Spanning a Bridge

By Sister Dang Nghiem


Still With Faith

While Thay and the delegation were in Hue, there were fewer visitors and retreatants than in 2005. Yet we continued our activities as planned. Thay gave Dharma talks with utmost compassion and inclusiveness.

Sometimes while I was translating his words into English, I felt dizzy and nauseous. I looked at Thay: he sat stably and his eyes were penetrating. I thought, ‘‘I love you so much, Thay. You are incredibly courageous!’’ Then I was able to concentrate again.

The monastic Sangha sat together two days before the Great Requiem Ceremony began in Hue. Brother Phap An shared with the Sangha the many difficulties he and the pioneering team encountered as they prepared for the ceremonies. Unlike our experience in Saigon, support from the Buddhist Church and the government in Hue was unreliable. He emphasized that the support in Hanoi was even more fragile. Our Sangha had to be responsible for everything from A to Z. He wanted his younger brothers and sisters to be aware of the situation, so that we would contribute wholeheartedly our practice and our service.

I was deeply grateful to Brother Phap An, our pioneering team, and all brothers and sisters from Prajna and Tu Hieu. Everybody worked tirelessly day and night, transcending their own physical and mental limitations. The success of each Requiem Ceremony in south, central, and north Vietnam could not be claimed by any one individual or any one organization. Innumerable hands, minds, and hearts joined together to make history. The people’s heart wanted it; the collective consciousness had ripened; the whole universe directed towards it. Thus, even though there were opposing forces, there was nothing that could resist it.

The Great Ceremony Begins

Before Temple Dieu De, Wonderful Truth, a river fl ws peacefully. Many children and elderly people begged at the gate. The temple is small, so we arranged all the altars for the souls of the dead, Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva and Amitabha Buddha, and Kshitigarbha’s lion throne to be placed outdoors to indoors, from the gate to the front of the Buddha Hall. The Great Requiem Ceremony began with the Invitation of Masters. About five elderly most venerables offered witness. Although they needed help to walk, they exuded the powerful spiritual strength of many generations.

Tears streamed down my cheeks the first time I saw my teacher in the ceremonial sanghati that he wore in Vinh Nghiem. Now Thay appeared again in that stately robe — heavy and large, veiling his body — looking like the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Not fond of cumbersome ceremonies or fancy dress, Thay usually wears his brown robe and brown Tiep Hien jacket. Later in Thailand, at the praying ceremony for King Rama IX’s long life, monastics from over fifty countries wore their ceremonious sanghatis, all except Thay who was dressed in brown.

After the Invitation of the Masters ceremony, a number of the monastics and Order of Interbeing members followed Thay, the Chanting Master, and his co-chanters to invite the spirits to come back to Dieu De Temple, to receive food offerings and Dharma offerings for the next three days. At Mt. Ban, a bamboo pole was put up with a long stretch of white cloth, which symbolized the bridge for those who had died on land to walk on and follow us back to the temple. At a river, another stretch of white cloth was dipped in the water, so that those who had died in the water could climb onto dry land and follow us back to the temple.

The heat was almost unbearable. Local young people smoked and chatted nearby. I said to them softly, “The monks and nuns are praying for the people who died in the Vietnam War. Certainly this includes many of your relatives. You could contribute your part and pray for them.’’ One by one, they extinguished their cigarettes and stood quietly for the rest of the ceremony.

The Transformation of Cheri Maples

In the late afternoon, I walked along the river with a younger sister. A well-dressed gentleman on his scooter stopped us. ‘‘What is the name of the police officer who talked at Hue Festival Centre last night?’’

I answered enthusiastically, ‘‘Her name is Cheri.’’ He took out a notebook and asked me to spell her name. It crossed my mind that he might be up to something negative, so I did not spell her last name. Once he got her name, he sped away. My sister told me, ‘‘He’s probably an undercover cop. He wants to find out whether she is truly a police officer in the United States.’’

Cheri Maples shared about ten minutes at the Hue Festival Centre, but in fact, she had written a six-page report to Thay recording all she had done for her police department, the prisons, and the young people’s court in Wisconsin and other states. At home and work, she applied Buddhist teachings and practices. With the experiences and insights gained from her own practice, she used her political influence to bring about positive, creative changes.

When I first met Cheri in Plum Village and again at a Wisconsin retreat she looked tough. In Vietnam she looked light and humble. Her gaze and her words reflected deep respect and love for Thay, as well as for Vietnam — her spiritual roots.

