Making Friends Out of Bullies

By David Viafora

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My co-facilitator Joanna and I sat down under an arching oak tree, watching the sunset glowing on the chaparral hillside at Deer Park Monastery. It was our last meeting before the Compassionate Cougars, our children’s group, would arrive for a family retreat. There were still activities to plan, schedules to clarify, and roles to discuss, but we just enjoyed sitting silently, feeling the coastal breeze, and breathing with the mountain, allowing it to calm our spirits. Taking care of ourselves would be our most precious offering to the young ones coming up the mountain. We were healing the child inside each of us before they arrived, returning to the fresh air in our breaths, embraced by our father oak tree and nurtured by our mother mountain.

For five days before the retreat began, the children’s program staff spent time nourishing the child within, confident that this would be the best way to prepare for the arrival of more than 100 children and teens. We played games and shared our favorite animals, colors, and happiest childhood memories. We paired up and asked each other questions about our childhoods: Did you have braces? What was your favorite recess activity? What was a funny memory? Within a short time, this group of adults was giggling like third graders. The playfulness of childhood was returning to us.

Several days before the staff arrived, I journaled about my happy childhood memories. I felt surprised by the vast reserve of joyful memories that was available, and how my reflections brought joy, vitality, and gratitude to life within me. Yet I knew that if I wanted to connect deeply with my childhood, I couldn’t just hover over one end of the spectrum of experiences. To relate authentically with young people, I needed to embrace multiple dimensions of my own childhood, including the painful sides.

Don’t Throw Away Your Suffering 

For me, developing the courage to embrace difficulty and pain has been a gift from Thay and from the Buddha. The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing explains that one can first establish awareness of the breath and the body, and then allow feelings of joy and happiness to permeate one’s whole being. After this foundation of peace and joy is established, it is much easier to accept and embrace difficult feelings. Thay shares that when we allow painful feelings to rise up from the basement of our store consciousness to the living room of our mind consciousness, the feelings can be recognized and healed. It is healthy to allow them to circulate in our consciousness and to be tenderly embraced by our loving attention. Thanks to these teachings, I’ve found that mindfully journaling about both joyful and difficult experiences can bear fruit. One memory stood out very clearly as I allowed my mind to survey the later childhood years. While I recognized my fear and hesitation to reflect on it, I could hear Thay’s soft voice inside of me, saying, “Don’t throw away your suffering; take good care of it. Your happiness and compassion depend on it.”

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As a third, fourth, and fifth grader, I was often teased by students who were older, physically stronger, and socially influential. When I was in sixth grade, however, I had greater social standing and was also quite physically strong. Once, I was on the playground near groups of boys and girls in my class. Another boy was playing by himself near a tree. I thought that it would impress the other boys and girls if I showed I was tougher than he was, so I started making fun of him. I could intimidate him because he was less physically strong and had less social standing than I did. My intention was not to hurt the boy, but I thought picking on him would make me look cool in front of the others. He seemed to be ignoring me, but it’s difficult to know how much that experience affected him.

Even though it happened so long ago, I found it difficult to accept what I had done. I questioned, “Where was my heart at that time? How could I have treated him so insensitively and without care for his feelings?” These became koans that I worked with during the family retreat. The memory was difficult to embrace. However I also felt some goodness in the reflection, knowing that I was beginning to accept sides of myself that I did not want to acknowledge before.

Our staff had an opportunity to share about our childhood experiences. When it was my turn, I shared my happiest childhood memories, and then let down my guard and shared the difficult memory. I recognized feelings of shame and sadness arising. I felt the deep listening and acceptance of my monastic elder brother and the group. Yet toward the end of my sharing, I looked at the others, and they were all looking downward. I thought, “Oh no, I’ve shared too much suffering, and perhaps too early for this group of fairly new staff. I’m supposed to be coordinating the Children’s Program this year, and now they may be questioning my integrity and capacity as a leader.” I had confidence in the Sangha’s deep support for me, but questioned if it had been the right time to share this childhood suffering.

I tried to keep an open mind, so I could learn from whatever the experience had to teach me. The next morning, I did a love meditation for myself and touched the earth, allowing the karma of my past and my ancestors to be released. Touching the earth helped me to understand how I inherited both beautiful and wholesome ways of being, as well as unwholesome and harmful ways from my ancestors—especially my land ancestors—when I was young. Since then, I have been working to transform them.

I reflected on the causes and conditions that allowed the painful interaction to happen. It was not an isolated incident, but rather a pattern of behaviors that took many forms. I was a victim of much bullying and teasing during the third, fourth, and fifth grades. I felt inferior to others as they treated me unkindly to raise their own feelings of power and superiority. The school culture had a strong effect on me. I received a transmission of unkindness and domination, which I then transmitted to children who were less socially and physically strong than me. Being bullied and bullying others appeared as two sides of the same coin. Understanding myself as a victim, it became easier to understand and forgive myself for what I had done. Understanding myself as a bully, it was easier to forgive and understand those who treated me this way.

Two Ways of Being Popular 

During the family retreat, I read the children a story called “How to Make Friends” by Robert Aitken, a pioneering American Zen master. Mr. Aitken shared about a time when he was a nerdy, scrawny young kid with glasses. One day at school, he tried to say something to a group of boys he admired. The head boy teased the young Robert while the other boys laughed. At the time, Robert hated those boys. Later, he understood that the boy probably acted that way to feel important in front of others. Mr. Aitken explained that there are two ways of being popular: the fake way and the true way. The fake way is when you make others afraid of you by talking about them and being rude to them. A truly popular person, however, tries to be decent and kind to everyone. He becomes popular because everyone feels safe to be themselves around him. Mr. Aitken wrote that if one person can be truly popular and decent to everyone, the entire school can change, because treating others in this way can be contagious.

