where drugs, gangs, prostitution, and homelessness were rampant. I wondered how inner city kids could benefit from mindfulness, which isn’t only a middle class luxury but is for everyone. With the mounting stresses at college, I knew I had to integrate mindfulness into my life more fully, so I designed a major called Contemplative Practice in Education at Clark University. My main focus was teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction skills (developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn) to inner city students and students with ADHD.

I am a product of the ADHD generation, which views Ritalin as the primary solution to achieving higher standardized test scores and more obedient students. The long-term effects of overprescribing drugs like Ritalin are still unknown and may prove to be negative, especially during the sensitive developmental stages of childhood. Drugs can debilitate a person’s sense of awareness, shut down parts of the brain, and make one dependent on them to achieve a sense of well-being.

Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, allows a person with ADHD to strengthen their innate capacity to slow down, and to become more aware of thoughts, emotions, and actions, integrating all parts of the brain. It’s been shown that mindfulness practitioners can rewire their neural pathways over time. Mindfulness can empower one to make more conscious choices, access inner resources, and gain confidence in the ability to focus. Instead of being dependent on a drug for well-being, practitioners learn to regulate themselves.

Inner city children with ADHD did not have the resources that I had had to find safer, more natural forms of treatment than Ritalin prescriptions. In order to help inner city children learn new ways to reduce behavioral problems, I used a grant from the Worcester Cultural Coalition to teach an after-school program called Citizen Schools. The grant allowed me to teach the art of mindfulness to at-risk high school students who had been kicked out of school. Later, in the Dominican Republic, I taught meditation and yoga classes for first graders, many of whom were hyperactive and aggressive. All three classes aimed at teaching stress reduction skills to young people.

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My journey into mindfulness has empowered me to know that ADHD and ED are not lifelong ailments. Instead, they are conditions that can hinder my performance in school, relationships, or work if I do not regularly practice and strengthen my inner capacity for stillness, calmness, and focus. My spiritual practice has empowered me to pursue social action through inner transformation. I believe that inner change is social change and becomes community change. I am committed to sharing mindfulness with young people with ADHD, and those from inner city environments, as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. This desire for social justice has come from the roots of the practice that have flowered in my own life and the lives of others around me.

Armen Kassabian graduated from Clark University in 2009 with a major in International Development and Social Change, Spanish, and Contemplative Practice in Education.He practices with Empty Hand Zen Center.

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Generation to Generation

By Judith Toy

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Faces of the children I work with—victims of great violence and injustice—file through my heart during meditation. What do these children and their families need in order to heal? Only loving attention.

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When fifteen-year-old Dee first came to us at the Strengthening Families Program (SFP) in Asheville, she brightened the room, chattering non-stop about her training in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and an after-school program. Dee’s family does not include a father. Because she was in the throes of alcoholism, her mother, Louise, left Dee with her grandmother, who routinely beat Dee with a yardstick. Louise, who had also been beaten, is now in recovery. When she came to us, Louise had only recently regained custody of her daughter and was desperate to re-bond with her child.

Two Dharma sisters, Susan Hales and I, share an office at the SFP, cherishing the opportunity to realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Our federally funded program is free to families. Over fourteen weeks, we teach families interaction skills based on a rich, award-winning curriculum. With several staff members on hand to model dinner table conversation, we share a mindful meal, a family ritual which seems to be lost to TV. After dinner—no highly processed food or sugar—children attend class with two youth facilitators. Susan and I begin each class with breathing and stretching exercises. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Inhalation and exhalation are a kind of prayer to invoke inner peace.

The children learn peer refusal skills, how to identify their feelings, problem solve, and empathize. Their parents—in a separate class with parent facilitators—learn how to better understand themselves and their children, set boundaries and consequences, stay calm, play with their children, problem solve, and empathize. Finally, they learn to help their kids build on their goals and dreams. An hour later, the two groups join a family class to practice what they have learned. Often we use games and artwork to convey deep truths.

Dee and her mother joined this program at a critical moment. There are two times in a child’s life when the brain is completely plastic: ages two and fifteen. This may account for the fact that fifteen-year-olds are often at odds with their parents, because they can see clearly that what their parents say does not mesh with what they do. It is time for them to individuate—to carve out their own values and ethics. This is difficult if the family’s values and ethics are unclear. So, we try to help parents name their family strengths by teaching good seed watering. “Catch your teen doing something good,” we say to parents. And to the teens, regarding their parents: “You can attract more butterflies with honey.”

