In Memoriam

Don Uber
September 3, 1939 – November 4, 2002

Don first came to the Potluck Sangha four years ago, and soon this shy, sweet man rarely missed a chance to be with us.  Hosting a study group one time, he confessed, “We tend to develop isolation as a coping mechanism early in life. Sangha models openness, acceptance, peace, joy, and inclusiveness.”

Once, on a Sangha nature walk, a flock of swallows descended, flew in a circle around Don’s head, rose, descended again, and one bird sat on his shoulder. It rose, came back, and sat again, this time chirping in Don’s ear. Don listened, and when there was a pause, he whispered back, and the wild bird listened.

When Don told our Sangha about the cancer growing inside him, many of us offered support. Joanne offered to accompany Don to his appointment with the surgeon where he would learn the details of his planned surgery. At first he said it was not necessary, but then paused for a minute and softy said yes, he would like the support. Don was discovering how to let people be there for him. Don asked his surgeon if it would be all right to travel to a meditation retreat in San Diego with Thay. The surgeon said yes, that spiritual practice is the best preparation for surgery. At the retreat, though a little hesitant, Don talked about his cancer with his Dharma discussion group, and received much support and compassion.

Near the end of October Don was in chemotherapy and radiation and having a very rough time. Though we had been doing what we could to help out, we felt that he needed more support, and planned to ask him how we could help him full time. But we never got to ask him, as he was suddenly back in the hospital, having suffered a heart attack and then a stroke. Late one Saturday night we heard the news, and many Sangha members gathered around his bedside, telling him of our love and appreciation for him, and singing songs. Though the hospital staff said he was in a coma, his hand lifted as we said our names and spoke of our good times with him. When we sang, his eyes became moist, like ours.

The evening following Don’s death, the Sangha gathered with his sisters, who had traveled from New York, to sit, recite the Heart Sutra, share stories, songs, and a meal. We talked of what Don would want in a memorial service. Several of the Sangha members created a beautiful ceremony, attended by about 60 people. We lit candles, had a short silent meditation, read some poems, sang songs, and shared stories about Don. Being able to be with Don during his illness, his dying and his memorial gave the Potluck Sangha members a deepening love and appreciation for all our moments together. Let us be joyful, let us be kind.

What to say of a man so gentle
A wild bird lights on his shoulder
To speak into his ear?
Let his kindness go ahead of me.

Offered by members of the Potluck Sangha in Oakland, California: Caleb Cushing, Joanne Connelly, Lennis Lyon, Sarah Lumpkin, Denise Bergez.

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Beloved Dharma Teacher Karl Schmied Passes Away

On May 7, 2006, Brother Karl Schmied, True Dharma Eye, a senior OI member and Dharma teacher from Germany, passed away. Karl was a very active Sangha builder and also did a lot of work for the Hungry Children’s Program in Vietnam. Some of you may have met him recently when on tour with Thây inVietnam. With Karl and Helga Riedl, he started Intersein Zentrum (Haus Maitreya), a residential practice and retreat center in the tradition of Plum Village. He also founded “Intersein,” the German magazine for the Sangha. On Sunday, May 14th, after returning to Plum Village, Thây spoke quite a bit about Karl in what was a tribute to this OI member. Here is an excerpt from this Dharma talk (listen to the whole talk at


Last week during the teaching tour in Holland and Belgium, I learned that Karl Schmied, a Dharma teacher of Plum Village, passed away in his home in Fischbachau, in southern Germany. We decided that a number of brother and sister monastics would go from Plum Village and take care of the funeral. In Plum Village we are very grateful to that delegation who went to Germany to take care of the funeral of Karl Schmied.

This is an excerpt from what Sister Bi Nghiem, a member of the delegation, wrote Thây:

“On Wednesday we brought some white flowers and came to Karl’s house around 9 a.m. He was lying in his meditation room in front of the altar surrounded by Buddha statues in the windows. Several big photos of Thây were around him, as well as candles, burning incense, and flowers. We put a photocopy of Thây’s fax, “no coming, no going,” directly beside him.


Usually the dead are dressed in formal wear—a black suit and white shirt. But Karl was dressed in his Order of Interbeing jacket with brown pants and a yellow turtleneck sweater, just like when he used to come to Plum Village. But his clothes were the only thing that were the way he used to be. Not only had Karl lost much weight but he had gone through a great transformation. His face showed a quality I hardly can describe. He showed a great inner freedom that comes from letting go. I felt a deep spiritual quality in him which I had never seen in him before, like a monk, is the only way I can describe it, like a real monk. I have seen dead people before but never anything like this. It was obviously the result of his life-long practice, of his trust in the Dharma, of his service to the poor in Vietnam. While I was sitting there, I felt it help me overcome my own fear of dying.”