After the young Cougars heard the story, silence pervaded, even among the loud and rowdy kids. They were touched because the story resonated with the stories of their own lives. One by one, the children started sharing personal experiences of being around fake popular kids, and how it felt to be teased. One boy shared that he often hung out with the fake popular kids because he felt safer. He said they wouldn’t hassle him when he was on their side. He admitted that it was sad to see other kids treated unkindly. A very kind and mature girl disclosed that she often hung out with fake popular kids and felt a sense of power. She did not feel as afraid when she was with them. In the past, she had been called a nerd for being smart, and although she shrugged it off, it was still difficult to be treated that way. Others shared that being teased or hassled was a part of everyday life at school for them.

As the children shared, a strong bond of sympathy and understanding naturally arose in the group. They seemed to understand each others’ suffering, despite being at different schools. This manifested strongly during one boy’s sharing. The boy was very talented in playing with a yo-yo. He recounted a time when he was yo-yo-ing at school, and some kids walked by and called him a freak. It was a visibly painful experience for him. The other Cougars were silent after he shared, and I could feel them listening deeply and sympathizing. After the silence, kids began to offer their support: “Oh, no way! I’m sure they’re just jealous of you. It’s because you are so awesome!”

This boy had a chance to share his yo-yo skills with our group, and he received a lot of positive affirmations; the other kids and facilitators were really impressed! Later in the retreat, many of the kids encouraged him to present his yo-yo skills during the performance night. They enthusiastically offered their support: “Yeah, we got your back. We’ll cheer you on and say, ‘Yep, he’s in my family.’” They told him, “We’d be proud of you.” His past suffering was visibly transformed in the present, as he felt the love of his friends and community.

Loving the Victim and the Bully 

A few of the children had been coming to Deer Park regularly for several years. I asked them to share about how they dealt with teasing and bullying. One boy shared that in the past, kids would try to tease him, and although he didn’t like it, he just ignored them. Once, he simply told them, “Can you please stop it?” He continued to ignore them and they stopped trying to pick on him. Another girl shared that a few years before, she had recognized that there were true friends and fake friends in her social group. When one person was gone, others would say unkind things about that person. She was afraid of how they would talk about her. She stopped contributing to the behavior, and then others stopped as well. She moved on and developed different friendships that she could count on.

Despite our past failed attempts to hold discussions with the Cougars for more than fifteen minutes, this discussion lasted over an hour and fifteen minutes. They spoke with the sincerity and wisdom of adults, because the topic was so real to their lives. The concentration in the group was solid. I listened, enthralled by the authenticity and depth of their sharing. They had a very safe and open space to share. I could understand the children who shared their buried feelings of frustration and pain as victims of bullying. And I could also listen with empathy to those who were initiating such unkindness toward their peers. I had been the victim and I had been the bully, and I lovingly accepted each of those sides of myself. So now I could really be one with each of the children.

The children produced a collective insight that kids who were bullying and popular in the fake way were suffering themselves. I shared with the children that bullies hurt others because they may have been hurt in the past, and they learned to do that to others; they hadn’t had an opportunity to grow enough love in their hearts. I shared with the children, yet I was also sharing with the eleven-year-old within me. I was answering my koan: “How could I have acted in an unkind way toward that poor boy? Where was my heart at that time?” Listening to the children’s deep sharing allowed the child inside of me to heal again. Now, from time to time, I send a prayer of lovingkindness to the boy on the playground. I don’t know if he will receive it, yet I trust that we will meet again, perhaps in different forms. And I feel his smile for that, because now we can be friends again.

After the retreat, I checked in with a few of my fellow staff brothers and sisters. “May I ask for your feedback about what I shared that evening about my childhood? Do you think that I was sharing too much raw suffering for the group at that time?” They looked at me, surprised, and said that it felt like the right thing for me to share. One very sweet sister said, “David, I thought it was very courageous of you to share that part of your childhood. I was only looking down because I was remembering my own bullying behavior as a kid. Boy, I was really a bully back then.” I was so surprised. We both laughed and smiled at our eleven-year- old selves.

mb63-MakingFriends3David Viafora, True Mountain of Meditation, is currently living at Deer Park Monastery. He has the most fun practicing with the Dharma Bum Kids Sangha and the World Beat Kids Sangha in San Diego, as well as the children’s and teens’ programs at Deer Park.

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Peanut Butter Love Balls

By David Viafora and Sangha Youth 

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During the September 2011 retreat at Deer Park Monastery, the young people offered their creativity, fun, and love to the Sangha by raising money for children in impoverished conditions around the world. Within the Children’s Program, we incorporated mindful eating and looking deeply into the sources of our food, cultivating gratitude by recognizing our many conditions of happiness, working in harmony and caring for each other, skillfully relating to money without greed, generating compassion for others, and finding ways to help those in real need.

The Children’s Program would like to thank Sister Jewel for pioneering similar activi­ties in Plum Village and the EIAB, and Terri Cortes-Vega for her well-explained practice of making Interbeing Peanut Butter Balls with kids  (Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, 2011).

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The success stories are best told by the children themselves.

