Prison Moment, Wonderful Moment

By Sister Chan Khong

Dear David, I wish to be your friend because I know that you are a good person caught in a difficult situation. When we are in a bad situation, we tend to believe that we are the only one who is unfortunate. In fact, everyone has difficulties . Only we may never hear about them. Please remember that being caught in a bad situation is normal. Everyone has to face this. The question is, how can we cope with our difficult situation in beauty and peace? When caught in a bad situation, I too was as unhappy as you are. But I have learned how to be unhappy for only several minutes or a few hours. During that time, I use the art of mindful living to be resurrected and to look deeper in order to see many positive things. Then I discover that, thanks to a bad situation, I have many good opportunities.

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There is a bodhisattva, an enlightened person, named Ksitigarbha, who goes to living beings in the worst situations and tries his best to cheer them up, to give them inspiration to live, to smile, and to help them get out of their bad situations. Ksitigarbha vows that, “If there is still one living being caught in a hellish situation, I will stay there with him or her until he or she is set free.” I am sure that Ksitigarbha is there with you, like a gentle guard who listens carefully to what you say and kindly helps you in your time of need. Ksitigarbha could be a prisoner himself, but not like other prisoners. While the others live without responsibility, without care, the prisoner Ksitigarbha is the one who lives mindfully, beautifullypeaceful and loving with everyone in the jail. Ksitigarbha could be a social worker—one who really loves, cares, and works overtime out of love, not for salary. Ksitigarbha could be a lawyer, devoted to his client’s cause, really wishing to help, to relieve the suffering of the victims, not for money, but for being helpful and relieving suffering. Ksitigarbha could be yourself when you are peaceful, light, serene, and full of love and care for those around you.

All situations, even desperate ones, change. If we know how to handle our moments in prison with mindfulness, with a very deep look, with the loving heart and the compassionate eyes of Ksitigarbha, we will treasure every moment. People suffer because they do not know that everything changes. The weather is sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes foggy, sometimes snowy. We must learn the art of enjoying the sunshine when it is sunny, the rain when it is rainy, the fog when it is foggy. We must learn the art of mindfully enjoying our time. When we play tennis, we play with 100% of our being; when we are with our beloved ones, we enjoy our beloved ones 100%; when we are in jail, we enjoy our time in jail 100%. You must know that this time in jail is an invaluable time for learning if you can be mindful, and look deeply at everything that is happening.

In the past, Thay had an American student who was a devoted peace activist. One day, Thay gave him a tangerine. He ate the tangerine, but his mind was involved with many projects. While eating, he told Thay about them. Suddenly Thay said, “Jim, eat your tangerine!” Jim realized he was not eating his tangerine, but only his projects. He bowed to Thay and then ate slowly, mindfully, enjoying the fragrance and taste of the fruit. My dear David, please live mindfully every moment of your life in jail. Eat and enjoy what you are eating. Don’t let your mind carry you away to sorrow, frustration, and anger.

When you go home, you will enjoy deeply the presence of your beloved mother, father, and sisters, and enjoy every moment being with them. And you will enjoy your own liberty. Many people only regret the absence of their beloved ones when they pass away or are forced to live far away. Often, we live with our beloved ones, but we are carried away by our career, fame, money, and interests. We never have time to really be with him or her, to look into her eyes, her feelings, joys, and pains. We rarely have time to enjoy their wonderful presence.

Later, Jim was imprisoned for burning his draft card. Thay sent him a short note, exactly as he did for you recently, “Jim, your tangerine is still there. I hope you can enjoy your tangerine properly.” After being released, Jim flew to France to thank Thay. He told us, “Thanks to your words, which woke me up, I lived my days in jail deeply. I was no longer frustrated, angered at everything like in the past.” So, dear David, being released today is good, but being released next month is also good, and if they release you next year, it is fine too. Being in jail every day you have a chance to sit still, to look deeply into your feelings, your past experiences, and the roots of your past experiences that led you to this place, so that you can see your future clearly. You can also see and help many people around you. When you are released, you will know how to enjoy the presence of your wonderful family, and your liberty. Then you will certainly be able to go to a retreat with Thay to learn the art of mindful living. But for now, please enjoy your tangerine.

Dharma teacher Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, has been Thick Nhat Hanh ‘s colleague since 1959. She wrote this letter to a prisoner in California.

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Sister Dog

By Dewain Belgard

I was driving home from work when I first saw Sister Dog. She appeared thin and hungry. Her collar was too tight, and she was dragging a broken leash. I suspected she had been homeless for some time.

The neighborhood where I saw her has a reputation for danger and violence. Yet despite my fear, I found myself stopping the car. I got out and called to her softly, “Sister Dog, could you use some help?” But evidently her experience with human beings had not left her with any basis for trust. She disappeared under a nearby abandoned house.

I tried for a few minutes to coax her out, but it was getting dark. And with darkness, the danger of the area increased. An obviously intoxicated man approached me and put his hand in his pocket. I expected him to produce a gun or knife, but he just stooped down with me and said, “That your dog?” “No,” I told him, “I’m just trying to get her to come out so I can remove the collar. I’m afraid it’s choking her.” He nodded in agreement. It occurred to me that he also was probably hungry and homeless. “I guess she’s not coming out,” I said. I got up and walked to my car, wondering with every step if he would try to stop me.

The next day I went back to the same place at noon, but Sister Dog wasn’t there. I drove by again after work, and this time she was standing on the sidewalk where I had first seen her. I had brought food with me. I offered it to her, but she ran under the abandoned house again. I left the food in the alley nearby and returned to the car to watch. In a few seconds, she came out cautiously and ate the food. The next day I returned and put out more food and some water. That evening when I drove by, the food and water were still there untouched. I checked several times after that, but never saw her again.

For some time afterwards I couldn’t get the image of Sister Dog out of my mind. It was difficult to sit down at the table to eat or to lie down in the comfort of my bed at night without thinking of her. It seemed to me that the suffering of millions of sisters and brothers, both human and nonhuman, had rolled itself into one little mass of flesh and had confronted me in Sister Dog. I felt overwhelmed by feelings of sorrow and pity.

In observing these feelings of sorrow and pity, I noticed how different they were from the spontaneous and unselfconscious feeling of compassion that had appeared when I first saw Sister Dog. That feeling of compassion was not overwhelming at all, but the subsequent feelings of sorrow and pity were draining me of energy.

I realized then that pity is not a wholesome feeling. Pity is demeaning. It doesn’t see the nobility of the one who is suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is never separated from the noble and miraculous nature of awareness that shines through even the deepest misery. Compassion doesn’t drain us because it connects us to the infinite energy of our true self.

I am grateful to Sister Dog for this insight. I no longer see her as a poor helpless victim to be pitied, but as a Mahasattva Bodhisattva — a Great Being, a Being of Light. I feel honored and privileged to have met her.

Dewain Belgard, True Good Vows, is a social worker and practices with the Blue Iris Sangha in New Orleans.

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Dharma Talk: The Four Immeasurable Minds

By Thich Nhat Hanh

During the lifetime of the Buddha, those of the Brahmanic faith prayed that after death they would go to Heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal God. One day a Brahmin man asked the Buddha, “What can I do to be sure that I will be with Brahma after I die?” and the Buddha replied, “As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahma-viharas—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” A vihara is an abode or a dwelling place. Love in Sanskrit is maitri; in Pali it is metta. Compassion is karuna in both languages. Joy is mudita. Equanimity is upeksha in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali. The Brahmaviharas are four elements of true love. They are called Immeasurable, because if you practice them, they will grow every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier and those around you will become happier, also.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha respected people’s desire to practice their own faith, so he answered the Brahmin’s question in a way that encouraged him to do so. If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha’s spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.

According to Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extin­guishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity extinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings.

If we learn ways to practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we will know how to heal the illnesses of anger, sorrow, insecurity, sadness, hatred, loneliness, and unhealthy attachments. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha teaches, “If a mind of anger arises, the bhikkhu (monk) can practice the meditation on love, compassion, or equanimity for the person who has brought about the feeling of anger.”

Some sutra commentators have said that the Brahma-viharas are not the highest teaching of the Buddha, that they cannot put an end to suffering and afflictions. This is not correct. One time the Buddha said to his beloved attendant Ananda, “Teach these Four Immeasurable Minds to the young monks, and they will feel secure, strong, and joyful, without afflictions of body or mind. For the whole of their lives, they will be well equipped to practice the pure way of a monk.” On another occasion, a group of the Buddha’s disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, “We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?” The Buddha’s disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, “Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment.” Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

The first aspect of true love is maitri, the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

In Southeast Asia, many people are extremely fond of a large, thorny fruit called durian. You could even say they are addicted to it. Its smell is extremely strong, and when some people finish eating the fruit, they put the skin under their bed so they can continue to smell it. To me, the smell of durian is horrible. One day when I was practicing chanting alone in my temple in Vietnam, there was a durian on the altar that had been offered to the Buddha. I was trying to recite The Lotus Sutra, using a wooden drum and a large bowl-shaped bell for accompaniment, but I could not concentrate at all. I finally carried the bell to the altar and turned it upside down to imprison the durian, so I could chant the sutra. After I finished, I bowed to the Buddha and liberated the durian. If you were to say to me, “Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this durian,” I would suffer. You love me, you want me to be happy, but you force me to eat durian. That is an example of love without understanding. Your intention is good, but you don’t have the correct understanding.

Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and well-being. It is as natural as the air. We are loved by the air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand. For our love to continue, we have to take the appropriate action or non-action to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved.

Maitri can be translated as “love” or “loving kindness.” Some Buddhist teachers prefer “loving kindness,” as they find the word “love” too darigerous. But I prefer the word love. Words sometimes get sick and we have to heal them. We have been using the word “love” to mean appetite or desire, as in “I love hamburgers.” We have to use language more carefully. We have to restore the meaning of the word love. “Love” is a beautiful word. We have to restore its meaning. The word maitri has roots in the word mitra, which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

We all have the seeds of love in us. We can develop this wonderful source of energy, nurturing the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return. When we understand someone deeply, even someone who has done us harm, we cannot resist loving him or her. Shakyamuni Buddha declared that the Buddha of the next eon will be named Maitreya, the Buddha of Love.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as “compassion,” but that is not exactly correct. “Compassion” is composed of com (“together with”) and passion (“to suffer”). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may he crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find a better word, let us use “compassion” to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practices “looking with the eyes of compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world.” Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her. You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain. You are in deep commu­nication, deep communion with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha had enough understand­ing, calmness, and strength. That is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

The third element of true love is mudita, joy. True love always brings joy to ourselves and to the one we love. If our love does not bring joy to both of us, it is not true love.

Commentators explain that happiness relates to both body and mind, whereas joy relates primarily to mind. This example is often given: Someone traveling in the desert sees a stream of cool water and experiences joy. On drinking the water, he experiences happiness. Ditthadhamma sukhavihari means “dwelling happily in the present moment.” We don’t rush to the future; we know that everything is here in the present moment. Many small things can bring us tremen­dous joy, such as the awareness that we have eyes in good condition. We just have to open our eyes and we can see the blue sky, the violet flowers, the children, the trees, and so many other kinds of forms and colors. Dwelling in mindful­ness, we can touch these wondrous and refreshing things, and our mind of joy arises naturally. Joy contains happiness and happiness contains joy.

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Some commentators have said that mudita means “sympathetic joy” or “altruistic joy,” the happi­ness we feel when others are happy. But that is too limited. It discriminates between self and others. A deeper definition of mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves? Joy is for everyone.

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimi­nation, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upe means “over,” and ksh means “to look.” You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indiffer­ent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination.

Upeksha has the mark called samatajnana, “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides. We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. As long as we see ourselves as the one who loves and the other as the one who is loved, as long as we value ourselves more than others or see others as different from us, we do not have true equanimity. We have to put ourselves “into the other person’s skin” and become one with him if we want to understand and truly love him. When that happens, there is no “self’ and no “other.”

Without upeksha, your love may become possessive. A summer breeze can be very refreshing; but if we try to put it in a tin can so we can have it entirely for ourselves, the breeze will die. Our beloved is the same. He is like a cloud, a breeze, a flower. If you imprison him in a tin can, he will die. Yet many people do just that. They rob their loved one of his liberty, until he can no longer be himself. They live to satisfy themselves and use their loved one to help them fulfill that. That is not loving; it is destroying. You say you love him, but if you do not understand his aspirations, his needs, his difficulties, he is in a prison called love. True love allows you to preserve your freedom and the freedom of your beloved. That is upeksha.

For love to be true love, it must contain compassion, joy, and equanimity in it. For compassion to be true compassion, it has to have love, joy, and equanimity in it. True joy has to contain love, compassion, and equanimity. And true equanimity has to have love, compassion, and joy in it. This is the interbeing nature of the Four Immeasurable Minds. When the Buddha told the Brahmin man to practice the Four Immeasurable Minds, he was offering all of us a very important teaching. But we must look deeply and practice them for ourselves to bring these four aspects of love into our own lives and into the lives we love. 

This Dharma talk is from Teachings on Love, to be pub­lished by Parallax Press in March. 

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 “Heart of the Buddha” retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

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Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer’s when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can’t remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don’t believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, “When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence.” Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can’t remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don’t need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It’s not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don’t want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, “Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this.” Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don’t buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, “Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?” Then, they will begin to ask, “When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn.” At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, “Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don’t know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive.” Use ord­inary language. Don’t make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don’t look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don’t need incense. You don’t need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don’t say, “I am practicing spirituality, and you don’t know anything about it!” Try to avoid saying, “Darling, I am practicing Buddhism.” Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, “Darling, how do you do it?” Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, “Who is responsible for this?”

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn’t say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one’s own life. But I don’t want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, “What happens to the consciousness before death?” If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby’s diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don’t have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby’s diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I’m going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on “the art of mindful living.”

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Thich Nhat Hanh in Israel

 By Marjorie Markus

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When I first heard that Thich Nhat Hanh would be leading retreats in Israel in May 1997, I was excited and knew immediately that I wanted to go. As the time approached to commit to attending the retreat, I had some doubts and concerns, particularly about how we might be received in Israel. It was the period when the peace process had become endangered, and I was concerned about our safety. After acknowledging these fears, my initial enthusiasm returned and I knew that I wanted to be present when Thay offered his peaceful presence and precious teachings to the people of Israel.

As Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and I drove from Ben Gurion Airport to Kibbutz Harel, I noticed a huge sunflower field in which only one flower had rushed to bloom, as if to greet us. In other ways, the land reminded me of Plum Village. The birdsongs surrounded us, and I instantly felt at home. The first person Lyn and I met at the kibbutz was Barry Sheridan, the coordinator for special events. He put us at ease, and throughout our visit was our mindful guardian angel. That evening, Thay, Sister Chan Kh6ng, two monks, and four nuns arrived from Plum Village. For the next day and a half, final arrangements were made to welcome the more than 200 retreatants.

During Thay’s introductory talk for the first retreat, the atmosphere was calm and quiet with people taking in his every word and gesture. They were relaxed and already smiling. The next day during the outdoor walking meditation, Thay continued to share the Dhanna as we gathered under the welcoming shade of a huge Jerusalem pine.

Over the course of his 11-day visit, Thay gave three more Dharma talks and another weekend retreat. I was touched by his commitment to our new Israeli Sangha. The retreatants came from diverse backgrounds. Some were young people who, like many Israelis, had traveled to India and other points east after their army service. Many had experience with vipassana meditation. A group of observant Jews came with their rabbi. They substItuted their morning prayers for the morning meditation, and time was set aside for their Shabbat observance.

The Dharma discussion groups reflected the retreatants’ concerns about tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and divisions within the Jewish communities. Throughout the Dharma talks, Thay addressed these issues in many ways. Early on, he said, “It is through my background of suffering that I can understand your suffering.” In another talk he said, “People have different ideas. Also, nations may be attached to their ideology. What is your idea of happiness? Maybe your idea of happiness is the obstacle to your happiness.” He later said, “All of us have suffered violence. We ask ourselves where violence comes from. If we look deeply, we see that it comes from ourselves, because there is a bomb in each of us. Do we know how to defuse the bomb in us? That is the art. That is the practice.” He suggested that each person sign a peace treaty with themselves and said the solution will come “from our lucidity, our happiness, our peace. When I have peace, it is easy for me to make peace.”

Thay explained, “It is not my intention to uproot people. A person should remain a Jew, but that does not mean you have to accept everything in the tradition. Like a plum tree sometimes needs pruning. Otherwise it will be broken and will not be able to offer fruit.”

In the question-and-answer session, Thay responded to a question about how to bring about peace by saying he is more interested in how individuals conduct their daily lives rather than in big solutions. When people with the same kind of suffering come together, they can exchange experiences and provide their nation with some insight. If they are able to practice deep listening and speak to each other in a calm voice, they may provide hope to others. He suggested inviting groups from different segments of the population to come together as the first step.

Dharma discussion groups had been organized by place of residence. Some made plans to meet again back home as a Sangha. Lyn Fine shared her experience in Sangha building with about 50 people interested in starting Sanghas. It was wonderful to see Sangha seeds being planted in Israeli soil.

Later that evening, enjoying the stillness of the kibbutz, I was delighted to find out that Thay and his Plum Village Sangha took the opportunity to visit Jerusalem. They arrived at the Western Wall in time to witness the fin al observances on the Sabbath. I imagined their joy while viewing the Jerusalem stones bathing in the setting sunlight.

At the Day of Mindfulness for peace and social change activists, Thay talked about “burnout” and said, “As long as love is still alive in us, we will not give up.” He held out the reality that in each group there needs to be a person with presence. “Who is that person? You! You are the bodhisattva that can bring salvation, cultivate non-fear, and be solid.” He added, “The question is not what to do, but knowing what not to do . If you operate on the basis of fear, you are not operating from the ground of peace. In our daily life, we have to live in a way that transforms fear and anger into compassion. With hatred, jealousy, and anger, there is no way to be a real social activist. The main task of a peace and social activist is to cultivate compassion, understanding, and patience. Patience is an indicator of love.”

After a walking meditation through the pines, palms, and cypresses of the kibbutz, and a silent dinner, we gathered in the meditation hall for questions and answers with Sister Chan Khong. She shared her experiences as an activist during the war in Vietnam. The Israeli activists hung on to her every word, engrossed by what she had to say and the gentle strength with which she said it. It was as though they were right there with her in Vietnam, observing her as she used her mindfulness to remain calm, compassionate, and skillful while resolving seemingly impossible situations. She was a model of the quality of presence that Thay had talked about.

The next week, Thay gave three evening talks. At the end of each lecture, Sister Chan Khong captivated the audience with her singing, and no one wanted to leave. At the talk in Jerusalem at Kol Haneshama Synagogue, she spoke directly to the young people present. She shared breathing awareness with one young boy and gave him an opportunity to invite the bell to sound. The children left the room with big smiles. Shortly thereafter, the Englishlanguage Jerusalem Post published an article about mindfulness’ practice with children.

On the last night of the second retreat, Thay invited us to join him for a full moon walking meditation after the Dharma talk. This extra gift was gratefully accepted.

In our spare time between events, Thay and the nuns and monks took every opportunity to familiarize themselves with Israeli life. We visited a marketplace in a small town as well as those in the various quarters in the Old City of Jerusalem. We went to a nearby nursery with the kibbutz gardener, where we were surrounded by hundreds of exotic succulents, many of which displayed their fresh flowers. Everyone bought a plant to take back to Plum Village. We did floating and frolicking meditation in the Dead Sea. Sister Chan Khong was the first one in and the last one out of this saltiest of waters. On the way back through the desert, we saw a donkey get hit by a truck. Our three cars stopped, and we gave the shocked donkey our calm, loving attention. One of the nuns wet her brown scarf and tied it around his injured leg. We waited until a Bedouin boy appeared and walked our new Sangha friend to safety.

After Thay’s last talk in Tel Aviv, we headed back to the kibbutz. We arrived after midnight, and Sister Chan Khong, still full of energy, joyfully told us that Thay had invited us to join him early the next morning on a silent walking meditation in Jerusalem. We would go to the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and then walk in the footsteps of Jesus along the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. After many centuries of divisions, it was an opportunity to plant peaceful steps on the sacred ground of three major religions.

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The next morning, we embarked on our last journey together as a traveling Sangha. Leaving the kibbutz, we passed the fie ld of sunflowers now in full bloom, and I thought of all the wonderful seeds planted during these two weeks. May they bear much fruit and benefit all beings. Shalom!

Marjorie Markus, True Contemplation of Understanding, practices with the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness.


Peace Is Every Step

During the two retreats with Thay and Sister Chan Khong at Kibbutz Harel in Israel, we gained the serenity of dwelling in the preset moment. Hundreds came together, learned to breathe mindfully, and become bodhisattvas for one another. Sanghas will emerge.

That is not to say that everything was sweetness and light. Repeatedly, we were challenged to confront our prejudices, hatreds, and fears, and encouraged to find new places in our hearts from which to deal with them. Through “Touching the Earth,” Sister Chan Khong encouraged reconciliation with all who have dwelled on this disputed land; Christians, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, Israelis. We were asked to learn to loved and understand the rapist sea pirate, in addition to sympathizing with his victims. This challenge resonates here, where terrorists and freedom fighters, bombers and suicide bombers, assassins and rival armies have shed so much innocent blood in both the immediate and historical past.

While peace will not come easily to this region, it was wonderful that so many peaceful steps were taken here.

–Robbie Heffernan, Amman, Jordan

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Dharma Talk: Cultivating Our Bodhisattva Qualities

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Bodhisattvas are awakened beings. We also have our nature of awakening, no less than they, but we have to train ourselves. One way is to practice invoking the names of four great bodhisattvas—Avalokiteshvara (Regarder of the Cries of the World), Manjushri (Great Understanding), Samantabhadra (Universal Good­ness), and Kshitigarbha (Earth Store). When we recite their names in a deep, relaxed way, every word can touch our hearts and the hearts of those listening. In the beginning, we still feel separate from these bodhisattvas. But, practicing steadily, we realize that we are Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha. It is not important whether they were historic figures, born in such and such a year or in such and such a place. The key is to realize their qualities within ourselves. 

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We invoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.

When we are able to communicate with another person, it is a big relief. We have e-mail, faxes, and telephones. We can send news to the other side of the planet instantly. But communication between parents and children, between those living together has become very difficult. We spend hours on our computer without really looking at the person nearby who loves and cares for us. We are alienated by so many things. Listening deeply helps reestablish the commu­nication between us.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva represents great love, great compassion, and deep listening. When you manifest these qualities, you become the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara vows to listen deeply in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. To listen deeply, you must be one hundred percent present. Listening with all your attention, you release the past and the future, and focus entirely on the other person. We have this ability, but we seldom use it. We are usually lost in the past or the future and listening with just half an ear. The practice is to be present and to listen with one hundred percent of ourselves.