Karl Schmied began his studies with Lama Govinda and he became a Dharma teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He was a successful businessman and his first contact with Plum Village was in a retreat that Thây offered in Germany. Our publisher in Germany wanted him to come and see Thây but he refused. “I have seen many monks before and don’t need to see one more.” “But this monk is different, you should come to see him.” So he came to the retreat. That began a new chapter of his life. He began to practice according to the Plum Village teaching, became a Dharma teacher of Plum Village, a very happy Dharma teacher. He also went to Vietnam and taught, gave Dharma talks on mindfulness and how to practice. He helped the poor, the hungry children in Vietnam at a time when Thây and Sister Chan Khong could not go to Vietnam and do these things.

I remember one day after he had completed one retreat in Germany, he said good-bye and went to the south for a meeting for his business. I asked him whether he could release that meeting in order to come to our second retreat. He said, “That meeting is very important in my business.” So we went to the second retreat without him. The next morning at the sitting meditation session I looked down and saw him sitting. He told me afterward that while he was driving south at one point he was able to release that cow and make a u-turn and go back to the second retreat.

He had suffered from cancer for about eight years and this morning when I read Sister Bi Nghiem’s letter I saw that that cancer was a gift for him. Because with that cancer he started to practice more deeply, more wholeheartedly. That’s why he got the freedom that was expressed so clearly in Sister Bi Nghiem’s observation. About a month ago Sister Chan Khong and I went to Germany because we learned he was dying. We spent three days and three nights with him, and he was very happy during that time. We practiced together and he was able to accompany us to the airport when we went back to France.

When you know that you don’t have a lot of time to live, you know that you should use that time to practice deeply for your release, for your freedom. You don’t think of any other things. You don’t think of money, power, fame, or sex anymore. You are free. That is why Thây said that the cancer is a gift. You get freedom.

Sister Bi Nghiem wrote that while she was sitting there looking at his dead body she overcame her fear of dying. Because if you can die like that it is wonderful, you are free. Freedom is the greatest gift and freedom is the fruit of the practice. Without freedom you cannot die happily, you cannot live happily. And the way True Dharma Eyes, Karl’s Dharma name, the way he lived during the last few months before he died gave us a lot of confidence in the Dharma, in the practice. If you have the true practice usually you get the freedom that he got. There’s no doubt about it.

About 30 years ago a practitioner coming from the United Kingdom asked me, “Dear Thây, when do you think we are ready to be a teacher? When do you know you can be a good teacher?” And Thây said, when you are happy; because if you are not happy you cannot be a teacher. When you are happy, you are nourished by happiness and you nourish the people around you with happiness. This is real happiness. Many of us think of happiness in terms of power, fame, money, success, sex, because we have desire in us and happiness is the satisfaction of this desire. Many of us have been running after these objects of desire and we continue to suffer deeply by doing so.

In the teaching of the Buddha there is the expression “joy and happiness.” The practice should bring us joy and happiness. How to be joyful, how to be happy—the kind of joy and happiness that nourishes us and nourishes the world—that is the true question. In Plum Village we remind each other that life is available. With the true practice we can get in touch with the wonders of life in us and around us, so that we can be nourished, so that we can be healed, so that we can help nourish other people around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh
Lower Hamlet,
May 14, 2006

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Sangha as Refuge

The Dharma of Caring for Alison K.

By Lauren Thompson


I never knew Alison K. when she was well. By the time both she and I were regularly attending the Rock Blossom Sangha, in Brooklyn, New York, she was a few months into a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Her tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst kind. According to the statistics, she had a year, at most two years to live. She was forty-one.

This would be my first intimate encounter with the reality of death, with the reality of someone I knew dying. For the Sangha, it would be our time to experience most poignantly what it means to take refuge in Sangha.

Having brain cancer is difficult enough. For Alison, the difficulty was compounded by her family situation. She was living alone; her parents had both died years earlier; she had two sisters, but one was unable to help, and the other was able to visit only periodically. For reasons known best to Alison, she had decided to grant three close friends the medical, financial, and legal powers of attorney. They all loved her and were deeply committed to her care, but even as a group they couldn’t meet all of her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. And so the degree of refuge that Alison sought in Sangha was profound. As her illness progressed and her needs grew more intense, the compassion that arose within the Sangha, both as individuals and as a body, was just as profound. For me, the experience was one of watching a miracle unfold, as beautiful and poignant as a lotus flower.

Like a flower, this bud of compassion unfurled in stages. At first, only one or two members were involved in her life outside of Sangha. For most of us, our involvement consisted of listening deeply to her words during Dharma sharing. She shared all of her pain and confusion, her fear and occasional joy and ease, and for me, as for many, her need was sometimes overwhelming. I felt a strong impulse to close her out, to guard myself from her pain. I felt the discomfort of strong aversion, and also the discomfort of disapproving of my own aversion. Was I really so selfish and weak that I would turn away from a Sangha sister who was dying of cancer? At times I felt such distress that I could barely sit still.

But the practice of deep listening helped me through these storms. Week after week, the instructions for Dharma sharing reminded me to observe my reactions without judgment, to simply bear witness to her truth, to listen for what may not be said in words, and to attend to everything with great gentleness. After some time, I found that my response had changed. As Alison spoke at length about her life’s present conditions, I heard the heart message beneath her words: “I suffer. Please help.” And the bud of compassion began to open.

