The German Maitreya Fonds

Helping Our Sisters and Brothers in Vietnam

By Eva K. Neumaier

For a period that seemed longer than it really was, we were squeezed together in a small bus, rocking along over a pothole-strewn gravel road on the way to a village near the Vietnamese coast. After a wonderful retreat under the guidance of Thay, our much honored and beloved teacher, and a splendid celebration of Vesak 2008, we were eager to learn more about Thay’s native land and her people. We were about to visit a poverty-stricken area where the Maitreya Fonds (Maitreya Funds) supports children’s day care facilities.

 

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Sitting near me on the bus, fellow retreatants asked about the Maitreya Fonds. Everybody on the bus was interested in learning more about this aid project. I explained that the Maitreya Fonds was created by the late Karl Schmied in Germany in 1992, in response to the poverty widespread among rural communities in Vietnam. Under the leadership of Christian Kaufl, a small group of dedicated volunteers—all students of Thay—has come together, working hard to raise funds to finance various projects in Vietnam. I promised to provide my fellow retreatants with more information once I returned to Germany.

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Kindergarten Is a Privilege

With a sharp jolt our bus came to a stop and retreatants from all over the world poured into the tiny coastal village of Phu An. Children crowded around us, eyes wide with excitement. Sister Chan Khong provided the basic facts about the kindergarten and the dire circumstances of life the parents and their children face.

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The kindergarten consists of one room with tables and benches made from roughly hewn boards; a thatched roof provides minimal protection from the scorching sun and constant downpours. There are no extra amenities in this room, nothing that is not absolutely necessary, and yet for the village children it is a privilege to attend the kindergarten. It means that they are not left to their own devices to forage for edibles in the fields while their parents look for work wherever they can find it as hired laborers.

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The children formed a circle and, led by their teachers, sang several songs. We returned to the bus, leaving with a mixture of feelings. On one hand, we were happy that the children were able to enjoy some education, care, and love, but on the other hand we were saddened by the magnitude of poverty and need in this country.

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When I returned to Germany, I decided to be one of the volunteers working for the Maitreya Fonds, providing help to those so greatly in need in Vietnam—a humble way of showing my deep gratitude to our teacher and our spiritual ancestors. It took almost a year for me to pull together the information for my fellow retreatants on that bus. Assuming most of them will read the Mindfulness Bell, I am summarizing our work for them and any other readers here.

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Where Help Is Needed

The Maitreya Fonds is a charitable association registered with the German government. All the work is done by eleven volunteers. Some of them visit the various projects in Vietnam on an annual basis, covering all their travel expenses themselves. Therefore only two percent of raised funds are needed to cover administrative costs, which consist mostly of banking fees for transferring money. On his annual visits to Vietnam, Christian Kaufl meets with social workers who are members of the Thien Hiep (Interbeing) Order, to learn about the progress made with some projects and newly-arisen needs in other areas.

The work of the Maitreya Fonds is possible only through the close cooperation of the volunteers in Germany with Plum Village and the social workers in Vietnam. The Vietnamese social workers understand where the need is most severe and where help is needed and possible, and propose projects for funding to the Maitreya Fonds accordingly. In mutual consultation with the social workers in Vietnam and Plum Village, the Board decides which projects will be funded. The work of the German volunteers consists primarily in raising the necessary money to fund the projects. On average we raise about $420,000 annually.

Our work is firmly grounded in the principles of engaged Buddhism as taught by Thay. Our basic philosophy is to assist people in gaining self-sufficiency. We believe that education and vocational training are the basis for improving one’s life. A severe problem in Vietnam is that teachers and social workers are paid less in rural areas than in urban ones, resulting in widespread teacher migration from the villages to the big urban centers, leaving rural communities destitute of educators. Therefore, a signifi     portion of Maitreya Fonds money goes to covering the salaries of teachers and social workers so that they may remain in rural areas where they are urgently needed. We also provide vocational training in sewing, carpentry, and computer technology, so that individuals will be able to support themselves and their families.

Another big project consists of providing children with supplementary food while they attend school or kindergarten. In general, parents must pay for the lunches their children get at school, but many parents lack the money. As a result, some children remain unfed while watching their peers eat. The Maitreya Fonds tries to cover this inequity, but sadly, at present we cannot provide adequate food for all the children in the schools and kindergartens we support.

Facilitating children’s education also requires basic physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and buildings which are sturdy enough to withstand the regular flooding during the annual rainy season. The Maitreya Fonds offers modern know-how to local builders and craftsmen to ensure that financial aid is spent in the most efficient and sustainable way.

While in general the Vietnamese honor and care for their aged parents and grandparents, there are situations in which elderly people cannot rely on the help and love of younger ones. In addition, lepers, shunned by most as outcasts, cannot look after themselves and are without hope. The Maitreya Fonds provides basic care for these two groups to ensure that these unfortunate people have a decent, humane life.

Without doubt, the material aid is much needed and also highly appreciated. But more precious than the material support is the education of children according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. In every kindergarten, the children are gently introduced to the practice of mindfulness. Teachers and social workers celebrate a monthly Day of Mindfulness with the children, an occasion of singing and joyful togetherness. Beginning at a tender age, children learn to abstain from opinionated and biased behavior, replacing anger with love and understanding. Thus the ideological rift that has caused so much pain to the people of Vietnam finds no breeding ground among this younger generation. The aid provided by the Maitreya Fonds is based on the practice of mindfulness, love, and understanding, setting it apart from other charitable operations in Vietnam.

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Among our first efforts at the Maitreya Fonds was the creation of an informative website in German, which was later translated into English and Vietnamese. All of the vital information is available there (www.maitreya-fonds.de) in all three languages, including past and present budgets and annual reports. The website provides all the necessary details for an easy, secure means, grounded in the Five Mindfulness Trainings, of supporting children and other destitute people in Vietnam. We welcome your support of Plum Village or the Maitreya Fonds, to reduce poverty in the home country of Thich Nhat Hanh.

For more information please contact Maitreya Fonds (www.maitreya-fonds.de).

mb53-TheGerman8Eva Neumaier, Peaceful Spring of the Heart, was born in Germany in 1937. She has studied Indian and Tibetan languages and taught in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.

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Media Reviews

mb53-MediaReviews1Happiness
Essential Mindfulness Practices

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2009
Softcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

This book is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for longtime practitioners, beginners, anyone who is curious about the practice of mindfulness. Happiness summarizes in concise, clear chapters what Thay has been teaching for the last sixty years.

It also answers, for me, the question of what the word “practice” means in our tradition. Several years ago, twenty or so lay people gathered at Plum Village to consider the idea of a lay community. It soon became clear that people had vastly different meanings when they spoke of “practice.” Some meant formal sitting meditation, chanting, reciting sutras. And while those activities can enhance our experience of the Dharma, they are not the essence of our daily practice. “Mindfulness,” writes Thay in the introduction, “is the energy of being aware and awake to the present. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment…. The practice of stopping is crucial. How do we stop? We stop by means of our in-breath, our out-breath, and our step. If you master these practices, then you can practice mindful eating, mindful drinking, mindful cooking, mindful driving, and so on, and you are always in the here and the now.”

The book is divided into six sections; each short chapter is a gem. “Daily Practices” covers the basics, such as breathing, sitting and walking meditation, bowing, gathas, and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. “Eating Practices” and “Physical Practices” are guidelines for caring for body and soul. The section on “Relationship and Community Practices” describes how to start and maintain a Sangha. It also offers techniques for creating healthy relationships, such as beginning anew, hugging meditation, deep listening, and loving speech. Several pages are devoted to anger and other strong emotions.

Some “Exended Practices” include solitude and silence, as well as lazy day, touching the earth, metta/love meditation, and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The section on “Practicing with Children” contains many useful tips for parents and teachers: listening to young people, walking meditation with children, the breathing room, and so on.