Even when we listen, we may have a notion, a “preju­dice,” about the other person and what she is saying. Our habit energy is to judge whether what she says is correct or not. Then, when she speaks, it isn’t her words we hear, only our judgment. We must learn to be space. Space can hold everything. If we are like a wall, impenetrable, whatever the other person says will just bounce back to her, and she won’t feel relief. A Vietnamese musician said, “We have to be space so that love can enter.” We have to empty ourselves of preconceived ideas in order to be present in the heart of the other, in her fears and difficulties.

A philosopher came to visit a Zen master. While the master was preparing tea, the philosopher talked endlessly, showing the master how much he knew. When the tea was ready, the master poured it into the philosopher’s cup, and he continued pouring even after the cup was full. The tea was flowing all over the table, and the philosopher yelled, “Stop!” The master smiled and said, “Your mind is also overflowing. How can you receive anything from me?”

When people come to a practice center, they may act as though they are quite fine. Only after several days do they begin to share some of their difficulties. What they say, at first, is not the deepest reality, only the surface, because they are afraid of being judged. But if you listen deeply, even when they repeat themselves (not saying, “You already said that”), and try to understand what is being said and also what is being left unsaid, you may be able to see the key point and ask the right questions to help.

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One day I was weeding the garden with a teenager, and he said to me, “Sometimes I see something that is very beautiful, but my mother says it is not beautiful.” I looked deeply into his situation, and I said, “Is there a young lady you think is beautiful but your mother does not?” He was shocked. “How did you know that?” He thought I could read his mind, but when you listen deeply, with all your attention, you can understand many things right away. After that, he revealed the whole story to me, and I had the opportunity to help him. I said, “True beauty is profound. Don’t be attracted just by a smile, hair, or eyes. Try to see the depth of beauty.” I suspected this is what his mother had wanted to tell him, but had not been able to. The aim of deep listening is understanding. When someone is suffering, if she can find one person with the willingness and capacity to sit quietly beside her and listen, that is a great encouragement. Whether what she says is easy to hear or shocking, we don’t reject it. We train ourselves to listen in order to understand. When we listen deeply, we are Avalokiteshvara. When we understand deeply, we are Manjushri. Looking with the eyes of interbeing, we see that Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri are not separate. 

We invoke your name, Manjushri. We aspire to learn your way, which is to be still and to look deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of people. We will look with all our attention and openheartedness. We will look with unprejudiced eyes. We will look without judging or reacting. We will look deeply so that we will be able to see and understand the roots of suffering, the impermanent and selfless nature of all that is. We will practice your way of using the sword of understanding to cut through the bonds of suffering, thus freeing ourselves and other species.

Manjushri Bodhisattva represents great understanding. When you pay respect to the qualities of great wisdom and understanding, you are paying respect to Manjushri, and, at the same time, you are paying homage to these qualities in yourself.

These days everyone is running so quickly. We sit in a silent meal, but we might be still running. Whether we are sitting, walking, standing, or eating, we have to learn to stop. Bodhisattva Manjushri knows how to stop—in order to see deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of those around him. We have to learn to stop our mind in order to look deeply. As Avalokiteshvara, we learn to listen without prejudice. As Manjushri, we learn to look without judging. To understand the suffering of the Palestinians, for example, Israelis have to learn to look in the way a Palestinian looks. To understand the Israelis, Palestinians must learn to understand an Israeli—his suffering and his fear. After looking deeply in that way, we see that both sides suffer, that each person has anger and fear. If we continue to punish each other, we will not go far. It is better to take the other person’s hand and work together toward a solution that is beneficial for both sides. In our Sanghas, if we notice two members who are unable to look at each other, we have the responsibility to help them communicate by practicing stopping and looking deeply, without preju­dice.

When we look deeply, we see and understand the roots of suffering. When we are angry, we say that the other person is at fault, but by looking deeply, we come to understand her suffering, her difficulties, and her fears. We un­derstand why she behaved in that way. We see that we are only the victim of her suffering and our sorrow vanishes. To cut the bonds of ignorance, we must use the sword of understanding every day. If we suffer unnecessarily, it is because we are not using the sword of understanding.

We invoke your name, Samantabhadra. We aspire to practice your vow to act with the eyes and heart of compas­sion; to bring joy to one person in the morning and to ease the pain of one person in the afternoon. We know that the happiness of others is our own happiness, and we aspire to practice joy on the path of service. We know that every word, every look, every action, and every smile can bring happiness to others. We know that if we practice whole heartedly, we ourselves may become an inexhaustible source of peace and joy for our loved ones and for all species.

Samantabhadra is the bodhisattva of great action and universal goodness. He works hard and has the willingness and capacity to help. To act deeply, we must understand and love deeply. To save the world, we need the eyes of Manjushri, the heart of Avalokiteshvara, and the hands of Samantabhadra.

People who do not practice suffer a lot. Entering a spiritual practice you feel joyful. If you aren’t a joyful practitioner, look more deeply in order to discover the joy that exists within you. Sometimes one piece of bad news invades our whole mind, and we forget the many joyful elements in us. The practice is to observe our unfortunate situation—yes, something happened—but also to stay in touch with the many joyful elements, so we will not drown in our difficulties.

The practice of Samantabhadra is not to talk a lot, but to act. We make the effort to bring joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the suffering of one person in the afternoon. When you are just beginning to be a bodhisattva, you can do this. When you are a bigger bodhisattva, you can bring joy to many people and help relieve the suffering of many others. Every word, every look, every act, and every smile can bring happiness to others. When you know how to walk mindfully, with happiness, kindness, and humility, you are already bringing joy to many people. Practicing diligently, we become a source of peace and joy to those we love and all living beings. The joy of others is our own joy. This is the wisdom of interbeing.

We invoke your name, Kshitigarbha. We aspire to learn your way of being present where there is darkness, suffer­ing, oppression and despair, so that we may bring light, hope, relief and liberation to those places. We are deter­mined not to forget about or abandon those who are in desperate situations. We will do our best to establish contact with them when they cannot find a way out of their suffering and when their cries for help, justice, equality, and human rights are not heard. We know that hell can be found in many places on Earth, and we do not want to contribute to making more hells on Earth. We will do our best to help transform the hells that already exist. We will practice in order to realize the qualities of perseverance and stability, so that, like the earth, we can always be supportive and faithful to those in need.

Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva represents the great vow to save all living beings, especially those who are caught in the most hellish conditions. Kshitigarbha makes the commitment never to abandon anyone. Wherever people are suffer­ing the most, that is where we will find him. Kshitigarbha will always do his best to approach and support those in jails, torture chambers, and in all the hells where people are undergoing the utmost suffering. He represents the quality of not abandoning anyone.

Kshitigarbha’s vow is, “Until all the hells are emptied, I will not become a Buddha. I will remain on Earth until every sentient being is liberated.” This is the greatest of vows. It means he will not abandon those who suffer. We cannot abandon the one we love. She may be difficult, but we cannot abandon her. When she is in hell, when she is suffering, that is the moment she needs us the most.

There are countries where people are jailed unfairly, where people are deprived of basic human rights and live in oppression, where people are so desperate to communicate the reality of their suffering to the outside world that they pour gasoline on their own bodies and burn themselves. If we don’t do anything to help them, we fail in our vow. We live in a society with plenty of material luxuries. We are covetous of this or that little thing, and we don’t realize that there are people in prison who just want to live with dignity. The practice of Kshitigarbha is to reach into these desperate situations, to do his best to be there and to help.

There are people who have never heard the name of Kshitigarbha, but who manifest these qualities every day. In big cities like Chicago, New York, Manila, and Washington D.C., there are many hells. We have to find these hells and dismantle them in order to help people and relieve their suffering. We may have the idea that we didn’t create that hell, so we are not responsible. But we are constantly creating hells by our forgetfulness, our jealousy, and our craving. When we act or speak unmindfully, we cause suffering to those around us. Hell exists everywhere, yet we continue to live in ways that harm others. By living mind­fully, we make it clear that we do not want to create more hells, that we do not want to contribute to anyone’s suffer­ing anymore. 

Kshitigarbha means “Earth Store.” The earth never discriminates. She absorbs everything and transforms it all into flowers. We want to learn to be like the earth—solid, stable, and deep. The earth has the quality of accepting and releasing everything. How can we support others if we don’t have the solidity of the earth? If we see that we are not solid, we must train ourselves to become solid.

Recently, I received this letter: 

Dear Thay, 

I have been on death row for seventeen years. During this time, I have felt a lot of suffering and despair. But within me there is still the will to transcend all these psychological and emotional wounds. There are moments when I cannot transcend my anger, when I am being crushed by my hatred. My only vow is to survive my time in prison without hatred toward those who put me in jail and those who have tortured me. I don’t know if I can do it. Sometimes I feel I am going insane. 

I never think that I am better or higher than others. I am satisfied being an ordinary person. I’m just grateful that after seventeen years in jail, I’m not crazy. With this gratitude, I can treasure whatever happens. In my last cell, for twelve years I was only able to look at a brick wall. Here there is a small window where I can see the city and a lot of trees. The first time I came in touch with trees, I was so moved that I cried. When I see the sunset through this little window, I feel a lot of happiness. 

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When I read Living Buddha Living Christ, which someone sent me, it was the first time I learned to dwell peacefully in the present moment. I understood yourteaching right away. Although I have a lot of difficulties, I have learned to treasure short moments of awareness. During these mindful moments, fear and despair cannot master me, and I tune in to my own humanness. I believe if I continue, I will find transformation. 

If one day I am executed, I can accept that. I wish that from this garbage, I can transform into a flower. During my search for peace, I have learned to accept myself as well as those around me. My only dream is that if I am ever re­leased, people will come to me and say, “How after twenty years in jail are you still a normal person, not insane?” 

I write to you hoping that these simple words can share with you the humanness in me. I write, not in the name of one person on death row, but as someone who has been sent to prison to learn and grow in a situation where there is little hope for the future. My main point is to tell you, Thay, that humanness exists in me and that a death row prisoner can find peace and joy in hell. Please take good care of yourself.

After reading this, I asked Sister Thuc Nghiem to send him the book about walking meditation, and I asked him to practice walking meditation in his cell, and, if he can, to request permission to go into the prison yard to practice. If he can help other prisoners practice walking meditation and if they can feel some peace, it can help a lot. It is encourag­ing to know that you are practicing being in the present moment and giving a chance for the best in you and others to manifest. True freedom is freedom from afflictions, such as despair, anger, and hatred. There are so many people in the world who are not free, who suffer tremendously.

Another prisoner on death row, Jarvis Jay Masters, wrote a book called Finding Freedom. Jarvis took the Five Mindfulness Trainings with a Tibetan monk. One day, a nearby prisoner was banging on his wall and shouting, and then he said to Jarvis, “Give me some tobacco!” Jarvis did not smoke, but he did have some tobacco to share with others. So he said to the other man, “When you ask for a ciga­rette, ask politely. Now sit quietly, and I’ll try to help you.”

Then he took a little tobacco and wrapped it in a photocopied page of my book, Being Peace. He had received a photocopy of Being Peace from a friend. Later, he received a real copy of the book, so he used the first page of the photocopy to wrap the tobacco. Three days later, he gave the same man a little more tobacco wrapped in the second page of Being Peace. Then the man began to ask him for just the pages. Eventually he read the whole photocopied version of the book, page by page, and he began to practice breathing mindfully and dwelling in the present moment. Soon after that, he was released, and on his way out, he stopped to thank Jarvis. The two men looked at each other, smiled, and recited this sentence from the book: “If you are peaceful, if you are happy, you can smile, and everyone in your family, your entire society will benefit from your peace.”

Kshitigarbha is not just a legendary personality. Kshitigarbha is you, me, both of these prisoners, and many others. We only need to train ourselves, and we will be able to reach into the places of utmost suffering and oppression. The ability to love, understand, act, save people, and vow not to abandon those who suffer are qualities in us that we cannot deny. If you say you have a lot of love but you don’t do anything when you are needed, that is just talk. It’s not important whether you call yourself a “Buddhist.” There are people in organizations like Medecins sans Frontieres and Amnesty International who have never heard about Buddhas or bodhisattvas, but who actualize the teachings of love and compassion every day through their lives. We know from our direct experience that these four bodhisattvas and many other luminous beings exist. We can see their qualities in many people and ourselves. The practice is to learn ways to make the Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha inside of us grow. 

From a Dharma Talk at Plum Village on January 15, 1998. Translated into English by Sister Chan Khong. Edited for publication by Brother Phap Hai, Arnold Kotler, and Leslie Rawls. 

Photos:
First photo courtesy of Plum Village.
Second photo by Yen Nguyen
Third photo by Ger-Ulrich Rump

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people’s suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say things you don’t like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn’t want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, “My friend was right, you don’t have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don’t think that you are a happy person. You have killed him.” The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man’s stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, “Good­ness has been born in you, so you don’t have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon.”

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don’t know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.

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Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, “My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful.” He said, “Okay,” and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don’t practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn’t allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it’s like sitting on thorns. We don’t know how to enjoy the lotus flower.

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Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.” By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: “Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.” After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That’s not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don’t want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call “energy number two.” The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of … , you don’t need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don’t stop, if you don’t become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief. 

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This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998. 

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Through Prison Gates

By Bill Menza

On October 16, 1999, for the first time ever, the state of Maryland opened its prison doors to a renowned Buddhist Zen master. The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh rode in the second of two cars caravaning from Washington, D.C. to the medium security prison at Hagerstown, Maryland. The glorious autumn day reflected the importance of the event, making the one-and-a-half hour trip seem as wondrous as the leaves falling from the passing trees.

A few months before, Emma Lou Davis, who chairs the Community Correctional Services Committee of Washington County, Inc. (CCSC), a nonprofit group of volunteers who support prison inmates, had read some of Thay’s books. A few weeks later, Bo Lozoff, Director of the Human Kindness Foundation, called to see if she could arrange Thay’s visit to the prison. Bo and Sita, his wife and Foundation codirector, have worked for more than 25 years to bring spiritual support to people in prisons. They have visited over 600 prisons to teach a way of life based upon three common principles taught by the great sages of all religions: simple living, dedication to service, and commitment to personal spiritual practice. The foundation and CCSC also work with the American Friends’ Alternatives to Violence Project, which teaches prisoners how to turn away from violence and toward  responsible nonviolent ways of handling conflict and living.


 

Hagerstown, Maryland is a rural area with many farms and beautiful landscapes. Signs to the correctional facilities brought us to a small gravel road that ends at three prisons set in rolling fields: the Maryland Correction Institution at Hagerstown (MCI), the Roxbury Correctional Institution, and the Maryland Correctional Training Center. These three medium-security prisons hold almost 7,000 inmates and have a staff of 1,800. Each is surrounded by 16 feet high fences topped with razor wire, which hide the buildings they embrace. The customary towers with armed guards added to the foreboding scene.

As we approached the small reception building, we could see guards looking out at us. These brownrobed monks and nuns must have been a strange sight for them. I wondered how we would be accepted and treated by the guards and the prisoners. We signed in, showed identification papers, and were checked off the pre-approved visitors list. Then we went through the metal detector machine. Even our shoes had to be removed, for they set the machine’s alarm off. Throughout our visit the guards were professional, but also cordial, helpful, and friendly. I sensed that our visit might have softened their more usual tough detachment. Later I learned that they were hand-picked to make sure we were treated exceptionally well.

Leaving the reception building, we walked mindfully toward the entrance gate to the stone castle that is MCI. The guard leading us signaled for the chainlink gate to be opened, and we entered the first sallyport of many as we went deeper into the prison. This first sallyport is a cage; when the gate behind you closes, the one in front is opened, leading into the yard. The sun was warm and flowers near the entrance smiled at us.

The guard signaled for the next door, directly into the castle. We entered a hallway and were directed to a waiting room. Signs warned prisoners and then visitors that chair legs must remain behind the yellow lines painted on the floor. If the chairs are moved, the visit is terminated. Other signs proclaimed: “Once visitors and inmates are seated there will be NO changing of seats.” “Physical embracing is limited to the start and end of the visit. Hand holding is the only other contact permitted.” “No Warnings. Violations will terminate visits.”

We were led through more sallyports and down halls to the chapel. Prisoners watched us pass their cell blocks. The cells were the size of a small bathroom. I wondered what it must be like to live in such a tiny place day in and day out. And most likely, as a former prisoner told me, with a cell mate you would not want to be with in such close quarters. I wondered too about the double bunking that goes on in many prisons to handle the over-capacity of prisoners. All of this is hidden from the public.


 

There were 30 of us with Thay, including Sister Chan Khong, Brother Phap Hoa, Order of Interbeing members Pritam Singh and Bill Menza, and Washington Mindfulness Community associate Larry Inghram. Sister Chan Thieu Nghiem and Brothers Phap Kham and Phap Thong waited for us in the reception area. The other visitors, including another 40 waiting in the Chapel, were volunteers with the CCSC, the Human Kindness Foundation, and the Alternatives to Violence Project, and some of their family members, as well as some prison officials. Sita Lozoff and her son and daughter-in-law were with us. Bo Lozoff was concluding a speaking engagement at the National Cathedral and would join us shortly. There were also some Maryland prison staff, including Nancy Williams, Director of Maryland’s Department of Corrections Volunteer and Religious Services.

About 120 prisoners waited for us. Lloyd “Pete” Waters, the warden, introduced Thay by saying that they had things in common, and that there was a bond between them from their experiences during the Vietnam War. Waters grew up nearby in Maryland. In 1967, the United States Army sent him to Vietnam. He remembered the news photos of Buddhist monks immolating themselves to awaken others to the pain and suffering of the war. He told the prisoners many details of Thay’s life, including his peace efforts in Vietnam, his nomination for the Nobel Peace prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his founding Plum Village.

It was remarkable that the warden, the highest authority in this prison, was introducing Thay. This introduction told the prisoners that this monk from Vietnam was an honored guest to be listened to with great respect. And his attitude was reflected all during our stay at the prison, particularly during our lunch together. The prisoners gave us our sandwiches, drinks, and apples and took away our empty containers as if we were special guests in their home.


 

Thay taught about how to visit paradise in prison. He began by explaining about a poem he wrote after Sister Chan Khong’s home village was bombed, and how his poem was turned into a song. He read the poem, “For Warmth,” and then Sister Chan Khong sang the song. Thay went on to summarize and explain 2,500 years of teaching on the instructions of the Buddha to be free of pain and suffering. He advised us to “practice freedom, to cultivate it,” in order to bring happiness to ourselves and others. He told each of us to walk as a free person; to breathe as free person; to eat as a free person, not as a victim of anger and despair. And, he explained, that to walk, breathe, and eat as a free person is possible anywhere.

Thay said that when you walk in prison you can walk mindfully with joy, peace, and solidity. You can enjoy the air you breath, which is the same air outside the prison. You can enjoy the earth under your feet, which is the same earth outside the prison, and you can enjoy the warm sun, which is the same sun outside the prison. You can walk for your loved one, for your son or daughter. When you walk like this, Thay said, call out their name to yourself. “David, here I am,” as you step with your foot. This makes David walk with you. You are here for him. You are walking with joy and stability for him.

Paradise, Thay said, is a place where there is compassion. You can bring Paradise to Hell, if you allow your suffering and the suffering of others to give birth to compassion. To understand your suffering and the suffering of another person you must look deeply. When you look deeply, deep understanding develops. Understanding brings compassion. Here in prison there is time to look deeply, to live  compassionately, and to let this liberating force rise up. Each of us contains the whole universe, Thay said, and when we go back to ourselves mindfully in the here and now we can enter the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land. We can be alive and awake, touching the refreshing and healing elements in and around us, or we can live in Hell. Both are in us.

As we were leaving, many prisoners came up to us to thank us for this visit. Their deep appreciation was evident in a letter from a prisoner to a local newspaper a few months later. The seeds that Thay planted that day in prison are growing into flowers.

Bill Menza, True Shore of Understanding, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community and the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia. The transcript of Thay’s talk to the prisoners was published by Parallax Press this spring. It is available through the Prison Project of Community of Mindful Living. Please see page 35.

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Language of the Heart

By Paul Tingen

Out beyond ideas o/wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field.
/’II meet you there.
When the soul lies in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
Rumi

Imagine for a moment that you’re on a peace mission in another country with a few Sangha members, speaking to people who live in the area. Suddenly someone in the audience jumps up and yells at you: “Murderer! Assassin!” Before you know it, most of your audience have joined in, and the situation becomes threatening. How would you feel? What would you do? Breathing and smiling alone may calm you, but may not be enough to calm the anger in the crowd. Most of us would be deeply grateful for a strategy to defuse the situation, and more importantly, to connect with the hearts of the people in the audience. Such a strategy exists, can easily be learnt, and has been proven to work. In the real situation described above, the technique was so effective that the person holding the talk was invited to share a holy meal with the very person who first shouted “murderer!”

A few years ago, peace mediator Marshall Rosenberg experienced this very outburst during a talk in a Palestinian refugee camp. In response, he used Nonviolent Communication (NYC), or Compassionate Communication-a practice of mindful speech and deep listening. NVC is also known as “a language of the heart,” or “giraffe language,” because giraffes have the largest hearts of any land animal. Giraffes also have long necks with which they can more easily see future consequences of their actions, and pea-sized brains that make it impossible for them to make heady analyses, criticisms, blame, shame, and judgments of their unfortunate counterpart, the jackal. In NVC, the jackal symbolizes habit energies of criticizing, blaming, and shaming that undermine even our best intentions.

Dr. Rosenberg, an American psychologist who studied with Carl Rogers, developed Nonviolent Communication as “a process that strengthens our ability to inspire compassion from others and respond compassionately to others and ourselves.” Rosenberg noticed that certain people stay centered and loving in the face of the most challenging circumstances, even in a society that routinely expresses needs through coercive and controlling thinking and  language-blame, criticism, shame, and punishment. According to Rosenberg, this jackal approach is a “life-alienating form of thinking and communication,” and the root of the immense suffering and violence that plague our planet. In a similar vein, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “If you have a gun, you can kill a dozen people; if you have an ideology and try to enforce it, you can kill millions.”

Meditation is one way of quieting the noisy judgments of our rational mind. Thich Nhat Hanh calls meditation our “appointment with ourselves.” It is an opportunity to listen to ourselves, to listen to our heart, to practice compassion and deep understanding. Considering Thay’s emphasis on relationships, families, communities, and reconciliation, one could call his path “a practice of the heart.” My contention is that this “practice of the heart” and NVC’s “language of the heart” are delightfully complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Like mindfulness practice, Rosenberg’s “giraffe” language is simple and very powerful. In developing this practice, he looked deeply into the nature of the way we habitually think and communicate. The result, NVC, offers a radical and hopeful alternative for communication that fosters understanding. And like Thay’s teachings, NVC strongly emphasizes non-duality, not taking sides, and reconciliation. The giraffe-jackal duality that NVC appears to create is illusory, useful only to meet needs for learning and clarity. In the end, there are no jackals, only giraffes with a language problem.