It was then that I was able to reach out personally to Alison, and it was then that our brief but intense friendship began. One fall afternoon we met for tea, and we spent hours in conversation that dispensed with the usual preliminaries and small talk. We connected very deeply. Within weeks, Alison’s condition worsened, and through the winter and spring she spent more time in hospitals and hospice than out. Her capacity for language began to deteriorate, so that at times conversation was not possible. Yet our connection remained strong; in fact, it became only stronger.

What she needed was for me to be fully present to her, and during my brief visits, often no more than an hour once or twice a week, I found I was able to offer this. Whether that meant laughing over a movie with her, staying with her through times of confusion or distress, or holding her hand as she slept, it was tremendously rewarding to be with her in this way. It could also be draining and upsetting. I learned I had to take care of myself, as well, in order to take care of her. Layer by layer, the petals opened.

Blessed… Blessed… Blessed

As Alison’s condition worsened, many others in the Sangha were also drawn to be personally involved. Some offered regular companionship. Others helped to move her belongings into storage when she had to leave her apartment. Some visited as they could, or provided occasional transportation; others offered support to Alison’s closest caregivers. Some simply held her in their thoughts.

And Alison expressed her gratitude for it all. A precious memory for the Sangha is a tea ceremony which Alison attended in the fall. Alison began by sharing how thankful she felt for the support she had received, the friendship, the love. Then she sang a song for us all. It was a setting of the Beatitudes, which she sang beautifully in a low, warm, alto voice. “Blessed … blessed … blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall be comforted ….” She sang with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over her chest, as if her heart could not contain all that it must hold.

As the months went on, Alison would at times be able only to whisper “Thank you” or “So sweet,” or smile her luminous smile. Even if the most she could do was gaze into our eyes with warm intensity, she found a way to convey her gratitude.

Living in the Moment

We found that, even if we were only marginally involved, caring for Alison required that we shed expectations. Her condition would worsen and then dramatically improve, so we never knew what to expect from any visit. One day, she may be quite talkative. The next, she may be almost comatose, as her heavily medicated body stabilized after a major seizure.

Our sense of how much longer she might live was in constant flux. She moved back and forth between supported independence and hospice, between functioning and incapacity. Each transition felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another, but how long that era might last was anyone’s guess, even the experts’. “Don’t-know mind” was the only frame of mind that could contain this fluid reality. There was no definite future to plan for together – the customary illusion of “the future” could find no fixed mooring under circumstances like these. There was only the present moment.

We in the Sangha all contended with the feeling of helplessness, of having to accept that we could not give Alison what she really wanted, a reprieve from early death. And much as we might wish to offer our comfort, we couldn’t know how she would receive it. She might greet us warmly and ask about ourselves. Or she might barely waken. Or, for others more than for me, Alison might display the impulsive fury of a frustrated child, straining every fiber of her caregivers’ patience. We consoled each other, in person, by phone, and through an e-mail care circle, that our loving presence could be only helpful. We also encouraged each other to take breaks, to give only as much as we could without feeling resentful.

The challenges were many, but the gifts were many, too. I know that for myself, time I spent with Sangha sisters and brothers whose visits happened to coincide with mine often led to long, intimate conversations. Being with Alison awakened in many of us the sense of how precious every moment with another being truly is. Knowing this, how could we be anything but completely authentic and kind? For me, these encounters provided moments of deep healing of the terrible loneliness that had always left me feeling set apart and unknown. Through Alison’s dying, I had fleeting glimpses of interconnectedness with all of life, of true interbeing.

The Most Beautiful Gift

Certainly the clearest experiences I had of interbeing were with Alison herself. During one visit in early spring, she was alert and eager to communicate, but her speech was confused. Still, her heart intent was very clear. She insisted that I not leave until I had some “Christmas.” She knew that wasn’t what she meant, and after a few moments she landed on the right words: ice cream. An aide brought us each a cup of ice cream, and when she couldn’t finish hers, she offered it to me. I told her that more ice cream would probably upset my stomach. She held her cup out to me, saying, “Then eat it carefully. I’m giving it to you carefully. So you eat it carefully.”


As I took the cup, I was moved almost beyond words by her offer, which was indeed full of caring. She seemed to be passing to me, not just ice cream, but her life, asking me to enjoy for her the portion that she would not be able to enjoy herself.

“Alison,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

“Yes, but no,” she said. “You don’t understand. I really like you. No, not like. I mean, I don’t want to be …”

She started gesturing broadly with her hands, and I suggested, “You don’t want to be all lovey-dovey?”

“Right,” she said. “But I love you. I really do.” “I love you, too,” I said, “I do.”

And for many moments there was only silence between us. There was a communication then that was not really between “Lauren,” with one personal history, and “Alison,” with another. We barely knew each other on that level. It was a connection of our very being. It was a moment of such joy and sadness. It was the most beautiful gift. A “Christmas” gift indeed.