These are familiar teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh, which many of us have heard in Dharma talks or read in other books. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to read them again and again, because we might need to be reminded to actually practice them. And they really do work! I can vouch for that. Even practicing as unskillfully as I have, has made a huge difference in my life. In the six years since I committed myself wholeheartedly to Thay’s tradition, I have experienced deep healing and transformation. I am far happier than ever before.

Happiness is aptly titled. “We have a rich inheritance, but we don’t know it,” writes Thay at the end of the book. “We behave as if we were poor; a destitute son or daughter. Instead we can recognize that we have a treasure of enlightenment, understanding, love, and joy inside us. It’s time to go back to receive our inheritance. These practices can help us claim it.”

mb53-MediaReviews2Savor
Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung
HarperOne, March 2010
Hardback, 256 pages

Reviewed by Sister Chau Nghiem (Sister Jewel)

Two out of three people in the United States are overweight and one in three is obese. Obesity is becoming a pandemic around the globe. Most methods of weight loss focus on the symptoms, not the root of the problem, which lies not only in our way of thinking and living as individuals, but very much in the increasingly unhealthy and toxic societies in which we live, which encourage us to eat more, to eat foods that undermine our health, and to move less.

Based on both the profound Buddhist wisdom of mindfulness as well as the latest science on nutrition, this book by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung offers a new and penetrating perspective on how we arrived at our current weight problem and what we can do to reverse it, individually and collectively. The authors gracefully apply the teachings on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Four Nutriments, and other key Buddhist teachings to help readers understand and transform the suffering of excess weight and obesity.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, of the Harvard School of Public Health, compassionately and engagingly encourage readers to have faith in their ability to change and improve their life situation, no matter what difficulties they may have had in the past around weight loss. With the latest data on the health and environmental benefits of a more plant-based diet, meditative verses that help us incorporate mindfulness in all our activities, detailed guidelines for creating and implementing a mindful living plan that incorporates weekly goals for eating, exercising, and living more mindfully, and inspiring stories and suggestions for social activism, the book is packed with a wealth of resources for how to begin to make significant and lasting changes in our weight, in our life, and in the world, starting now.

mb53-MediaReviews3Failsafe
Saving the Earth from Ourselves

By Ian Prattis
Manor House Publishing, 2008
Paperback, 192 pages

Reviewed by Christopher Titmuss (excerpted with permission from www.resurgence.org)

Ian Prattis, a former professor of Anthropology and Religion at Carleton University, Canada, belongs to a growing school of thought that believes humanity requires a real shift in consciousness to handle the global crises—environmental, political, and economic. A core tenet of Failsafe: Saving the Earth from Ourselves is the simple maxim that our thinking has to change if the current worldview is to change.

Under the guidance of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Prattis states that the three poisons of the mind (to quote the Buddha) have become institutionalized. Greed pervades the corporate world. Hate pervades the military. Delusion pervades advertising. The poisoning of land, water, and air, and the catastrophes for the world’s poor and marginalized have their origins in the state of mind of those who run our institutions and their intentions to make profit, act violently upon people and the earth, and manipulate the public mind. There are signs of soul-searching in our major institutions, but the pace is painfully slow.

Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru, told Prattis that only two percent of the global population needs to meditate on a daily basis to transform human consciousness. Prattis endorses such a view and encourages people to slow down their relentless “doing” in order to experience a sense of “being”: a slowing down of thought, making it possible for fresh ways of thinking to emerge.

The book serves as a valuable collection of reflections on global issues and the part each one of us can play in making the necessary changes. While drawing on the wisdom of various authorities, past and present, Failsafe reminds us of the Buddha’s recipe for global ills—namely mindfulness, letting go, reflection, inner change, watching desire, inter-connection, and the transformation of consciousness.

Prattis writes that he remains “confident and optimistic about making the world a better place environmentally.” He has usefully employed his own experiences, the wise voices of others, and practical advice to address concerns about life on Earth. Failsafe concludes with a list of useful websites that inform and inspire further exploration.

mb53-MediaReviews4Touch the Earth

By Joe Reilly
CD, 40 minutes

Reviewed by Nicole Brossman

Touch the Earth showcases true genre diversity, taking listeners through an intriguing landscape of rock, hip-hop, country, eco-rock, and meditative balladry. Reilly’s honest voice and consistent message have the unique ability to pull the eclectic mix together. With his Native American heritage, roots and upbringing in contemporary Catholic folk music, ever-deepening understanding of life through Buddhist meditation practice, and academic studies in environmental justice and racism, Joe Reilly is able to unite people across diverse lines of race, class, gender, age, religion, ability, and musical genre.

While listening to Touch the Earth, listeners are able to engage in lyrical discussions of ecological cycles, meditation, global warming, war, and spirituality with an open mind. Reilly’s music strengthens community while embracing diversity, inspiring listeners to experience the interconnection with one another and their environment, and inviting them to look deeper and connect with the positive aspects in their own nature. This is exemplified when he asks, in the title song, “Where’s the Earth?,” then answers, “in your hands, underneath your feet right where you stand…. It’s what you eat. Take off your shoes and socks and sink your feet in the mud of the Earth, it’s the blood of your birth.”

Reilly is a practitioner in the Plum Village tradition, and practices with the Huron River Sangha in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He also practices at Deer Park Monastery, where he received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2004, with the Dharma name True Faith of the Heart. He has visited Plum Village twice, and wrote many of the songs on Touch the Earth while he was there. It’s clear from the first track of the album, when Reilly sings “Keep it E-A-S-Y,” that his songwriting invites listeners to smile, laugh, and sing along with him. Reilly’s creativity brings both humor and depth to things that seem very ordinary. Through his songs we learn that a tree, a tomato, a guitar, and a human being are not separate and isolated.

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My Path as a Mindful Educator

By Richard Brady

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“Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to awaken them.” This is the first of the four great bodhisattva vows of Mahayana Buddhism. Whether or not we aspire to be bodhisattvas, once we embark on the Buddhist path we realize that we are practicing not only for ourselves but for the world. As an educator working with young people, I’ve been particularly aware of the tremendous opportunity I’ve been given to help others awaken.

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My involvement with Thay and with mindfulness in education began almost simultaneously. It was 1987, and I was working as a high school mathematics teacher. My school community was experiencing an unusual amount of stress following four attempted suicides. One day that winter I began reading The Miracle of Mindfulness and saw immediately how useful its teachings could be for my very busy students. If they incorporated mindfulness into their lives, they would be able to cope with life’s inevitable challenges. The very next day I began to share short readings from the book with my classes, following our opening silence. Starting from the initial lesson about how to have unlimited time for oneself, students appreciated these readings as supplements to their mathematical learning. When I finished reading that book, the students asked for another, and I read them The Sun My Heart.

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Thay’s teachings sounded wonderful to me. However, the way of living he portrayed in these books felt so different from my own. It seemed to me that I could not get there from where I was. As fate would have it, near the end of that school year when the seniors returned from three weeks of working off-campus on senior projects, I noticed a presentation by one of the seniors—a boy named Chris—about his project at the Zen Center of Washington, DC. “Here is someone with meditation experience, someone I can learn from,” I thought. Chris began his presentation by telling us that a classmate and he had been reading Eastern religion and philosophy since seventh grade. Recently, he had discovered the local Zen center and “decided to put my body where my mind was.” I felt Chris was talking directly to me.

He spoke of his experience with tremendous enthusiasm. He showed pictures and recounted some dramatic experiences he’d had during the three-day intensive meditation retreat he attended as part of his project. At the conclusion of his talk, another student asked Chris whether his life was different now in any way besides the amount of time he spent sitting on cushions. Chris responded by saying that meditation had many effects on him. “However,” he added, “most are so subtle I can’t put them into words.” After a pause, he went on, “I can tell you that I am less angry.” Chris’s presentation, especially this last statement, was very moving to me. I thanked him and made a promise to him and to myself that I would try to meditate.