The practice of NVC does away with coercive and controlling language-words like right, wrong, too this or too that, should, ought, and so on. When I first encountered NVC, I realized that during my years of spiritual training, all I’d done was extend the limits of “wrong” behavior that I was willing to look at with compassion and understanding. I still felt that there were right and wrong behaviors, and I still labeled people and their behavior in critical ways. In contrast, NVC recommends eradicating every sense of rightdoing and wrongdoing, encouraging us to go all the way and not even judge murder or the destruction of our environment as wrong. We can immediately sense the enormous ramifications. For most people, this feels like a terrifying leap. How can we protect our freedom and safety, and peace and the beauty and richness of our planet, if we cannot say that cutting down rainforests, murder, or selling weapons is wrong? But by not judging, NVC does not condone these actions. Instead it offers a powerful language with which we can express our likes and dislikes, our values and our needs, in a non-coercive, non-blaming, nonviolent way–one that is likely to be much more effective in creating the understanding and change we seek.

NYC employs three techniques to cultivate powerful, loving speech. First, NVC encourages us to explore how our feelings relate to our needs, and not to events around us, as we may first believe. Secondly, it encourages us to recognize human needs as universal, divine qualities that all human beings share. And thirdly, NYC distinguishes our needs from “specific, doable, here and now requests.” From these premises springs a common language of the heart that all human beings share and understand. This “giraffe language” is a way of connecting and communicating with the Buddha nature in ourselves and others.

To explain how NYC works, I need to spell out the fundamentals of giraffe language. It may seem a little bit complicated at first, and as with any new language, we must practice to become fluent. Once we get it, however, giraffe language will feel more natural than the habitual jackal language of blame, shame, and punishment.

Classic giraffe language employs four basic steps: observe, name feelings, identify needs, and make requests.

1) Observe. Identify what we see in purely descriptive language, without evaluation or interpretation. In mindfulness practice, Thay also emphasizes the importance of double-checking our perceptions, urging us to ask, “Am I sure?”

2) Name Feelings. Get in touch with how we feel in the present moment, and name pure feelings. “I feel rejected,” or “I feel misunderstood” are feelings mixed with evaluations, and unhelpful. Instead, name heart feelings such as: sad, hurt, frustrated, happy, skeptical, resistant, touched, serene, mindful, intrigued, relaxed, open, scared, or optimistic. Simply naming our feelings without evaluation is also an aspect of our mindfulness practice—one of many practices that are complementary with NVC.

3) Identify Needs. Identify the immediate need causing our feeling. For example, “I feel scared because my safety feels threatened,” or “I feel joyful because of the appreciation I’m getting,” or “I feel frustrated because I’m not getting respect.”

4) Make Requests. Ask for a specific action that is doable right here and now. This offers a practical opportunity for creating heart-connection and making each other’s life more wonderful. It is a bridge that connects people.

In real life, the practice may sound something like: “When I hear you screaming, I feel scared, because I’m not getting the safety I want. Please would you lower your voice?” Note that the speaker does not use any judgmental language, such as that the person screaming is “wrong,” or “too loud.” The speaker simply expresses his or her own feelings and needs, and follows it with a specific, doable request. Or giraffe language could be: “When I see you smile  at me, I feel warm and touched, because it meets my need for being seen and appreciated. Could you tell me how you feel when you hear me say that?”
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Note that giraffe grammar always puts “I” with “I” and “you with “you.” I feel something because I want something, and you feel things because you want something. A giraffe never believes that her feelings are caused by someone else’s actions, or that he can cause someone else’s feelings. A giraffe has two choices of expression: honesty, i.e., expressing her own feelings and needs, or empathy, i.e., hearing the other person’s feelings and needs regardless of how they are expressed. In contrast, jackal puts “I” in relation to “you,” e.g., “I feel scared because you’re shouting,” or “I feel warm because you’re smiling at me.”

When Marshall Rosenberg was called a murderer as he addressed the Palestinians in a refugee camp, he responded with empathy. He realized that the speaker’s exhortations might have had something to do with his American nationality, and the fact that the night before, tear gas canisters stamped with “Made in the USA” had been shot into the camp. Rosenberg explored the speaker’s feelings and needs: “Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently?” The man shouted more angry words in response. Rosenberg remembers, “Our dialogue continued, with him expressing his pain for nearly twenty more minutes, and me listening for the feeling and need behind each statement. I didn’t disagree or agree. I received the man’s words not as attacks, but as gifts from a fellow human, willing to share his soul and deep vulnerabilities with me. Once the gentleman felt understood, he was able to hear me as I explained my purpose for being at the camp. An hour later, he invited me to his home for Ramadan dinner.” Rosenberg was able to practice compassionate listening and loving speech with the angry man because he was able to hear the man’s needs, and because he did not immediately try to fix things by suggesting practical solutions.

Separating the expression of needs from the expression of requests for solutions opens up the common ground of our needs-needs for air, food, shelter, sleep, empathy, love, compassion, understanding, connection, community, etc. A request seeks help with solutions, here-and-now action. Arguments and wars do not begin because people  disagree about needs, but rather because of the way people go about getting their needs met. If we can see the universal need of another person, we may begin to recognize his or her humanity.
It is sad how often we communicate our needs through a pointing finger, rather than an outstretched hand. NVC does not call this jackal behavior wrong, but points out that blame and judgment are tragic ways of expressing our unmet needs. Someone who uses jackal language is in pain and need. Recognizing this makes compassion and connection with the poor jackal- our own or someone else’s-not only possible, but necessary.

NVC, like mindfulness practice, emphasizes focus on present moment feelings and needs. Rosenberg says, “Spend more than five words on the past and the chances that you’ll get your present moment needs met diminish with every word.” The crucial question for a giraffe is always “What is alive in you or me in this moment?”

Like Thay’s teachings, NYC also recommends that we stop when we notice anger arising in us, and wait until we are sure that we can respond from a point of our choosing. It recommends that we use this stopping to watch the “jackal-show” in our head our angry tapes of judgment and blame-and to identify the feelings and needs that underlie our anger. Stopping is the core of our mindfulness practice, and conscious breathing is our wonderful vehicle. We can use this practice to look deeply, and identify our feelings and needs, meditating on the seeds of our anger. Once we have transformed our  anger enough, once we are in touch with our Buddha nature again, we can use giraffe language to express what we see, feel , and want. When we are ready, we communicate our feelings and needs. As Thay has said, our anger melts like snow in the sun when we have true understanding of a situation or a person. NVC makes the same point: When we are able to look deeply and connect with the human suffering that underlies another person’s actions, our anger often vanishes. Sometimes, however, my anger does not disappear even when I understand the other person, and now this is a sign for me that I need to look deeply into and express my feelings and needs. Usually I need empathy and understanding.

For me, giraffe language embodies the Fourth Mindfulness Training, and the Eighth and Ninth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order Of Interbeing: “Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. … We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

Thay often stresses the importance of engaged Buddhist practice. NVC hands us a language for peaceful engagement. Combining NVC’s “language of the heart” with Thay’ s “practice of the heart” gives us powerful instruments for transformation of ourselves and our relationships, and enables us to contribute to the well-being of communities and the world.

Paul Tingen, True Artist of The Heart, can be emailed at paul@tingen.co.uk. Marshall Rosenberg has written a book on the practice of NVC: Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Compassion (PuddleDancer Press, ISBN: 1-892005-02-6). More information about NVC is available from the Centrfor Nonviolent Communication website: www.cnvc.org, or by phone: (800) 255-7696.

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Dharma Talk: Liberating Our Hearts – Practicing with the Paramita of Inclusiveness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Before our airplane takes off, we are told the way to use the oxygen mask. And we are always told that we have to put on the oxygen mask for ourselves first, and only then can we place the oxygen mask on our child, the young person sitting next to us. If we are not successful in placing the mask on ourselves first and afterwards on our child, then we will both die for lack of oxygen.

Thich Nhat Hanh

In Buddhism it’s the same. We have to help ourselves before we can help others. The word we use to speak of this is the word meaning “to cross over to the other shore.” The shore over here is the shore of suffering, the shore of anger, of anxi­ety, of pain. But the shore over there is the shore of peace, of freedom. To go from this shore to the other shore is called “paramita.” There are six ways of doing that called the six paramitas, six ways of going to the other shore.

We may think that paramita is a very difficult practice, but if we learn how to do it, we can go to the other shore quite easily. Even in ten minutes or half an hour or an hour we can cross over to the other shore. When we are angry, when we are drowning in our anger, we suffer a great deal in our body and our mind. It is as if we are being burned, and if we don’t know how to deal with the situation, we can drown in our suffering. Therefore, we have to practice going over to the other shore, the shore of no-anger, the shore of no-hatred. We have a raft to take us to the other shore and we have to use it every day. The six paramitas are the six ways of going to the other shore.

The Kshanti Paramita 

The third paramita is called Kshanti Paramita; it can be translated as inclusiveness. It means literally, “to forebear, to endure,” but we could misunderstand that word. Kshanti re­ally means to accept and to embrace. For example, this glass — it can hold about twenty cubic centiliters and it can endure those twenty cubic centiliters, that is its capacity. If we pour twenty cubic centiliters into it, the glass will not suffer. But if we want it to hold more, it may suffer. If we force a lot of sand into it, it will break. And we are the same. Each of us has the capacity to endure, to accept a certain amount of injustice but if we are forced to accept more we shall crack or we will break. Somebody says something or does something which we do not like, they do something unjust to us, and we suffer. But whether we suffer a lot or a little, whether we suffer at all, depends on whether the capacity of our heart to accept and to endure is small or great. There are people who could hear those same words, be treated in that same way, but they would not be angry. They would smile. But we, when we hear those words, when we see that behavior, we suffer a lot because compared with their heart, our heart is very small.

The capacity of the bodhisattvas’ hearts is very big, the ca­pacity to receive, to embrace and to include. The reason why we suffer is because the capacity of our heart is very small. We hear the same words, we have the same treatment and some people can accept it, but we cannot. We suffer a great deal. Therefore we have to practice the capacity to include, to em­brace. If we practice, if we train, the capacity of our heart will grow and we will suffer much less. We will hear the same words, we will be treated in the same way, and we will smile and we will not suffer.

To practice inclusiveness, or patience, does not mean that we have to suffer. When we suppress our suffering sooner or later we will crack, we will break, Therefore, the paramita of patience does not mean to suppress. If you practice suppress­ing, if you grit your teeth and bear it and think that that is the practice of patience, it is not. Soon you will crack, you will break. That is not what the Buddha taught. The Buddha taught that we have to practice, we have to train in order to open up our own hearts.

And when our understanding is great, our love is great, our heart will become great. We often say in Viemamese that it is our heart which is small, not our house. When our heart is wide, our house can receive many guests. If our heart is small, even if our house is very large, we will not receive any guests.

Every morning on the fifteenth or the first of the lunar month in the traditional temples, we organize a ceremony called “Com­mending the Virtues of the Buddha.” It is to praise the Buddha and the bodhisattvas and our ancestral teachers. There is a sen­tence praising the Buddha which goes something Like this: “The Awakened One who is fully awakened, arose in India. His heart is able to embrace the whole of space, his capacity includes all the three chiliocosms.” It means the capacity of his heart is very great. These are also four lines which are offered as praise to the Buddha. “The capacity of his heart can include all the worlds even though they are as numerous as the sands of the Ganges.”

And why does the Buddha have such a great capacity of compassion and understanding? Because he has practiced. We can do the same. If we prac­tice the paramita of patience, if we practice the Four Immeasurable Minds of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, our heart will grow. And we will have the capacity to accept everything people say, however people treat us, even if we suffer injustice, we can still smile, we can still be happy.

A fistful of salt 

In the sutras there was a time when the Buddha taught like this: “Imagine there is someone who is holding a fistful of salt. They place it in a small bowl of water and stir it around with their finger. Monks, do you think people could drink that wa­ter?” And the monks said, “Such water would be far too salty to drink. How could you drink it? You’d have to throw it away.” The Buddha said, “That is correct.” Then the Buddha said, “But if, for example, you were to throw that fistful of salt in the river, then would the people who lived in the villages alongside of the river continue to drink the water of the river?” And the monks said, “Yes.” “Why?” “Because the river is vast and the fistful of salt cannot possibly make the water of the river salty.”

It is the same for us. If our heart is small, then those words, that action, that injustice will make us angry. A small injustice will cause us many sleepless nights and we may not even be able to eat for a week. If our heart is great, like the river, then those words will not have any effect on us, that behavior and that injustice will not have any meaning. We can continue to smile, we can continue to be free, peaceful, and joyful as we were before. Therefore, the practice of the paramita of inclu­siveness helps us to look deeply and to be able to see clearly the truth and to allow the heart of understanding and love in us to grow. Then our heart will become like a river and people may come and throw twenty or thirty kilos of salt into it, but we will not suffer.

Be like the earth 

Rahula became a novice when he was only eight years old. When he was eighteen years old the Buddha taught him about the practice of inclusiveness. He said, “Rahula, you have to practice to be like the earth.” “Why?” “Because the earth has the great capacity to receive, to accept, to embrace, and to trans­form. If people pour fragrant milk, perfumes, and sweet things on the earth, or if they pour on the earth filthy things like spittle, mucous, excrement and garbage, the earth does not crave or is not greedy for the sweet things and is not angry with the filthy things. It receives everything equally. The earth has the capac­ity to include them all and to transform them all. It is not attached to the clean or angry with the dirty. You have to practice to be able to behave like the earth.”

The Buddha continued to teach Rahula that not only the earth, but also the water, the fire and the air have the great ca­pacity to accept all forms of offerings, wonderful and fragrant as well as polluted and dirty. It means the capacity of these four elements is very great and our heart has to be as great as that and then we will not suffer. In this way the Buddha shared the paramita of inclusiveness with Rahula.

I remember one day I was leading the children on walking meditation in the Upper Hamlet. We went along a beautiful path, seeing so many beautiful leaves, flowers, and butterflies, bees, and dragonflies, and all these beautiful things made us feel we were in paradise. Then we came to a place where we saw on the lawn the excrement of a dog and the children held their noses and stood to one side. I took their hands and I said, “Look deeply, my children. I have a lot of faith in the earth because the earth has received this excrement of the dog, but in a week’s time the earth will have transformed it, and it will be­come nourishment for the flowers and the trees which we are seeing today. The earth has the capacity to accept, to embrace and to transform and is never angry with what is thrown upon it.”

The method which helps our heart to grow bigger is the Four Immeasurable Minds. The Four Minds have become so great, the mind of loving kindness, the mind of compassion, the mind of joy, and the mind of equanimity. Maitri, karuna, mudita, and upeksa are the four elements of true love. If you cultivate them every day, then they become boundless. You are capable of embracing everything, everyone, then the larger your heart becomes, the happier you become. You don’t have to suffer because of all the small things, the inconveniences that make you suffer every day. So the practice is not to be a bowl of water but to be a river and after that to be the ocean. What makes other people suffer cannot make you suffer any more because your heart is large. That is what it means by “bound­less states.”

Maitri — the capacity to offer well-being 

In Sanskrit, loving kindness is maitri; it is the capacity to offer well-being and happiness. And you cannot offer some­thing that you do not have. Therefore, practice in order for you yourself to have maitri , the energy of loving kindness, and you will be the first to profit from that energy. With the practice of looking deeply, the practice of calming, of understanding, you make the energy of loving kindness grow within yourself. You experience bliss, solidity, freedom, and well-being, and your presence will naturally offer the person you are with that same kind of energy. You only need to just be there. Before you do anything, before you say anything, your presence can already make him or her happy, because in you there is the energy of maitri.

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There are people who are very pleasant to be with and children like to come and sit close to them. Just sit­ting close to them, the children feel good in themselves. There are people whom we want to sit close to. We don’t need to talk to them. We don’t even need them to look at us, just sit near them and you can feel that wonderful energy of love, of well-being. When you come and sit close to the linden tree, then the linden tree has the ca­pacity of calming you down. The lin­den flower also helps you to calm down; the linden tree has something like maitri within herself. So a person who cultivates maitri is someone whose presence is wonderful, refresh­ing and healing, and you would like to stay close to him or to her.

If you want to practice loving kindness, you have to look deeply to see and to understand. And when you see and understand you can offer joy and happiness to the other person. That person, what do they need and what do they not need? When we can see their real needs, we can offer the thing that they need. That person may be very afraid of the color red and we force her to wear a red dress; that will make her suffer. When we were a child, we really wanted to wear a red dress, but our mother would not allow us to wear red. When we have our own daughter, we want our daughter to wear a red dress in order to satisfy the desire we had when we were young. But our daughter hates red. To force our daughter to wear a red dress is to make her suffer.

When we were young, we wanted to be a doctor, but we did not have the chance to learn to be a doctor and therefore our desire has become an unsatisfied wound in us. When we have our own children we force them to train as doctors in order to satisfy the desire that we once had. But our daughter has a different skill or talent and does not want to be a doctor. To force our children to be doctors is to make them suffer. We think that to be a doctor will bring a lot of money and bring a position in society. We have an idea of happiness and we want to force that idea onto our children. That comes from our love, but this kind of love is not produced by understanding. There­fore, the more we love, the more we make our children suffer. To understand is the element that brings about true love. If we want to love, if we want to understand, we have to look deeply. If we want to practice maitri, we have to learn to look deeply.

Karuna — the capacity to reduce suffering in the other person 

The second immeasurable mind is the mind of compassion. Compas­sion is the capacity to reduce and to transform the suffering in the other person. If we want to remove the suf­fering from the other person, we have to have a right perception of the na­ture of their suffering. What is the cause of the suffering? What gave rise to the suffering in the other person? We have to practice looking deeply; that is, we have to practice another of the paramitas, called the paramita of meditative concentration. When we have time, when we have the ability to open our heart, when we don’t have prejudice, we can look into the other person and see the suffering that that person has been through. We can see the nature of their suffering and when we know that, we know what we should do and what we should not do in order for that wound to heal in the other person. If we don’t have that understanding then we will not have the insight which is another paramita, the paramita of understanding, and we will just make the other person suffer more. Compassion is the heart which has understanding and wisdom in it.

Mudita — the capacity to offer joy 

The third immeasurable mind is that of joy. In our relation­ship with our loved one the element of joy is very important. If we love each other, we have to love each other in such a way that both of us have happiness every day, then it is real love. If every day we weep, we are sad, we suffer, then that is not real love, In the morning, were we able to smile and be happy to­gether in our love? Were we able to say good-bye to each other and go to work with the energy of joy and love? But if, in the morning, we weep, in the midday we weep, and in the after­noon we weep, then the element of joy is not there. Therefore, the element of joy is very important in our love. First of all, there is the element of loving kindness, which is to offer happi­ness; the element of compassion, to remove suffering; and then the element of joy, the happiness which comes from our love.

Upeksa — the capacity to love with equanimity 

And finally, there is the element of equanimity. Equanim­ity means to love in such a way that we can preserve the free­dom of the other person and our own freedom. If we lose our freedom and we take away the other person’s freedom, that is not yet real love. When we love with the aim of possessing the other, we take away our loved one’s freedom. We have to love in such a way that we have a lot of space and the other person has a lot of space. If we see there is a little bit of loving kind­ness, of compassion, of joy, and of equanimity in our love we should try to practice so that every day the loving kindness, the compassion, the joy, and the equanimity grow a little bit more. After a couple of weeks, we shall see that gradually our love is becoming true love and our happiness is growing all the time.

We have learned that understanding leads to acceptance and acceptance leads to forgiveness and love. It makes our heart grow up. The love and the understanding help us to mature, and when our heart is mature, we can easily accept these words, this unskillful behav­ior, this injustice, and we continue to be happy.

Dear Sangha, in the Vietnamese war nearly all of us were the victims of unin­telligent policies. And in our suffering we condemned each other, looked on each other as enemies. But in fact we were all the victims of the government which did not really act with clarity. Southerners were victims and so were Northerners. If we’d seen that, we would have been no longer angry, we would have been able to embrace everyone. The Northerners would have been able to embrace the Southerners and the Southerners embrace the Northerners. The Vietnamese would have been able to embrace the North Americans and the North Americans would have been able to embrace the Vietnamese. We see that our enemy is our inability to see the situation as it really is. It is our ignorance, it is the darkness of our mind which cannot see the real situation and therefore gives rise to wrong observation and brings about a war where we kill each other and create a Iot of suffering for ourselves and for the people around us too.

The Bodhisattva Thi Kinh 

Quan Am Thi Kinh is the bodhisattva of compassion of Viet­nam, with a great, large heart. At that time in Vietnam there were no temples for nuns, and Thi Kinh very much wanted to devote her life to nunhood. So she had to pretend to be a boy in order to be able to lead the monastic life. She entered the temple as a novice monk; she was very happy. There are, among us. people who feel they have to become a monk or a nun to be happy. So they are willing to do anything to become a monk or a nun, and Thi Kinh was one of those people. There are people in Plum Village, monks and nuns, who feel like that. People have said to me, “If I could not be a nun, I could not bear it.”

At one point there was a woman who was a great admirer of the “monk” Thi Kinh, who was really a young woman. But Thi Kinh paid her no attention. The woman became pregnant and accused Thi Kinh of being the father. Of course as she was a woman this was not possible, yet she did not defend herself because she cherished the monastic life so much. When ar­rested and accused she remained silent. She was beaten and abused and still she remained silent. The woman who accused her left the child at the gates of the temple to further aggravate the situation. Instead of being angry, Thi Kinh embraced the child and raised her as a daughter of the Buddha. She was so full of compassion. Only when the “monk” Thi Kinh passed away did people discover that she was really a woman and they realized the great forebearance and love she had to have with­stood such accusation and abuse. Her heart was so great. They saw she was truly an em­bodiment of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.

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If we have great happiness, we do not mind wrong accusations which come from ignorance and hatred. We hear them and yet we do not suffer. We just feel sorry for the person who says them. The reason we can bear it is because our heart is great and there­fore the paramita of inclusiveness is very im­portant. If you are still suffering a lot, it’s not only because of the other person who’s mak­ing you suffer. If you are still suffering a lot, it’s because the capacity of your heart is not very great. Cultivating the great, boundless minds of love – loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity – help us to grow our inclusiveness, so that we too may embrace and forgive, forbear and overcome obstacles in our lives, and become refreshing sources of compassion and happiness for ail beings like the bodhisattva Thi Kinh.