When I was ready to leave, she patted her bald scalp and said, “Next time we have class, I’ll wear my hat.”

I smiled. “You mean next time I visit?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“You look lovely just like this,” I said. I kissed her forehead, said good-bye, and left. That was our last conversation. Within a week, she passed away.

To the Other Shore

I knew Alison well for only six months. I knew very little about her family or her relationship history, or what kind of music she liked. But through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing. Along with others in the Sangha, I felt that I was able to step, now and then, in the footprints of the bodhisattvas, responding with compassion to Alison’s condition, which was, ultimately, the human condition. I sensed, moments at a time, how precious life is. I saw how Sangha can be a boat that carries us safely to the other shore — it carried Alison, and it carries me still.


Alison K. passed from this life on March 27, 2007, at the age of forty-two.

mb50-Sangha3Lauren Thompson, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, NY. She is a children’s book author, presently working on an adult memoir of her experiences with Alison K.

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Las Flores Sangha

By Lorraine Keller


In 2005, after twelve years of reading Thay’s books and a visit to Plum Village, I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the Deer Park retreat. Some members of the Order of Interbeing motivated me to start a Sangha in a city where there was none.

I thought I wasn’t ready, but in January 2006 I found the courage to start a regular Monday sitting in Mexico City, where I live. For a year only two or three people came, but by 2009 there were around twelve regulars, all with lovely stories about how the teachings had changed their lives forever.

Most of the people in Mexico City are Catholics and members of other Christian denominations; of the various Buddhist sects, Tibetan Buddhism predominates. However, I have found people to be very open to Thay’s teachings. When talking about the teachings, I make an effort to avoid using words from foreign languages; instead I talk about inner peace and the transformation of suffering as the main themes, without labeling them “Buddhist.” Most of all, I try to be an example of how the teachings can transform a person’s life.

Today, the Las Flores Sangha has two sittings per week with about twenty-four regulars. We have Days of Mindfulness every month, when practitioners bring family and friends and share what they have learned. We bring Thay’s books so that people can have access to them. We share with newcomers the importance of taking responsibility for the violence in our country.

The Las Flores Sangha has made it a goal to put into practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings by organizing teams in the areas of ecology, nutrition, social and family violence, and end-of-life support.



Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Paulina Parlange have prepared a beautiful presentation for people who live in poor communities near beaches and forests in Mexico to make them aware of the importance of conserving natural resources and taking care of the environment. Jose and Paulina have already done a wonderful job in Michoacan, and they are now leading a workshop in Oaxaca. We are preparing a simple email presentation to send to our friends about how much damage we do to our planet with our unmindful actions and how we can, through small daily decisions, reverse these actions.


One Sangha member, Cecilia Dominguez, is preparing a menu guide of nutritionally-balanced vegetarian meals to help us become more vegetarian every day. She is helping anyone who wants to have a more meaningful, mindful diet. We hope to publish a practical, simple guide in Spanish.

Social and Family Violence

Every two weeks, I practice at Casa Hogar Margarita, a shelter for poor girls from violent families, which I founded in 1998. We teach the parents meditation, and we have a Dharma sharing about violence in childhood, in families, and in our society. Our intention is to help parents and other family members understand their seeds of anger and transform them into understanding and compassion, so as to avoid repeating the same violence with their children. We will soon teach the children a daily meditation to practice before supper.

Last summer, I gave a free workshop for teachers from low-income public schools to help them learn meditation techniques and to understand the sources of suffering and violence. The goal of the workshop was to help them become more peaceful, understanding teachers.

Being with Dying

Three women from our Sangha are helping people with loved ones who are dying or have recently died. Our Sangha practices Joan Halifax’s meditations (which Caleb Cushing shared with us) at least monthly to help people become aware of the inevitability of death as a normal passage and a continuation of life.

Where Peace Is Needed

In September 2009, after completing a course of chemotherapy and right before my surgery, I was profoundly happy to be ordained into the Order of Interbeing at the Deer Park retreat. Four practitioners from the Las Flores Sangha came with me and brought family members. I was so happy to translate Thay’s last Dharma talk for them. They were very touched.

With every decision I make, I go to the teachings for guidance, and every time I find help. Meditation has taught me to love myself and to feel secure and peaceful, no matter what happens in my life. It has helped me to face cancer treatment with gratitude, acceptance, love and compassion towards myself and others.

I am profoundly grateful that I have had the chance in this life to learn about Buddhism through Thay’s teachings, and I am committed to spreading it all around me, especially in my country, where social justice and peace are so deeply needed.

mb54-LasFlores3Lorraine Keller, True Mountain of Jewels, practices with Mexico City’s Las Flores Sangha. She was ordained in 2009, right after finishing eight chemotherapy treatments and just before undergoing cancer surgery. She enjoyed being alive to listen to Thay. She arrived at the surgery full of peace and joy; the doctors could not believe it.