One year later I met Thay at Omega Institute in New York. There I was introduced to the custom of stopping at the sound of a bell and giving my full attention to the present moment. I came home with a small bell and brought it to my math classes. I sounded it at the beginning of class, and from time to time during the class period, to help the students stop and center themselves. Time seemed to stop during those brief moments. The students responded to the bell with respect. When I came home, I also began a daily sitting practice and helped found the Washington Mindfulness Community.

As my meditation practice matured, my life started to slow down. I became more relaxed. Mindfulness practice was helping me handle my emotions in a healthy way, improving my awareness, and increasing my sense of well-being. I now had the confidence I needed to teach it to students. In the health component of our Freshman Studies course, I began teaching meditation to help our ninth-graders create more space in their lives and reduce stress. Then, since math tests were a source of stress for so many students, I started to offer guided meditations before each test and quiz. First I asked students to get in touch with their emotions—excitement, nervousness, even fear—and then to observe these emotions without getting carried away by them. Next, I asked them to visualize a time when they had felt good about some mathematical accomplishment, perhaps learning to count or solving a particularly challenging algebra problem. After a couple of minutes, students were ready to begin work with a positive focus.

I was the only teacher in my school sharing mindfulness practices with students, so I was most gratified when Thay extended a special invitation to educators to attend his two U.S. retreats in 2001. During these retreats, educators had opportunities to meet in interest groups and share thoughts about promoting mindfulness in their educational institutions. After the retreats several of us formed the Mindfulness in Education Network (MiEN) as a continuation of these groups. MiEN’s first endeavor was the creation of a listserv, which started with 86 people. It now has 550 participants worldwide, ranging from kindergarten teachers to university professors and adult educators. Participants use the listserv to share their successes, challenges, and advice. More recently, the MiEN website (www.mindfuled.org) was developed. It includes many resources on mindfulness in education and instructions on how to join the listserv.

Wanting to expand the role of mindfulness in my mathematics teaching, I attended The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s fi weeklong summer workshop on contemplative curriculum development in 2005. My plan was to add a contemplative component to my tenth-grade honors geometry course. The workshop presenters and the other participants, thirty-five professors from the U.S. and Canada, were inspiring. I returned home with new ideas about contemplative reading and journaling and, more importantly, a profound sense of trust in the whole endeavor. I knew I still had a lot to learn and that I would make mistakes. I also saw that it would take time for many of my students to reap the full benefits of contemplative methods of learning. I was clear about their value and would try to communicate that clarity to my students. I would use these methods myself and grow as a learner alongside them. The course featured five minutes of contemplative practice (journal writing, meditation, or yoga) at the beginning of each class. I’ve described it in the paper Learning to Stop, Stopping to Learn, which can be found on my website, www.mindingyourlife.net.

In 2007 I retired from high school math teaching, wanting to work full time promoting mindfulness in education. During the past three years, I’ve offered mindfulness programs to educators and students, written articles, co-edited a book (Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning), and coordinated the first three MiEN national conferences. The conferences bring together several hundred participants, including early childhood educators, professors, counselors, and yoga teachers. They come to hear leaders in their fields describe the latest results in mindfulness research, university courses based on mindfulness, and creative approaches for sharing mindfulness with K-12 students. And they come to network with others who share a common passion. I leave each conference feeling informed, energized, and supported by the work of many others.

It has been my privilege to be involved with other organizations that focus on mindfulness in education. These include The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which has supported contemplative pedagogy in higher education since the early 1990s, and its recently formed Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. It also includes Inner Kids, and the Association for Mindfulness in Education, which focus on K-12 education. Links to these and other organizations can be found on the MiEN website. My greatest joy remains finding skillful ways to invite educators and students to practice, whether through including poems and short teaching stories in my writings, or offering short practice opportunities during my presentations.

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Those of us who share mindfulness with young people often ask ourselves, “At the end of the day, has it made a difference?” We believe it has, but controlled research studies aside, do we really know? Four years ago, at my school’s annual holiday alumni reception, I had a memorable conversation with Tom, a former student whom I had last seen when he graduated in 1989. Tom shared something of his career path, ending with his current job as a compliance lawyer for the World Bank. When he asked me what I was up to, I handed him my Minding Your Life business card. “Mindfulness Education,” he read. “That’s like the story you read to us about washing the dishes.” (He was referring to Thay’s story about being present to washing the dishes from The Miracle of Mindfulness.) I was surprised Tom remembered the story eighteen years later. It turned out that in the interim he had also read several books on mindfulness.

Five weeks later I discovered that the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society would be holding a meditation retreat for law professionals at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the spring. I sent Tom an email suggesting he check it out. I also mentioned that I had been moved by his recollection of the dishwashing story. Tom replied immediately, thanking me for the recommendation and concluding, “And if it means something to you, I’d be very surprised if there are any of us who were in that BC Calculus class back in ’88–’89 who don’t remember the introduction you gave us then to Thich Nhat Hanh.”

mb54-MyPath5Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, received the Lamp Transmission in 2001 to work with young people. He lives in Putney, Vermont, where he practices with the Mountains and Rivers Mindfulness  Community.

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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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Silence Is Goldish Blue

By Christian McEwen

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Twenty-six hundred years ago a little Indian boy lay resting in the shade under a rose-apple tree. It was the time of the spring plowing, and he watched the men and oxen as they worked their way up and down the lengthy furrows. In the newly turned soil, he could see the frantic insects struggling to escape, and the torn shoots of grass where those insects had laid their eggs. He felt strangely sorry for them, as if they were members of his own family. But at the same time he was thoroughly awake to the beauty of the day: the birds singing in the clear sky, the sweet scent of the apple blossom. Both/and, he felt: both sorrow and joy were possible, and an all-encompassing peace.

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That child was Siddhartha Gautama, who would grow up to be the Buddha. Years later, battling to reach enlightenment, he would remember how he had lain there in the cool shade under the rose-apple tree. Perhaps after all one didn’t have to strive for liberation. “Can one reach God by toil?” asks Yeats in his autobiography—and immediately answers his own question. “He gives himself to the pure in heart. He asks nothing but attention.”

Such attention is at the core of spiritual practice. Thich Nhat Hanh undertakes every task in the spirit of mindfulness, from tracing the word “BREATHE” in his warm, robust calligraphy to mulching the monastery garden. At Plum Village each day follows the same simple pattern, interweaving prayers and meditation with meals, community work, and private recreation. Because talk is only allowed at certain times, one’s mouth and busy brain are forced to take a rest, making space for a more widely focused attention in which each moment shines from within: the small frogs crouched on their lily pads at Lotus Pond, the roo-coo of the doves, the young nun in her gray  habit  playing football all by herself one quiet afternoon.

It is of course one thing to find tranquility in the rolling countryside of the Dordogne, surrounded by vine-yards and orchardsand rustling willow trees, and quite another to locate it in the modern world. As Max Picard says,  bleakly, “Thegreat cities are like enormous reservoirs of noise. Noise is manufactured in the city, just as goods are manufactured.” Most of us have learned to live with the whirr and click of the refrigerator, the bleep of cell phones, the omnipresent hum of the computer. But that doesn’t mean we actually enjoy those sounds. Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, was one of the first to suffer from its interruptions, even though he himself was partially deaf. His preference was to sleep till noon. But again and again the phone would shrill him awake. A colleague remembers seeing the phone in his room stuffed with paper or wound about with towels.

“Little did I think,” said Bell, “when I invented this thing, that it would rise up to mock and annoy me.”