Mindfulness helped me put myself in Dee’s shoes. What would it feel like to have no father, to lose your mother, to be abused by your grandmother? Through mindfulness, I could model a calm and patient authority for her newly sober mother. One of the ways we guide parents is to help them set boundaries. Time and again, I see kids respond favorably when their parents are able to set firm rules with reasonable consequences and stick to them. Kids interpret this attention as love.

When Louise began to set boundaries, and Dee fi y realized she would not be hit if she went outside the lines, Dee pushed them. One evening she arrived with a new piercing—a ring in her lip.

Louise had been away on business, and Dee pierced her own lip with a sterilized needle. What delusions needed to be punctured? Louise hit the ceiling when she returned home. She was new to her daughter, and didn’t know how to cope.

Dee was upset at her mother’s reaction, which she said was to throw a loud temper tantrum and lock her out of the house in the cold. I took Dee aside. In tears, and picking at her skin, she told me living with her mother was not working out. She wanted to leave the household and live with her aunt. She was afraid of her mother’s temper. I saw that part of Dee’s fear stemmed from mistreatment at the hands of her grandmother. This is, because that is! In families, we see the flower in the root of the plant. I could see the seeds of rage and dark mental formations that had been carried from generation to generation. Educator and visionary Rudolf Steiner expressed the larger implications of right livelihood with children well: “The way I work with every growing child has significance for the whole universe.”

At a staff meeting, we processed the family problems. To ensure that Louise would continue to attend class and that she did not feel cornered, we decided to set a meeting for her, Dee, and three staff members after graduation, a few weeks away. The happy ending to this story is that by the time graduation rolled around, mother and daughter were reconciled, Louise had learned ways to take care of her anger, Dee had learned that her mother cared enough to set boundaries, and both of them gave SFP an amazing testimonial at the ceremony.

Names and circumstances of SFP participants have been changed to protect the families.

mb55-Generation3Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, is a senior OI member who, with her husband Philip Toy, guides retreats around the U.S., and this summer, in Ireland and Scotland. They have founded three Sanghas, one in a medium security prison. Judith practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in North Carolina. She is former associate editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

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World Beat Sangha Soup

Sangha Strengthening Weekend Retreat

By Phuong Ai La and Nhu Quynh La

mb55-World1At Deer Park Monastery in May 2009, a new Dharma door opened for the World Beat Sangha from San Diego, California. Originally some of us had the simple wish to gather for days of mindfulness at Deer Park. Thay Phap Dung and the other brothers and sisters wisely nurtured this tiny seed. A few dedicated Sangha members nourished the sapling, and the wish finally bloomed into a full weekend retreat. While the road to the retreat was smooth for some, it presented more challenges for others who had to rearrange their lives temporarily to make this appointment with life. And so, tortoise or hare, we all made the trek up the rocky hills, turned the knob, opened the door, and entered an experience that was as diverse as our fifty-six eyes, but also unique in its magic.

Magic? In things as ordinary as breathing, sitting, walking, singing, working, eating, drinking tea, and studying? How could this be? Perhaps there were secret ingredients in the soup. Starting our healthy vegetarian broth, we threw in the carrot of generosity and the sweet onion of inclusion. The Sangha collectively determined that everyone who wished to, could attend the retreat. Sangha members practiced dana (generosity) and contributed money to assist those who couldn’t afford the full cost of the retreat.

For a broth sweeter and richer by far, we included some apples: the exquisite loving-kindness and care of monastics who planned and led the retreat activities. Thay Phap Dung, Thay Phap Thanh, and Thay Phap Ho explained the Sutra on the Four Nutriments and answered questions from members puzzled or bewildered by this provocative sutra.

Thay Phap Dung taught the World Beat Sangha how to conduct our first formal Tea Ceremony. In different ways, we all participated. Some baked cookies. Four served as hosts. Two offered incense and flowers to our ancestors. We enjoyed the songs of musicians, the humor of a puppeteer, the laughter and poetry of children, and Dharma jokes. One Sangha member shared: “The tea ceremony was special. Walking in and sharing a bow with each host in turn. Then sitting peacefully on the cushion, with the abbot embodying solidity. For moments, we let go of discrimination, of judgment, of past and future. We laughed, sang, and drank deeply of the joy of living together.”