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The One Who Bows

By Ann Moore


One day in January 2010, my friend and Dharma teacher Joanne Friday called me and shared that she had a significant birthday coming up, her sixtieth. Westerners are used to celebrating every birthday under the same zodiacal sign; but under the Chinese astrological calendar, one’s birth sign recurs only every sixty years. Joanne had been born under the sign of the metal tiger. Her sixtieth birthday marked the only recurrence of her birth year that she would ever likely celebrate, and celebrate she intended to do, being filled with gratitude to all of her non-self elements for the fact that she would be celebrating at all.

“I plan to have a potlatch,” she told me, explaining that this is an event where the hostess gives gifts to the guests. “I have received so much,” she said. “I want nothing for my birthday but to give back.”

The woman is delusional, I thought, as the words of the Apostle Paul came to mind—“being poured out like a drink offering.” Joanne was always pouring herself out, giving and giving back, but when had we ever given anything to her?

I first met Joanne in August 2007 when she oriented me to the practice and welcomed me to Thay’s retreat at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. What joy was in my heart the day I arrived at my first Sangha gathering to find that Joanne was the Dharma teacher! Then in March 2008, Joanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. About the time she received this diagnosis came the news that her mother was dying. While Joanne was visiting her mother, twenty of us met in a Sangha home to offer the Ceremony to Support the Sick, and afterward each of us shared how Joanne had touched his or her life. How beautiful and refreshing it was to eulogize the living!

Joanne underwent a year of cancer treatment: two surgeries, life-threatening chemotherapy, and radiation. She scheduled her treatments around our twice-monthly gatherings at her home, facilitating one Day of Mindfulness on a Saturday after spending Friday night in the emergency room and another after undergoing surgery on a Thursday. She attended a weekend retreat in Cape Cod only a couple of hours after receiving permission from her doctor to travel. At one meeting she spoke wistfully of missing Thay.

“A potlatch,” I thought wonderingly, after Joanne’s phone call. Joanne wanted to give on her birthday, so surely the loving thing to do was to let her give. But her phone call planted a seed in my brain and reminded me of the beauty of those shared eulogies. I visualized a scrapbook filled with loving tributes from many people, together with funds enabling Joanne and her husband Richard to spend three weeks at Plum Village. After consulting with Richard, I went to work.

Into cyberspace went an invitation to send a card bearing testimony of a transformation catalyzed by Joanne, to contribute money for the trip if feasible, to share the invitation with any who might be interested, and to keep the project secret from Joanne. We would present the scrapbook and trip funds at the February mid-month meeting, one week after Joanne’s potlatch and three days before her actual birthday.

Before long I was swamped with contributions: people sent money, cards, and even letters of gratitude to me for giving them this opportunity to express their love and appreciation for Joanne. “Here is my check—thank you so much for asking!” My positive seeds were receiving so much nourishment; I was like a pond in danger of eutrophication! Affirmations from complete strangers left me in awe of the distance an action travels to come to fruition.


Joanne made the February meeting a joyful expression of gratitude for her sixtieth birthday. She invited Clear Heart Sangha to a festive dinner, cooked by her, which included foods from the garden tended by Sangha members. After dinner, thirty-seven people congregated for sitting meditation. Joanne had planned a tea ceremony, with cookies and chamomile tea, to follow the meditation. As tea was poured, she gave a discourse on love, and everyone was invited to share something of significance to him or her, such as a poem or a song.

At the end of our sharing, I presented Joanne with the scrapbook and an envelope with a business card reading, “Shamatha Travel” (shamatha means stopping, calming, resting, healing). Inside was a mock travel brochure featuring Plum Village, the European Institute of Applied Buddhism, and the destination of your dreams, with Avalokiteshvara as the agent to call. Also in the envelope were two simulated airline tickets, together (coincidentally?) with the amount of money I had estimated the trip would cost!

Joanne couldn’t have been happier or more surprised. She spoke of how much she had missed Thay and kept repeating, “I just can’t believe it.” Referring to her discourse during the tea ceremony, she said, “And I thought I had something to tell you about love!” I told her what a gift it was to us to be able to offer her this tribute. She agreed that this was clear from the joy on everyone’s face.

During the planning and realization of this gift to Joanne, I felt strongly that it was not my project and that I was acting as a conduit for Sangha energy. I am left with a sense of happiness and humility at having been instrumental in the realization of a vision; gratitude that I was able to be open for the project to unfold and fall so “perfectly” into place; a sense of interbeing with the greater Sangha community; a deepened commitment to the aspirant process; and a sense of new spaciousness now that the project is behind me.

Yes, but, Joanne says, the lesson is that you simply cannot give without receiving; you simply cannot receive without giving; giver and receiver inter-are—which seems to perfectly paraphrase the familiar gatha:

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to
are both, by nature, empty.
Therefore the communication between them
is inexpressibly perfect.