Despite the clarion call of his name, Bell clearly valued time for ruminative reflection. One feels he would have sympathized with the Buddhist monks, and with the writers, artists, and musicians who have spoken out in defense of silence. “I think I am probably in love with silence, that other world,” says poet Jorie Graham. “And that I write, in some way, to negotiate seriously with it.” Jane Hirshfield agrees. “I’ve long believed that silence must be one of a poet’s closest friends. If I were not able to enter the silence before words, how could I find any words I don’t already know yet?” Silence for them is resonant, inspiring, part of what makes possible the kind of inner listening that gives rise to poetry. This is something even children understand.

Several years ago I was teaching poetry at a big school in the South Bronx. The desks were drawn together into groups of four and the students were gathered round them, calm and concentrated. Gentle music was playing in the background. Slowly, the classroom teacher and I moved around the room, glancing over the children’s shoulders, disentangling the sweet chicken scratch of their poems. Suddenly one of the little girls looked up at me. “I like you,” she said earnestly. “I like you too,” I told her, smiling, startled at the unexpected  compliment.

But when I thought about it later, I realized that it wasn’t me she liked as much as the atmosphere I’d helped to generate: something different from the usual noisy classroom and, I imagined, from the ruckus of radio and television and frenetic family life that surrounded her at home. Children enjoy silence, I remind myself, looking at the words of nine-year-old Joseph from a little school in upstate New York:

Silence is goldish blue.
It is like seeing the moon in the rain.
Silence is like standing by the window
when all you can see is the sound of the wind blowing past you.
It is like standing in front of a gate in heaven.

All of us, child or adult, need time to find our way to that heavenly gate, time to sit back and listen to the sounds outside and to our own half-formed thoughts, to attend to the call of the birds and the roar of the air conditioner, and to our own interior voices as well: to let silence spiral deeper into silence.

References:

Bell, Alexander Graham, quoted in Howard Mansfield, op.cit.

Joseph’s poem in The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing, edited by Christian McEwen and Mark Statman (New York City: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2000).

Mansfield, Howard: The Same Axe, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2000).

Picard, Max: The World of Silence, translated by Stanley Goodman (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway, 1948, 1986).

mb54-Inner5Christian McEwen grew up in the Borders of Scotland. She is a member of the West County Sangha in Shelburne Falls, MA. She has just finished writing Ordinary Joy: The Necessary Art of Slowing Down, from which this excerpt is taken. She can be reached at www.christianmcewen.com.

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Teaching the Whole Child

By Susan Kaiser Greenland

mb54-TeachingTheWhole1In classes with kids, I hold up a Quaker Oats box and ask, “What’s in here?” We get all sorts of answers, from Quaker Oats to lizards to spiders to candy. But we come down pretty quickly to the fact that we don’t know what’s in it. And it’s not always comfortable to sit with not knowing.

I like to help children become more comfortable with not knowing, to approach it with curiosity, an open mind and an open heart. We start to think about how our bodies feel when we don’t know something and we feel we should. Very often we feel a clutching in our body, in our throat for instance, or our heart races. By encouraging kids to notice how their bodies feel when they don’t know something, and wish they did, we’re building an awareness that helps them identify what’s happening in their inner and outer worlds. Do they look with an open mind, with curiosity, with as little fear as possible, with the perspective of the friendly, impartial spectator?

The next question is extremely important. Once you’ve looked at something, what do you do about it? After looking, we develop a capacity to respond to what we see, in a way that is both in our own best interests, and also kind and compassionate to all those involved. As we better understand interconnection and change, we’ll understand that what’s compassionate for all involved is also in our own best interest.

Clear Seeing

Everyone in education is looking for the magic wand. One thing that comes close, for me, is clear seeing, a concept deeply embedded in traditional Buddhism. For kids it’s clearly seeing what’s happening, as it’s happening, without an emotional charge. Then they’re able to respond with compassion.

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I love this quote: “Rowing harder doesn’t help if it involves moving in the wrong direction.” How often have we worked so hard at something, and it’s just the wrong thing to be working at? The only way we can figure that out is if we learn to clearly see, without an emotional charge. That requires us to step back from experience before we dig in and start trying to fix it.

mb54-TeachingTheWhole2This is how mindfulness is used in real life situations. You see a child who is upset calmly take a breath, settle down, and use calming skills to settle the mind and see things more clearly. Sometimes it takes quite a while. They get upset again, they get excited again; that’s normal. We use our calming skills over and over again.

The Hello Game

We start every class with the Hello Game. Kids say “hello,” and look at the color of each other’s eyes. It’s a terrific practice that helps kids really look at somebody else in a way that’s not emotionally charged. This grounds what we’re doing in the practice of mindfulness. Children start to notice and identify what’s happening in their minds and bodies when they look at people closely. They start to recognize their mind-body reactions to social exchanges. It is rare for people to really look at each other without bias, with an open mind. Kids can learn to see the value of gentle curiosity in the friendly, impartial spectator.

The Whole Child

We work to integrate the whole child. We start with the body, and then the mind (thoughts), and the heart (emotions and worldview). Mindful awareness can’t leave any of these three elements out: body, mind, and heart.

Also important for kids is integration of left hemisphere/right hemisphere processes. We use mindful awareness to integrate right hemisphere creativity and left hemisphere analytical or linear processes. That’s very important in today’s school system, which is tilted toward traditional left-brain processes: memorize information, analyze data, report back.

How do we teach kids about non-conceptual experience? One example is a movie I show about a fabulous Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier. It has 180,000 lights, each one powered by wind and sun. It took a really smart left-brain processing person to figure out how to make those lights, but also somebody with right-brain creative skills to come up with a beautiful work of art that lights up the Santa Monica skyline.

Mindfulness can, through focused awareness practices, build left-brain concentration skills, and also more holistic, right-brain skills. But that’s only the first part, because mindful awareness is more than the sum of its parts. It’s also about getting on that Ferris wheel, strapping yourself in, and taking a ride. It’s fully experiencing the present moment the best you can. It’s taking that ride through the integration of the left brain and the right brain.

There’s been a lot of research about mindfulness, with scientists picking it apart into “concentrated attention” and other elements. When we bring mindfulness practices into a school, we need to show how we combine all these elements to teach a certain way of being, a felt sense of experience that is more than the sum of its parts. That’s why it is so important that those who are teaching mindfulness practice it, know it themselves from experience. They have to embody it.

Friendly Wishes

Along with attention, you must have kindness and compassion. To teach that, we start with what we call “friendly wishes.” It’s basically the metta practice. The traditional instruction is to send friendly wishes to yourself, to people you like, to your friends or family, then to your enemies, and then to the whole world. But that’s awfully abstract for little kids, so we start with friendly wishes to me, and then friendly wishes to people I know. If I have enough time I’ll start with people in the room, and then people we don’t know, and then everyone and everything. It’s important to give examples each time.

After they’ve done it for a while, I ask kids, “Who do you send friendly wishes to?” They say, “I send friendly wishes to me,” and I post that on the board. Then we post “grandma and grandpa,” “the farmer,” and “my sister.” Then we go through the animals. “The frogs.” “The bunnies.” “Cats.” Then I say, “What kind of things do we send friendly wishes to?” “The sun, the corn, the breakfast cereal, the rain.”

Four-year-olds can understand how these things relate. One of the fundamental pieces in mindfulness training is teaching people about interdependence. That helps explain why it makes perfect sense to be compassionate to everyone involved, and to pay attention. A child will say, “The rain is connected to the corn because it makes it grow.” Somebody else will say, “Grandma is connected to the corn because she makes the cornmeal.” Then they’ll say, “And we eat the corn!”

Metta for Enemies

For years I stayed from away from the traditional metta practice, which includes sending friendly wishes to enemies, because I am extremely sensitive to the violence in the world. I read that one in five children in the U.S. has been a victim or a witness of domestic violence. I was recently told by a trauma expert that the number is one in three. I didn’t want to encourage kids to end friendly wishes to people who were hurting them.

But recently, Mathieu Ricard, who is one of my heroes, encouraged me to figure out a way to include friendly wishes for people we really don’t like. He had some ideas, which I have tried, and it has been feeling safer to me. I still don’t practice this with young kids, but I do practice it with older kids in elementary schools.