What Westerners Represent

The presence of Cheri Maples and of hundreds of Western lay and monastic practitioners of the Plum Village International Sangha spanned a bridge into the heart of Vietnamese people, transforming many long-term, ingrained perceptions. Perhaps to Vietnamese people, Westerners represent an invading force; they also represent a prosperous civilization. Perhaps Vietnamese people very much wish to participate in the globalization movement, but in the depth of their consciousness, they may still have hatred and suspicion towards Westerners. Looking at Western monks, nuns, and lay friends standing and touching the earth so solemnly during the many ceremonies, which went on from four to eight hours, many Vietnamese people were deeply moved.

One French sister was always present, even though she was over sixty. She shared, ‘‘I feel ashamed. My ancestors caused a lot of suffering to the land and the people of Vietnam. I want to kneel with my big sisters and brothers and apologize for my ancestors.’’

The Second Day

We enjoyed rain and drizzle the whole next day, the air cool and pleasant. This was the night of a ceremony to open the gates of hell to the souls of the dead, and to transmit the Three Refuges and Five Mindfulness Trainings. Sister Truc Nghiem wrote:

‘‘It was raining, but not heavily. It drizzled enough to soak the streets, people’s clothes and my own heart. The sky cried for Hue, for those still deep in poverty. Elderly mothers and grandmothers in their old stiff shirts, arms and legs dry and thin as sticks, curled up in front of the temple or trembled as they begged. I was still shaken by the images recounted by Sister Nhu Minh, of hundreds buried alive…then the bombing…then the floods.

“The Chanting Master of the ceremony, representing Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva, recited mantras to open the gates of hell. He recited Plum Village’s version of The Heart of Perfect Understanding in Hue’s musical style, his voice sweet and sincere, a voice of empathy and a wish for all victims in the dark realms to take refuge in the Three Jewels, to come and listen to the Dharma and receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He dropped a big roll of white cloth, symbol of a bridge from hell to earth. The cloth began to unroll. No one said anything. Suddenly, the grandmothers, mothers, uncles, aunties, young and old, men and women, all rushed in to carry the cloth on their heads. Thousands of people lifted the cloth bridge. Those unable to hold the cloth reached to grasp the edges or even the shirt of someone holding the bridge. Head to head, shoulder to shoulder, it seemed everyone in the world of the living wanted to be part of the bridge for those in the world of the dead. The bridge had no boundaries, nor did the worlds of the living and the dead. Suddenly, I understood the meaning of ‘The memorial white cloth for Hue.’ Regardless of all losses and suffering endured by Hue people, there is always some harmony between life and death. I know it is love that opens the gate between these worlds. We bear the suffering together.”

Helping to Cross Over

The most important part of the Great Requiem Ceremony happened on the last night. Called the Chan Te ceremony, Helping to Cross Over, this ritual helps dead souls begin anew, to transform their past wrong actions and suffering, to aspire to complete liberation. The Chanting Master ascended the lion throne of Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva, and the co-chanters sat on both sides before the lion throne, with monastics behind the co-chanters. Thousands of lay people situated themselves all around us. Those who were far away stood on chairs. The temple ground was packed.


In that huge and solemn atmosphere, I felt the coziness of a big family. One chant affected me deeply: “Not knowing that you have lost your own body.Your mind is unclear, confused, uncertain where it is going….’’ How many of us are living like sleep walkers? How many hungry ghosts wander through our civilized society?

The Chanting Master named the ten kinds of hungry ghosts. After each, the co-chanters recited mantras to untie their internal knots. They became hungry ghosts because they died in battles, or while running away from invaders, or while giving birth in which both mother and child lost their lives, or while serving as concubines and dancers in royal palaces, or while being sold for their bodies, or while taking their own lives in despair. Their suffering and injustices had continued to dwell in the deep consciousness of their loved ones and of the society.

A Stampede for Sacred Rice

The Chanting Master threw a handful of rice into the audience. People leaned forward to catch it. Everyone wanted to receive some of this rice empowered by the Three Jewels. They would save it and use it for treating ailments. The Chanting Master poured each fifty-kilogram sack of rice on a table, blessing it with mantras and mudras. Assisting monks scooped the rice into small bowls to distribute to the people. The more the rice was distributed, the more people crowded in to receive it. A few monastic sisters next to me had just left, so there was empty space around me. The lay people closed in right up to my neck, but because I sat solidly, they did not dare to pass me. Finally, I felt their energy becoming too strong, so I unfolded my legs and stood up. In a split second, everyone behind me poured forward. The people-waves were about to rush up and overturn everything. All the monastic brothers and sisters immediately stood up, stretched their arms, and held each other’s hands to create a wall of yellow sanghatis, surrounding and protecting the Chanting Master and the co-chanters.