Or, in the words of Joanne as she looked out at the gathering: “I am looking at all my non-self elements, and I am gorgeous!”

mb55-TheOne3Ann Moore, Skillful Acceptance of the Heart, is an Order of Interbeing aspirant practicing with Clear Heart Sangha in Matunuck, RI, and the New London Community of Mindfulness in New London, CT.

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The Freedom of True Love

By Keri R. Hakan


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.


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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Unconditional Acceptance

An Interview with Joanne Friday 


mb62-Unconditional2Joanne Friday is a Dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing. In 2003, she received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh, her teacher for twenty years. Joanne leads meditation retreats for Sanghas and groups throughout the Northeastern

U.S. She lives in Rhode Island, where she is the guiding teacher for the six Sanghas that comprise the Rhode Island Community of Mindfulness. She is also an Associate Chaplain at the University of Rhode Island. Joanne was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on October 11, 2012 for this issue of the Mindfulness Bell.


Mindfulness Bell: October 11, is Thay’s Continuation Day. How do you see his continuation in yourself?

Joanne Friday: My ordination as a Dharma teacher was a clear example of how I see transmission and continuation. I had no thoughts of ever being a Dharma Teacher; it never had entered my mind. One day I received a letter from Plum Village inviting me to receive Lamp Transmission. After opening the letter, I went through feeling completely unworthy, and I thought, “Oh, they’ve made a mistake—my name was switched with some other person.” I really was stunned. After two minutes or so, it was as if I was struck by a bolt of lightning and I thought, “This has nothing to do with you.”

Since my first encounter with Thay, I have felt him to be very alive in every cell of my body. And the transmissions from my parents, from everybody who’s ever loved me, everybody who’s ever cared for me, all of them are alive in every cell in my body. So to say that is not good enough is an insult to all of them. This was not about my little egocentric self; it had nothing to do with me.

To prepare for the ceremony, my normal habit energy would have been to try to come up with the perfect Dharma talk, and have everybody think I knew everything about the Dharma. Instead, I could not even think about it and I had not one ounce of anxiety in those three months before the Lamp Transmission. At that time, as part of the ceremony, each new Dharma teacher gave a short talk after their ordination. Walking to take my seat, I still had no idea what I would talk about, and yet I felt nothing but pure joy, and I thought, “I wonder what I’m going to say.” So I told them the story I am telling you.

I said, “Thay gives a beautiful teaching on no-birth, no-death, using a sheet of paper. I received another deep teaching on non-self from a sheet of paper. I got this letter asking me to be here and this was my experience—I realized it is all about my non-self elements; it has nothing to do with me. It’s been so much fun; it feels so free. This is really amazing. I have almost no self-confidence, but I have total confidence in my non-self elements; clearly I do because I haven’t been the least bit anxious, and so I think I am experiencing non-self confidence.” And Thay was laughing and everyone was laughing.

And that has been the truth ever since. If I get invited to share the Dharma, I do my best to stay out of it. My goal in sharing the Dharma is to transmit what was transmitted to me and leave my little self out of it. And I don’t get tired. If my ego starts getting involved, I get tired, and so it is a good indicator that I need to go do some walking meditation and get out of the way.

MB: I went to your Day of Mindfulness in Portola Valley, California. I remember that you talked about your own life and challenges you’ve had. You are transmitting what you’ve learned and you’re getting out of your own way, and yet you are talking about your own life. I’m wondering about the balance between those two.

JF: I don’t think any of us experience things that are unique to us. When we experience suffering, the story line may be different for each of us, but suffering is suffering and that is universal. I think that’s where we can really understand interbeing. I share my own experience because the Buddha said to trust your wisdom, trust your experience. When I speak from my own experience, I can speak with conviction, because it’s true for me. Hopefully it will be something that others can put to use, too. My interest in Buddhism is how we apply the practices that the Buddha gave us to the suffering we encounter in our daily life, to transform it and become free.

Gentle Diligence

MB: Would you be willing to give an example from your own life of how you have used the practice to get free?

JF: Probably the most profound example was getting a diagnosis of cancer. My mother was dying at the time and she had been in the hospital. I had just signed her over into hospice care, and I went downstairs to the waiting room and got a call saying I had cancer. I remember feeling as if ice water were running over my body. Real fear. But within a minute, I breathed, I sent metta to myself, and then the question came to my mind: “Are you sure?” As soon as I asked the question, I felt peace, because I realized, “I have no idea. It could be almost nothing; it could be death. I don’t know.” So for me to get all wound up about it would really not make sense. I realized, “I need to find out, and that’s it. And right now, I need to be present for my mother in the hospital.”

The first thing was breathing. The breath was right there as the default position. The second was metta. I have practiced metta for twenty years, so it was right there. And then to ask, “Are you sure?” That takes me right to nonattachment to view and “don’t know mind.” And in “don’t know mind,” there’s every possibility. It’s such a wonderful place.

And then I thought, “Wow, I’ve been practicing the Five Remembrances* for years.” I have been aware of impermanence, but never as aware as when I got that phone call. The next thing that came to mind was: “If you have limited minutes to be on the planet”—later I thought it was really comical to think in terms of “if ” —“how many of them do you want to spend in fear and speculation?” And the answer was, “Zero.”