Excerpted from Dharma talks in Vietnanamese and English from Spring 1991 and Summer 2000. The Vietnamese talk was translated by Sister True Virtue. The talks were transcribed by Barbara Casey and edited by Sister Steadiness. 

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Developing a Big Heart

By Terry Masters
mb29-DevelopingLast year the grasshoppers ate every thing green and most things brown. They ate figs and flowers and killed my plum tree. The solution, the neighboring ranchers said, was guineas.

So we built a chicken coop. My plan was for the guineas to live in the coop for a few weeks, then run lose and eat grasshoppers all day, roosting safe from raccoons and other wild critters in the coop at night. From Skeeter at the feed store I bought a fifty pound sack of chicken feed and a watering jug. The planning and building and gathering took three months. During that time the grasshoppers finished off every living thing except the rosemary, cedar trees and sage.

No one around here had guineas for sale, so my neighbor and I drove his pickup to a flea market an hour and a half away where a fellow sometimes sold guineas. We were in luck. Pull ing out a hundred dollar bill, we bought all he had: five cocks and ten hens.

We put seven of the guineas in my neighbor’s pen and eight in mine. I drove him home. When I got back- it took maybe three minutes-my Big Dog Ben was in my chicken coop surrounded by dead guineas.

I cried. I cried about the Unfairness of Life and I cried about the Desperate Situation of Little Chickens and I cried about the Power of Big Dogs. I cried until my throat hurt. I sobbed until my eyes stung.

Finally, exhausted, I remembered to breathe. I slowly breathed in my sorrow, sadness, grief, and disillusionment. I breathed out slowly, giving myself the gift of clear, clean stillness. I just sat on the front porch, Ben sitting sadly behind me, and I breathed. In. Out. I thought of others who were fee ling like I was feeling. I thought of the sad dads in Israel and Palestine whose children were killing each other. I thought of the mamas of sons who were being executed for having killed other mama’s sons. I just kept slowly breathing in all of our pain, breathing out stillness for us all. Just stillness. Just isness. In. Out. At last, to get a little perspective on my dog-guinea suffering, on the world wide suffering, I breathed in and out a little of the beauty and wonder-full bigness of the cosmos.

Now I have a Big Sad Dog, eight dead guineas, and a heart that is a little bit more compassionate. I also have some very happy grasshoppers.

Terry, True Action and Virtue, practices, with The Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas.

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A Biography of Thay Giac Thanh

In Loving Memory of
Thay Giac Thanh
June 9, 1947 – October 15, 2001

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That you are a real gentleman is known by everyone
The work of a true practitioner has been accomplished
When you stupa has just been raised on the hillside
The sound of children’s laughter will already be heard

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A Biography of Thay Giac Thanh

Offered by his Dharma brother Thay Phuoc Tinh from Vietnam at Deer Park Monastery on October 19, 2001, the day of Thay Giac Thanh’s cremation. Thay Phuoc Tinh and Thay Giac Thanh ordained as novice monks together in Vietnam. Translated from Vietnamese by Chan Hao and Chan Tue Nang.
(Some minor changes and additions have been made lor the English. version.)

Venerable Tam Tong, Chan Giac Thanh, Tram Nhien, birth name Le Van Hieu, was born on June 9, 1947 in the quiet and remote hamlet of Tra Loc, in Soc Son village, Tli Ton district, Rach Gia province. His father was Le Van Dat and his mother was Nguyen Thi Nho. He was the third child in the family of four sons and two daughters.

Like many other children in the countryside of Vietnam growing up in the great suffering of their country caused by wars and poverty, Thay Giac Thanh had to learn at an early age to follow his older brothers and sisters to gather food and catch fish. From this, his elegant face became golden-tanned by the tropical sunlight. In spite of his hardships, the seed of compassion had been present within him, perhaps for many lifetimes. At the early age of seven or eight, he shed tears when thinking of our small human life in the vastness of infinite existence.

Thay’s stay in this little village ended when his parents moved to Rach Gia city. While in the city, he began learning to write his first alphabet. During this time there were some relatively peaceful periods without bombings and fighting, as a result of the Geneva peace accords.

As time passed, the little boy with the golden-tanned face from the remote hamlet of Tra Loc became one of the best students of Nguyen Trung Truc School, very intelligent and especially very brave. Perhaps he had inherited his bravery from patriot Nguyen Trung Truc. Thay Giac Thanh once expressed his love for his country in his first poem, “Crying for My Country.”
My dear country
Loving you, I shed my tears in long and tranquil nights.
Country! What crime have you committed
That the devils have ill-treated you
Without compassion, sympathy, or human kindness?
They sold you to the Devil King.
Loving you, I would buy you back with my flesh and blood,
With my heart and mind and and with my whole body.
This body can become ash and dust
Yet I vow to clear the path for peace. ( 1967)

There is a saying, “Man should have a determination to penetrate the deep skies.” If one does not want to be a speck of dust blown away by the whirlwind destroying one’s own country, then one should not participate in the destruction. Better, one should be a lone traveler on the path of no-birth and no-death. Thay Giac Thanh turned his life towards cultivating his ideal of great compassion and liberation through inner discovery. In 1967, he became a novice monk at Temple Thanh Hoa, Tan My village, Cho Moi district, Long Xuyen province. His Dharma name, Giac Thanh (Awakening Sound), was given to him by his teacher, Venerable Pho Hue. Before becoming a monk he had lain awake crying for the suffering of his motherland. Now in the monastery he also lay awake feeling an emptiness in his heart and longing to find the path that would lead him to realize his true nature. Oh! He felt the path to realize the way is so far. He overcame worldly obstacles, left his hometown, learnt the ways of practice, attended retreats, and received the precepts and still he experienced the feeling of emptiness in his heart. He stayed in Temple Giac Nguyen (in Saigon) in 1968, and then in Temple Xa Loi in 1969. He was fully ordained in Temple Giac Vien in the autumn of 1970. In 1971, he attended the University of Van Hanh to further his studies in Buddhism. He also participated in talks on the Diamond Sutra given by Venerable Hue Hung from Temple Hue Quang, and in talks on Buddhist psychology given by Venerable Tri Tinh. He never stopped searching; wherever there was a talk by a well known teacher, he would be there. He said to his friends nowhere is there a program of practice which is as helpful as that which is followed at the monastery of Master Thanh Tu. And then he received further inspiration on his path when he came across the first book of rules and regulations for the True Emptiness Monastery, a book of guidelines for the monastic life at this particular practice center.

In the spring of 1974, he decided to leave the dusty city and to lay down his student pen. He returned to True Emptiness Monastery, entering his second four-year program. The days passed, listening to sutras in the morning, meditating in the afternoon, drinking tea, looking at dewdrops hanging from the leafy roof, and watching rays of sunlight shining and merging with the firelight in the hearth. The love from his brothers and receiving the Dharma milk of his old teacher on the peak of Tao Phung Mountain opened his heart and lit up the path for this young monk to come home. Thay Giac Thanh was a very good meditator and one of the most beloved elder brothers at True Emptiness Monastery. Almost everybody who had a chance to know him had beautiful memories of him. He offered love, tenderness and support to his newly ordained brothers and sisters. With his deep understanding and compassion, he created great harmony in the Sangha. For instance, in mid-1974, one of the brothers had to leave the monastery to become the abbot of Thuong Chieu Monastery. With some tea and some words of farewell, he was able to strengthen the brotherhood, and he artistically presented the cultural beauty of the art of drinking tea. The fragrance of that cup of tea seems to be very present still.

Once again Vietnam’s history turned to a new page. After the spring of 1975, when the communists took over the whole country, the peaceful years at True Emptiness Monastery faded into the past. Everybody now had to work hard in the fields under the hot, burning sun. While working, Thay Giac Thanh sometimes stopped and asked the question, “One’s awakening is not yet realized. Why should one waste one’s precious life just to gain some food? My dear younger brothers and sisters, we should give ourselves time for reflection.” Whenever there was an opportunity, he would contemplate with his little tea set, beside the bamboo grove in the front yard. Often at dawn and dusk, seeing the floating fog, he also felt a human love floating and fading away. He wrote:
As a human in this life,
I exist! I know how to enjoy tea alone.
Thirty years are like a dream gone by.
Day and night, the little teapot is my only friend. (1976)

In the winter of 1977, he left Thuong Chieu Monastery and build An Khong hut in My Luong village. This hut was made with bamboo leaves. Next to the hut was his small meditation space. The setting expressed the meditative taste of a Zen master with a simple and noble life, but it also expressed the artistry of a poet. After four years, he left An Khong hut as described in the last paragraph of the poem “Mong Vang Hoa”:
I am a dusty world traveler
In the infinity of time.
My mind seemed to get lost in the isolated island.
One morning, the island woke up.
Birds shouting, I hastily continued on my path.
The dusty life seems to be washed off
In the immense ocean of waves and water. (1978)

In July of 1981, he escaped out of Vietnam by boat to Indonesia. Like many other  dangerous escapes of the Vietnamese, he was not able to avoid pirates. Seeing the cruel raping of women and grabbing of jewelry, angrily he said, “Do you have a heart? How could you be so cruel to your fellow humans?” The pirates were very angry and threw him into the ocean. Fortunately, the head pirate, in a flash of sympathy, tossed him a rope and pulled him up onto the boat. So the game of birth and death was once postponed.

Thay Giac Thanh was in Song La refugee camp in Indonesia from July 1981 to early 1982. He was sponsored by Venerable Thich Man Giac to come to Los Angeles. He spent his first refugee allowance of $300 to buy an expensive, antique tea set and some tea, and offered the first cup of tea to Venerable Thich Man Giac and said, “Dear Venerable, I am a wanderer. Loving me, you sponsored me to come here. I haven’t done anything to show my gratitude. With my first allowance I bought this tea and I offer this to express my gratitude to you for your great care and deep love.” What was the cost of a cup of tea? A small expense, but this action expressed the gratefulness of a young wandering man. The Venerable offered a cooling shade and a loving harbor for the wandering man. During Thay Giac Thanh’s brief stay at Phat Giao Viet Nam Temple in Los Angeles, the Venerable, like a tender and caring mother, offered the loving energy which healed the wounds in the wanderer’s heart. At the end of Spring 1982, Thay Tri Tue (one of the Venerable’s students) visited the teacher. The Venerable told Thay Giac Thanh, “Thay Tri Tue from Nam Tuyen Temple (in Virginia) is very busy and there is nobody helping him right now. Could you please help him? You two brothers, live and practice together and keep each other company.” Thay Giac Thanh lived happily with Thay Tri Tue in Virginia from 1982 to 1989. During that time, he also lived and practiced in Japanese, Korean, and Burmese practice centers. The appeal of a traveler’s life faded, however, as his journey of coming home was still burning deep within him. Continuously he searched, knocking at different great teacher’s doors, for the final breakthrough to penetrate directly into infinite space.

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In one of the North American retreats led by Thich Nhat Hanh, seeing him practice with intense and strained effort, Thay Nhat Hanh said to him, “Thay Giac Thanh, you do not need to strive so much. Just be joyful and relaxed. Practice so that you can enjoy what is here in the present moment.” These teaching words of Thay Nhat Hanh were like a few drops of water causing a full cup to overflow, like lightning penetrating deep layers of clouds and illuminating the immense sky. Since then, he stopped the search through strained effort. In the summer retreat of 1990 at Plum Village, the retreatants had a chance to practice with a Vietnamese monk, Thay Giac Thanh, with his beautiful smile  that expressed inner peace. In 1990, he began residing at Plum Village and there he lived happily with his teacher, Thay Nhat Hanhthe old oak tree, and he himself became an oak tree protecting his younger brothers and sisters, young oak trees. He also led Days of  Mindfulness at the Cactus Meditation Center located near Paris, France. And he was called by a very poetic name, Thay Cactus. He was given this name because he looked after the Cactus Meditation Center, but it was an appropriate name for hjs permeating but gentle radiance and upright manner. In the summer of 1992, he received the Lamp Transmjssion to become a Dharma Teacher and a gatha from Thay Nhat Hanh. The gatha is:
The awakened nature is the true nature.
Pure sound is the manifestation of the Wonderful Sound.
The full moon’s light illuminates Ty Lo Ocean.
The musical waves are still strong and sonorous.

And this is Thay Giac Thanh’s insight gatha offered to his teacher and the Sangha at his Lamp Transmission:
Formless Samadhi
The limpid water on one side.
Yellow water on the other side.
All will return to sky, cloud,
Ocean and river
There is sunlight during daytime
And moonlight at night,
Shining my way.

Plum Village was a promised land for Thay Giac Thanh. In the past, the promised land had been a dream formed from his faith. Now the promised land was a cradle in which all of humankind’s happiness could flourish, and was a field in which the seeds of compassion and understanding could be sown. Plum Village created a vast space in his heart so that the flower of wisdom could bloom. And with solid steps he fully entered life. He wrote a poem to express his respect and admiration for his teacher:
Just a thunder look
Can press down many great walls.
I bow my head to receive
And vow to keep (the teachings) life after life. (1991)

Perhaps the time he lived in Floating Clouds hut in Plum Village was one of the most beautiful times in his life. Thay Nhat Hanh offered him this small wooden hut on the forest edge, beside his own. All year round, one could hear the birds singing and see many different flowers blooming arollnd his hut. He liked the name Floating Clouds. He walked freely and solidly, and his smiles and words carried a profound peace to people around him.

In 1992, he was first invited to New York City to lead Days of Mindfulness. His presence helped strengthen the bonds with the New York Sanghas and a very special friendship blossomed between him and the Sangha members. In the autumn of 1995, he was invited again to New York and to other East Coast cities to lead various retreats. One thing is for sure, wherever he went — France, America, Australia, Canada, Vermont, Deer Park — from the beginning of his teaching to his last breath, all of us could receive his tender, fresh and peaceful energy.  And he was respected and deeply loved by all of us.

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In 1995 he contracted tuberculosis and his diabetes worsened. With his mindful breathing he embraced his illnesses, which he had lived with since 1992 or earlier. He embraced and took care of his illnesses like a mother loving her child, never complaining no matter
how demanding the child was. Many of our ancestors also faced challenging obstacles but took them as opportunities to realize full enlightenment. Simjlarly, even with these serious illnesses, Thay Giac Thanh could live peacefully and happily, and this was clearly expressed in his poems, such as:
Dharma Seal
Stepping out the land of reality,
Fresh beautiful flowers bloom everywhere.
Only one deep mindfulness shines through
And the three realms have been surpassed … (1997)

Light of Winter
Facing white snow,
Suddenly,
One-self fading away
The whole universe
Turning info a great lamp. (1998)

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In 1997 Thay Giac Thanh became Head of Practice at the Maple Forest Monastery at the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, the first American off-spring from Plum Village, and offered a stable and joyful presence for the young brothers and sisters and lay practitioners practicing there. A few years later in early 2000, some of the Plum Village Sangha members began looking for property to start a West Coast monastery.  Acquiring the land for Deer Park Monastery, and then becomjng the abbot of the Monastery, Thay Giac Thanh knew that this place would be the last one of his life. Therefore, he used all of his remaining strength to build this place in showing his gratitude to his most respected teacher. Since last year, his illnesses became seriously life-threatening, and finally, like the cycles of birth and death of all phenomena, he returned his impermanent body to Mother Earth. Thay Giac Thanh arrived in Deer Park Monastery in the summer of 2000 and left us in the autumn of 2001. His stay at Deer Park was very short compared to an average human life span, and nothing compared to the age of stars and moons, but his accomplishment is great and that has entered into the hearts of all of us. A kind, gentle and loving voice, a joyful smile untiI the end of his life, a deep and clear wisdom and great compassion, and peaceful steps, all revealed his profound understanding of no-coming, no-going. And that is the greatest gift he has offered to his brothers and sisters and to the Sanghas all over the world. As the Arahats said upon entering Nirvana, “The most important task has been completed.”

He is truly a Dhanna Teacher of many Western and Vietnamese practitioners. Although he passed away, he has transformed to be one with us. His words are like essential keys to open the door to one’s wisdom, happiness and compassion, especially his last Dharma talks in the Full Moon Meditation Hall. How deep his words are! He is the most loved elder brother. Each of us remembers him in our own way. He is a brother, protective, sometimes strict. He is a mother, loving and caring for us. He is a friend, opening his heart to us. He loved his brothers and sisters wholeheartedly. He is a meadow, full of exotic, simple and beautiful flowers and grass, in which each one of us can play freely. Being with him, we see ourselves disappearing and merging with him, like a river merging into the ocean. And we all think it is very difficult to find another elder brother like him. Here are a few lines from a poem written for his younger brothers and sisters:
Please do not scold or condemn
my younger brothers and sisters.
Because I am afraid that the gray color
of sadness and heartache
Will encase their innocence and clarity. (1991)

Thay Giac Thanh was also a student with deep gratitude; he always did his best to help his teachers in spreading the teaching, even when he was very sick.

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In his first return to Vietnrun, in 1992, his old friends were very surprised by his simplicity, and they could not believe that he had experienced great suffering, disappointments, many ups and downs, profound transformations, and attained great wisdom and understandding of the Dharma from inspiring teachers. Wearing the brown Tiep Hien jacket and carrying his monk shoulder bag, he traveled humbly without formal welcoming or farewells. With his gentle smiles, he overcame all the political obstacles he encountered while in Vietnam and therefore was able to successfully offer the Dharma and charity to many people there. Although he had a busy schedule, he still spent time with his relatives and old friends, monastics and non-monastics. He treated them with love from his whole heart. When they saw him again, they were deeply moved to tears. Before coming back to the United States, he searched for and bought a special tea set as a gift for his closest friend. Not many of his old friends were able to be with him in the hospital or attend his funeral, but the deep caring and love from those who were present revealed how much love he has given us. In his second return to Vietnam, in 1999, he told his friends, “I came back to visit all of you for the last time. I don’t think that I will be able to make another trip.” His words seemed like a joke, and nobody could believe what he said would be true. In this trip, one of his childhood friends helped him to fulfill his long-standing wish in helping his family.

He lived humbly, freely and with dignity. So beautifully he came and left. His life is like a pristine cactus flower blooming at night. He left a collection of over fifty poems, not yet published. These poems have been kept by his close friends. His early poems are full of romantic and poetic imagery, but his subsequent poems convey his profound wisdom and vast spaciousness of his heart. Close to death, he seemed to dwell more in the other realm, but when Thay Nhat Hanh spoke to him from Beijing the day before he died, he smiled and his face lit up, and he opened his eyes to receive his teacher’s words. Thay Nhat Hanh read the poem he had just written in honor of Thay Giac Thanh (printed on page 22). Later he added these two lines:
One maple leaf has fallen down
And yet you continue to climb the hill of the
twenty-first century with us.
Thousands of daffodils are beginning to bloom
and the earth continues to be with the sky
singing the song of no-birth and no-death.

Our ancestors said that once the most important task in life has been completed, one needs no longer return to this world. However, Great Beings come and go freely to continue the bodhisattva’s work. Dear Thay Giac Thanh, we vow to be your companion on this path of love and liberation, life after life.

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Poem: Untitled Poem 3

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Spacious mind
trees speaking through In y skin
embracing unnamed joy

Loving myself in quiet moments
doing becomes being
compassion becomes action

My tears turn to ink
writing with passion
this river story

By Richard Blakely

Richard is incarcerated in Oregon. He writes, “Dear friends, may many blessings shower upon you and this coming year be deep and insightful. Thank you so much for the gift of The Mindfulness Bell this year”

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We All Belong Together

Sister Thuc Nghiem (Sister Susan)

Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Insight Gatha

Just one instant of the present moment and something knocks
so loudly at my heart;
The love that we all belong together.
A star at dawn above the darkened earth,
they talk together of this.
The blades of grass, the dew and the sunshine,
they talk together of this.
My in-breath, the apples and the soil,
they know this together.
The breeze, the flowers, the moon beams and my heart,
we interare.
My teacher, my sisters, brothers,
my children, ancestors and all people
did you know we talk of this all the time.
My out-breath and my smile, the rain and my tears, the trees
and my carbon,
they just can ‘t stop talking together of this.

Six birds flying overhead with the rising sun,
I suddenly wonder if any of them feel exhausted or have a
deep pain in their wings.
I see it must be so and I am shaken by compassion.
Who am I, if I am not these birds?
Who am I, if I am not all things?
We do this together, what happiness, what joy.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha given to Sister Thuc Nghiem

The full moon that looks like a ripe fruit,
is used as a mirror by a beautiful lady.
The autumn hills stand quietly and majestically around us.
As soon as you smile at someone’s footprints
on the Ben Duc harbor,
the Lord of Compassion ‘s boat of loving-kindness
will have already brought you to the other shore.

note: The Ben Duc harbor is the harbor you must use to go to the Perfume temple in North Vietnam. The water is a little muddy at that harbor.

Thay’s Words of encouragement

Avalokiteshvara is always there around us and inside of us. In a time of confusion and suffering we need the bodhisattva of deep listening and of great compassion to be with us . The bodhisattva may manifest herself in every step we make, in everything we say. Our daily life should embody the capacity of deep listening and compassionate action. The seeds of compassion should continue to be planted in our society. Whether that seed can sprout today or tomorrow depends on many conditions. But the bodhisattva does not worry about the outcome. The bodhisattva takes care of the action only. Every day we keep sowing the seeds of understanding and compassion and we have the conviction that alI these seeds planted today will sprout tomorrow or after tomorrow. That will bring enough happiness and peace. We try to do this together as a Sangha.

There are many seeds planted by Shakyamuni Buddha. Some seeds waited for 2600 years in order to sprout. The same thing is true with us. The essential thing is to plant the seeds of understanding and compassion. This is the meaning of the lamp transmission, the continuation of the practice. It is wonderful that the light of the Buddha has still come to us as bright and alive as ever. Now the light is being transmitted to you, Sister Susan.

Excerpt from Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Dharma Talk

A tool that Thay has given us is the ability to find healing in nature, to go sit in the middle of a field and do nothing. In the past two years I have found an apple tree out in front of the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Is it under it, near the fence, every morning. I see the same patch of earth, the same landscape in front of me and the same trees, in the springtime, in the summer, in the fall and in the winter. I think I began doing this because one morning I saw a bird watching the sun come up. I felt that that bird was more wholehearted than I was in being with the sunrise. About a month later I was taken by surprise and I really saw the sun come up. [t pierced me straight to my core.

I wanted to watch the sun come up and after a while I noticed the earth also. When it was cloudy, rainy or snowing I didn’t see the sun but the earth was very wonderful. I began to feel very close to the earth. It was so wonderful to go and sit cross-legged on the earth every morning. I began to appreciate the apples in the different seasons and the chipmunks and the squirrels who would run by me. One time a chipmunk landed on my head. One time a bird landed on my head. I think from this, on a deep level, I began to feel the interbeing of the earth and the sky and the chipmunks and the raindrops and I certainly saw them interbe with my happiness. It was this time I spent under the apple tree that really gave me a smile so easily. It gave me love in my heart so easily. I could see that everything was connected. The teachings on Buddhist psychology also helped me to see that everything is connected. In nature it is easy to see that everything is connected. I think that is why I can sit and stare at it for so long because something in me recognizes that I am looking at everything.