Slow Down, Relax, Breathe

But it was not all cookies, tea, and song. There was work to be done, joyfully and mindfully. We couldn’t live off of a thin, watery broth. We needed substantial protein and nutriments—chunks of squash, slices of daikon, cubed tofu, and chopped scallions. We rallied to the call of the dedicated Plant Sangha and the good cheer of Thay Phap De, who doled out our gardening gloves, shovels, and hoes. For several hours, with refreshment and rest in between, we were dutiful weed whackers, planters, and mulchers. We managed to clear an area that had been full of weeds. Trees were nourished and several young plants put down roots that day, ready to welcome Thay and the Plum Village Sangha for the summer.

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In truth we were really fertilizing and mulching ourselves. We were the young plants that put down deeper roots that day in the hazy sun. To practice is to stop, or at least slow down. And when you stop the monkey mind—just as when the morning or night is at its quietest—strange and shy creatures emerge. Daily stress, frustration, and countless negative habit energies that catch us unaware, that push us unceasingly away from a genuine connection with life, come up. We say, “Ah, hello friend, so there you are.” A Sangha sister shared her fertilizing moment, when she encountered difficulty upon arriving and felt frustration and disappointment. She was reminded that “a more respectful, saner solution with the help of breathing and a little more mindfulness might help. It did.” Another Sangha friend penned a poem about his own encounter with stopping:

Slow down, relax, breathe—notice your breath, notice your green relatives with white flowers; notice other relatives have green leaves and red flowers, notice your relatives give pure air, in the pure land, on the pure mountainside. So slow down. Ask for Buddha mindfulness, remember the “enjoy your footsteps” sign, and enter enjoyment. Slow down your footsteps, end suffering, enter peace.

A Wonderful Dharma Door

Traditional Buddhist literature teaches that there are 84,000 Dharma doors. Thay inspires us to find new Dharma doors appropriate for our brave new world. That weekend we found one, not with just one pair of eyes but with twenty-eight. This manifold quality of the unfolding of the weekend was present in the diverse range of ages, ethnicities, and cultures within the Sangha group; the coyotes, caterpillars, frogs and toads, turtles, and rabbits; and the light footsteps of our two young Sangha members, Ananda and Micah. No one could forget three-year old Ananda, dancing and prancing, moving from person to person, hugging and tickling and hanging from our serious-looking and stoically seated practitioners who were trying hard not to burst into laughter.

Reflecting upon the fruits of our Sangha strengthening weekend, one Sangha organizer shared this beautiful insight:

“We at the World Beat Sangha recognize our great fortune of being in such proximity to Deer Park Monastery. A Sangha weekend together may be less feasible for those much further away from a major practice center. But the local Sanghas in California, on the east coast, in France, Germany, and elsewhere may also like to take advantage of being near a practice center, and explore this wonderful Dharma-Sangha door.”

Perhaps this metaphor from another happy Sangha sister describes the experience most aptly: “Each of us is precious and complete on our own. However, as members of our Sangha, we become richer. We become a nutritious, celestial bowl of World Beat Sangha Soup!” It was a magic soup indeed, a soup of our collective practice. We hope that your local Sanghas will open your own Dharma doors, enter, and cook up a bit of magic too.

mb55-World3Phuong Ai La, True Compassion of the Heart, and Nhu Quynh La, True Gentleness of the Heart, are sisters who live and practice in San Diego, California. This article was written with insight from Velma Carrio, Healing Practice of the Heart, Barbara Casler, Jim Cook, Ron Forster, Joyous Equanimity of the Heart, Jim Hornsby, Namaste Reid, Joyful River of the Heart, and David Viafora, True Mountain of Meditation.

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The Freedom of True Love

By Keri R. Hakan

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I believe that freedom can be found in true love. My husband and I dated for about ten years and then were married for eight. He passed on in July 2010 from pancreatic cancer. In our eighteen years together, we taught each other a great deal about life and love, without the intention of doing so, but by simply respecting, accepting, and caring for each other in good times and in “bad” times. Our connection was a bond that intertwined us and made us stronger as individuals and as a couple.

I was in my early twenties and in college when we met, and Paul was slightly older. The first time we ever saw each other, there was an instant attraction and connection. When we started dating, I was pleasantly surprised by how respectfully he treated me and how safe I felt with him.

A few years into our relationship, Paul got very sick and almost died from a rare, benign tumor in his intestines. This condition came on without warning in a man who had not had so much as a sniffle in the time we had been together. I would go to my classes and then head to the hospital to sit with him. Paul was my first serious relationship and I loved him, but I was not sure how to handle this situation. The beautiful, intelligent, talented musician that I knew was now lying in a hospital bed being prepped for surgery and waiting to find out if this tumor was cancerous. This was not the “happily ever after” future that I had romanticized, read about, and seen on television. This was messy, crazy life. Was I ready for this? Was he? Yes, as it turned out, we were.