The Children’s Program has been talking about helping less fortunate children in the world. While discussing one day, we thought of ways to help these people. We came up with the idea of making cookies to sell to make money to donate to these people. We used many ingredients and experimented with many materials, including cranberries, raisons, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, honey, oats, and peanut butter. The next day at lunch, we sold them to the Sangha and had so much fun. After that day, everybody wanted to make a second batch. A day later, David finally let us make another batch. We made about 125 that day, and sold them at dinner. We had fun all over again. On Saturday before the Question & Answer, we presented Thay and the Sangha the money, $450. I think the best part of all was the teamwork and fun we had.
-Manda Nguyen-Sanh, age 10

Over the past few days, we have made Peanut-Butter-Cookies to raise money for children in of food. The cookies were called Interbeing Peanut Butter Balls, Cosmo Coconut Balls, Peanut Love Logs, Everything in Everything Balls, and Choco Coco Balls. We made a lot of money and it was very fun. I hope we can make these again sometime!! :)
-BoiAn Nguyen-Sanh, age 7

As we made the cookies, I thought about how many poor/hungry children would be helped with our money. I noticed that the Sangha donated more money when they found out about our cause. One lady even donated a check of $50! The next day, when she came back for more cookies, we treated her to a complimentary cookie. Other people donated five, ten, and twenty dollars for only one or two cookies. I was amazed, and also happy for all the children that were going to be fed. The day after, my friend Dalia and I, as the oldest of the children, were chosen to represent the Children’s Program in front of the Sangha before Thay’s Question and Answer session. I was honored to represent my friends in front of so many people, the monastics, and Thay. I hope that after reading this, all the Children’s Programs will do something like it to donate to the less fortunate.
A lotus to the Sangha.
Thank you.
-Quynh Nguyen-Sanh, age 12

What I liked best about making the cookies was that we put our love into the cookies and we made them as mindfully and peacefully as we could. We’d spoon out some of the batter and for each spoonful we would say love or joy. We sat at a table to sell them, we sold out in 15 MINUTES. People loved them! We saved a couple for ourselves and when we ate them we thought about the ingredients and what was in them. For example there is a cloud in them because a cloud rains and the rain gives water to a peanut tree and we get peanuts from the peanut tree and we u se the peanuts to make peanut butter. The End.
-Sabine, age 10

We made cookies to sell so that we could get money for kids that r starving all over the world. It was really fun making and selling the cookies.I particularly liked making the chocolate ones. I hope that the hungry kids will be happy!
-Mischa, age 11

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All Roads Lead to Plum Village

 

By Janelle Combelic

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I left Plum Village in August 1990 after three weeks at my first summer retreat, not knowing that it would take me fourteen years to get back. But those three weeks changed my life.

I had started meditating on my own a couple of years before in Phoenix, Arizona. Every day before going to work as a technical writer I would sit for forty-five minutes. In 1989 I attended my first Vipassana retreat, a six-day silent retreat at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. The teacher was Jack Kornfield. Just about the only thing I remember was his admonition not to take ourselves too seriously. In fact, he mentioned a wonderful Vietnamese monk who told people to smile while they meditated!

A Rustic Peace

Some months later I saw an ad in a Buddhist magazine for Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastery. When I read that Plum Village was in France, where I had grown up, I knew I had to go. And so in July 1990 I found myself sitting in the sunshine outside the train station in Ste. Foy la Grande, waiting with a few strangers. And waiting. Someone finally came to pick us up and drove us to Lower Hamlet.

Conditions on the old farm were very rustic. I stayed in a primitive room in one of the old farm buildings with a few other women. Halfway through my stay I moved into a tent out in an overgrown field (where the new toilet block is now). Dharma Nectar Meditation Hall was new and bright and huge; every morning we gathered around the monks and nuns who sat around a central altar, chanting in Vietnamese. The Buddha garden beyond the windows radiated peace and beauty.

Every week we had a ceremony, as if Thay were squeezing a whole year of Vietnamese culture into a month. The Full Moon Festival in the meadow below Upper Hamlet was spectacular, with the moon rising behind the church of Puyguilhem on its hill across the valley. Most moving was the ceremony for Hiroshima Day when we processed to the pond in the oak wood at Lower Hamlet and launched little paper boats carrying candles with our prayers for peace.

At Upper Hamlet, we crowded into the Transformation Hall to listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. I loved its old white stones and small windows, the intimacy of this ancient barn converted into a Buddhist temple. One day we had a tea ceremony there with Thay. A lively and contentious discussion ensued, where some of the parents staying at Upper Hamlet complained about the lack of a children’s program. I noticed that the Vietnamese children staying at Lower Hamlet with their families, enjoying a welcome immersion in their native culture, behaved calmly and respectfully. The Western children staying at Upper Hamlet were far more boisterous, and their parents wanted more support to enjoy the retreat. I admired Thay’s honesty and openness, his willingness to listen but also his firm commitment to the practice.

Things were not nearly as organized then as they are now. There were no “families,” no work groups. Being new to the practice myself, I tried to get involved with different activities and found myself overcommitted in no time. I also re-created the isolation and loneliness of my life at home. I didn’t make friends and don’t remember learning about Sangha.

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At that time the Plum Village culture seemed rather male-dominated. The monks walked in front of the nuns during pro-cessions, just as in Vietnam. The nuns included Sister Annabel, abbess of Lower Hamlet; Sister Phuong, as Sister Chan Khong was then known; and Sister Jina, newly arrived and still wearing the formal gray robes of a Japanese monastic. I asked a senior laywoman, Joan Halifax, to lead a women’s discussion group. We were astonished when the circle filled the whole Transformation Hall! We had to schedule a second meeting so that everyone could get a chance to share.