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I could see that my sisters and I were connected very deeply and we affect each other. Perhaps the greatest happiness is knowing that we live in a community. It doesn’t matter if sometimes the community has difficulties or I can’t get along with someone or a million other things that can happen in a community that lives together twenty-four hours a day. But the fact that we are living together, that we are trying to make the Sangha work and we are making it work, that we support each other by practicing the same guidelines (the mindfulness trainings) and we are really there for each other, to me that is one of the most beautiful things on earth. To me it makes all the difference when I recognize the fact that we all belong together, that you can’t take the father out of the son, you can’t take us out of each other, you can’t take anything out of us . We all belong together.

On our trip in China last fall on the last morning Thay woke up very early to see some of us off who were leaving for America, after a late night at a public talk. He was sitting outside with us. I was sitting at a table with another sister. She turned to Thay and said, “I want to thank you for allowing me to come to China and I want to apologize for any mistakes I have made.” She went on to say, you know I have many weaknesses and I am trying to overcome them and it is difficult. And Thay quietly stopped her and said, “We do it together.” To me that was the most incredible thing to say.

All our pain, all our difficulties, all our joy, we do it together. And when we do this we are following the truth of things and that brings about our greatest happiness. What if all the Sanghas we know have that idea, we do it together, for each other. If in a family something comes up, they can do it together, they work it out together. As a nation, we can all help each other to do it together. So when some group suffers, we do it together. We think about it, we look deeply into it. And as a world we do it  together. We have many ways of diplomacy and we know we are doing it together for all of us. We know we alI belong together as one family and so we will find the best ways to bring about happiness for all of us.

Sister Thuc Nghiem, True Adornment with Ripeness, lives in the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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Entering the Stream of the Practice

Brother Phap Hien (Brother Michael)

Brother Phap Hien’s insight gatha

Remembering your peaceful steps along the ancient path,
the sound of the old bell carried me out into the night sky.
I return now with a bright message from faraway stars,
and Oh, how my weary feet adore the tender earth.
We have always known each other.
There are thousands of generations of tears,
smiles and laughter echoing through the great hall.
In this endless embrace with this unfathomable aspiration,
my teacher, my brother, my friend,
what have we possibly to fear?

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Br. Phap Hien

The Dharma handed down by wise ones from long ago
is like the sound of the rising tide,
echoing tens of thousands of songs and poems.
Having been brothers and sisters to each other
during innumerable past lives
we should hold firm to the door of the practice
so that the true vehicle can go vigorously far into the future.

Excerpt from Brother Phap Hien’s Dharma Talk

It’s hard to say anything to a community that is you. When I was six-years-old I went to the dentist and the dentist asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? I had never thought about that question before, but I remember I answered him very quickly. I said, I want to be a farmer. He looked at me and he said, a farmer? What about a doctor or a scientist? I said, no I want to be a farmer. The seed of the simple life and the family life living close to the land was very big in my ancestors.

And then when I was about twelve-years-old my parents separated. That was a great wound for me, a big wound in my heart. I lost all my trust and faith in my family. I remember also at that time someone asked me a question of what I wanted to do with my life and my answer was completely different. My answer was, I want to be alone. I wanted to live in a little house all by myself way up in the north of Canada with no one else around, with long, cold winters. Still a simple life, but with no more family. Actually what I really wanted was to be in the embrace of Mother Earth. But that dream to live alone didn’t last very long. When I was seventeen I fell in love. That gave me the incentive to open up a little bit, to try to learn to be honestly close to someone, to share my life with someone. It was a very good thing that that happened. The inspiration ofthe family life came back into my dream.

About a year later when I began college I did a solo retreat for three days all alone in a desert canyon. I didn’t eat anything. It was very hot. I barely wore anything. I just sat on a rock and did nothing for three days. I had never done anything like that before. During that time, without any kind of words or cognitive process, I understood something very deep about myself. When I tried to put it into words it didn’t work. But I knew deep inside I had found something that resonated deeply with a place, a home within.

When I was twenty-one I was living in Northern California in the redwood forest. On my twenty-first birthday I received a book, Peace is Every Step, from my next-door neighbor. I was very happy to receive the book and I asked her, what is it? She just said, it’s a lot like you. A few weeks later she moved away and I never saw her again. She is a kind of bodhisattva for me because giving me that book opened a big door for me. I read Thay’s teaching and I felt as if someone was speaking what was inside of me. But he was able to put it into words, to give clear examples of what it meant to have that inside of oneself and to live it. I tried my best to practice walking mediation right away, but I didn’t really understand it. But I did understand that my life had to be about what was going on in the here and now from that point on or it wasn’t life. That is what I wanted. I had met the Buddha and the Dharma and a little piece of the Sangha. Soon after that I found myself here in Plum Village.

When I was twenty-four I became a novice monk and I started my life all over again. I didn’t realize that I was doing that, but I did. I don’t think I have fully realized it yet actually.

Before I became a novice I had had a dream of going to India and Nepal. This was before I had fully met and experienced a Sangha body. I had the idea that I would go there and find a place to touch something ancient. When I arrived in Plum Village and I heard the monks and nuns chanting at a formal lunch in the summer retreat I felt that something ancient, something very powerful. It is strange, but I gave up that dream to travel to the East and then eight months after becoming a novice I went to India with Thay and the Sangha. That next fall I also traveled with Thay and the Sangha to America and I found myself doing walking meditation in the redwood forest in Northern California at Kim Son Monastery one morning. I suddenly realized it was only ten to fifteen miles from the spot where I had first received Peace is Every Step. I had also been very intent on having a family life before I became a monk. In giving up that dream I got the biggest family I could possibly imagine.

The Dharma is very powerful. To be in touch with the Dharma through the Vietnamese Buddhist culture and community has been very important for me. Through my life in the monastery I have learned a lot about place, relationships to others and to environment, which I never knew before; relationship to elder brothers and sisters, relationship to younger brothers and sisters and so on. Being born in Plum Village as a monk is to be born in a group of several brothers and sisters who ordain together on the same day, sometimes as a tree, sometimes as an animal , a fruit or a flower. I was born in the coconut tree family. There were five of us; Phap Kieu, Thuc Nghiem, Ha Nghiem, Phap Hien and Hy Nghiem. We had many elder brothers and sisters who ordained before us also in groups, like batches of children or batches of cookies. There are many ofthese batches in our community but we make up one family and we are all children of Thay, our teacher. Thay has also been in that same place. He has been a child of his teacher in a community of monks and nuns and so on and so on.

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It has been very important to experience that kind of connection as part of my life .  When I was growing up I only knew my mother, my father and my two sisters. I didn’t have much connection to other people around me. Then my parents divorced and my family broke up and I felt I had nothing. Living in the community of Plum Village I have learned roots. I learned to open my heart and to see my roots, both in my blood family and in my spiritual family. To experience a lineage, a transmission, a continuation has brought stability into my heart. It has brought non-fear into my heart.

This is a great medicine for westerners, wandering souls that we are. Many of us have not grown up, as many brothers and sisters from Vietnam have, with a lot of family members around and a culture that waters the seeds of being rooted, having a lineage, and being aware of one’s ancestors and descendants. We have not had that in America for a long time. Many of us wander around in a lot of pain, with a lot of loneliness because we don ‘t know who we are and we don ‘t know where we come from. It has been really important for me to enter into the awareness of being a part of a lineage and to experience it living all around me in the community of Plum Village and also in the culture of Vietnam.

I said to Thay several years ago that while practicing touching the earth I suddenly discovered who I was and because of that I was not afraid anymore. I knew who I was and where I had come from. Sometimes the seed of fear still comes up in me. But when I can remember my roots, through my brothers and sisters in my spiritual family and through the generations of my blood family, I can feel within me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

The gatha that I offered to Thay is about that. It is about entering into the stream of practice, discovering my afflictions and about getting grounded in the practice, down through my belly into my feet. I really love to walk on the earth now. It is about understanding, I am you and you are me. It has been that way for a long, long time.

Brother Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained in 1996 in Plum Village. He received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.

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Buddba Body

Larry Ward

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Larry Ward’s Insight Gatha

The sound of the great bell has awakened
the Golden Buddha in my heart.
Grace arrives on the holy wings of a breath,
in the here and now.
I am at home without desire.
The cloud of forgetfulness fades away.
My eyes open wide to the wonders of life,
each a Buddha land.
Bright light shining in every direction,
healing and transforming me.
My happiness and freedom
overflow into the river of great compassion.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha

When the great Drum begins to play, we
hear the thunder
its sound vibrates even the golden moon light
Beams from the four directions are projecting in
witnessing to a mind that manifests
both purity and oneness
If one is attentive,
one will notice that both the cam and the sat are still playing
the harmonious song of great courage.

Cam and sat are ancient instruments that are always played together. They are associated with husband and wife, who compliment each other, creating a harmonious duet together.

Thay’s words of encouragement

The gatha I just chanted is about the moment when the Buddha attained Great Awakening at the foot of the bodhi tree after having defeated Mara, the energy of darkness, the energy of fear, the energy of ignorance, craving, and discrimination. The Buddha and many generations of practitioners have followed his example and succeeded in defeating the power of darkness. We need the light and courage of the Buddha especially in this time of distress and fear. We need a long process of education in order to transform fear and discrimination in our society and within ourselves. Through the light of the Buddha we can see habit energy deeply rooted in our society – the tendency to lose hope, to be overwhelmed, to be taken by despair, the tendency of craving, of fear, of discrimination. We have to be patient, we have to continue with our practice and our work of education in order to uproot this negative energy.

It’s wonderful not to have any desire in our heart. It means that we only have one desire, the desire to uproot evil, to uproot the negative energy within our society. This lamp transmitted to you today, Larry, is the symbol of love and trust from the Buddha and from our ancestral teachers that you will continue to do your best to improve the quality of life in our families, in our communities, in our societies and never lose hope. I have faith in you; the Buddha and the patriarchs have faith in you .

Larry’s Dharma Talk

To go with my whole life for refuge is to put my life in the Buddha’s life and to find my story in the Buddha’s story, to find the Buddha’s story in me. And to surrender having to be someone else other than the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To surrender to my Noble Teacher, the Venerables here and the Noble Sangha. To be willing to be taught by the ancestral teachers, to be willing to be taught by each breath, each step, each sigh, each star, each blade of grass, and each smile, each heartbreak and each disappointment. To surrender. To be willing to be taught. And so the transmission continues.

Finding the heart of the Buddha in my heart, finding my heart in the Buddha’s heart, my heart is as big as the whole world.

Finding my feet in the Buddha’s feet. Two years ago during our retreat in China we had wonderful walking meditations. One morning during one of our walking meditations I looked down and I didn’t recognize my feet. I could not find Larry ‘s feet, and realized they were becoming Buddha feet.

And my ears becoming Buddha ears. Hearing the cries of the world, the laughter, the tears, the unspoken dreams and hopes and the whispers of love quietly held in the night.

And my eyes becoming Buddha eyes. Seeing wonder everywhere I look, beholding a miracle in every moment.

And my mind, slowly, and forever becoming the Buddha’s mind, the mind of practice, the mind of coming back to the here and now, the mind of knowing when I’m not back in the here and now and the mind that gently brings myself back.

Our beloved teacher has been transmitting no less than 100% of himself to us, as his teacher did for him, and his teacher before him. And the Buddha has transmitted no less than 100% of himself to us. And so this coming summer I am preparing to receive the Buddha’s hands. And I surrender having to have Larry’s hands, I surrender having to be somebody so I can happily be nobody and so I can serve the world in that way. And so our bodies are becoming the bodies of the Buddha, our hands, our feet, our eyes, our ears, our smile. And so the transmission continues.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives in Clear View practice center.Peggy Rowe Ward also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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A Tear FeU Into My Hand

By Lisi Ha Vinh

Lisi’s Insight Gatha

A tear from the ocean of suffering fell into my hand.
Looking deeply into this tear, I found a precious jewel.
Looking deeply into this jewel, I found an open heart.
Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path.
Walking this path, I found the ocean
Embracing it all.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Lisi

You have always embraced with all your heart the great cause.
That is why crossing so many paths and bridges
you are still able to walk with freedom and ease.
Since the beginning of time
clouds are always traveling, water is always flowing
And it could be lovely to learn to sing the song of the ultimate
every morning when the east gets rosy.

Excerpt from Lisi’s Dharma Talk

My husband and I decided to step out of our very busy lives and take a sabbatical. We spent part of this sabbatical in a Swiss mountain village on retreat. Every morning we read one of the fourteen mindfulness trainings and then during the day we went for long walks in the mountains, feeling the training that we read in the morning sinking into our consciousness. In the evening we would sit by the warm fireplace and share what feelings and thoughts had come up.

When we read the fourth mindfulness training about the reality of suffering, I remember sitting in meditation and suddenly feeling tears running down my cheeks, warm, wet tears. And one tear fell into my hand. Have you ever looked at a tear? It’s something really beautiful. If you have a chance to look at a child and a little tear is caught in the eyelashes, it’s like a dew drop in the heart of a lotus leaf. It reflects the whole universe, it’s shining bright like a jewel. Tears are truly a universal human language. A mother whose child has died – maybe in Israel, maybe in Germany, maybe in Afghanistan – has the same tears. She might express them differently, but the tears are the same, wet and warm and salty. I once had a tremendous privilege to hold a mother whose eighteen year old son had just died. I held her and cradled her for many, many hours and the tears were running down my shoulder and making my clothes wet. I had the feeling I was holding the most precious jewel in my arms.

Jewels are something that you take good care of. They are in the crowns of kings, they are on the engagement ring of your beloved. When you look at jewels, they are so pure and so transparent and so full at the same time. Human suffering is the same, it is extremely precious. You don’t throw jewels on the floor or put them where you keep your shoes; you keep them in a special place. And human suffering is the same, you have to take really good care of human suffering.

In my gatha, I said, “Looking deeply into this jewel l found an open heart.” I am Austrian, coming from a Catholic tradition. When my parents took me to church when I was small, you could buy pictures of Mary and Jesus. There was one picture that intrigued me immensely, the picture of Jesus with an open heart – he was standing there and his breast was torn open and you could see his heart. When I saw this picture I was always so worried, thinking how could you live like that, it’s so dangerous, somebody bumps into you and you get hurt. At the same time I was incredibly amazed at the look on the face of Jesus, which was somehow fearless. To me an open heart and fearlessness go together. A vulnerable fearlessness of an open heart.

Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. So I come back to the mountains where we walked every day. Every step was pure joy and pure gratefulness for this incredible beauty of nature. There was one little path that went through a forest with pine trees that lose their needles in autumn so they turn yellow and orange. One time we walked through this forest and all the golden yellow pine needles had fallen on the ground and it was like walking on pure gold. I can fee l right now the happiness of that moment. I can still hear the sound of the silence of our steps . Beauty is always available at every moment.

Walking this path I found the ocean embracing it all. The tears of pain and the tears of joy all contained in the ocean of life. And I wish us all a safe and joyful journey on this ocean.

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Lisi Ha Vinh, True Great Bridge, was born in Vienna, Austria. She has developed educational and humanitarian projects in Vietnam together with her husband Tho, True Great Wisdom, over the past twelve years. Lisi and Tho have been married for thirty years, have two grown up children, one grand child, and they consider their couple and family life as an important part of their spiritual path. Tho also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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Peace is Around the Corner

Kind Communication in Israel

By Marion Pargamin

During eight days, in the first week of April, Palestinians and Israelis walked together from Tel Aviv-Yaffo to Jerusalem, passing by Jewish and Arab towns and settlements, in silence and awareness, declaring a commitment to deep listening and non-violence. This Walk was organized by meditation groups with the intention to give an opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to walk together, to develop dialogue and self-introspection, inspired by the ancient traditions that guided people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

What I experienced on the last day of this Walk was very much in the spirit of peace and coexistence, of calmness and serenity created by the Walk in the midst of the atmosphere of insanity and violence that surrounds us.

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I joined the Walk with a group of Palestinians and Israelis who practice meditation and mindfulness together according to the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and famous peace worker. I participated in several days of the walk. Monday April 8”’, the last day of the Walk, was the eve of the holocaust commemoration day, a day of deep emotion for the Jewish community. It went from Ein Kerem through Jerusalem to the foot of the old city walls.

In the early afternoon l parked my car at the final meeting place of the Walk. I walked up to the walls of the old city, to meet the walkers on their way. When I got to Jaffa gate, I found
myself in front of a very agitated elderly Arab man exchanging insults with an elderly religious Jew who was standing at a bus station a few meters away. Some policemen from a Border Police patrol were trying to calm them down, so that it wouldn’t turn into a fight, as they were extremely angry. I stood beside the Arab, I spoke to him calmly and asked him to sit down without reacting to the other’s provocation. I was quite impressed by the restraint shown by the policemen. They seemed to respect both sides, without defending one side over the other. The bus arrived, the Jewish man boarded the bus and the situation seemed to have settled down.

Then, a Jewish woman who was in the queue from the beginning of the argument, and who did not get on the bus, took it upon herself to start insulting the Arab who reacted immediately. The police had left and I was left alone to try to calm the situation.

I gave my attention to the Arab, who would have stayed quiet if he was not continually provoked by the woman. I tried from a distance to reason with her without success. She stopped a passing police car and said something to the policeman who then walked up to the Arab. I explained to him what was going on and he went back to the woman. I am so happy that all the policemen in this situation acted calmly and helped to restore peace. Then, a Palestinian woman on her way to the Jaffa gate burst onto the scene; she jumped to the conclusion that the old Arab was under “attack” and rushed in a frenzy to rescue him. She yelled some insults at the Jewish woman who was beginning to calm down, and the situation heated up again. All  my attention was now focused on her. I felt she was like a bomb ready to explode. I tried to explain to her what was going on, but she was furious with me, screaming out her hatred, her despair and her pain.

This is Palestine accusing Israel. At this moment I represent Israel for her. This whole situation is greater than the two of us and takes on proportions beyond our present meeting. She shouts out her sorrow about what is going on now in the territories, the military incursions into Palestinian towns. She talks in particular about Jenin where some terrible fighting is now taking place. She has family and friends there and she says that our soldiers are war criminals. She is convinced that we want to kill them all. Why do we hate them so much? They are not responsible for the Holocaust, why should they be paying the price? She tells me about the refugees and their constant suffering for which she feels we are responsible. Pointing at the Jewish woman, she assures me that this Sephardi woman was treated with honor, as a human being, in an Arab country from where she comes, and look at how she behaves with Palestinians now. It goes on and on; she shouts and spews her hatred for Israel at me.

I didn’t try to argue with her at all. I didn’t show any reaction to all her accusations. I felt great compassion and an intense need to listen to her, only to listen to her. My patience was nourished by understanding that behind this overwhelming hatred was a deep suffering and pain aggravated by the present situation of war. It must express itself in some way so that healing can take place.

I was ready to listen to what appeared to me as the worst accusations, distortions or insults, without reacting. I was aware that what reinforced my strength at that moment was that I had absolutely no doubt that the suffering and pain of the Israeli people was not less real and legitimate. I didn’t let myself get tempted or trapped into guilt or anger. I was sorry for the tragedy on both sides. My compassion for her was not based only on account of the compassion and sense of loyalty I have for my own people, for myself. For me this is not an issue of who is right and who is wrong. I felt very calm and peaceful deep inside. I knew that it was the only way to calm her fury. I let her express herself for a long time without interrupting her.

As she continued to shout at me, I told her that she has no need to speak so loudly because I am listening to her with all my attention. At the same time I found myself caressing her arm. She let me do it and progressively lowered her voice, while continuing to let her despair overflow. She said to me, “Do you understand why some of us come and commit suicide among you? You kill us anyway, so why not kill you at the same time?” She even mentioned the possibility of coming and blowing herself up out of despair.

I told her softly that I didn’t want her to die. Nobody should come to that decision. We all suffer on both sides. She went on and on claiming that the Zionists only want to get rid of the Palestinians. I told her, “You see I am a Zionist and I don’t want to get rid of you. I wish we could live together as good neighbors.” She listened to me!

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She told me about the demonstration that took place the week before near Ramallah. She complained about the Jewish organizations who took part in it. Then she asked me to donate some money to buy phone cards for Palestinians who need them. I gave her some money. At this stage the conversation was quite normal between us. She wasn’t shouting any more, she was even able to listen to me.

She was almost calm when I noticed the people of the Walk approaching us slowly, at the top of the street. They were in a line, a hundred of them, one after the other walking in silence, slowly, quietly, aware of each step, creating an atmosphere of peace and safety around them. They were very present. They radiated calm and warmth.

I pointed them out to her and explained that this was the reason I came here, to join a walk of peace in which Palestinians and Israelis are together. I told her about the Walk, its message of coexistence and peace, peace at every step, here and now.

I suggested that she come into the line with me. She hesitated and rejected my offer. At that moment they reached us. Several people I knew shook my hand warmly as they went by. A young woman very active in a group working toward reconciliation between the two peoples, approached her and gave her a kiss. It appeared that they knew each other.

I noticed that she was very moved by the Walk and the atmosphere it radiated . She seemed to me calmer and calmer, nothing like the furious woman I had met only several minutes before . The end of the line passed by us and I wanted to join it. Again I invited her and again she declined. I told her that I understood and respected her decision . Before I went I told her, “I am sure that some day we will succeed in building peace between us.” She smiled and replied, “Me too.” Then to my total surprise, she came close to me and kissed me on my cheeks! She walked alongside the line for a while. She told me that she liked the Walk, that it made her feel good, and that her mood was much better now. I was very moved. I felt overwhelmed by this encounter, especially by its  unexpected ending.

Peace was there around the corner, I did not miss it!

I was aware that an intense moment of real reconciliation had taken place. Everything contributed to it: incredible timing that brought me to this place at this time, that brought her, in her turn, with enough time to first pour out her anger, to receive needed listening and compassion, and to calm down, so that she could be receptive to the subtle quiet energy of the Walk. The Walk, emanating healing, bringing the tangible presence of peace and goodwill of a whole organized group, appeared just in time to complete the scene, adding a wider perspective to an individual encounter. The thick walls of her hatred were shattered allowing her to express what was deep in her heart.

Kissing me was a miracle! Within a short period of time, laden with emotions, her energy of hatred and death underwent a transformation . I don ‘t know if, or how quickly, she returned to her initial state of anger or how long she remained calm. I know that this profound transformation was very real ; no matter what followed, it will leave a trace and a memory that cannot disappear. A seed of peace was sown in her heart. We must plant many more and water them thoroughly.