So that, to me, is a clear and concise example of how the practice can be applied in daily life. And the most beautiful thing to me was, going through a year of cancer treatment, I probably didn’t spend more than maybe a half an hour in the entire year in fear and speculation. I told my husband, “You know, the real tragedy wouldn’t be to die of cancer; to me, the real tragedy would be to have wasted this time.” To not have enjoyed the time I did have.

That was reinforced after the first chemotherapy infusion I had. I was treated in New York City, and as we walked out of the hospital, a bus came around the corner cutting in too close, and my husband pulled my arm and yanked me back from it. He said, “Be careful, they’re driving like crazy people.” He looked at me, I looked at him, and we just cracked up. I said, “Wouldn’t that be ironic, here we are, we’re convinced I’m going to drop dead of cancer, and instead we get hit by a cross-town bus.” [Laughs.] It was such a beautiful teaching, because we have no clue when the time will come or how it’s going to happen. Becoming more comfortable with impermanence is such a relief. It really frees us up to enjoy life.

MB: That is an incredible example. Thank you. You used all these potent tools one after the other in a very short period of time.

JF: It’s just following directions. Thay offers the practice in a very gentle way, instructing us to be gentle with ourselves, to not do violence to ourselves. At that point I had been practicing for about seventeen years, and I felt like I had a very laid-back practice. I felt like I was probably not strengthening my mind as much as I could, my practice was not as rigorous as other practices, and I was not sure if it was as solid as it needed to be. But clearly the benefits of gentle diligence over time were there because there had been absolute transformation at the base. I can usually only see progress in my practice by noticing that I am responding very differently to a situation than I would have reacted ten years earlier. In this instance, I would have been completely tied up in knots; I would have been a nervous wreck. I would have been trying to figure out what was going to happen and completely caught in fear and speculation. I know that my mind had been trained in that way.

But the training in gentle diligence, paying attention in everyday life, and taking good care of strong emotions when they come up really paid off. When attachment to views arose, it was such a gift to be able to look clearly, to not get caught in the surface of things. And to just do that over and over and over and over and over and over. If we practice like that, when the going gets tough, the practice is there for us.


MB: That’s a beautiful example of how we can train our minds without effort, without stress.

 JF: We don’t have to create a war with ourselves. There doesn’t have to be any judgment, criticism, any of that. It’s just to notice, and to do the practice, then to notice. To strengthen our mindfulness and concentration.



Healing the Inner Child

MB: In the book Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, you tell a wonderful story of transforming your anger to compassion by connecting with your inner three-year-old. Do you connect with your inner child on a regular basis? What have you found helpful in keeping her nourished and happy?

JF: When I went to my first retreat, I signed up for a consultation with Thay Phap An. I was brain-injured from a car accident and I was in a state of real confusion. I wanted to talk about a woman who had been very angry with me, so I said, “There’s this woman, she’s a really angry person.” And he said, “That’s not correct.” He said that whenever we assign a label to anyone or anything, it’s incorrect, because everything is impermanent. So we’re assigning a permanent status to something that is inherently impermanent. That has been a wonderful teaching; I use it all the time.

And then he went on to teach me about healing the past in the present moment and doing Beginning Anew with myself. It was such a training in the ability not to hold on to resentment and anger. And to look at myself and ask, “What is this person bringing up in me?”

I’ve been doing the practice of healing the inner child ever since. There’s hardly been a day that I haven’t used it, in one way or another. When I’m experiencing a strong emotion, I simply notice and embrace that feeling, breathe with it, and hold it. For me, just being with that feeling will usually bring a memory back of another time and place. It might have been last week or it might have been when I was three.

It inevitably takes me to times and places when I needed love and compassion and I didn’t get it. So my job is to provide that for myself. I can show that child a lot of love and compassion. My main goal in the practice is to bring the child into the present moment, to let her know the good news that she is no longer three. We’re adults now, and if people are yelling, we can leave. We don’t have to be there.

Many people do not access memories from the past when they embrace difficult emotions. If that is the case, you can breathe and send metta to yourself in the present because that child is still alive inside of you. A lot of healing can happen by doing this practice—accepting what is in the present moment and accepting ourselves unconditionally.

MB: How is your inner child today?

JF: I think that she is doing better and better, every day in every way. [Laughs.] I find there are fewer times that I need to spend a lot of time with her. Mostly now it’s a recognition, like Thay says about his anger: “Hello anger, my little friend, you’re back again.”

About fifteen years ago, my husband Richard and I were at a retreat and we were practicing noble silence. He gave me a note that said, “I called home, and so-and-so left a message. She wanted to borrow this thing of yours, so I called her back and said sure.” I was over-the-top enraged. And I was surprised at how angry I was, because I thought, “If I had retrieved the phone call, I would have called her back and said sure.” So I knew there was more to this than was meeting my eye.