Healing My Life

I’m not sure what specifically changed me at that retreat— perhaps one of Thay’s Dharma talks. That summer I was in my mid-thirties, suffering from chronic pain and loneliness. After one last failed relationship I had given up on men entirely to focus on healing my life. So when Thay invited us to write him questions I jumped at the chance. I thought my problems had to do with my father, and to give Thay some background I wrote page after page detailing my history. A few days later, I was astonished to hear Thay telling my story! However, he told it with profound sadness—describing this American woman who got involved with older men, who lost one baby and aborted another, whose younger brother had died of cancer, who didn’t get along with her family. For the first time I saw my own pain with real compassion. No wonder I felt sad all the time!

When I got home I made some decisions to change my life. I consulted a medical doctor and a homeopath and started getting the help I needed. Mysteriously, my healing took me far away from Plum Village and from meditation. For ten years I led an “ordinary” life, letting the world be my teacher.

By the time Thay came to Boulder in 2002 I had started meditating again and in 2003 I went on his retreat in Estes Park. That’s where I discovered Sangha. I started attending Peaceful Hearts Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado, and my life has never been the same.

It has been a long and uneven road, but more and more each day I touch the wonders of life. Who knew a person could be this happy!

mb60-AllRoads3Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, co-founded Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado. In 2010 she moved to Scotland, where she lives in a cottage with her English husband and their Irish setter Seamus. She practices with Northern Lights Sangha at Findhorn.

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Nourishing a Growing Sangha

A Retreat in Ireland 

By Caroline Dwyer

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The realization of a long-held vision of the Irish Sangha was brought to fruition when dear Thay and fifty monastics were joyfully welcomed to Irish soil and led a four-day retreat in Killarney, County Kerry in April 2012. It was the first Irish-based retreat to be held on this scale.

The level of public interest in joining the retreat dawned on many of us on the organizing team months before, when we had to expand our original capacity to enable more and more people to attend. In the end, around 790 retreatants came on the retreat, including over eighty children aged from babies of a few months old (one just days away from being born!) to energetic teens.

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Killarney is an area of incredible natural beauty. The retreat hotel buildings looked out over Killarney National Park and the McGillycuddy Reek mountains. The Killarney Convention Centre auditorium became the beautifully decorated Dharma Hall, while two hotels and blocks of apartments on the same site and a hostel in Killarney town housed the remaining retreatants and became our haven of transformation and peace for four days. We had the chance to enjoy the lush, green backdrop during a walking meditation that the Sangha undertook together, which ended in a picnic lunch on the grass overlooking the sparkling Lakes of Killarney. The famously changeable Irish weather held dry that day! The teens’ group also made the most of the surroundings by taking a hike into the park.

Playfulness and Healing

The innocent and joyful presence of so many beautiful children brought a palpable lightness and exuberance to this very special retreat. Many people commented on how the presence of the children created a quality of playfulness and how the great reverence for the children was apparent in the way they were celebrated.

The children’s programme made a musical offering to Thay. They played a lively Kerry Polka on traditional instruments such as the tin whistle (beloved of Irish school children), the fiddle, concertina, banjo, and flute. Voices of the other retreatants joined the children in singing songs that generations of children would have learned while attending primary school. Some children took the two promises in a very joyful ceremony. At one stage a preoccupied little toddler wandered onto Thay’s podium, causing Thay to comment that the child was practicing walking meditation. This caused ripples of delighted laughter from the retreatants.

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Thay’s Dharma talks embraced many issues that are current in the Irish psyche: suicide, abuse by clergy in the past, healing of wounds from the troubles in the North of the country. He also offered to bring a party of monastics to facilitate the bringing together of both sides of the conflict using deep listening and mindful breathing practices.

Thay expounded on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing and beautifully explained the benefits and purpose of the “Namo Avalokiteshvara” chant, which the whole Sangha sang together … a precious memory for this retreatant. These Dharma talks and others are available on www.pvom.org and www.mind- fulnessireland.org. Sister Chan Khong led deeply transformative and healing sessions of Deep Relaxation and Touching the Earth on the second and third days of the retreat. The Five Mindfulness Trainings were taken by many people in a very moving ceremony on the final day of the retreat.

Treasure Trove of Joy

The springing up of new Sanghas, the huge interest in setting up others in counties that previously had none, and the meeting of a Wake Up group during and since the retreat, are a tangible testimony to the timeliness of Thay’s visit to Ireland and the embracing of his message of compassion, hope, and mindful living. These new Sanghas are a beautiful flowering of the seeds sown before and during Thay’s visit, watered by the hard work and dedication of committed volunteers who worked for over a year in preparation for the visit.

Reflecting on my own experience of working on Thay’s visit to Ireland, I can appreciate now what a rare opportunity it was to work together with fellow practitioners for such a sustained period of time. When starting out, I didn’t realise just how absorbing and, at times, intense this work would become and how many challenges it would offer. I struggled to maintain my mindfulness and my equilibrium on many occasions, but it really brought home to me the high importance that this practice has in my life. I gained a deeper understanding of what my practice of mindfulness actually is in “real life” with all its perceived strengths and weaknesses, and how important it is that I remember to nourish it in order to maintain balance, perspective, and happiness. Very valuable lessons to learn! I am grateful to the family and Sangha support that was given so generously and became such a treasure trove of joy and laughter.