This story is not mine alone. I know I have the duty to tell it to as many people as possible, so that planting seeds of peace may go on and on.

Marion Pargamin visited Plum Village in January 2002. She practices with the Jerusalem Sangha.

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Turning Towards the Light

Israeli and Palestinian Meetings in Plum Village
Members of the Palestinian-Israeli Sangha

One soul has been changed

Dear Thay, I am a young Palestinian woman, who was part of the Palestinian-Israeli group in Plum Village last week. I lived in Paradise for a week. I felt that Plum Village is paradise for two reasons: the location and the atmosphere and the fact that our enemies were our friends. All the people around me were my family. I could sense the warmth of love radiating from every soul and penetrating my dark heart. The darkness has been living there since my childhood, the darkness that was caused by “our cousins,” the cousins that took away my childhood, and are now aiming at my youth. In your Paradise, my voice was heard even during the noble silence. My heart was touched and the darkness was replaced by light.

I am back home now. I am ready to accept my enemies as family. I will try to synchronize my breath with their breath. I will let my voice free and I will listen twice before I talk.

Thank you for hosting us in your paradise, and exposing us to the Buddha’s teachings.

One soul in Palestine has been changed. I am looking towards the light now.

Sincerely,
a participant from Jerusalem, Palestine
November 2001

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The Seeds of a Dream

Over the past few years, Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested more than once that Palestinians and Jews sit together in meditation to practice deep listening and to share each other’s suffering. Thay’s suggestion planted the seeds of a dream.

In the summer of 2001 a group of fifteen Palestinians and Israelis came together in Plum Village to practice being peace and to learn about the healing power of deep listening and loving speech. Out of their experience, emerged another group that went to Plum Village in November 2001. A third group is planning to come for two weeks during the Summer Retreat in 2002.

The first two groups participated in sitting, walking, and working meditation with the entire community, and separately as a group. In meetings with Brother Doji, Sister Jina and Sister Annabel we learned how to practice deep listening. We tried to listen with   compassion to our own suffering and to the suffering of others. We also practiced going back to our bodies through “deep relaxation,” as well as stopping and breathing at the sound of the bell. We shared a session of “beginning anew” in which we had the chance to “water each other’s flowers,” sharing our appreciation for each other and to express our regrets and difficulties. Sister Chan Khong shared with us her experiences during the war in Vietnam. We also shared social activities; such as, singing Arabic and Hebrew songs, playing music and reciting poems. Before departing, we practiced hugging meditation.

Blue Flowers of Peace

During the first walking meditation session in Upper Hamlet after the arrival of the Israeli-Palestinian group I found myself walking a few meters behind two Palestinian women. I had not previously met them, and had not had the chance to talk to them before the walk. I was very curious to know them, to find out I how they came to join the group and what brought them to Plum Village. I wanted to know what they had experienced during the EI-Aktza Intifada and during previous years, how much they and their relatives had  suffered. I thought, how will it be possible to contact them, to create communication with them? Will it be possible to do anything together, and how?

When the line of walkers passed the Meditation Hall we made a left turn into an open area, where many blue flowers were blooming. In Hebrew the name of these flowers is “olesh. ” What was the Arabic name? Suddenly, I saw that the elder Palestinian woman had also discovered the blue flowers and was communicating silently with the young Palestinian woman about them. They both smiled happily. This was a big discovery for me, and I thought, ahh! The olesh flowers also bloom in Palestinian fields, and the Palestinian people like them too. They enjoy the same things as we do and have love in their hearts.

Then I smiled to myself knowing that there is a way to create communication between the Israeli and the Palestinian people.

– Jonathan Arazy, True Path of Peace, July 2001

Expressing Pain and Fear

A lot of pain was expressed in our meetings. Palestinians spoke about their difficulties as Israeli-Arabs, the discrimination in Israel, and their inferior status in relation to Jews, the
Israeli government, and the police. They spoke about not being able to develop their land and the land that had been expropriated and given to Jews. Palestinians talked about time spent in Israeli prisons, about being beaten up, about humiliation and confusion, being jailed in their own towns, the difficulties of educating children for peace in times of war, and
about learning to see that the one you think is your enemy is a human being.

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Jewish members shared about the holocaust and genocide of their people in Europe by the Nazis, a trauma that is imprinted on every Jewish soul and affects their behavior. They shared their difficulties in struggling to protect a state surrounded by enemies, about difficulties in differentiating between the Palestinian citizens in Israel and the neighboring
Arabs who are considered to be enemies, and about life in the shadow of constant fear; fear of terrorist attacks in the streets or on the buses, and the fear of further wars. As a result of this fear, there is a lot of violence and aggressive communication. Jewish members shared that Israeli society is suffering from disconnection from itself and from apathy and a lack of understanding for the other side. They shared that many Israelis want
peace, not war, but distrust the intentions of the Palestinians.

Humility

It often seemed during the course of our meetings that the Plum Village community felt we were doing something huge, and people would come to offer us encouragement, at times
with a sense of euphoria. Some of us in the group felt overwhelmed by this attention. We were not capable of shifting the whole Middle East, we were very simple people having an
encounter. So there was a sense of humility with regards to the impact of our small efforts in the face of a giant problem.

The pace was also humbling. When we first arrived, we wanted to plunge right into the intense issues and get right to the core of the conflict. But we were told to focus on the practice, to walk mindfully, to eat mindfully. People in the group were frustrated. “Do they understand? ” someone asked. “There is all emergency situation in the Middle East and we only have two weeks here. I know the practice is important but we don’t have much time. ”

When we asked Sister Chan Khong and others how to mobilize ourselves, we were told to practice, to deepen our relationship as a Sangha. We wanted to be guided in terms of
strategies or social action and all we were told was to walk mindfully and practice. Over and over we were told to slow down. I began to sense that they were giving us a very important key, born out of tremendous depth of wisdom. We were being told that if we were not centered ourselves, if we did not have peace in ourselves, then there was no
way we could bring stability and peace to the world around us.

– Azriel Cohen, July 2001

The Olive Tree

The olive tree symbolizes peace. Planting the olive tree together is an expression of our confidence that Peace Begins in oneself, and that through the path of understanding and
love a future is possible for the Israelis and the Palestinian people. Indeed, the olive tree that we planted died. We took from this a good lesson, that is relevant to our activities with
the Palestinians – a baby tree needs extra protection.
– Jonathan Arazy, Jerusalem Israel

Brother Pbap Minh, True Light of the Dharma, kept another baby olive tree, also brought from Israel, in the Upper Hamlet. It was kept in a pot indoors by a window with warm sunshine during the cold and wet winter months. This baby tree is now sending out many fresh new leaves.

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Poem: Contemplation

Since the moon is full tonight,
let us call upon the stars in prayer.
the power of concentration,
seen through the bright, one-pointed mind,
is shaking the universe.

All living beings
are present
tonight
to witness the
ocean of fear
flooding the
Earth.

Upon the sound of
the midnight bell,
everyone in
the ten directions
joins hands
and enters the
meditation on
Mahakaruna.

Compassion
springs from the
heart,
as pure, refreshing
water
healing the
wounds of life.

From the highest
peak of the Mind
Mountain,
the blessed water
streams down,
penetrating rice
fields and orange groves.

The poisonous snake drinks
a drop of this nectar
from the tip of a blade of green grass,
and the poison on its tongue vanishes.

Mara’s arrows
are transformed
info fragrant flowers.

The wondrous action of the healing water—
a mysterious transformation!
A child now holds the snake in her innocent arms.

Leaves are still green in the ancient garden.
The shimmering sunlight
smiles on the snow,
and the sacred spring
still flows towards the East.

On Avalokita’s
willow branch,
or in my heart,
the healing water
is the same.

Tonight all weapons
fall at our feet
and turn to dust.

One flower,
two flowers
millions of little flowers
appear in the green fields.

The gate of
deliverance opens
with a smile on the lips
of my innocent child.

Thich Nhat Hanah, 1965

This is a metta (love) meditation to produce the balm of amirita (immortality) that can transform our hearts and the world. Mahakaruna is the mind of love that has the capacity to relieve the suffering of many living beings.

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A Guided Meditation for Listening Deeply

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

One morning when I woke up in Green Mountain Dharma Center I remembered a dream I had had which made me feel ill at ease. In that dream l had a serious difficulty with a sister, but in waking life I did not feel I had a difficulty with that sister. I pondered where the dream might have come from and remembered a meeting of the Sangha a few days before. I had felt unhappy after that meeting. During the meeting the sister bad spoken quite vehemently about her wishes implying that the sisters should all comply. At the end of the day everything had been resolved to the satisfaction of everyone in the Sangha, or so l thought. I felt very light and content. However that sister who bad spoken so vehemently had not felt content and she had come to me in my dream to tell me so a few days later.

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When I woke up from the dream, it was such a beautiful day but I felt so tired. I lay on my bed breathing and fortunately it was lazy day, the day with no schedule. The birds were singing wholeheartedly and I remembered the lines in the shorter Amitayus Sutra:

“Furthermore Shariputra, in Sukbavati you can always see different species of birds of many varied wonderful colors. Like the white crane, the peacock, the oriole, the egret, the kavalinkara and the jivanjiva bird. Six times every day these birds sing with harmonious and sweet sounds. In the song of the birds people can hear teachings on different Dharma doors such as the Five Faculties, the Five Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment and the Noble Eightfold Path. When the people in this land bear the teaching in the form of bird song their minds are in perfect concentration and they come back to practicing mindfulness of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.”

I opened my heart to the Dharma talk of those New England birds, or should I say those Pure Land birds. For they were singing the Dharma just as wholeheartedly as the birds are reported to do in the sutra. They were singing: loving kindness, compassion, maitri, karuna; it’s in your heart. You can practice it. As l lay on my bed I practiced those teachings. Breathing in, l know you suffer. Breathing out, l embrace you in my heart. I embrace you just as you are without any expectation that you should be different. I embrace you because you are my Dharma sister, the daughter of our teacher.

That is how we practice on our own when we have a difficulty with someone. When we meet them again we watch how we respond to them. Can we feel the same love and compassion that we felt for them when we were meditating on our own? If so, we have resolved the difficulty as long as they are as at ease with us as we are with them. lf when we meet again we see that there are obstructions still lying between us, we need to organize a session of Beginning Anew when we can sit down and practice deep listening to each other.

When we come to listen deeply to the other we do not need to rest in our head. We can bring our attention down to our belly and, as we follow our breathing, listen as if we were listening to a piece of music. It may not be the most soothing music but we listen all the same. Bringing our attention to the movement of our abdomen as we breathe in and out is the way to practice with any strong emotion whether it be our own or that of the other person.

Help from the Tree

The day after the meeting I was practicing walking meditation. Breathing in, I know I am sad. Breathing out, I embrace my sadness. I walked along the lovely tree-lined driveway to the Green Mountain Dharma Center. It was such a beautiful day that if I had not been sad I would have been in paradise. I recognized that but did not try to push my sadness away. As the Buddha teaches in the Discourse on the Middle Way: The practitioner knows that when suffering has the causes and conditions to arise it arises, and when the causes and conditions for its existence arc no longer there it ceases. We recognize that our sadness is caused by many different conditions, so many that we would probably never be able to count them. We are inclined to place the blame for our sadness on just one or two things, but that is a very narrow view.

Lining that driveway are many tall, straight maple trees topped with leafy green. I hugged one of them and it felt so good. I put my cheek on the rough bark and embraced the tree for many minutes. The wind was blowing hard, and looking up to the top of the tree I could see it swaying energetically. As I felt the trunk again, there was an almost imperceptible movement: a little rocking from side to side, which at first I had not even noticed. It was like the movement of a boat on a calm sea or a mother quietly lulling her child to sleep. It entered my heart and became part of me. That is what Thay means when he tells us to return to the trunk of our tree in times of strong emotions! Now I knew how the trunk of a tree feels in a strong wind and I could practice it for myself.

When we listen deeply to someone who has a difficulty with us we can be the trunk of the tree for them as we follow our breathing in our abdomen. At first we listen to someone who is suffering because we have been told that is the correct practice to do. We may feel we do not want to listen. As we continue to sit there and follow our breathing using this exercise, we see that compassion begins to ooze out of our heart. If we have used this exercise before, when we begin to listen to the other person we may start out with compassion. However life is always unexpected. We never know in advance what the wrong perceptions of the other person may be or how strongly they may be voiced. So as we listen we may begin to lose our compassion. At that point we use the guided exercise outlined below to help us restore our compassion. If we cannot restore our compassion we should join our palms and quietly ask for an adjournment of the session or a sound of the bell to give us space for conscious breathing. Once when I was facilitating a session of Beginning Anew in a difficult situation I said to the practitioner who was listening: “If at any time you feel that you are losing your compassion put your hand on my knee and we can take a break.” At one point that happened and I asked: “Do you want to adjourn?” and the person replied: ”No, I just need to breathe for a few moments.” He practiced like that and we resumed with good results for both parties.

Something people do not always know is that when we have listened to someone express the suffering they feel we have caused them, although we do not reply for at least another three days, we can at least say we are sorry. It is a good way to finish the session and our practice probably gives us enough humility to do this. Even if we feel the other person has not suffered because of what we said or did but because of his or her wrong perceptions, we can still say: “I am so sorry. I never wanted you to suffer. Please forgive my lack of skill.” We have to admit that we are not 100% skillful.

Listening to Heal Misunderstandings

This exercise is to help us prepare ourselves before we listen deeply to someone with whom we have a misunderstanding. It can also be practiced while we are listening to the other person. If we have already practiced this exercise before we sit down with the person who needs us to listen deeply to them we shall be able to use the suitable parts of the meditation whenever we feel we need them, to keep concentration and compassion present in our hearts.

The Buddha advises us not to identify ourselves with what is not ours. If we see the gardener making a pile of sticks to burn and we identify ourselves with the sticks we shall suffer. Similarly we should not identify ourselves with the wrong perceptions someone may have concerning us. However, wrong perceptions have their basis in the consciousness of a person and lead that person to suffer.  Our task as a practitioner is to embrace that person and their suffering in our heart. As we listen deeply to someone, we can continuously remind ourselves that this person is suffering and worthy of our compassion rather than our hate. The suffering of that person is very real and has its basis in traumas and difficulties, which that person has experienced in the past.

Breathing in I know that I am breathing in,   (In)
Breathing out I know that I am breathing out.   (Out)

Breathing in I calm my body,   (Calm)
Breathing out I smile   (Smile)

Breathing in I know I have suffered,   (My suffering)
Breathing out I smile with compassion   (Compassionate smile)

Breathing in I know you have suffered   (Your suffering)
Breathing out I smile with compassion   (Compassionate smile)

Breathing in I know we both suffer   (Our suffering)
Breathing out I want us both to have a new chance   (A new chance)

Breathing in I listen  (Listening)
Breathing out I hear  (Hearing)

Breathing in I hear your bitterness   (Bitterness)
Breathing out I embrace you in my heart   (Embrace you)

Breathing in I hear your wrong perception   (Wrong perception)
Breathing out I do not burn with anger  (Not burning)

Breathing in I know I have made you suffer   (You suffered)
Breathing out I am sorry   (I am sorry)

Breathing in I open my heart   (Opening my heart)
Breathing out in my heart there is room for you  (Room for you)

Breathing in I want to be happy  (My happiness)
Breathing out I want you to be happy   (Your happiness)

Breathing in I see us happy   (Our happiness)
Breathing out that is all I want   (Is all I want)

This exercise was used during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in June 2002 in the New Hamlet. A retreat is always an excellent time to practice Beginning Anew. Many of us may come from the same local Sangha to a faraway country to attend a large retreat. We may see that one of the members of our Sangha with whom we have an unresolved difficulty is also practicing with us in the retreat. Our local Sangha wants us to begin anew because they know that if two of us are not happy the whole Sangha cannot be happy. There are monks, nuns and skilled lay practitioners at the retreat who are able to help us in the Beginning Anew process.  If we practice in the retreat setting, the energy of collective mindfulness and concentration can be a tremendous support for us.

Sister True Virtue is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, US.A. She enjoys writing and translating and spending time with her younger sisters.

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Poem: A Prayer for Peace

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In beauty, sitting on a lotus flower,
is Lord Buddha, quiet and solid.
Your humble disciple,
calm and pure of heart,
forms a lotus flower with his hands,
faces you with deep respect,
and offers this heartfelt prayer:

Homage to all Buddhas in the ten directions.
Because of your love for all people,
have compassion on us.
Help us remember we are just one family,
North and South, [East and West.]
Help us rekindle our compassion and brotherhood,
and transform our seperate interests
into loving acceptance for all.
May your compassion help us overcome our hatred.
May Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva’s love
help the flowers bloom again in the soil of our country.
Humbly, we open our hearts to you,
so you may help us transform our karma
and water the flowers of our spirits.
With your deep understanding,
help our hearts grow light.

Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha
whose great vows and compassion inspire us.
I am determined to cultivate only thoughts
that increase trust and love,
to use my hands to perform only deeds
that build community,
to speak only words of harmony and aid.

Thich Nhat Hanh, 1965

This is an extract from a poem/prayer written by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1965.  It was used throughout South Vietnam in the “Don’t Shoot Your Own Brother” campaign to rouse the willingness to work for peace.  It was chanted and sung by young people as a means to unite their hearts and efforts to continue the work for peace.  Thich Nhat Hanh shares, “This chant aims at reconciliation and stopping the war.  It was a powerful way of working for communication.  This is something we can share with our Western friends.”

Found in Call Me By My True Names (Berkeley: Parallax, 1999)

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Letter from the Editor

mb35-EditorTo Our Readers

The practice of compassion is not for the faint-hearted; it takes great courage to keep our eyes open to the suffering all around us without shutting down.

In the first Dharma talk at the retreat in Estes Park, Colorado last summer, Thich Nhat Hanh began, saying, “It’s lovely to see the Sangha body manifesting herself.” What you hold in your hands, dear reader, is another manifestation of the Sangha body. Every conscious breath, every step in mindfulness that each of us takes, contributes to the collective insight offered in these pages.

Lately I’ve been in the midst of several loved ones who are experiencing physical and emotional difficulties. I feel a growing daily awareness of their sadness and pain. My interactions with them have been both greatly challenging and rewarding. The day after the Colorado retreat, I unexpectedly left to help my aging and almost home-bound parents for three weeks. During that time, I felt myself being carried on the wave of practice generated by the Sangha in Colorado. As a result, my heart was able to stay open, and compassion led me into a new, soft and tender expression of love for my parents. I was able to give them my best—my presence. Through this experience, I see what a great teacher compassion is for me—giving me a way to be in the world, my heart breaking open every day to the sweetness of this life. The practice of compassion is not for the faint-hearted; it takes great courage to keep our eyes open to the suffering all around us without shutting down.

“Leading with Courage and Compassion” was the subject of Thay’s teachings to U.S. Congress members. A section on these memorable events includes questions and answers at the public talk, and notes from a journalist/ practitioner.

We learn about another aspect of the practice of compassion from Never Disparaging Bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra. Thay leads us through this teaching, showing us that we all have the capacity to realize our Buddha nature, and the responsibility to encourage others to have faith in their ability to become enlightened.

Also in this issue, the Sangha body has manifested as:  inspiration from nature, including a breathtaking photo collection, and a story with haiku from two writer/environmentalists; a guided tour in story and photo from a trip of practitioners to war torn Israel; a teaching from senior nun Sister Jina, offering many concrete ways to deepen our daily practice; the story of a mindfulness psychotherapy clinic in Ottowa, Canada and ways to practice with our bodies and with pain; a letter from the mountains of Vietnam, asking for our assistance, as well as many other fruits of practice from Sangha members throughout the world.

Please consider offering the fruits of your practice to the worldwide Sangha through the Mindfulness Bell.

With this issue, we welcome a new graphic designer to our pages. Lien Ho, our tireless designer of ads and posters, subscription manager, and all around business administrator, is now designing the Mindfulness Bell. Lien is a treasure of the Sangha; she is a rare orchid that seems to never stop blooming, even in the most desolate of conditions. I look forward to seeing her gentle care and her professional hand add her touch of beauty to the magazine. Sr. Steadiness continues on the editorial team, as she lets go of the primary design tasks.

As this issue goes to press, the winter retreat will soon be upon us. When I first heard about the chance to be with Thay and the entire monastic community during this time, my heart knew that, for me, it may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one not to be missed if at all possible. To spend ten weeks nestled in the arms of the Sangha, letting the safety generated have its way with my heart, was an offer I just couldn’t let pass. To witness the loveliness of the Sangha body manifesting herself. Please join us, if you can.

In gratitude,

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Barbara Casey

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Letter from the Editor

Editor-NBDear Thay, dear Sangha,

One of the threads connecting the articles in this issue is the concept of volition. Our volition is our deepest desire. According to the Buddha, it is one of the four nutriments––sources of energy, or food. Our volition fuels us to do what we most want to do. Thay says, “To generate understanding and compassion, to be truly happy and to be able to help many people: that is good volition, good intention.” When it’s rooted in loving kindness, our wholesome volition can be a wonderful agent of change.

Thay’s Dharma talk teaches about volition as a framework for understanding our use of technology. This talk raises deep questions: Are we turning to email or Facebook to fill a void, to tune out our suffering? Are we at the mercy of our habit of going after pleasure? Thay urges us to examine our motivations and volition. Because of our unwholesome intentions and dangerous use of technology, he says, civilization is heading in the wrong direction. But he explains that if someone has bodhicitta, or the mind of love, nourishing his volition, then “he can reverse the trend of civilization.”

Sister Annabel, senior editor of the Mindfulness Bell, kindly shared her insights after reading the articles in this issue: “Our volition in the form of bodhicitta is always there in every one of us. It only needs to be uncovered and kept alive by the practice. Suffering is very important in helping us learn to uncover our mind of love. If we know how to handle our suffering, it will lead to the feeling of compassion for our self and others.”

The connection between bodhicitta and suffering is very alive in this issue’s stories by war veterans and their loved ones. These writers have been to some of the darkest places. They show how awakening into a volition of loving kindness has taken their lives in a whole new direction, one of awareness and commitment to service. For example, Jeff Nielsen’s article describes his harrowing times in war and his tireless work to reverse the legacy of war. In an email about it, he emphasized, “Again, my article is not about me. But, about the consequences of war, all war.” A volition that arises from compassion and inspires service is intensely personal and inseparable from the collective.

Contributor Beth Howard tells how she has been deepening her practice of peace as her sons have been deployed in military service. Sister Annabel observes, “The practice of Howard is also to see that her sons’ engagement in war is what keeps alive her compassion and peace work. Her sons’ being in the army does not bring about the desire to destroy those who want to go to war, because that is a kind of war in itself. As a mother she has a deep desire that no son will ever go to war and she does everything she can to make that possible and trusts that it will be possible. That is the most nourishing kind of volition food.”