At My Side

He recovered from that illness, but it was a precursor of what was to come. In February 2007, five years after we were married, I suffered a brain abscess that almost killed me and left me with serious side effects. My left leg, arm, hand, and foot were almost useless for several months, and I required a lot of therapy and assistance. Paul was at my side the entire time. The only time I felt confident that I would recover was when he was with me. He had to take care of everything, including me, as well as go to work each day. He did it. Every morning he got me out of bed, dressed me, took me downstairs, and made sure I took my medicines and ate breakfast. Then he went to work. He came home on his lunch break to check on me and eat with me. He did this for a year.

I felt very guilty that my young husband had to take care of me this way, but whenever I said anything about that, he would stop me and assure me that he knew I was getting better every day because he could see it in me. When he would tell me that, I believed it. He loved me in my weakest physical and emotional states. He did not see a woman who had lost all her hair, had a huge incision on her head from brain surgery, and was unable to do the simplest human tasks, like walk normally. He saw his wife, the woman he loved. For this love, respect, and compassion I am extremely grateful, because they are the reason I was able to recover.

The Love of My Life

When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2008, it seemed like a nightmare or a horrible joke that was being played on us. Were we being tested? Paul was my rock. How could this be happening? I questioned it all the time, not wanting it to be reality. One night, a dear friend said to me, “Keri, you know that you can handle this; you do know that, don’t you?” I did not know it at the time. My own health ordeal was one thing, but now the love of my life was being threatened. This was an entirely new ball game.

Paul and I sat down together and had several deep, meaningful conversations about what this meant for us and how to deal with it. We made the conscious decision together to be positive, no matter what happened, and to believe in each other. We set our compasses and moved forward into these new rough waters together. Paul entrusted his life to me. He allowed me to take care of him as I saw fit. I mustered everything I had learned about being seriously ill and recovering, and applied to Paul many of the same elements that he had used during my illness. He realized he had to take care of himself and deal with past situations that had festered in him emotionally. He began practicing Tai Chi and qigong and doing other self-awareness work that included being present, releasing the past, and not being concerned with the future. Meditation helped him attain the ability to live in the present moment.

A Sea of Freedom

I also began these practices, and the release that came from practicing mindfulness meditation was like a tidal wave washing away negative energies, worries, and fears. The sun shone brightly through any clouds at those times, as it does for me today. We both marveled at how in touch we were with our bodies and the energies that flowed through us, especially when we concentrated on our breathing.

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In the hospital during Paul’s last weeks on earth, I recited the guided meditation “In, out, deep, slow; calm, ease, smile, release; present moment, wonderful moment,” several times to help him relax and fall asleep. It was the only thing that worked. I believe that because of meditation practice, Paul lost the fear of cancer and death, and realized that there was more beyond his diseased body. We both made the connection between our emotional states of mind and our illnesses, and believed that our bodies and minds were one, as Thay says. Much freedom came to us from living and loving mindfully.

Our illnesses taught us that the love and happiness we shared for so many years was a special connection that not everyone experiences. We appreciated each other and the life we had in us every day, and living mindfully in the present moment helped us to do that. Paul taught me that no matter what is going on, there is room for opportunity, compassion, love of one’s self and others, gratitude, and joy.

We loved and lived these past two and a half years with gusto and with cancer, and it was brilliant. True love and the realization that we were living it allowed us to swim in a sea of freedom that can only be described as divine. Even now, after Paul’s passing, that gift continues to warm my heart and mind and enrich my being.

Keri R. Hakan is thirty-seven years old. In early 2010, she and her husband started meditating with The Heartland Community of  Mindful Living Sangha in Kansas City, MO. She recently relocated to Portland, OR.

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Lightness in My Heart

An Interview with Sister Boi Nghiem

By Natascha Bruckner

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Sister Boi Nghiem lives at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, one hour from Memphis, Tennessee. We spoke over the phone on February 24. She said she hoped we could “establish a bond of friendship while we’re having this interview—or let’s say be-in, to make it less formal.” Her gentle words and frequent laughter were delightful.

Question: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I’m twenty-seven years old. I’ve been ordained for five and a half years. I was born in Vietnam, and when I was eleven, my family moved to the United States. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and then I went to Plum Village when I was twenty-one years old. It was the legal age for people to go clubbing, but I chose to go to Plum Village instead.