A deep bow of gratitude to Thay and the monastics who visited us here in Ireland, bringing this precious experience of the Dharma to our country. Thanks also to our brothers and sisters in the UK Sangha who generously shared their experience with us.

mb62-Nourishing4Caroline Dywer, Compassionate Stream of the Heart, lives in Midleton, Co. Cork with her husband, John, and little daughter, Grace. She practices with the Cork Sangha, the Awakening Seeds Sangha (a telephone-based Sangha for parents), and the Clear Mind, Joyful Heart Sangha based in Midleton.

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Book Reviews

mb62-BookReviews2A Handful of Quiet
Happiness in our Pebbles

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Blossom Books, 2012
Hardcover, 62 pages

Reviewed by Elle Snow

Many years ago, on a meditation retreat in Santa Barbara, Thay and some children created Pebble Meditation. Like so many of Thay’s teachings, Pebble Meditation is both simple and profoundly deep. The practice invites the child to hold a pebble, breathe in and out, and visualize an aspect of nature and what it represents as a life-giving state of being.

Breathing in I see myself as a flower
Breathing out I feel fresh.
Breathing in I see myself as a mountain
Breathing out I feel solid.
Breathing in I see myself as calm water
Breathing out I reflect what truly is.
Breathing in I see myself as space
Breathing out I feel free.

Pebble Meditation gives the left brain a tangible object for a child/practitioner to focus on (the pebble) as the right brain is opened to the abstraction of possibility. The whole brain is engaged as the pebble and the abstract are unified through touching what is evoked of the four elements in their symbolic representation of flower, water, mountain, and space. Through the “touchstone” of each aspect of nature, we can open ourselves to the transcendent wisdom of their correlates: fresh, clear, solid, and free.

A Handful of Quiet is a sweet book that has a great deal to offer children of all ages. In accessible language and with gentle illustration, it provides a way for a caring adult to introduce meditation, mindfulness, and nature to a child. It offers sixty pages of activities and tools in which to develop a relationship with Pebble Meditation. There is a section with practice pages where a child can name the moments when she has felt quiet or free. Also, Thay walks a child through a drawing activity. And there are steps for how to make a pebble meditation bag. Perhaps my favorite are the series of pages that begin with one, then two, then three, then four small blue watercolor splotches for the child to set his pebbles on as he does each step of the meditation.

Teaching a cherished child the skill of mindful awareness is one of the greatest gifts we can give. A Handful of Quiet is not only a lovely book; it is a way to engage a child though story, activity, and relationship. It is a bridge between a wise adult and an innocent child. It is a way to plant seeds through pebbles!

mb62-BookReviews2Fear
Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Harper One, 2012
Softcover, 156 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

It has been said that all of our negative emotions boil down to fear. So it’s no surprise that our beloved teacher has written a book that serves as an antidote to fear. As I write this review, just before the national elections on November 6, a fierce hurricane is slowly descending upon the East Coast of the U.S. The news media is shouting and magnifying our worst fears, and is even turning them into tools for political gain. This type of fear-mongering is actually a storm in itself, for it creates a culture of fear, which Thay teaches us, in this small but potent book, to counteract with mindful living.

The Buddha taught that while there is suffering, through mindfulness we can transform our suffering into peace, stability, and joy. In the Introduction, Thay discusses how we cannot make our fears go away by ignoring them, and that to bury our fears is to give them even more dominion over us. He offers specific methods for how to live fully in the here and now, so that we are no longer battered by the modern storm of fear and anxiety. In reading Thay’s book we learn that we can, indeed, transform the roots of fear from within.

Nowadays we often use shopping, alcohol, drugs, TV, films, books, and even conversations to distract ourselves from fear. By acting in this way, we unwittingly feed the storm. “If you stop running after the object of your craving,” writes the author, “—whether it’s a person, a thing or an idea—your fear will dissipate.” This notion reminds me of an old saying by the hippie philosopher Thaddeus Golas: “If you can’t find it where you are standing, where do you expect to wander in search of it?”

Thay points out that when we act out of fear, we actually foster a culture of fear, and that the antidote to this oppressive cycle is mindful living. He encourages us to drop our isolated egos in favor of our communities and the world at large. When we remain in regular contact with our spiritual community and walk in peace with our Sangha, we help break the cycle of fear and provide a balm for all beings.

mb62-BookReviews3Deep Relaxation
Coming Home to Your Body

By Sister Chan Khong
Parallax Press, 2013
Hardcover, 40 pages, with CD

Reviewed by Gary Gach, True Platform of Light

Whether you are new to our practice or a long-term beginner, you might agree how marvelous is its integration of body, feelings, and mind as one. We start with our bodies, return to our bodies. Even when our minds wander, our bodies are always here, fully present (with a lifetime guarantee on that fact). Our bodies can be wise teachers, messengers of the entire universe. After hundreds of years of their evolution, it’s nice to enjoy a little guidance in their everyday manners of operation.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a retreat with Thay Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village monastics, you’ve already experienced deep relaxation, taught perhaps by a bodhisattva.Yes, I’m watering flowers in Sister Chan Khong’s window garden. How vividly (and bodily) I still remember the greatly pleasurable surprise in first learning deep relaxation from her. How important it is to bring the nonverbal wisdom of our body from the background into the foreground of our awareness. Our body’s generosity to us, immeasurable, ceaseless, and selfless, can be reciprocated with gratitude. How marvelous! And so deeply relaxing, renewing, and refreshing.