May these offerings open our hearts and inspire us to nourish our true nature of compassion, our mind of love.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

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Book Reviews

mb66-BookReviews1Zen Battles
Modern Commentary on the Teachings of Master Linji

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2013
Softcover, 266 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

This re-issue of Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are, originally published in 2007 by the Unified Buddhist Church, is lightly edited, re-titled, re-designed, and refreshed. It is curious that the publishers chose the title Zen Battles, as Thay and all of his students in the Order of Interbeing are well known for gentleness, peace, and reconciliation. So the word “Battle” in the title is not meant in the usual sense. While in Master Linji’s teachings, the master often strikes his students and sometimes shouts at them, we can absorb these teachings as a metaphor, much like the sword-wielding bodhisattva Manjushri who has the capacity to cut through our bonds of delusion. Thay tells us that the spirit of our Zen ancestor, Master Linji, is in everything we are taught and everything we do.

Born during the Tang dynasty in ninth-century China during a time of political unrest and repression of Buddhism, Linji studied with a recluse master and gradually developed his signature direct and dramatic teaching style: “If something has arisen, do not try to make it continue. If something has not arisen, do not try to make it arise. This action is more valuable than ten years’ pilgrimage.”

Reading these cases is like cracking a code. Yet it cannot be done with the mind. Each case presented by the author is a koan. First, we encounter Thay’s translation of twenty-three of Linji’s teachings, known as the Record of Linji, followed by the bulk of the book, Thay’s commentary on each of the cases. The author suggests we first read through Linji’s teachings completely, then repair to the commentaries.

Master Linji emphasizes that his insight was not with him from the time he took birth, “…but came about through polishing, refining, training, experience and investigation, and then one day I broke through to the truth.” Eventually, Master Linji let go of his studies in order to follow true Zen practice. The wonderful irony is that we read the book so we can throw the book away.

There is one paragraph in this book that is the only Dharma talk you’ll ever need. I leave it to the reader to find that paragraph for herself.

mb66-BookReviews2The Mindfulness Survival Kit
Five Essential Practices

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2014
Softcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Awakening

Kits contain tools useful to a particular purpose. So too, The Mindfulness Survival Kit is filled with tools to help us practice with the Five Mindfulness Trainings and explore how they can be meaningful and useful in our lives.

The book first examines the historical background of the Five Mindfulness Trainings—the Plum Village version of the five precepts given by the Buddha. Having rooted readers historically, Thich Nhat Hanh then invites us to let go of any attachment to these practices as Buddhist concepts or dogma. Instead, he encourages readers to five ways to practice with the trainings that transcend divisive labels. “One of the deepest causes of our suffering,” he writes, “is our insistence on seeing reality in a dualistic way and our attachment to our beliefs.” Throughout the book, he invites the reader to use these trainings diligently, mindfully, and openly, “with an awareness of your capacity and of what is possible.”

The book examines each training individually, including commentary from Thay’s experience, as well as specific practices for the reader. Each commentary examines the training’s purpose, reminding us that practice is more than memorization and that we engage these practices for our own healing and for healing the world. Thay show us ways that he envisions such healing, and invites us to be open to new ways of practicing with each training and to explore these ways individually and within community. His commentaries show the interweaving of the trainings and the interbeing nature of all life.

The second part of the book is a study of comparative ethics and the mindfulness trainings. Here, Thay offers details about different ethics structures as a way of exploring how the Five Mindfulness Trainings fit with other structures and how we might practice with them. Again, he invites us to connect with others, not to set ourselves apart by labels and dogma.

Thay’s earlier commentary on the trainings, For a Future to Be Possible, included commentaries from many practitioners. I had found a great deal of meaning and support in this material and thought I’d miss it here. When I finished this rich book, however, I rejoiced that Thay repeatedly encouraged us to explore these practices, individually and as communities. And I recognized that the earlier commentaries were just one method of such collective sharing.

It is easy to lose oneself in a book, to think all the “answers” lie between its covers, that all we need do is read and understand the wisdom there. In The Mindfulness Survival Kit, Thay doesn’t let us off so easily. Instead, this toolkit offers guidance as a map might, and holds a light up for us to find our own ways to make these trainings come to life.

mb66-BookReviews3In the Garden of Our Minds and Other Buddhist Stories

By Michelle L. Johnson-Weider (White Lotus of the Source)
Softcover, 108 pages
Blue Moon Aurora, LLC, 2013

Reviewed by Sandra Diaz

In the Garden of Our Minds and Other Buddhist Stories is a collection of children’s stories that bring traditional Buddhist teachings into the context of modern life through the lens of a western Buddhist family of four.

Five of the seven stories introduce classic tales from the Buddha’s life and teachings in a way that illuminates modern-day issues. When Mama tells the story “Prince Siddhartha Renounces the Throne,” the children, Briana and Alex, have a chance to explore what constitutes true happiness.

In “Fighting the Demon Mara,” the story of how the Buddha overcame doubt is transformed into a lesson about dealing with difficult emotions. “Mara is a name we give to the emotions that make it hard for us to do the right thing,” Mama explains.

“The Value of Persistence, the Story of Mahaprajapati” demonstrates perseverance and creative problem solving. Mahaprajapati, a follower of the Dharma, successfully convinced the Buddha to ordain women as nuns despite his original resistance to the idea. This story helps Briana to discover that “Persistence, determination, and allies can help you succeed in almost any situation if you have a worthy goal.”

“The Doorway of Death” tells the story of Kisagotami, a mother who begged the Buddha to bring her dead son back to life. The story brings valuable perspective to the topic of grieving and fear of death by encouraging us to fully appreciate this life while we have it.

“Lessons in Stopping” is the story of Angulimala, a murderer who renounced violence to become a monk and follow the Buddha’s teachings. Mama tells this story to demonstrate to Briana, who gets in trouble for talking in class, that “we can stop doing any bad action, even really really bad actions, once we make the decision to start acting correctly.”

The title piece, “In the Garden of Our Minds,” takes us through a Thich Nhat Hanh-inspired guided meditation in which children think of good qualities they have cultivated and imagine them as fl wers in a garden.

In the final story, “A Visit with Rinpoche,” the family goes to hear a Dharma talk by a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. The children’s questions provide an opportunity to explore the complexities of being Buddhist in a mostly non-Buddhist society. Briana and Alex are inspired by the teacher’s description of a bodhisattva as “a great hero who lives with a heart of love for all sentient beings.”

In the Garden of Our Minds includes a glossary of Buddhist terms, as well as a section called “Conversations with Children,” which offers questions designed to spur discussion. This book is a simple but entertaining way to teach children about the Dharma in a home or classroom setting. Colorful illustrations by Brian Chen show an interesting mix of scenes of modern family life as well as from the time of the Buddha. Even though the book is designed for children, adults will find it an enjoyable way to learn about the Buddha’s teachings.

mb66-BookReviews4Teaching Clients to Use Mindfulness Skills
A Practical Guide

By Christine Dunkley and Maggie Stanton
Routledge, 2014
Softcover, 104 pages

Reviewed by Miriam Goldberg

Don’t let the title fool you. This book is a gem of mindfulness practice for everyone. Consistent with engaged Buddhism, it demonstrates deep listening, mindful speech, and right diligence, foundations of healthy Sangha practice.

For readers interested in teaching mindfulness, the book offers an organized sequence with “key tasks” and “stylistic factors” noted at the end of each chapter. For experienced practitioners, the five exercises on sensation and perception may be a review, but their variety and explanations support fresh eyes and the more complex practices that follow. Therapists and anyone interested in the intrapsychic value and effects of mindfulness will find concise descriptions and applications to some challenging habits of mind. Everyone can benefit from the authors’ focus on mindfulness in daily life to experience present moment, wonderful moment.

The book begins with definitions of mindfulness, a psychological context, and resources—from books and TV shows to recent research. All the practices suggested in the book address mindfulness as an experience of purposeful, present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness that helps us choose where we focus our attention and how we relate to experience while cultivating acceptance, compassion, and open inquiry in our thoughts, speech, and actions. With many examples of therapist-client interactions and commentaries that show kind and respectful inquiry, presence, and reflection, the authors demonstrate deep listening and mindful speech.

Buddhist instruction includes mindfulness of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and breath. The authors here succinctly address the seldom-mentioned problems of teaching mindfulness of the breath to people who have a history of trauma or anxiety. Step by step, they show us how to bring clarity and compassion— rather than blame, shame, defensiveness, and/or denial—to our mental logjams and emotional upheavals. Their approach to habit-driven thoughts and emotions focuses on the thoughts that fuel the emotions. This is one effective way to cool down heated responses. Its success, however, is rooted in the underlying equanimity, compassion, and understanding consistent with Thay’s teachings to hold in mindfulness those parts of ourselves that get activated and need our steadiness.

In later chapters, the authors help us move from habit to choice and pick the best modality for a given moment. We can water mindfulness with emotion mind or reason mind, doing mode or being mode, internal or external focus, thoughts or feelings or sensations, and by recognizing effectiveness and using wise mind.

This book is not a quick read. Whether it is taken a chapter at a time, example by example, or straight through, one can absorb an approach to mindful awareness that can open transformation at the base, bring compassionate eyes to oneself and others, cultivate inclusiveness—rather than divisiveness, comparison, or isolation—and nourish communities with understanding and love.

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Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

mb42-dharma1Good afternoon, dear Sangha. In the teachings of Christianity and Judaism there is the Kingdom of God. In Buddhism we speak about Buddha Land, the Buddha Field. You might like to call it the Kingdom of the Buddha. In Plum Village we say that the Kingdom of God is now or never, and this is our practice.

In Plum Village the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, is not just an idea. It’s something you can taste, you can touch, you can live in your daily life. It is possible to recognize the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, when it is there.

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In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Land or the Pure Land is a practice center where the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas are teachers and all of us are practitioners.

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

To practice is to bring about more understanding and compassion. Happiness would not be possible without understanding and compassion.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding, there is compassion, and where all of us can learn to be more understanding and more compassionate. On this we agree.

But there is something else that we should agree about also—whether there is suffering in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

If we take the time to look deeply, we see that understanding and compassion arise from suffering. Understanding is the understanding of suffering, and compassion is the kind of energy that can transform suffering. If suffering is not there, we have no means to cultivate our understanding and our compassion. This is something quite simple to see.

If you come to Plum Village in the summertime, you see many lotus flowers. Without the mud the lotus flowers cannot grow. You cannot separate lotus flowers from the mud. It is the same with understanding and love. These are two kinds of flowers that grow on the ground of suffering.

I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because I know that in such a place my children will have no chance to develop their compassion and understanding. I don’t know whether my friends who come from the background of Christianity or Judaism can accept this—that in the Kingdom of God there is suffering—but in Buddhist teaching it is clear that suffering and happiness inter-are. Where there is no suffering there is no happiness either. We know from our own experiences that it is impossible to cultivate more understanding and compassion if suffering isn’t there. It is with the mud that we can make flowers. It is with the suffering that we can make compassion and understanding.

A Logical Proposition

I can accept, and many friends of mine can accept, that there is suffering in the Pure Land, in the Buddha Field, because we need suffering in order to cultivate our understanding and compassion, which is very essential for the Pure Land, for the Kingdom of God. We learn from suffering. If we are capable of cultivating understanding, that’s because of suffering. If you are able to cultivate compassion, that is because of the existence of suffering.

I think it is very important to re-examine our notion of the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, and no longer think that it is a place where there is absolutely no suffering. Logically, it is impossible.

Many of us think of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, as something that belongs to the future, after this life. In terms of time and space, the Kingdom of God is far away.

I remember about forty years ago when I first went to the United States to speak about the war in Vietnam. I was invited by many groups, and I remember speaking in a church in the vicinity of Philadelphia where the majority of practitioners were black people. I said that the Kingdom of God is right now, right here, and you don’t have to die in order to step into the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be very alive in order to step into it. For me being alive is to be mindful, to be concentrated, to be free. That is the kind of passport you need to be allowed into the Kingdom of God: mindfulness, concentration, freedom.

If you belong to the population of the Kingdom of God, you are a practitioner because you are producing understanding and love in your daily life. That makes the Kingdom of God continue to be the Kingdom of God. If the population of the Kingdom does not practice understanding and love, they lose the Kingdom in two seconds because the essence of the Kingdom is understanding and love.

It’s very easy to visualize the Kingdom of the Buddha as a practice center where there are dharma teachers teaching us, helping us to cultivate understanding and compassion. Everyone enjoys the practice, because as they produce more understanding and compassion, they suffer less. They are capable of transforming suffering into compassion, into understanding, into happiness. The practice in Plum Village is to experience the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, in our daily life.

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

Of course, you can say that the Kingdom is now, it is here, but that’s not enough. We have to help the Kingdom to manifest. Without mindfulness, concentration, and a little bit of freedom we cannot do so.

The Kingdom of God is situated in our cerebral cortex, in our mind.

Most of us have a computer, a Microsoft PC or Apple Macintosh, and many of us just use our computer to do some work like word-processing or checking the stock market. But the average PC or Macintosh can do much more than that. We use only about ten percent of that capacity. If we know how to make use of the other capacities of the computer, we can do a lot of things.

The same is true with our cerebral cortex, with our mind and our spirit. If you know how to use the powerful energy of understanding and compassion, you can process many difficult problems of daily life. There is a very powerful computer within, and we should learn how to use that computer properly for us to be able to deal with the daily situations that make us suffer.

The Buddha proposed that we practice according to the Noble Eightfold Path. If we follow his instructions to practice right view, right thinking, right speech, and right action, we’ll be able to explore the vast territory of our mind and allow these wonderful powers to come and rescue us. In fact, we limit ourselves in a very small circle. Our thinking is very narrow, and that is why we suffer much more than a Buddha or a bodhisattva.

The Power of Right Thinking

We think all the time, and many of our thoughts are not very positive; they make us into a victim of negative thinking. When you say, “I’m good for nothing,” that is the kind of thought that has the power to make you suffer. “I can never finish that. I cannot meditate. I cannot forgive. I am in despair. I will never succeed in doing that.” Or, “He wants to destroy me. I am not loved by anyone.” This kind of thinking is not what the Buddha called right thinking.

In us there is the capacity of understanding and of loving. Because we are not accustomed to touching the ground of understanding and compassion, we cannot produce wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

Suppose your friend, or your brother or sister does not understand you. Suppose you think that your teacher does not love you. When you entertain that kind of thought, you suffer. That thought may not correspond at all to reality. You continue to ruminate upon that thought and other thoughts of the same kind, and very soon you fall into a state of depression because you are not practicing right thinking.

“My brother must have said something about me to my teacher. That is why this morning he did not look at me.” Your thinking may be totally wrong, and you have to be aware of the fact that your thought is just a thought. It is not the reality.

If you think, “My teacher doesn’t understand me, but I am capable of helping him to understand me,” that is a positive thought. You are no longer a victim.

The Buddha proposed the practice of right thinking. During sitting meditation or during the time of working, thoughts like that might arise, but you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of negative thoughts. You just allow them to come and you recognize them. This is a thought, and this thought is just a thought; it’s not reality. Later on you might write it down on a piece of paper, and you have a look at it. When you are capable of recognizing your thought, you are no longer a victim of it. You are yourself, even if these thoughts are negative.

The Territories of the Mind

A thought does not arise from nothing. There is a ground from which it arises. In our mind there is fear, anger, worry, misunderstanding. And a thought might arise from these territories.

But in our mind there is also the vast territory of compassion, of understanding. You might get in touch with the Kingdom of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in your mind. Then these territories will give rise to many wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

When you recognize a thought, you may like to smile to it and ask the question, on what ground has this thought been produced? You don’t have to work hard. You just smile to your thought, and you now recognize that the thought has arisen from the territory of wrong perception, fear, anger, or jealousy. When you are able to produce a thought that goes in the direction of understanding and love, in the direction of right thinking, that thought will have an immediate effect on your physical and mental health. And at the same time it has an effect on the health of the world.

When you produce a negative thought that has arisen from your fear, anger, or pessimism, such as, “I’m not worth anything, I cannot do anything, my life is a failure,” that kind of thought will have a very bad effect on your mental and physical health. The practice offered by the Buddha is not to suppress this negative thought, but to be aware. “This is a negative thought. I allow it to be recognized.” When you are able to recognize that thought you reach a degree of freedom because you are no longer a victim of that thought.

But if you are not a practitioner, you continue to ruminate about the negative situation and that will make you fall into a state of depression.

To recognize the presence of a thought or feeling is very important. That is the basic practice of a practitioner of meditation. You do not try to suppress the feelings and the thoughts. You allow your feelings and your thoughts to manifest. But you have to be there in order to recognize their presence. In so doing, you are cultivating your freedom.

In our daily life we may allow these thoughts and feelings to appear, and we are not capable of recognizing their presence. Because of that we become the victim of these thoughts and feelings and emotions. We get lost in the realm of feelings and thoughts and perceptions because we are not truly present. The practice is to stay present in the here and the now and to witness what is going on, to examine it, to be aware. That is the practice of freedom.

Being on Automatic Pilot

We are accustomed to allowing our mind to chase after the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. Our thoughts follow this habit pattern: running, following, searching for the pleasant; and trying to run away, to avoid the unpleasant. Because of that we lose all our freedom. We do not know that we are running after something and trying to avoid something. We are carried away by our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.

Imagine an airplane on automatic pilot. The plane can reach its destination, can do the things that it has been asked to do, with no need for any human being on the plane. Very often we behave like that. We are on automatic pilot. We are not present to witness what is happening. The practice that is proposed by the Buddha is to be there, to stay present, to be truly alive. You know the value of each thought, of each feeling, of all your perceptions. You know that there are territories you have not discovered within yourself. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. You want to be yourself. You don’t want to be on automatic pilot.

Every time a thought, feeling, or emotion arises, you want to be there to control the situation. You don’t want to be carried away. You smile to your thinking, to your feelings, to your emotions. You don’t want to react right away because the habit energy in you pushes you to respond right away to the feelings, to the emotions, to the thought that just arose. This is extremely important.

You tell yourself: “Well, this is a thought, this is a feeling, this is an emotion. I know they are in me, but I am not just that thought, that feeling, that emotion. I’m much more than that. I have a treasure of understanding, compassion, love, wisdom in me, and I want these elements to come forward to help me to sort out this situation, to help me to be on the right path.”

You give yourself the time to breathe in and out. You don’t hurry to react or take action. And while you are breathing in and out you give the wonderful positive elements within yourself a chance to intervene.

There is a computer within us, and this computer has a lot of power. If you know how to make use of this power you can transform the situation. You can bring a lot of light, joy, and compassion into the situation. By not allowing yourself to be carried away, you give yourself an alternative perspective from which you can see things more clearly. You are not in a hurry to react, to jump to a conclusion. You just become aware of the situation, what is manifesting in you and around you. The practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking gives you space, which allows the positive elements to intervene. You allow the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in you to have a chance.

Within us there is a territory of depression, a territory of hell, and our negative thinking and emotions spin out from these territories. But we know that in us there is also the territory of the Kingdom of God, of the Buddha Land. There is the powerful seed of compassion and wisdom in us. If we give them a chance, they can come and rescue us.

The Way Out of Depression

We have the power to recognize our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions. We don’t have to suppress them. But we want to have the time and space to look at them and recognize them as they are. This is the basic practice. To do that we have to stay present in the here and the now. Very often our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere. Our children do not feel that we are truly present.

Whenmb42-dharma3 you come to a house and you want to meet someone in the house, you ask, “Is anyone home?” And if someone said, “Yes,” then you’d be happy. You don’t want to go to a house where there is no one.

Very often we are not home. We are lost in our thinking, our worries, our projects, our anxiety, our fear. We are completely lost. We are not there to be aware of what is going on. The practice offered to us by the Buddha is not to be on automatic pilot, but the practice of conscious, mindful living.

If you are depressed or if you are afraid that you will fall back into depression, this is the way out. If you can stay present, if you can identify the kind of feelings and thoughts that are responsible for your depression, you can be free. You know that this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling will cause a relapse, and that awareness is the beginning of the healing, of your freedom. You are not afraid. If you are truly present, you can allow the difficult materials to come for you to recognize them. And you can do something to invite the wonderful materials to come and to stay with you, to help you to process the materials that you need to process.

The Kingdom of God is not an idea. It is a reality. Every time we are mindful, every time we are concentrated, we can get in touch with the Kingdom of God for our transformation and healing. Of course, hell is there in the present moment, but the Kingdom of God is also there in the present moment, and we have to choose between the two.

A few days ago I said that many people who are born in France have not had a chance to see all the beauties of France as a country. But many of us who come from other countries, we have the chance to enjoy the beauty of France. The fact is that the territory of wisdom and compassion, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha, is available. But we are too concerned with our narrow territory of success and failure, with our daily life and our anger, worries, despair. So we have not had a chance to unlock the door of the Kingdom of God.

The Key to the Door of Happiness

In order to unlock the door of happiness, the door of the Kingdom, the door of compassion and love, we need a key. That key, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the triple training on mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Kingdom of God is a place where we can cultivate insight and compassion.

When you grow corn, you have corn to eat. When you grow wheat, you have wheat to eat. When you grow understanding and compassion, you have compassion and understanding, the ground of your own peace and freedom and happiness. And in order to grow understanding and compassion, we have to be there. Understanding our suffering, anger, and depression is very important. Being aware of suffering and understanding our suffering is the door into the domain of happiness. Unless you understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, you see no path leading to the transformation of suffering into happiness.

The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths. The first one is to be aware of ill-being. By looking deeply into the nature of ill-being, you find the second Noble Truth: the lack of understanding, the lack of compassion.

There is a path leading to suffering: the ignoble path of wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action. There is a path that leads to happiness, the cessation of suffering: the path of right thinking, right view, right speech and right action. We are capable of stopping, of leaving the path of suffering and beginning to take up the path of happiness. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

A New Year’s Resolution

Suppose you look at a brother or a sister and you just had the thought that maybe this brother or sister has said something to Thay, which is why Thay does not look at you this morning. You know that this kind of thinking brings suffering because it is wrong thinking. But if you are aware that this kind of thinking can lead to anger, despair, and hate, you are free. You tell yourself: “I have to produce another thought that is worthy of a practitioner. Thay might have a wrong perception of me, but because he is my teacher I need to help him.”

The truth may be that the teacher has not misunderstood you, but in case he does misunderstand you, you don’t mind because he is your teacher. You can help him to correct his misperception. And with that you have peace, you have love. That kind of thinking brings you happiness. You are not a victim of your thinking.