Luckily we were in noble silence, so I couldn’t say a word. I sat myself down, did my breathing, did my metta for myself, and then I invited that feeling up and what I found was [a feeling of] not being considered. When I invited the rage up in me, I was transported back to being eleven years old. At that time, I had a surrogate father. This guy who lived upstairs fell in love with me when I was a month old, and he was a blessing in my life. He showed me unconditional love and was prominent in my life until I was eleven, when he died of a heart attack.

Sitting on my cushion, when I got in touch with the rage, I was transported right back to the conversation when my parents told me he had died. They said he had the heart attack two days before, but they didn’t want to tell me because they didn’t want me to see him with tubes in his body; they thought that would be too upsetting for an eleven-year-old. And now he was dead. I realized that I had completely buried that memory. If you had asked me a week before, I would have had no recollection of that conversation ever happening.  As I was sitting, I realized that to be told someone is dead when you are eleven—there’s nothing you can do about that. So I surmise that I was enraged because they had made a decision concerning the most important thing in my life and nobody asked me.

When I went back to revisit the conversation as an adult, I could give that eleven-year-old all the understanding and love and compassion that she needed, that she didn’t get at that time. I could validate her rage at not being considered. And I could see my parents as only trying to be good parents. It was all with the best of intentions that they created the situation. To see it all with no criticism, no blame for any of us, just understanding and compassion.

Thay says mindfulness leads to concentration, concentration to insight, insight to understanding, understanding to compassion. That’s how it works. I find that to be true every time. When I get to that place of understanding, there’s nothing but compassion. I wind up feeling compassion for myself, feeling compassion for my parents, and feeling compassion for my husband, because I look at him and think, poor guy, there he is trying to do something wonderful and here sits his wife, who is enraged. He knows nothing about this baggage I’m carrying.

MB: That story took place in the context of a retreat, where you were in noble silence and you were able to go deeply and work through these things internally. I’m curious how you would advise people who are in the midst of a busy life, when a trigger like this comes up, but it’s not in the context of a retreat.

JF: Most of the retreats I offer are in silence because of my experiences of this kind of healing. To be able to practice in silence helps me develop my mindfulness and concentration. And it helps me to hard-wire in the practice, so that when I am in the rest of my life, where there is not noble silence and most people aren’t practicing at all, that gentle diligence kicks in; it becomes a default. I can recognize that I have been overreacting to not being considered for over forty years. The blessing is that I don’t have to be controlled by it. I don’t have to react blindly out of ignorance to what I’m carrying around.

Once I know that there’s a block of suffering in me that can be watered and brought to the surface, I can recognize it for what it is and I don’t have to react to it. If I’m in my daily life and somebody does or says something that’s hurtful, I make a note of it. I’ll try to say, “For future reference, the next sit I do, I need to spend some time with that.” I just make an appointment with myself to take good care of that.

The more that I do it, it doesn’t take long at all. It’s not like I have to sit for three hours and work with it. It’s a very quick recognition now, for the most part, and I can go do walking meditation. If I can do a ten- or fifteen-minute walk, I can calm myself, get the mud to settle out of the water, then I know what to do and what not to do.

Making Good Use of Suffering

MB: What experiences in your own life have been most valuable in serving you as a Dharma teacher?

JF: I would say suffering. There’s nothing quite like it to help us to wake up. Thay says that he wouldn’t want a nirvana without suffering, and I can see why. The brain injury from a car accident is what brought me to the path, so suffering got me here. I look back at any suffering I’ve had in my life and ask: “What did it have to teach me? Did I benefit? Did I make good use of it?” If I didn’t make good use of the suffering, then it’s a waste of time.

MB: In Reconciliation, you write that you “discovered that mindful speech isn’t just choosing the right words to say—it’s transforming the ill will in my heart.” What guidance would you give to someone who wants to transform the ill will in his or her heart?

JF: One of the things I’ve been practicing with a lot is looking at stories that I’ve been told about myself or that I make up about myself and others. And getting caught in the surface of those stories and believing them. When someone does or says something hurtful, Thay invites us to look deeply, to not get caught in the surface of things, and that’s what leads to understanding, and with that comes compassion; it’s unavoidable. When I can understand somebody else’s suffering, any ill will is transformed into compassion.

When I’ve been able to cut through the story I’ve been telling myself, I feel almost childlike. I can simply show up without a story, show up not needing to make up one, and experience whatever is happening. It’s so delightful. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I try my best to show up, pay attention, and respond skillfully to life.

MB: It seems like it’s about you, but not about you—like you’ve made yourself into a fertile ground for these seeds to grow, but anyone can do that.

JF: Anybody can. If I can do it, anybody can. I’m the perfect example. I feel so blessed to have come into contact with the Dharma as transmitted through Thay in this lifetime. He has spent his life looking deeply and doing everything possible to make the Buddha’s teachings understandable—even to me. He says he has a fire in his heart. I feel that that fire is what he transmits to us. We are the luckiest people in the world and this is a very happy continuation day for all of us.

*    The Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.


Edited by Barbara Casey

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