It’s wonderful to see how powerful these practices can be for kids. There’s no magic wand, but clearly seeing and responding with compassion for yourself and others does have a magical quality. What’s amazing is how many kids take this home to their parents, and how many parents report back that the kids are singing the breathing song in the back of the car.

Susan Kaiser Greenland develops mindfulness programs for children, classroom teachers, parents, therapists, and health care professionals. She is co-founder of InnerKids and is on the clinical team for the Pediatric Pain Clinic, UCLA’s Children’s Hospital. This article was excerpted with permission from the Insight Journal, Winter 2010 (www.dharma.org/bcbs).

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Homeschooling as Mindfulness Practice

By Lisa Pettitt

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Our family has been homeschooling for over five years. We had not envisioned this path for ourselves: my partner and I had professional careers, and our kids were in day care as infants. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is because that is, and this is not because that is not.” Our decision to homeschool arose at the intersection of a variety of conditions.

A college friend who homeschools shared her family’s experiences with us. The events of September 11, 2001 led us to reassess our priorities and values. I attended my first mindfulness retreat in Estes Park, CO, very pregnant with our third child in the fall of 2003. Not long after we welcomed this child into our family, my career path reached a plateau and my partner’s demanded more time and attention. Our children were transforming us with their pure hearts, curious minds, and mindful presence. Time with them inspired me to practice more and nourished my practice more than my professional work did. Homeschooling spoke to us because it seemed to provide a healthy blend of intellectual challenge, spiritual richness, family focus, space, and time.

As homeschoolers who have practiced as a family, with family Sanghas, and at days of mindfulness and retreats, we find that our homeschooling and mindfulness practice have enriched each other. The homeschooling schedule allows for a slower, flexible pace and for stopping—we can awaken in the morning without rushing to get everyone out the door, we can take breaks when we need them, we can adjust our schedule to make the most of special opportunities for learning, travel, and time with family and friends.

The flexible schedule promotes being in touch with the present moment. We learned in depth about Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, we studied extensively about southern Colorado before a visit there, and we took one daughter’s participation in a performance of Godspell as a chance to study parables from the Bible.

Because we spend so much time together, we have many opportunities to nourish our relationships and be aware of how we inter-are. We help one another with lessons, we work together on projects, we listen to and support one another during difficult times, and we help each other remember to smile and laugh. We come to recognize and appreciate one another’s strengths and care for one another when we are struggling with difficult emotions. We are aware of how one person’s feelings can affect the rest of us.

In turn, our mindfulness practice and the teachings enrich our homeschooling. Through the practice, we cultivate creative insights for responding to challenging situations. We breathe to calm ourselves before practicing multiplication tables. We smile to our Spanish lessons. Of course, there are times when our practice is not as strong and we are not as skillful as we would like to be, but we have faith that mindfulness is always available to us and we can return to it for nourishment.

In contemplating mindfulness and education, we shared our ideas with one another. Teresa (age eight) said that mindfulness helps her when she’s having a strong emotion; she can sit and meditate in order to calm down. She also told us a story that illustrated how mindfulness can help us understand others better. When she and a friend were being chased by a boy, she stopped to ask him why he was chasing them. He told her he didn’t feel like he had any friends so that was his way of getting attention.

Hugh (age six) shows us all the time how hugs can be bells of mindfulness. When some of us are arguing, he reminds us that “there’s a cake in the refrigerator.” And he told us that when we teach others mindfulness to help them calm their own emotions, the world will get “mindfuller.”

Sophia (age ten) offers us a haiku on mindfulness and education:

The Silent Bell

The silent bell rings.
Sit down. Listen to the trees.
Mindfully learn today.

Sophia (Loving Nectar of the Heart), Teresa (Crystal Light of the Heart), and Hugh (Tranquil Dragon of the Heart) teach and practice with their parents, Lisa Pettitt (Great Guide of the Heart) and Dave Kenney in Evergreen, Colorado.

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Media Reviews

mb54-BookReviews1Who Am I in This Picture? Amherst College Portraits

With Brett Cook and Wendy Ewald
Amherst College Press, 2009
Soft cover, 96 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

Who Am I in This Picture? documents a community art project conducted by Sangha member and artist Brett Cook and photographer Wendy Ewald at Amherst College in 2007 and 2008. The college was the setting for a massive experiment in cultivating new forms of knowledge and consciousness through portraits and interviews with staff, faculty, and students. The book follows Cook and Ewald’s intimate work with eighteen members of the college community in contemplative, educational, and creative exercises that focused on learning. The project acted as a multicultural process of community building and resulted in six 12-foot by 30-foot portrait triptychs mounted across the Amherst College campus, as well as an exhibition at the Mead Art Museum.

The artworks themselves—each of which portrays a student, staff member, and faculty member—were generated by Ewald and Cook, with participation from students in Ewald’s seminar “The Practice of Collaborative Art,” members of the campus and western Massachusetts communities, and the subjects of the portraits. The six triptychs combine photographs, painting, and words in striking ways. The fact that the artworks were made by thousands of participants endows the pieces with great power. Each portrait is a reflection of the community, not unlike a Sangha. As our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “The one contains the all, and the all contains the one.”

In a spirit of inquiry, the subjects of the portraits reflected on questions that they themselves generated about being a part of the Amherst College community. The questions are very thought-provoking: What does the term “learning” mean to you? How has your life journey helped you to determine what learning means? Who/what has been your most influential teacher? Is it possible to learn everything about yourself? Does being educated make you happier? Do different cultures learn differently? How should a teacher define success? This is a mere sample of the questions posed by this project. As I reflected on these questions and the stories of the portrait subjects, memories of my own experiences at college arose. I also contemplated some of these questions in relationship to my experience as a member of the Sangha and the Order of Interbeing.

I appreciated the sentences that each subject wrote by hand on his or her own portrait. After reflecting on the questions above and many others, each person came up with a phrase that encapsulated his or her experience or understanding and wrote this on his or her portrait in big letters. Some of the sentences read: “You can’t be invisible or you will miss out.” “I feel the loneliest when I am not learning anything.” “I use people’s names so they know that they matter.” “I feel like I was taught to learn by listening.” “I am so much the people who are around me.” “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.” “Am I any different from the guy around the corner who knows everything about a ’67 Bonneville?” “When people aren’t educated, they can’t hold their governments accountable.”

The book beautifully documents the project from start to fi with lovely photographs and fascinating interviews with the artists and members of the community. I feel very inspired by the community building that took place at Amherst through this contemplative project.

mb54-BookReviews2Child’s Mind
How Mindfulness Can Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm and Relaxed

By Christopher Willard
Parallax Press, 2010
Softcover
128 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Did you know the words meditation and medicine are derived from the same Sanskrit word for “inner measure”? This is a pivotal gem from Parallax’s new book on mindfulness for kids. Indeed, mindfulness practice is good medicine—for both young and old.

A great resource book for teachers, doctors, mindfulness practitioners, therapists, parents, grandparents, and all who work with the young, Child’s Mind is chock full of ideas and sensory exercises for centering children in the Here and the Now. Beginning with the premise that children are the embodiment of beginner’s mind and therefore a fertile field, Willard lays out exercises for “child-sized attention spans and the diverse sensory learning styles of children.” Backed by solid and extensive research, the author builds a case for the advantages of meditation in general, and then tells how meditation specifically benefits children and other humans. Among other perquisites, Willard notes, mindfulness strengthens one’s ability to adapt, increases concentration, and reduces reactivity.

“Because the purest water flows from closest to the spring, I try to use original meditation techniques that have been well-practiced through the years. These include adaptations of grown-up practices from respected meditation teachers East and West that I have integrated with contemporary research.”