That was only my own initial response; you may find it for yourself. It may be one of the most ancient human rituals, visualizing ourselves bodily in a sequence (“toe bone connected to the foot bone,” etc.). Our practice, sometimes known as the body scan, originates with the Buddha. As our Sangha publishing practice group, Parallax Press, offers this precious jewel to the world, it now ripples out like rings of a tree trunk. Don’t you wish all the world could know, enjoy, and share total relaxation? May it be so.

This book with CD makes deep relaxation easily and widely available, like a broad river flowing out to sea. Following an apt introduction by our teacher, the guided meditation is presented in both short and long forms. On the CD, the meditations are read by Sister Chan Khong, Thay, Joseph Emet, Jean-Pierre Maradan, and Sister Doan Nghiem. The CD includes lovely songs sung by Sister Chan Khong in English, French, and Vietnamese.

For a lifetime of mindful living, this provides indispensable training and a beautiful gift. Total relaxation restores us to our organic integrity and our original nature. Recommended for every body.

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How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2012
Paperback, 120 pages

Reviewed by Natascha Bruckner

As practitioners, we know that mindfulness can happen only in the present moment and that every action can be a meditation. But sometimes, caught up in a busy schedule, we forget. Thay’s new book, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day, shows us precisely how each daily activity can be a place to savor our life.

Thay shines a spotlight on all aspects of our day, beginning with waking up in the morning. Rather than hurrying to get up, we can set an intention about how we want to live today. What is our deepest desire? Will it bring nourishment? With each morning routine, we return to mindfulness, guided by the gathas (poems) in this book. Thay reminds us that every action, from brushing our teeth to leaving for work, may be a practice of freedom. “Every time we walk out the door, even if we’re just on the way to our car to go to work, we can take the time to notice that the great Earth bodhisattva is all around us, nourishing and sustaining us.”

Thay’s spotlight penetrates into places where we could practice more wholeheartedly, such as sitting at our desk at work. He asks, “What is the quality of our sitting? … Even if we have a rare moment of quiet at our desks, we talk on the phone or browse the internet. We are workaholics. We always need to be doing something.” Thay invites us to take breaks and sit without effort or purpose, to be happy, like a Buddha.

The book is also a guide for handling strong emotions at work. Thay gives specific instructions for dealing with anger, restoring good communication, and engaging in loving speech and deep listening. The chapter “A New Way of Working” shares alternatives to the culture of competition that is likely to destroy us. Thay presents the three kinds of power that can make us happy: understanding, love, and letting go. The final chapter, “Thirty Ways to Reduce Stress at Work,” offers jewels to help us deepen our joy every day.

Work shows us how to embody the truth that when we live mindfully, every activity of the day—whether answering the phone or cleaning the toilet—can liberate us. Our workday doesn’t need to oppress or restrict us. In fact, our livelihood can become a raft gently floating us to the shore of awakening.

mb62-BookReviews5The Road That Teaches
Lessons in Transformation through Travel

By Valerie Brown
Quakerbridge Media of Friends General Congress, 2012
Softcover, 152 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True of Peace

The rambling spirit of this well-organized pilgrim’s primer seems woven into the wind. This travel guide not only provides tips for exploring the sacred world on foot, but also includes tales of exquisite detail and the author’s own personal revelations from the road.

Each chapter contains a small gift in the form of a question to ask ourselves, which may equate to a Quaker query or a Zen koan. At one point, the traveler arrives at a place with two fields: “Two plots, side by side, one wild and one tamed, are much like two competing forces in my life. … How do I acknowledge the wild parts of me, that want to plant garlic in a high desert farm, to Mambo well, and to learn to weave from a Navajo woman? The questions are deeper than the answers.”

Following in Brown’s footsteps, we hear the echo of our teacher— “I have arrived, I am home”—wherever we go. We travel with Brown through the famous El Camino, the enchanted Irish Isle of Iona, the sacred temples of India, Japan’s traditional pilgrimage route through rocks and temples, Shikoku Island, and places closer to home. With each step we are treated to historical nuggets such as the history of Indian Kanchipuram temples, which are dedicated either to Shiva, the destroyer, or to Vishnu, the sustainer of life.

In the introduction, Brown suggests that we “[u]se this book as a prayer book and guide book for contemplation, discernment and reflection.” Her emphasis is on inspiration, whether she is mightily challenged by the weather or rough terrain, or taking a much-needed rest. The end of each chapter contains a practice lesson in mindfulness, and the book even includes a Sample Packing List and Traveler’s Resource Guide. Peppered throughout, like blossoms along the road, are illuminating quotations, like this Spanish proverb introducing the section on afternoon tea in Iona: “How wonderful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterwards.”

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The Spirit of Non-Self

Living in Sangha Paradise 

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

A mist thickly covers the forests and mountains of Deer Park Monastery. The entire practice center is embraced by an atmosphere of stillness. The activity bell wakes all from slumber at exactly 5:00 a.m., followed by reverberating sounds of the Great Temple Bell in front of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. The powerful sounds of the bell, harmonizing with the light and flowing voice of a sister chanting, enhance the peacefulness of a new day.