Some monastics stood on the other side of the circle holding the ceremonial poles with one hand and holding onto to each other with the other hand. Strong human waves continued to push forward. Hundreds and thousands of hands were begging for rice. Many were raising up plastic bags or paper funnels, their eyes so sincere. There were also eyes filled with deep thirst and hunger — those who shoved everyone crudely and violently, including monastics. As they distributed rice, the monastics were stopping the human waves with their own bodies. As I gave out each handful of rice, I breathed in and placed my folded hand in that person’s palm; then I breathed out and released the rice. I could feel the thirst and hunger within them were instantly satisfied. Our moment of contact was sacred.

Clearing the Stream

Once again, the Sangha packed up to go to Da Nang, Nha Trang, before we went to Hanoi. During the time in Da Nang, I went to visit my birthplace Quang Ngai — after being away for thirty-three years. I had gone back to Vietnam three times before I ordained, but I never had the desire to return to Quang Ngai. This time, I came home, and I believe that the Great Requiem Ceremonies in the south and central Vietnam had cleared the ancestral stream in me.

I walked slowly on the road that led to my old elementary school. The bamboo bridge was gone, the land now flat above a sewage tunnel. I was born during the 1968 Tet Offensive, and just after my birth, my homeland was severely bombed. Houses were destroyed and my whole family had to run away when I was less than one week old. Two men carried my mother on a hammock; my auntie ran with me in her arms. My grandmother explained that they separated my mother and me so if a bomb hit, both of us would not die.

They carried us a long way, but no one in the next village wanted to house my mother and me. They believed that a recently birthing woman carried negative energy and bad luck to the host. In the end, a cousin of my mother took us in.

A Tearful Reunion

When that same uncle heard I had come back to visit, he rode his bicycle to see me. Now in his seventies, wearing a black hat and a black outfit, his features are handsome, elegant. I could not help staring at him as hot tears streamed down my face.

‘‘Lo and behold,” he said, “she looks just like that little girl Number Five!’’ meaning my mother, who was the fifth child in her family.

‘‘Why did you take us in, Uncle, when everyone was afraid of bad luck, of becoming poor for the rest of their lives?’’

‘‘I thought to myself, she is my niece. If I don’t help her, who will? After you came to stay with us, my wife was sick for many years, and it is true that we were always poor. But I never believed it was because of you and your mother. Being poor is a part of my destiny, that’s all. What is most important is that I offer love and kindness to others from the beginning to the end.’’

He continued, ‘‘I made a little bamboo hut for your mother and you behind my house. There was a bamboo grove in the garden, so I dug a deep hole in its shade, covering it with a log so your mother could relieve herself in private. I still remember the neighbor looking over from his house, shaking his head, as he said, ‘Young brother number six, you involve yourself in futile work!’ I just disregarded remarks like that.’’

My uncle is still living in that simple house with his wife. I asked permission to visit the back yard. My mother’s hut was now just a barren spot, but the bamboo grove had recently been cut; the bamboos were still lying on the ground!

Parting Gifts

Before I left, I ransacked my brown sack: Ensure [liquid nutrition] in a plastic bag, forty-some chewable Vitamin C tablets, half a bottle of green oil, and a stack of Band-aids. I asked my uncle to accept them for me.

I gave my auntie all the money I had, so that she could help him make a complete set of dentures.

‘‘When you eat, and you can chew vegetables easily, think of me,’’ I told him.

Festival of a Thousand Stars

After our return to Deer Park, Brother Phap Luu shared that one happiness for him is that in the morning when he wakes up, he can sit still; he does not have to take his alms bowl on the bus to go somewhere.

Sister Hanh Nghiem said, ‘‘Everyone thinks I am normal. I eat. I sleep. I use the bathroom. Everything looks normal, but there is something different inside. We experienced something very intense [in Vietnam]. How can you explain that to people?’’

I nodded my head. It has been almost two weeks since I returned to Deer Park. Still I continue to limit my contact with people. Even though I left Vietnam, my mind has not yet arrived completely in Deer Park. I am still in the process of digesting and absorbing the journey.

I have been taking a lot of time to write. I am grateful to the Buddha and to Thay for allowing me to be a monastic — to always have the opportunity to come back to what is happening in the depth of my consciousness.

Spanning a bridge from the cave of hell

All the way to heaven for a festival of a thousand stars.

mb46-Spanning3Sister Dang Nghiem, a nun residing at Deer Park Monastery, worked as a physician before embracing the monastic life. She translated many of Thay’s talks for the English-speaking monastics and lay friends during the Vietnam tour.

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Transforming Self, Transforming Society

An Interview with Cheri Maples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

MB: Could you give a couple of specific examples?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: Is there anything you would like to add?

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

Edited by Barbara Casey 

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