Citing world experts like Jack Kornfield, Sigmund Freud, John Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, and one of my personal favorites for children, Maureen Murdock (Spinning Inward), the author begins with the premise that an adult who practices mindfulness is capable of passing the skill to children. He offers a definition of and introduction to mindfulness, methods adults can employ to establish their own practice, and methods for teaching meditation and mindfulness to kids.

Part II of the book offers Meditations for Mental and Emotional Well-Being, to transform or calm the effects of depression, anxiety, psychological trauma, impulse control, and the autism spectrum in children. Subsequent chapters deal with specific childhood issues such as sleep deprivation and test anxiety. Part III provides resources and program ideas. The book ends with a comprehensive bibliography.

I am reminded of a tender time a few years after the 1989 revolution in Romania, when my husband Philip and I introduced the mindfulness bell to a group of orphans we were teaching there. One morning, a fifteen-year-old girl came to class with bandaged arms because she had used an open tin can to slit her wrists. The other children, mostly teens, were visibly upset. The room felt chaotic. We called for a translator, and in the ensuing confusion, Olivia, a lame young woman, limped to the front of the room, gingerly picked up the mindfulness bell in her shriveled hand and invited the bell. The sound calmed us all.

Here is the medicine of mindfulness—the rich offerings of Child’s Mind, a handbook that holds no less potential than the children of the world.

mb54-BookReviews3jpgTogether We Are One
Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating Our Connection

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Available June 2010
Parallax Press

Together We Are One offers profound and socially relevant teachings from retreats for people of color with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha. This new book is a distillation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks, interwoven with personal stories from a diverse group of participants of color. Addressed are such questions as:

  • How can we find our true home and feel we belong, whoever and wherever we are?
  • What are the different experiences of people of color in our Sanghas?
  • How can we and our Sanghas welcome and embrace more diversity?
  • How can we apply Buddhist insights to help heal the suffering of separation, discrimination and prejudice?

If you are interested in relating with more wholeness and celebration to all aspects of your identity, and making the treasures of your ancestors more available to you and your descendants, this book is for you. It includes original drawings, poetry, and a new and expanded version of Touching the Earth to our Land Ancestors, created during the people of color retreats.

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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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Applied Ethics for Educators

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Dear Sangha,

In May 2011, in a Dharma talk at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Waldbrol, Germany, Thay shared his vision to bring mindfulness into schools on a large scale. Thay asked us to write to you for your input on, and help with, the preliminary proposal (below). Many of you are already bringing mindfulness into classrooms, and your experience can help us further develop this proposal and guide it in the right direction. Please help us connect with your contacts in the fields of education policy and teacher training, and in educational organizations at local, regional, and national levels.

Proposal for a Course in Mindfulness and Applied Ethics for Educators

This course is offered to educators who wish to cultivate peace and well-being in their own lives and contribute to creating a saner and more compassionate classroom and school environment.

Who We Are

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community of monastic and lay members have over thirty years of experience practicing and teaching mindfulness and developing a path of ethical living for modern society. We have shared these practices with thousands of people, including teachers, parents, children, social workers, therapists, police officers, health care workers, politicians, businesspeople, and artists, many of whom have become teachers of mindfulness and community-builders in their own right. In particular, we have led hundreds of retreats for families, with children’s and teens’ programs, as well as retreats for educators and students, in which we have developed and refined a rich and effective range of practices for transmitting mindfulness to young people.

Vision

We are now reaching out to those working in the fields of education policy, development, and training at both local and national levels. We wish to collaborate in order to offer regular courses to educators interested in the teaching and practice of mindfulness and applied ethics. We are identifying partners who are ready to implement these courses right away. Initiatives and preliminary explorations are under way with educators and policymakers in several countries in Asia, Europe, and North America.

Aim

This course aims to address the root causes of the suffering and division in our society and in our own hearts. As teachers, many of us see that this is a time of great challenge for young people, who often lack direction and tools to handle the pressures and stresses life presents them. Parents and other caregivers do not get the support they need to provide the essential guidance required for young people to grow up happily and contribute positively to society. Furthermore, many institutions do not provide good examples of integrity, cooperation, or responsible behavior that promotes the good of the whole.

The essence of the course in applied ethics is mindfulness, the energy of being aware of and awake to what is happening inside and around us in the present moment. With this deep awareness, we know what to do and what not to do in each moment to relieve suffering and increase well-being. The methods that we offer in this applied ethics course help us to understand our own bodies, minds, feelings, and perceptions, so we can then help others to do the same. We learn the art of caring for and transforming our suffering and nourishing our joy. Out of this, compassion and a living understanding of our interconnection with our family and society naturally arise.

Secular Foundation

This course is built upon the teachings of the Buddha, but it is non-religious and non-sectarian. Its foundation relies on the insights and concrete practices of Buddhism: interdependence, non-duality, and the intimate connection between happiness and suffering. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that methods arising from the Buddhist tradition are effective and that they can be applied successfully in an educational and secular context without reference to Buddhism. However, if appropriate to the institution or community, the course can be taught from a Buddhist or spiritual perspective.

Course Overview

Stage I: Taking Care of the Teacher

  • Cultivating awareness of breathing to help unite body and mind and strengthen concentration
  • Caring for our body to reduce stress and pain
  • Learning to cultivate feelings of joy and happiness and to appreciate what we already have
  • Learning to simplify our lives so that we have more time to relax and enjoy life
  • Learning to listen to and embrace our strong emotions, such as fear, anger, anxiety, and despair
  • Learning to use loving speech and compassionate listening to care for our relationships
  • Exploring non-sectarian, ethical guidelines for our own health and happiness and that of our families, schools, communities, societies, and the world
  • Looking deeply into our consumption and production as individuals and as a society

Stage II: Teaching Mindfulness and Applied Ethics to Students

  • Learning to guide sessions of relaxation for students
  • Learning to help students recognize and handle strong emotions
  • Learning the art of building community so that our classroom and our school can become a loving family environment
  • Learning to creatively resolve conflicts in the classroom
  • Helping students develop compassion by understanding their own suffering and that of their peers
  • Introduction to an age-appropriate mindfulness curriculum, with multi-media teaching materials, that can be applied in the classroom

Course Format

This course is offered in two stages, with each stage lasting one week, held in one of our residential centers or at an academic campus. The course format is organized as a residential retreat, with participants staying overnight and training in mindfulness all day long. Each stage can also be divided up into smaller units of time depending on the need (for example, three weekends or seven day-long segments spread out over time). Stage I is a prerequisite for Stage II.

Community Environment

The course takes place in the unique context of a residential community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen practicing mindfulness twenty-four hours a day. The strength and harmony of the community is grounded upon a shared vision of ethical conduct arising naturally from the practice of mindfulness. The community provides support and creates a safe environment in which we can look afresh at our lives. Living and working together, we generate a powerful collective energy that has the capacity to heal and transform our bodies and minds.

In the course, mindfulness is learned in such a way that we can apply it right away in our daily lives. The residents offer participants their understanding and experience not just through their teaching, but through their embodied practice of mindful speaking, walking, eating, working, and relating. The most supportive environment for our transformation and healing is a harmonious and joyful community. Our thirty years of experience have taught us that community is essential for change to be deep and lasting. Living and practicing as a community, we find trust in the human family and we return to our lives refreshed and enthusiastic. The residential practice environment allows us to open up and rediscover our innate goodness and to bring meaning and direction to our lives.

For more information please contact appliedethics@eiab.eu or visit www.mindfuledu.org.

With gratitude,

The Sangha at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism

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My Beloved Teacher

By Chan Luong

My teacher was a famous writer in Vietnam. The Buddhist and non-Buddhist young people of my generation knew Thay by his renowned book, A Dialogue with Young Adult.* Over fifty years ago, he called for reform in Buddhist practice in Vietnam and focused on the essence of the teachings rather than the manifold forms. I see him as a revolutionist monk.