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Today is the fourth day of a five-day retreat, “Opening the Door of Your Heart,” for people who speak Vietnamese. In the tranquil atmosphere of the morning, the Sangha queues up to get a packed breakfast in preparation for hiking up the misty mountain and enjoying their first meal of the day.  About 500 monastic and lay friends practice walking meditation along the winding path. When the Sangha reaches Elephant Peak, some people are, perhaps, surprised to see Thay already seated in meditation with    his attendants. Standing here, one faces an ocean of clouds that covers an area of the city of Escondido. It feels as if one is hovering among the clouds of a faraway land of enchantment. It is truly a Zen experience to be in the spaciousness of earth and grand open sky. Everyone finds a comfortable place to sit among the huge flat rock formations that have been here for hundreds of years.

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After practicing sitting meditation for half an hour, I slowly open my eyes to see that the sun has risen and made the sea of clouds appear even clearer. The Sangha begins eating breakfast in silence. After some time, Thay shows me a cluster of tiny ants carrying crumbs dropped from our rice cakes. They carry their food in just one direction. Some ants move rice cake crumbs or potato skins many times larger than themselves. Sometimes two or three ants clutch one piece together. Thay compassionately gives them some more food that they can bring back to their nest for the colony to enjoy.

Thay tells me to take a photo of these ants. I do so and feel curious about where they are taking these provisions and how big their colony is. I follow their trail and feel pity to see how small they are, because they have to carry food so much larger than their bodies. Their paths wind up and down the rock surface. Some lose their balance and topple over due to their heavy load. I just let them be and don’t interfere, as if I were not there. My observation takes me to the entrance of their nest, a crack in the rock with a lot of sand surrounding it. I feel despondent that I can’t continue farther while they unaffectedly carry on their task. A sense of curiosity continues in my store consciousness for the next few days.

Like A Colony of Ants

Recently, I saw a short documentary film called “Animal Planet,” which examined the life and activities of a colony of ants. Thousands of them followed each other in a meadow of tall green grass that resembled the young plants in a rice paddy. Many climbed grass stems and bit off young shoots, while those on the ground carried the shoots back to the nest. Each had its own particular task to do, be it to bite off the shoots, transport provisions, or remain inside to build the underground nest from the grass that had been carried back. They seemed to work like an ensemble without a leader or discrimination. None of them seemed to complain about each other. The way they lived reminded me of our Sangha.

As brothers and sisters in the Dharma, we work together like ants in a colony, or like cells in a body. In a body, there is no single cell that is considered the leader of all other cells. A retreatant once asked one of our sisters who plays the violin, “Why does Thay travel with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour?” She replied, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra.” The conductor would not attract an audience by himself; yet if there were no conductor, the quality of music produced by the orchestra would not be very high. Thay has never wanted to control us. He only seeks to open doors and clear obstacles for us. Thay just allows things to unfold naturally and tries to find the best way to help all of us develop our various talents. We inter-depend on one another; we inter-are with each other. When our individual skills are combined, they no longer belong to any particular person, but become the effectiveness of the whole Sangha.

Whether we are at our monastery or on the road, and especially during the recent retreats in North America, our brothers and sisters live and work together like a colony of ants; we flow as a river. Our 2011 U.S. Tour, which spanned three months, included five public talks, eight Days of Mindfulness (DOM), an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, seven retreats in as many states, a half DOM with the Google staff at their headquarters in California, and a talk for congressmen and women in Washington, D.C. Each retreat had from eight hundred to one thousand participants, the DOMs had from one thousand to sixteen hundred people, and the public talks attracted approximately twenty five hundred attendees. The majority of activities were organized by monastic brothers and sisters. The tour took the organizing team two years to plan.

We work together as an ensemble, and each person is allocated a task: some oversee logistics, others take care of registration, and others welcome and orient retreatants. Some brothers and sisters do the grocery shopping while others cook. Some manage the accommodations and others are in charge of hygiene. We have a transportation coordinator and children’s program supervisors. A team films the Dharma talks, a team produces the DVDs, and a team sells Thay’s calligraphies and books. All these tasks are tightly coordinated, and they all relate to each other.

When we’re on big teaching tours and retreats, the brothers and sisters do much work, but there are rarely complaints or criticism. Glitches are opportunities for us to learn new things and better understand each other. One brother is the treasurer, and he is on a cooking team, the CD producing team, and the organizing team. He has such a lot of work to do, but he is always fresh, smiling, and full of energy! One time when I saw that he had a great deal of bookkeeping work to do, I said to him, “Dear brother, you have so much work to do. May I give you a hand?” He looked at me kindly and replied, “The paperwork is a bit complicated. It’s okay, I’ll do it.” I continued, “But please take care of your health.” He smiled and said in his humorous way, “There’s no need to live a long life. Forty years is enough!” Matching his wit, I replied, “Thay has said that whoever goes before he does is not showing enough filial piety! The Buddha and Thay have entrusted their mission to us, so we can’t go so early!” We both laughed.

Recognizing Paradise

During our retreats there is much joy, and peals of laughter can be heard everywhere, especially in the kitchen. Each kitchen team has only five or six people, but they cook for over a thousand retreatants. They do so with happiness cultivated from the love of brotherhood and sisterhood. One day I went into the kitchen and saw a sister at the stove frying tofu. I was surprised at how tall she was that day, and then I realized that she was standing on a step in order to comfortably reach the stove top. I saw the large tray of delicious fried tofu pieces, and thought it must have taken her quite some time to fry all of that tofu in the midday heat, yet her face was still fresh. I said to her, “Sister, you are so good!”