My sister is also a nun. She’s now at Blue Cliff Monastery. She has been a nun for ten years. That was one of the main reasons that I know the practice, because of my sister. When I was a teenager, I was not so interested in the practice. I was just like any typical Vietnamese American teenager. I liked to listen to music and do other things that were quite fast-paced. I listened to ‘Nsync and Backstreet Boys. Whenever my sister sent videos of Plum Village to my house, especially performances of the monastics, I couldn’t sit and watch because everything was so slow. I would fast forward it. It made me so sleepy.

When I was nineteen, I started to go online and research and read Buddhism. The first book that I read was Thay’s Being Peace. I went to Deer Park for two weeks during a fall break in August 2004. I was able to see the simplicity of the monastics—to see them practice, and how happy they were, and the harmony they had. A beautiful image that I will always remember from Deer Park was that one time, I saw a young sister helping an elder sister to put on her shoes. The younger sister took the pair of shoes and placed it in front of the elder sister’s feet. How often do you see this kind of image in America? It’s very rare. When I saw that image, I was like, “Wow! It’s so beautiful how we can take care of each other in this simple and gentle way, with so much love.”

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On October 20, I went to Plum Village. I only bought a oneway ticket, because I didn’t have enough money to buy a two-way ticket. Some Vietnamese people believed that one of the main reasons why you became a monastic was because your heart was broken or you had difficulties in your family. I didn’t have either of those, so I thought, “This is a great time for me to go, because if I wait until I’m older, I might suffer and it would be difficult for me to have a monastic life.”

Question: What inspired you to become a monastic, instead of remaining a lay person?

Sister Boi Nghiem: In Plum Village I was able to be close to the sisters, and was able to receive Thay’s teachings directly. For the first month, the question, “Should I stay or should I leave?” would arise almost every day. It was quite draining. I decided, “You know what? I’m going to make a decision right now. I’m going to sit next to the ping-pong table and write my aspiration letter.” That was it! I found my decision to become a monastic quite simple, compared to other people. I was able to see the transformation in myself and in other friends practicing. For me, living in a place where no one is smoking or drinking beer, that’s heaven!

Question: In the last five and a half years as a monastic, has the experience lived up to your expectations, or have you been surprised in any way?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I have been surprised in many ways. Before I became a monastic, I thought that the monks and the nuns were angels from above. I didn’t think that they would have unskillfulness or make mistakes. Of course, when you live with the sisters, you are able to see that they’re human beings just like all of us. Their speech can be unskillful; their actions can have a lack of mindfulness, and their words or actions can hurt people. At first I couldn’t accept this, because it was something that I didn’t expect from a monastic, especially someone who practiced for a long time. But then I realized that if I continued like this, I would not be so happy. Now I see that even though I’m a monastic, I also make mistakes. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes; you have to allow other people to make mistakes. What is different is that we have the practice, we have the precepts, and we are on the path of transformation.

Question: Apart from that quality of acceptance, how else have you transformed on this path?

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Sister Boi Nghiem: When I was growing up, I was not aware of my thoughts, my mental formations, or my perceptions, especially the negative ones. But once I become a monastic, I started to feel uneasy with myself. I started to see the other side of myself that I didn’t see before. I asked myself, why am I like this? Why do I think like this? When I had these thoughts, I would lock myself in the restroom, look in the mirror, and talk to myself. It’s very nice if you have personal contact with yourself without any interruptions. Doing this day after day, I was able to accept and love myself more. I started to feel very light. Thay’s teachings are always with me, whenever I feel like this. Simple mantras, like, “I know you are there, and I am very happy,” or, “I am here for you.” I apply these mantras with myself. I know that I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m quite happy with where I am.

Before I go to sleep every night, I take two to five minutes to sit in silence. I make an aspiration. What is it that I want to practice tomorrow? I reflect back on what happened today; if I said unkind words, then I promise that tomorrow I will practice loving speech to my brothers and my sisters and those around me. This allows me to make the past beautiful in the present moment. This is something that I have done during the last three years, and it has had a great effect on my practice; it really makes me feel happier and the mind of love continues to grow and grow every day.

Question: I think a lot of people are surprised to find out that there’s a practice center in Mississippi. Could you share the story of how it came about, and describe what it’s like there?

Sister Boi Nghiem: Magnolia Grove Monastery is 120 acres. At this moment, there are thirty monastics living at Magnolia Grove. There are twenty nuns and ten monks. Ninety percent of our brothers and sisters were ordained at Prajna Monastery in Vietnam. All of us are under forty-five years old, so we are very young at heart!