Thich Nhat Hanh Many people talk about the enlightened beings of our century. My comment is the common Vietnamese saying: A teacher like Thay appears only once every few hundred years. Like other great beings, Thay has embodied compassionate living throughout his life. Since the day he founded the School of Youth for Social Service in 1964, Thay and Sister Chan Khong have ceaselessly reached out to people who suffered during and after wartime. Many of us already know about Thay’s books, his teachings, and his influence on numerous lives. I would like to share with you some of my fondest memories of Thay.

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 The Mindful Way

One time, during a retreat in the early days of Plum Village, some of us young people spent an afternoon with Thay, collating pages of a book for binding and publishing. After he had explained how to carry out the task, we all followed Thay around a large table, picking up pages and putting them together to complete the book. Thay walked slowly and mindfully with great ease. At the end, we realized the number of books each of us had collated was less than Thay’s. With surprise and wonder, we asked Thay how that could be. Thay gently smiled to us and said it was simply because he had more experience than we did. I thought how sweet he was! However, this experience helped me to understand that with practice, one can be mindful and productive at the same time.

During the time when I was fortunate enough to be Thay’s assistant in the Lower Hamlet, I saw how Thay spoke, taught, and played with young people. They were happy and delighted, and they adored Thay. There was never a wall between this most venerable monk and the youngsters. I felt the communication between them was deep, and Thay could easily transmit his teachings directly to them. They were called “mini OI members.” I have worked with teenagers for over twenty years as a clinician. If I have been able to help them make changes in their lives, I attribute it to the loving, compassionate, and mindful way that Thay has taught me. I know that I need to keep the light of mindfulness and compassion shining and learn ways to take care when the light dims.

One year when we celebrated Christmas at Plum Village, the monastics and laypeople spent hours creating the festive occasion. Tables were beautifully decorated with leaves and dried flowers. Food was abundant. Thay mindfully walked to the table to invite the bell marking the beginning of dinner. Then we suddenly noticed him calmly holding a big spoon to invite the bell, as the inviter was not available. There were no reprimands, no interruptions of the celebration.

I thought Thay felt that his lay students may be a little shy about their compassionate actions in life. One day, in a question and answer session, Thay responded to the big question, “What is compassion?” He simply said: “Compassion is like when you are inside your home, warm and comfortable with a cup of hot tea in your hand. It is cold and dark outside. You hear a calling, put the cup of tea down, and walk out in that cold, dark, and windy place to help.” Thay’s words have profoundly affected my ordinary and humble life as an OI member.

Those of us who live “down under,” far from France, often receive a special treat before our departure from Plum Village: having tea or walking with Thay. Moments of sitting or walking meditation with Thay remain fresh and vivid in my memory. When we walk beside him, we feel his presence; his energy of mindfulness is so powerful that peace emerges in us.

Life-Changing Pilgrimage 

In 1988 I went to India with Thay and a delegation of just over thirty people. We arrived at the Lumbini Motel in a remote village after a long and dusty trip. The showers didn’t have hot water. I managed to get some help from motel staff and carried a bucket of hot water to the shower room. When I accidentally crossed paths with Thay, he gently asked me where I had found the hot water. I offered to fetch some for him. But he quietly said, “Thay already had a shower with cold water.” We had all forgotten to look after our teacher, but still he had kind words for us.

While in India, we pilgrims followed Thay to Vulture Peak. Every day we walked up the mountain, listened to Thay’s Dharma talks, and watched the sunset together in silence. Gazing into the distance with my mindful breath, I felt the beauty of the sunset flow through me, and I didn’t need it to last forever. We also felt the presence of the Buddha on Vulture Peak through Thay’s words. Since that day, when I encounter difficulties in life, I silently say, “Namo Shakyamunaye Buddhaya” to get in touch with the Buddha in myself.

One day, others were busy at the Indian market or resting, and I sat with my teacher on the rocks. We enjoyed the silence together. Unexpectedly, Thay said, “Just breathe, dear.” Thay’s gentle words left a deep imprint in my mind. Years later, I read the book Breath By Breath. The author, Larry Rosenberg, commented that Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I have watched my breath [for] over fifty years [and it has]…only grown in interest.”

That pilgrimage to India with Thay changed my life forever. While traveling on a full moon day, we stopped so that Thay could recite the precepts. There were no candles, no table. Thay gathered some Bodhi leaves and rocks to make an altar under the tree. With some simple incense, he conducted the most beautiful ceremony I ever attended. That experience taught me that we could create something beautiful with our mindful energy, and that without mindfulness, ceremonies could become empty rituals.

A Rare Combination

Our teacher is a rare combination of a great poet and a venerable monk. Therefore his teachings are profound, yet gentle, loving, and compassionate. His teachings and ways of organising have never been doctrinaire. Many of us feel like we have come home when we hear him talk.

Thay is a kind teacher, and he sees that the teachings of impermanence and non-self are not easy for many of us to practice. His insight about the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is incredible. Thay says that without impermanence, a young plant cannot grow into a tree, a child cannot grow to be an adult. Personally, I had never heard anyone talk about impermanence in that way before. His Dharma talks about non-self are very clear. He helps us see the ultimate dimension of life through the historical dimension, leading to the ending of our suffering.

Thay can be fierce in his teaching. He has told us many times that he doesn’t like us to be like parrots that repeat words they do not understand or like empty husks of grain that practice outer forms and have no substance inside. He’s also a sweet and loving teacher who wants to know whether each Plum Village hamlet has enough firewood and food for winter days.

Thay sees interbeing in all things. He often tells us that each of us is a flower in the garden of mankind; each kind of flower has its own beauty. If you are a chrysanthemum, a daffodil, an orchid, or a rose, be a beautiful chrysanthemum, daffodil, orchid, or rose; do not strive to be a different kind of flower, making yourself unhappy. He also says a garden is beautiful because it has different kinds of flowers.

Many practitioners may still seek the bliss of entering Jhana, detached moments from the world. But I love my teacher’s incredible “stillness in action,” a testament to his solidity and deep peace. Larry Rosenberg writes, “Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage draws on both Theravada and Mahayana teaching. He more than anyone else demonstrates the importance of bringing breath awareness into daily life, of staying awake in the midst of all our activities. He is unrelenting in his teaching, and it took such a strong message to get through to me.” Such a message is as vital to us, Thay’s students, as it is to Larry.

Lightness Fills My Path

Plum Village has grown so rapidly; nowadays, even when you stay on a retreat, you only get a glimpse of Thay. As he is approaching his senior years, everyone contributes to protect and preserve Thay’s energy for the Dharma. The new generation of practitioners may not have as much teaching of mindfulness directly from Thay as in the early days.

We know that Thay is growing in years, and we know deeply the universal law of impermanence. I remember that one year, at the end of a June retreat for OI members in Plum Village, Thay conducted a simple closing ceremony. Afterwards, we all stood up and offered a lotus flower with our joined palms as our way of saying goodbye to Thay. While Thay slowly walked out of the hall, suddenly, in that solemn silence, a voice arose: “We love you, Thay.” I thought that loving voice spoke for all of us that day.

* Noi Voi Tuoi Hai Muoi

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Mai Than-Trong, Chan Luong, became an OI member in 1988 and ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. She was one of the founders of the Lotus Bud Sangha based in Sydney, Australia. Mai is currently a semi-retired senior psychologist in Sydney.

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Plum Village Smiles

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During the Summer Opening in the first years, I stayed in the room above the bookshop in Upper Hamlet. We had very few rooms then, and I had to share the room with four or five children. They stayed in the room with me and at night they sprawled out on the floor.