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An elder brother had been assigned to that same cooking team. He was cooking a huge pot of curry and using a large wooden ladle to stir. The curry was appealing, but the most amusing sight was that the pot was as tall as his ribs! This pot surely would need to be carried by three or four people. I had a funny thought: Cooking like this, one does not need to go to the gym and lift weights! I felt very happy because I knew for sure that the food cooked by the brothers and sisters had a lot of love in it, and that the retreatants would be able to taste and enjoy it.

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When I have a bit of spare time during a tour, I like to watch children play together; I think they look like innocent angels. I particularly relish hearing their spontaneous laughter echoing in the summer air. At least a few dozen children come with their parents to each retreat. Brothers and sisters take care of the children’s program very skillfully; they are mostly “baby monks” or “baby nuns” who have grown up in the monastery. They wholeheartedly guide, play with, and offer their presence to the children. That’s why the children who attend Plum Village retreats are so happy. When I look into the bright eyes of these children, I know that we are sowing good seeds in them—seeds of peace, happiness, and liberation.

I also like to drop by the bookshop to see Thay’s new calligraphy, which helps remind people to practice mindfulness at home. The calligraphies may say, for example, “Breathe, my dear,” or “Peace is every step,” or “Happiness begins with your lovely smile.” The calligraphy stand is always full of people. An elder sister is happily helping her younger sisters distribute the calligraphies, even though she has many other things to do. Promoting calligraphy involves more than just selling individual sheets; there are also elements of practice and play. People often have many questions about the meaning of Thay’s calligraphies; therefore the stand is like a Dharma hall. This is an opportunity for elder sisters to pass on their experience to younger ones, while also working to serve and liberate all beings. The elder sisters explain the calligraphies in a dynamic way, while the younger sisters’ fresh faces and witty comments attract visitors, as well.

Despite the crowds, the atmosphere at retreats is serene and peaceful. One practitioner commented, “Even though there are about a thousand retreatants here, it doesn’t feel like it. The atmosphere here is totally different from outside.” There are not only those who are experienced in the practices of Plum Village, but also many newcomers. The long-time practitioners are a much-needed foundation and source of support for newer practitioners. During one walking meditation session full of people, one retreatant exclaimed, “This is a miracle! We are walking in paradise!” Thanks to the mindful presence and collective energy of the Sangha, we can recognize this paradise.

Our Source of Energy

mb61-Spirit5During a Dharma sharing session at Estes Park, Colorado, one retreatant commented, “In this retreat there are up to eight hundred people and everything is done by the brothers and sisters. I’m truly surprised to see that you do all of these things so wholeheartedly. I’m curious to know how you all have so much energy.” I looked at her and simply replied, “Your tears and smiles are our source of energy.” It is true that there are tears from pain and suffering, but there are also tears born of happiness. And smiles are signs of joy, peace, happiness, and transformation. Both tears and smiles are a source of inspiration that nourishes our mind of love. That is why we have so much energy to continue what we are doing. I feel so nourished and happy as a monastic because my brothers and sisters and I have come across a way of practice that is relevant to us. We are able to continue the Buddha’s task of liberating beings in the way that Thay has transmitted to us.

Personally, I think we monastics benefit the most from these retreats. When we conduct such retreats, we have the opportunity to come in contact with the suffering of people from many sectors of society. As monastics, there are places that we cannot go; there are things that only laypeople can do. However, through our interactions with lay friends, and listening to their life experiences and suffering, we are able to see different aspects of life more clearly. Sometimes, just by listening, we alleviate much of their pain and suffering. When I’m able to sit and listen to people’s deepest pain and hidden difficulties, then naturally the energy of compassion arises within me. This kind of energy makes me so happy whenever I’m able to generate it.

I think it’s truly wonderful to be a monastic, especially when I have the chance to help others. In my opinion, “miraculous” things don’t need to be lofty; it is what I can do every day that counts. To be able to help others benefit from their practice, to bring about healing, transformation, happiness, peace, and joy in others is already a miracle. My life is so fulfilling and happy. What else is there to search for?

The Spirit of Sangha

We monastics spend much time learning, practicing, and conducting retreats. Another art needs to be nourished every day, as well: the art of developing brotherhood and sisterhood. This is the foundation of happiness in our daily practice. Everything we do holds the purpose of building brotherhood and sisterhood, and drinking tea together is one of our favourite methods for doing so. Drinking tea is a meditation practice. Each pot of tea contains so many joyful stories that we share with each other, especially after a session of sitting meditation and chanting. And nothing beats hiking up a mountain and drinking tea together there. Our daily activities have all the elements of mindfulness practice, play, work, and learning. It is only when we live and work in this spirit of inclusiveness and inter-relatedness that large-scale teaching tours can be successful and beneficial for practitioners.

Living and practicing in the Sangha, as well as going on teaching tours with Thay, have given me a precious lesson—anything can be accomplished when we have ideals, aspirations, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Further, when we are able to let go of our individualism, then we can easily flow with togetherness. That is the spirit of living in the Sangha, the spirit of non-self. That is the love of brotherhood and sisterhood.

There is a popular proverb in Vietnamese: “One stick cannot make a mountain, but three sticks together create a solid peak.” It is a sensible proverb that everyone likes and appreciates. Before I was ordained, it did not hold much meaning for me. It was merely a nice idea. But after becoming a monk, having lived and practiced with the Sangha, I realize its depth and truth. I appreciate this proverb, thanks to the miraculous power of the Sangha and the wonders of a lifestyle of non-self. This lifestyle is truly a Sangha paradise.

mb61-Spirit6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

 

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