In 2002, there was a peace walk in Memphis, Tennessee, with Thay and the Plum Village Delegation. At least 3,000 people joined that peace walk. It was the first time that Vietnamese Americans down in this area were able to see a large number of Americans practicing Buddhism with a Vietnamese Zen Master. The Vietnamese Americans wanted to help their children transform their strong emotions and their stress in their daily life. They also they wanted to help themselves. They wanted to establish a monastery down in the south. After that peace walk, a group of lay Vietnamese Americans went to look for a place, and finally they were able to find Magnolia. They purchased the land, and devoted lay practitioners came every week to help build the monastery. They constructed a meditation hall, a kitchen, a book room, and a guest dormitory, and donated it all to Plum Village.

In 2005, we officially accepted it as part of the Unified Buddhist Church. That’s when Thay came to Magnolia Grove [then Magnolia Village] with a delegation and officially accepted it as a Plum Village practice center. The Vietnamese Americans wanted to have monastics right away, but Thay said that at that moment it was not possible; conditions were not yet sufficient. He asked them to please wait a few more years, and then thirty monastics would come. And it’s true—five years later, we have thirty monastics. The patience that the Vietnamese Americans had, the love that they had for us, their devotion to the monastery—those are some of the reasons I decided to come to Magnolia Grove Monastery; it’s like an expression of gratitude to them.

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Currently most practitioners that come to Magnolia Grove are Vietnamese. Sometimes friends from Memphis, Oxford, Alabama, Missouri, New Orleans and other states nearby come to practice with us. Every Sunday, we have a Day of Mindfulness and live Dharma talks. The monastery is near Oxford University—Ole Miss—which is quite well-known for their football team, I’ve heard. From time to time a group of students will come to our center because they have to write an essay or do a research paper, and they choose Magnolia Grove Monastery as their visit site.

We have a Vietnamese class for the young people because we want them to remember their mother language. We also have English classes for our brothers and sisters.

There are many beautiful birds down here. In the summer when you have breakfast, you will see dragonflies—hundreds and hundreds of them. Vietnamese people predict that when the dragonflies fly low, then it will rain. We just look at these dragonflies and predict the weather for that day. If they fly high, it means it will be sunny. They have fireflies at night. It’s beautiful. Mother Nature and the ancestors of the land support us and are always by our side. It’s a very peaceful place.

Question: Almost all of the monastics at Magnolia Grove were ordained in Prajna. They’ve come to a new country and a new culture; how are they doing?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I feel they are quite happy. I see that our brothers and sisters adjust to this environment quite well. Since we don’t have too many guests yet, the brothers and sisters take this time to practice, looking deeply and taking care of themselves. At first, there were some times of struggle with the language, but we are encouraging our brothers and our sisters to please learn English as much as they can. It’s not only for the benefit of Magnolia Grove Monastery, but in the future, it will benefit other centers as well.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to share with people reading the Mindfulness Bell?

Sister Boi Nghiem: From time to time, during the day, ask yourself, “What am I grateful for?” Or, “What conditions of happiness do I have right now?” Don’t just ask this question when you feel sad or depressed, but also ask this question when you are happy and in a joyful spirit. For myself, it really makes my practice more joyful, I feel happier, and I feel there is this lightness in my heart.

Seeing all these things happening in the world—like the protests in Libya and Egypt—they’re going through a lot, fighting for their own freedom. Here in America, we have this freedom. The most important thing is the inner freedom we have. It’s important that we cultivate this inner freedom—free from hatred, enmity, afflictions. When a situation comes and we react, we are the final condition that determines if it will be beautiful or not. If someone comes to us and says unkind words, and we react with anger, then it is our fault. But if someone comes to us and says unkind words and we react with peace, gentleness, and love, then we make the situation manifest beautifully.

Please consider your breathing as your best friend, as someone always by your side helping you to overcome difficulties and cultivate that happiness. See your breathing as a Buddha helping you, as someone that you truly love. It’s amazing how much your breathing can help you. It’s priceless. It does not water the seed of anger. It does not water the seeds of jealousy or irritation. It’s very faithful to you, but how faithful are you to your breathing?

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mb57-Lightness9To learn more about Magnolia Grove Monastery, visit www.magnoliagrovemonastery.org. Thay and the Plum Village delegation will lead a mindfulness retreat at Magnolia Grove, September 28 -October 2, 2011.

 

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Love Letter from Auschwitz

By Peter Kuhn 

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

How Could “I” Do This? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unfathomable Love 

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

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

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

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

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

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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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