I thought that children needed to sing; that chanting alone was not enough. I intended to write the song, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life…” for the children. One afternoon we did sitting meditation in the Bamboo Hall. The walls are made of stone. Facing a big block of stone, the tune for the song came to me. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life, Namo Buddhaya.” I thought to myself, “I am here to do sitting meditation and not to make up songs. Let’s continue it after the sitting meditation.” However, after a few minutes, the music returned to me. I thought, “If it’s going to be like this, I might as well compose the song now.” So I continued writing that song and, after the meditation, I recorded in order not to forget it.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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In the past I taught several generations of monastic disciples, but I was never as happy as I am now, with teacher and disciple living together and practicing together. Every day I find ways to transmit all that I have realized for myself to my disciples, like the first banana leaf transmitting to the second and the third. The happiness that monks and nuns give me is very great. Monks and nuns in Plum Village all have beauty, sweetness, bright smiles, and twinkling eyes.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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We have been able to present the teachings in such a way that young people and Westerners can understand them, accept them, and apply them. That is a big success of Plum Village, but it is not the work of one person alone or just the work of a few years. It is the work of thirty-five years that includes twenty years of Plum Village and the work of the entire Sanhga.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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Photos courtesy of Plum Village, Jeanne Anselmo, Lyn Fine, Eileen Kiera, and David Lawrence. Quotes reprinted from I Have Arrived, I Am Home (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

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Dharma Talk: Community as a Resource

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

We can make people happy. One person has the capacity to be an infinite resource of happiness for others. The more we practice the art of mindful living, the more we become a source of happiness and joy. This is possible.

Thich Nhat Hanh

But we need a place, such as a retreat center or a monastery, where we can go to renew ourselves. The features of the landscape, the buildings, and the sound of the bell should be designed to remind us to return to awareness. Even when we cannot actually go to the retreat center, we can think of it, smile, and feel ourselves becoming peaceful.

The community does not need to be big. It is enough to have ten or fifteen permanent residents who emanate freshness and peace, the fruits of living in awareness. When we go there, they care for us, console and support us, and help us heal our wounds.

From time to time, the residents can organize large retreats so that we can learn the arts of enjoying our lives more and taking good care of each other. Mindful living is an art, and this community can be a place where joy and happiness are real. They can also offer Days of Mindfulness, so that people can come and live one happy day together in community. And they can organize courses that teach The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, and other courses on Buddhist psychology and healing in a Buddhist way. Most retreats will be for preventive practice, practicing mindful­ness before things get too bad. But some retreats should be for people who are undergoing a lot of suffering, although even then two-thirds of the retreatants should be healthy, happy people. Otherwise it may be difficult to succeed.

Practice has a lot to do with the happiness of the people in a family or a community. We practice not only in the meditation room, but in the kitchen, the backyard, the office, and in school as well. How can we incorporate practice into our daily lives, so that our daily lives can be joyful and happy?

The sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness. When you are with your family and you practice smiling, breathing, recognizing the Buddha in yourself and your children, then your family becomes a sangha. If you have a bell in your home, the bell becomes part of your sangha, because the bell helps you to practice. If you have a cushion, then the cushion also becomes part of the sangha. Many things help us practice. The air, for breathing. If you have a park or a river bank near your home, you can enjoy practicing walking meditation. You have to discover your sangha. Invite a friend to come and practice with you, have tea meditation, sit with you, join you for walking medita­tion. All these efforts can help you establish your sangha at home. Practice is easier if you have a sangha.

The foundation of a community is a daily life that is joyful and happy. In Plum Village, children are the center of attention. Each adult is responsible for helping the children be happy, because we know that if the children are happy, it is easy for the adults to be happy. In old times, families were bigger. Not only nuclear families, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins all lived together. Houses were surrounded by trees where they could hang hammocks and organize picnics. In those times, people did not have many of the problems we do now. Today, our families are very small. Besides Mom and Dad, there are just one or two children. When the parents have a problem, the whole family feels the effects. The atmosphere in the house is heavy, and there is nowhere to escape. Sometimes a child may go to the bathroom and lock the door just to be alone, but still there is no escape. The heavy atmosphere permeates the bathroom too. So the child grows up with many seeds of suffering and can never feel truly happy and then transmits these seeds to his or her children.

Formerly, when Mom and Dad had some problems, the children could always escape by going to an aunt or an uncle. They still had someone to look up to, and the atmosphere was not so threatening. I think that communities of mindful living can replace our former big families, be­cause when we go to these communities, we see many aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that can help us a lot.

You know that aged people are very sad when they have to live separately from their children and grandchildren. This is one of the things in the West that I do not like very much. In my country, aged people have the right to live with the younger people. It is the grandparents who tell fairy tales to the children. When they get old, their skin is cold and wrinkled, and it is a great joy to hold their grandchild, so warm, so tender. When a person grows old, his or her deepest hope is to have a grandchild to hold in his or her arms. They hope for it day and night, and when they hear that their daughter is pregnant, they are so happy. Nowadays the elderly have to go to a home where they live only among other aged people. Just once a week they receive a short visit, and afterwards they feel even sadder. We have to find ways for old and young people to live together again. It will make all of us very happy.

A community of mindful living should be in a beautiful location in the countryside. In many cities today, you do not see a lot of trees, because so many trees have been cut down. I imagine—and I believe it is very close to reality—a city which has only one tree left. (I don’t know what kind of miracle helped preserve that one tree.) Many people in that city have become mentally ill because they are so alienated from nature, our mother. In the old time, we lived among trees and we sat in hammocks. Now we live in small boxes made of concrete. The air we breathe is not clean, and we get sick, not only in our bodies but in our souls.

I imagine that there is a doctor in the city who under­stands why everyone is getting sick, and every time some­one comes to him, he tells them, “You are sick because you are cut off from Mother Nature.” And he gives them this prescription: “Each morning, take the bus and go to the tree in the center of the city and practice tree-hugging medita­tion. Hold the tree and breathe in, ‘I am with my mother.’ Then breathe out, ‘I am happy.’ And look at the leaves so green and smell the bark of the tree that is so fragrant.” The prescription is for fifteen minutes of breathing and hugging the tree. After doing it for three months, the patient feels much better. But the doctor has many patients, and he gives each of them the same prescription.

So I imagine a bus in the city going in the direction of the tree, while people are standing in line, waiting their turn to embrace the tree and breathe. But the line is several miles long, and the crowd is becoming impatient because they have to wait for such a long time. They demand new laws which will limit each person to just one minute of tree-hugging. But one minute is not long enough to be effective, and then there is no remedy for society’s sickness. I am afraid we will be close to that situation very soon, if we are not mindful of what is going on in the present moment.

When we practice mindful living, we know what is going on in every moment of our daily lives. When we throw a banana peel into the garbage, we know it is a banana peel, and that banana peels decompose quickly and become flowers. But when we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we have to know that it is a plastic bag. This is a practice of meditation: “I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage can.” If we practice mindfulness, we will refrain from using things made of plastic, because we know that they take much more time to degrade into soil and become flowers. And we know that disposable diapers take four or five hundred years, so we refrain from using them. Nuclear waste, the most difficult kind of garbage, takes 250,000 years to become a flower. We are making the Earth an impossible place for our children to grow up.

Practicing mindfulness with friends allows us to get in touch with the healing aspects of life, Breathing mindfully the clean air, we plant seeds of healing within ourselves, our friends, and society. Smiling, we realize peace and joy. Communities of mindful living are very important for us to cultivate these practices.

Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Lecture at the “Cultivat­ing Mindfulness” Retreat, Mt. Madonna Center, Watson­ville, California, April 1989.

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples’ feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child’s life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “No talent. Needs to be better motivated.” This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher’s Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students’ families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words “true person” were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, “Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?” The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, “Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?” Disappointed by the monk’s question, Linchi said, “That true person? What the heck!” No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach’s acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill’s content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.

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Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother’s illness. We should tell people, “Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance.” We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. “Resis­tance” does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society’s pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society’s destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, “In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you.” The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father’s request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him “the destitute son.” No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

Photos:
First photo by Ingo Gunther.
Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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