If you learn to look at people and think like that, you will suffer less right away. You look at your partner, your son, your daughter, your father, with eyes of compassion and understanding. Even if you see a shortcoming in that person, even if that person has said something or has done something that makes you suffer, you’ll say that he or she is a victim of wrong perceptions and you need to help him or her. That kind of thinking will free you from your suffering. You know that with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, you can help him or her to correct the wrong perception.

At the beginning of the talk I said that right thinking—thinking in the direction of understanding and compassion—has a good effect on your physical and mental health and a good effect on the health of the world. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

Maybe the resolution that you would like to make today on the last day of the year 2005 is: “I decide that next year, starting tomorrow, I will learn to produce positive thoughts and practice right thinking. I want my thinking to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Even if the person in front of me is not happy, is acting and speaking from the ground of suffering, I am still capable of producing thoughts in the line of right thinking.”

And when you make such a resolution you are making it on the ground of right view, because right view is the foundation of right thinking.

What Is Right View?

Right view is that everyone has suffering. And if people do not know how to handle their suffering, they will say things or do things that make people around them suffer. As a practitioner, however, you don’t have to suffer, even if the action or speech of another person is negative. If you are capable of touching compassion and right view in yourself, you won’t suffer. You say: “Well, I have to help him. I don’t want to punish him, I want to help him.” That is right thinking. And right thinking makes you feel much, much better. It has a positive effect on your health and the health of the world.

So I make the vow, “I have decided that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2006, I will do my best to practice right thinking.” Right thinking consolidates your right view. Right speech also helps you consolidate right view.

What is right view? When you are fully present in the here and the now, and observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you recognize that they are thoughts, feelings, and emotions; they are not reality. You are not sucked into it. You retain your freedom, and that is very important. Even if a negative thought arises, you are fully present in the here and the now. If you remember that your thought is just a thought, this will allow your wisdom, your compassion to come into action to help you. This will keep you free.

The Buddha is someone made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight bring you freedom. The practice of mindfulness helps you to live your life. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the negative things and to touch the positive things, and we can open the door of the Kingdom of God in us. It is possible for us to touch the wonders of the Kingdom of God all day. The key to the Kingdom is to stay present in the here and the now, and to allow ourselves the time to get in touch deeply with what is going on and not to react right away the way we did in the past.

Tasting the Wonders of Life

There are very concrete things that we like to do that might bring us a lot of happiness and freedom. Whenever I walk, I walk in such a way that each step can bring me freedom. I don’t lose myself in walking. I don’t lose myself in the past or in the future or in my projects while walking. While walking, I want to taste the wonders of life, the wonders of the Kingdom of God. There are those of us who are capable of walking like that.

While breathing, whether in a sitting position or standing position, we may breathe in such a way that we recognize that we are alive, we are present. We can get in touch with the wonders of life.

While eating, we know that we are fully present. It is us who do the work of eating and not the machine. We are not on automatic pilot. We are on conscious living. We are on mindful living.

The greatest success, the most meaningful kind of success is freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. It’s not by going somewhere, or in the future, that we have freedom; it is right here and now. The way to begin is to stay present, to stay alive, to be yourself in every moment.

When you brush your teeth, for instance, you may choose to brush your teeth in such a way that freedom, joy, and happiness are possible. You can be in the Kingdom of God brushing your teeth, or you can be in hell brushing your teeth. It depends on how you live your life.

Freedom is the ground of happiness, and the way of freedom is the way of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness as it is presented in Plum Village is to learn how to live mindfully each moment of our daily life. That kind of training should be continued if you don’t want to fall into the abyss of suffering and depression.

Because we have a Sangha that is practicing mindful living, we are supported by the Sangha. The Sangha that is practicing mindfulness, concentration, and freedom carries within itself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God.

As we gather together on this New Year’s Eve, we become aware that the Sangha is always there for us. We can take refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Sangha means taking refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma. It means to live always in the Pure Land of Buddha, in the Kingdom of God.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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Carts & Koans

By John Beaudry

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I was standing on a narrow sidewalk, bent over, putting a small bandage on a cut my sandal keeps making in the top of my right foot.

The bus that would take us the remaining distance to the island and the temple had not arrived yet. So I had bought some bandages from the small store next to the bus stop.

Standing on the sidewalk, I put my foot on the store step, bent forward and concentrated on ending the little pain that had been present since early that morning when we had begun our journey from the city to the island.

On the first part of the journey, I had been focused on the koan I always carry in my mind. The strain of pushing against the barrier of the koan, of trying to close the space between it and my mind, merged with the irritation of the cut. The pain intensified the always-present feeling that I lacked sufficient ability to break through the barrier of the koan, that breaking through was impossible. Still, I held onto the koan as fiercely as I could.

Now, I finished attaching the bandage to the foot, checked it—and then realized that there was a head next to mine that also seemed to be looking at my foot. I straightened up to see an old, weathered woman standing next to me, bent over forward past a ninety-degree angle, with her hands clasped behind her back. She was trying to pass through the space between the store wall and me and was bent over because she could no longer stand up straight. I took my foot off the step, opening the space wider for her to pass through.

As she walked slowly past and away, I watched her, trying to see the cause of her present condition. The effect of her past struggles had been to push her dangerously beyond the limit of her physical ability. Past suffering had led to present suffering.

Her hands were the highest point on her body, resting way down her lower back almost directly over her legs. Those hands, I speculated, had carried baskets of vegetables, or worked rice fields, or pulled loaded carts behind her. In that moment, though, the hands’ purpose was to provide balance for walking, and to keep the arms out of the way: If she unclasped her hands, her arms would hang down in front of her legs, dead weight with nothing to support them. So, she held her arms and hands as far back as she could and let her legs carry them.

She reminded me of the old men and women in Seoul, where I live, who pull rustic, wooden carts behind them, collecting loads of cardboard and other recyclables, often piling them high above their heads. To me, the weight of the load looks like a lot more than they can handle, pulling the carts up resistant hills, down obstacle-filled alleys, through dangerous street traffic.

When I’m out walking the back road in the mornings, pushing against the barrier of the koan, I pass the cart pullers, often walking in the opposite direction. As we approach each other, their physical struggle is obvious. But there is something else as well, something underneath or behind their suffering that eludes my perception. What is it? In the moment we pass each other I try to cross the space between my understanding and their experience, and I fail.

They walk bent forward, arms behind, hands holding on tightly to the metal bar.

Walking at a slow, determined pace, the cart pullers seem to be concentrating only on the essential: a firm grip, the next step. Looking straight ahead, apparently undistracted by sights and sounds around them, and appearing to rely on intuition to find what they are looking for, they pull against the weight of their load. Are they really that single-minded in their purpose?

To me, their work seems possible only for people of greater physical ability—stronger, younger people. Month after month, on hot days and cold days, they walk their path. It may be that some dare to pity them. But, looking closely at them and seeing what they do, in those fleeting moments, I rediscover compassion and renew awe in my life, the same experience I had upon seeing the old woman who seemed to be looking at my foot.

Connecting to the Source of Compassion

After the old woman passed out of sight the bus came. And soon after that we crossed over the bridge to the island and arrived at the bottom of the road that led up to the temple. We walked up the steep hill at a slow but determined pace, and I noticed as we walked that the bandage was holding, protecting the cut.

At the top of the hill we passed through the old stone temple gate, headed for the main Buddha Hall, went in, and as we always did upon first arriving at a temple, performed the bowing ritual. As I bowed before the statue of Buddha, the weight of the koan, the weakness of my ability, and the strength of the barrier all bowed with me.

After a last bow, I stepped out of the temple door, putting my left foot in my sandal. And as I bent down to check the condition of the bandage on my right foot, I thought of the old woman at the moment when she had passed between the store wall and me. But this time I saw the moment clearly; this time I could see into it as it expanded in my mind.

The moment deepened until it merged with my whole being. In that one moment that seemed to extend forever, I saw deeply into the simple and awesome truth of the moment when the old woman passed between the wall and me, and at the same time into the mystery of the cart pullers.

This moment merged with that moment in a birth of clarity, and I connected to the source of my compassion for them, and my awe. I understood: There are people all around me who are doing the impossible. And in that moment I shared their burden, their suffering and their strength. There was no space between us.

Intuitively, I turned my head from the bandage on my foot to the direction the old woman’s head had appeared from—and saw the smiling face of a monk who was walking toward the Buddha Hall to welcome us. I slid my right foot firmly into the sandal, stood up straight, clasped my hands behind my back, and walked slowly forward to meet him.

John Beaudry has taken the precepts but continues to search hermitages deep in the Korean mountains for an old master to take as a teacher. He lives in Seoul.

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Thich Nhat Hanh Receives Bridge of Peace Award

Five peacemakers honored at ceremony in Los Angeles

By Peggy Rowe

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The monks and nuns of Deer Park Monastery invited the bell to begin the celebration and offered the Five Contemplations for the banquet. The Bridge of Peace Award, a crystal globe on a crystal stand, was presented to Thay by Soto Zen priest Claude Anshin Thomas. Anshin shared how the Sangha and other veterans enabled him to travel to Plum Village where he experienced a time of profound healing and transformation. The award was accepted by the monastics of Deer Park, who read a statement from Thay: “I am very grateful and very touched to receive this award. We are at a critical point of history in the world. It is heartening to have so many people together to practice peace. Peace is available in every step.” Then they sang Thay’s poem “Recommendation,” accompanied by guitar.

Awards also went to Le Ly Hayslip, Marla Ruzicka, Dr. Waqar Al-Kubaisy, and Marshall Rosenberg. What the five remarkable honorees share is compassion for others, the courage to tell the truth, and the gift of unconditional love. All five took action to better the lives of others and to promote peace in the twenty-first century.

Le Ly Hayslip, a Woman of Ordinary Dreams

Le Ly left Vietnam when she was 13 years old. She describes herself as a “woman of ordinary dreams,” whose only life dream was to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. In 1985 she began her efforts to visit her homeland, but there were no diplomatic relations with Vietnam. She says, “I had a dream in my spirit to see us reunited again as people, if only I could break down the walls of fear and mistrust that divided us. I dreamed that I, a housewife with a third-grade education, could transform the hatred of war into a bridge of peace for all people.”

So Le Ly became a bridge builder. She received permission to travel to Vietnam in 1986, in 1987 she founded the East Meets West Foundation, and built schools, clinics, hospitals in Vietnam along with many other works to foster peace and reconciliation between the US and Vietnam. In 1999, she founded the Global Village Foundation. Her life is chronicled in the Oliver Stone film Heaven and Earth.

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A Posthumous Tribute to Marla Ruzicka

After leading a Global Exchange Reality Tour in opposition to the war in Afghanistan, Marla stayed behind to help. She arrived in Kabul only a few days after the Taliban was removed. The day after Saddam’s statue fell, Marla arrived in Iraq where she went door to door tallying the loss and injury of human life and seeing how she could serve. Did you know that in the twentieth century, ninety percent of the casualties of war were soldiers? Did you know that in the twenty-first century, ninety percent of the casualties of war are civilians? So Marla started counting.

In 2003, Marla formed the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). On April 16, 2005 Marla was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad on her way to visit an injured child. She was a lovely twenty-eight-year-old woman with an infectious laugh and warm smile. Before her death, she successfully lobbied the

U.S. government to provide medical and other assistance to Afghan and Iraqi families. To date, 25 million dollars have been appropriated and Marla’s work continues through CIVIC Worldwide.

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The Courage of Dr. Waqar Al-Kubaisy

A woman with a beautiful smile presented herself to me with a firm handshake. “Thank you for your presence of peace,” she said. I found out later that she was the Iraqi physician receiving the Bridge of Peace award for courage. In her acceptance speech she talked about the lives being lost; she described her relentless work to help all people by bringing medical services and supplies to where they are needed. She has had many family members killed, including six of her cousins who were bombed in a car. Most recently, in the dead of night, her husband was kidnapped; he was tortured for twenty-six days and suffered extreme injuries for which he is receiving medical care. She spoke of the pointlessness of war and its tragic impact in her homeland.

Pete Peterson, from POW to Ambassador

In 1966, U.S. Air Force Captain Pete Peterson was shot down over North Vietnam. He spent over six years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war. On his return, he placed his attention on reconciliation and peace. “After the war I had two choices,” he said. “I could go home angry, disenchanted, depressed… or I could get on with my life. I woke up one morning and realized I had no control over yesterday. But I had full control over and responsibility for tomorrow.” After serving as a member of the U.S. Congress, Pete was appointed by President Clinton as ambassador to Vietnam, a post he held until 2001. He set about to reopen diplomatic and economic ties between the U.S. and Vietnam. Today hundreds of American companies have offices and factories in Vietnam. In 1998 he married Vi Le at the Hanoi Cathedral just a few blocks from the Hanoi Hilton. He continues to further ties between the two nations through his foundation, The Alliance for Safe Children, Vietnam.

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To Be a Bridge of Peace

Marshall Rosenberg, renowned developer of a method of conflict resolution called Nonviolent Communication (NVC), was there to receive the Nonviolence award. “What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart,” he said, and shared stories from his experiences of offering NVC around the world.

Larry Ward and I sat with Ron Kovic in the VIP room. Ron was the 2005 recipient of the Bridge of Peace award, and he was portrayed by Tom Cruise in the Oliver Stone film Born on the Fourth of July. Ron has twinkling eyes and infectious positive energy. He wheeled his chair to me and held my hand, commenting on my peaceful energy. I, in turn, asked him his secret. “Life is precious,” he said. “I woke up in the hospital in Vietnam with part of my body gone, and in incredible pain and deep despair. But I should have been dead. This is a miracle, that I am alive. I get my energy from people and from life. I love people. I am alive. What a miracle!”

This evening was a wake-up call for me. I am grateful to have been touched by these people, to have the opportunity to be called into a bigger story. What is my dream for peace? How can I be a bridge of peace? How can I grow my heart larger for this world?

Peggy Rowe, True Original Source, is a Dharma Teacher and gourd artist practicing with the Bright Path Sangha in Asheville, North Carolina.

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Dharma Talk: Throwing Away

Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

June 7 – 8, 2006

Thich Nhat Hanh

During the Breath of the Buddha retreat at Plum Village, Thây focused on the Sutra on Mindful Breathing, which he had just translated from the Chinese. In this excerpt from two Dharma talks,Thây discusses exercises 11 through 14.

Exercise 11: Skillfully he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

Exercise 12: Skillfully he practices breathing in, liberating his mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

mb43-dharma2The practice of concentration helps us to understand the nature of affliction, and with that kind of insight, we can burn affliction away. Concentration as energy has the power of transformation. Concentration is something extremely important in the teaching of the Buddha.

To concentrate means to concentrate on something. In the teaching of the Buddha, many kinds of concentration are proposed. According to our need, we can apply one or two of these concentrations to free us, like concentration on impermanence, concentration on non-self, concentration on compassion, concentration on interbeing, and so on. Each concentration, each samadhi, has its own name.

The Buddha spoke about the three doors of liberation, which are considered to be three concentrations: emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness.

Emb43-dharma3mptiness is not a philosophy, a description of reality. Emptiness is a practice. Emptiness does not mean non-being, non-existence. There’s a big difference between non-existence and emptiness. Suppose we look at the glass. It is empty. The glass is empty, but the glass is not non-existent, right? In order to be empty, you have to be there. That is one thing you can learn—emptiness is not non-existence. The second thing is that when we say the glass is empty, you have to ask, “Empty of what?” It’s not empty of air. It is empty of tea, but it is full of air. So the intelligent question to ask is, “Empty of what?” The first answer may be: empty of a separate existence, empty of a separate self.

This is the simplest description in the Buddhist scriptures about emptiness, about interbeing: this is, because that is. As practitioners, we don’t just speak of emptiness as a teaching philosophy. We have to transform emptiness into a complete practice.

Signlessness is the second door of liberation. “Sign” means the appearance or the form. We are used to seeing the form that is the object of our perception. Nimita is the form. Animita is formlessness, or signlessness. The practice is not to be attached to the form, and this needs some training.

Those of us who have lost a loved one, we know grief. But if you are equipped with the concentration of signlessness, formlessness, you can overcome your grief, your sorrow, very quickly. You are capable of seeing things in the light of signlessness: nothing is born, nothing dies. Everything continues in this new form. You also! Your nature is the nature of deathlessness.

Aimlessness is the third door of liberation. Apranihita is the Sanskrit term. Apranihita means you don’t put anything in front of you as object of your pursuit. What you are looking for is already there, not outside of you. You are already what you want to become. You are wonderful just like that. Don’t try to be something else, someone else. You don’t have to go to the future in order to get what you want. Everything you are looking for, it is right here, in the here and the now, including the Kingdom of God, your immortality, your deathlessness. Your enlightenment is right here. And that is truly the third door of liberation: aimlessness.

The Concentration on Loving Kindness

There is a concentration called maitri, karuna—love, compassion. And the contemplation on love, on compassion, can bring you a lot of relief, can bring the nectar of healing to you.

Suppose someone has made you suffer. You think of him or her as very cruel. That person has inflicted on you a lot of suffering, on your family, on your country. And because of that you want that person or that group of persons to suffer a lot for you to get relief. You are thinking in terms of punishment. That hate, that anger, that will to revenge is a kind of fire that continues to burn your body and your mind, and you are in hell. Hell is here in the here and the now.

Just before, we spoke about the Kingdom of God being in the here and the now. But that is true of hell. Hell can be in the here and the now. If we allow the flame of affliction to burn us, there are moments when lying on our bed we cannot sleep because our whole body, our whole being is burned by the fire of hate, of anger, of despair.

The concentration on maitri, on karuna, on compassion, will help you to suffer less.

With your attention focused on the other person, you can see that the other person suffers a lot also. The fact is that when someone suffers a lot and is not capable of handling his or her own suffering, she will spill her suffering all over, and you become a victim of that.

And you may be like that. You are suffering a lot, and if you don’t know how to manage your suffering, you continue to suffer and you will make others around you suffer, including the people you love.

Looking deeply, we see that the other person, as a child, did not have a chance to learn love and compassion from his or her parents. The parents have caused a lot of wounds in him, in her, as a child; and no one has helped him or her to heal the wounds in the child. And then when they went to school, the teacher did not help, and the students around did not help. The seeds of anger, suffering, and hate continued to grow.

Such a person needs help, not punishment. By looking deeply and recognizing the presence of suffering in that person, you might see the truth that that person needs help. And now if we punish him, he will suffer more.

This insight may motivate you to do something to help that person. With that kind of insight, the hate and anger vanish, because that insight brings the nectar of compassion. And the nectar of compassion is wonderful. You stop suffering right away. The fire that has been burning, stops burning. That is the effect of metta meditation, the meditation on compassion.

Compassion for a Suicide Bomber

Nowadays we learn that there are many young people in the Mideast, they are ready to die, to blow themselves up with a bomb in order to kill as many as possible. We call them terrorists, and we believe that in order for the world to be peaceful, you have to kill all these terrorists. So you invest a lot of money and energy into what you call the war against terror. The more you kill, the more terrorists you create, because the killing is an act of punishment. Then the family and the friends of the one who is killed burn with the flame of anger, the will to punish. In killing one so-called terrorist, you create three, four terrorists more. That is what is happening.

There are many young people who suffer so much hate and despair, not only in Iraq, but also in Europe, in America. The number of young people who kill themselves every day is enormous. When you are burned by the flame of despair, of hate, of violence, you suffer so much. And as a young person, you don’t know much about your mind, about the practice. You believe that the only way to stop the suffering, the burning, is to kill yourself.

I guess for many young people, to die is much easier than to live, because they are overwhelmed by the emotions—of hate, of despair. And then you are told that by dying you might help the cause of justice, and you can go to paradise right away after death.

These kinds of perceptions and feelings lead to the act of suicide bombing. If you look deeply, you see that these people need help. And the operation to kill them is not the right answer. We have to help them to see there is a way out of suffering, that only love and compassion and understanding can solve the problem.

One side is using violence. The other side is responding with violence. And the situation goes on without a chance to stop. The way out is shown by the Buddha. Hate cannot respond to hate. Violence cannot respond to violence. There must be another way. The meditation on compassion is essential.

During the war in Vietnam we were able—myself and many friends of ours—to see that the young Americans who came to Vietnam to kill or to be killed were also victims of a wrong policy. With that kind of insight we tried to work for reconciliation rather than supporting one side of the war.

In my experience, the concentration on compassion is a wonderful practice. You may need only fifteen minutes of breathing deeply and looking deeply to recognize that the other person is a victim of his or her own suffering. That person needs you, needs your help, and does not need your punishment. Suddenly the nectar of compassion is born, your heart is blessed with that nectar, and you don’t suffer any more. Instead, you want to do something, to say something, and if you are not capable of loving speech you can write a letter. You can say something kind in order to help that person. But you cannot help that person until you have been able to help yourself. Peace and compassion always begin with yourself.

The Reality of Impermanence

Exercise 13: Contemplating impermanence, I breathe in. Contemplating impermanence, I breathe out.

Impermanence is a key that can unlock the door of reality. It is also a concentration, a practice. Intellectually we know that things are impermanent. We can agree with the truth of impermanence. Our scientists also agree that things are impermanent. But in reality we still behave as though things are permanent.

We have to keep the insight of impermanence alive. When we come in touch with anything, we should be able to see the nature of impermanence in it.

mb43-dharma4We have to distinguish between the notion of impermanence and the insight of impermanence. We may have the notion of impermanence, we may have understood what impermanence is, but we do not have the insight of impermanence. The insight is something alive.

Impermanence is a fact that science has to recognize. When you are able to see the nature of impermanence, you’ll begin to see the nature of non-self. Because non-self is not different from impermanence. Since everything is changing in every second, nothing can remain itself in two consecutive moments. So impermanence means non-self. They are the same thing.

Looking from the angle of time, you say, impermanence. Looking from the angle of space, you say, non-self. They are exactly the same thing.

In the Pali canon, non-desire comes next. In the Chinese canon, throwing away is next.

Throwing Away What?

Exercise 14: Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go. Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

Throwing away is a wonderful practice. You might like to ask, “Throwing away what?” What is to be thrown away?

We have learned that wrong perceptions are the ground of all afflictions— fear, anger, discrimination, despair. So it’s easy to know that throwing away here means to throw away wrong perceptions—ideas or notions—that are at the base of our suffering. It is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation. You have an idea, and you entertain that idea for a long time, and you continue to suffer.

Every one of us entertains an idea about happiness. It may be because of that idea of happiness that we’ve never been happy. So it’s very important to throw away that notion of happiness.

A nation is a community of people, and they may entertain together one idea, one ideology. Each political party—the socialist party, for instance—entertains an idea. And we might get caught in that idea. An ideology may be a trap, and your nation may be caught in it for sixty, seventy years, and during that time you create a lot of suffering. Those who do not agree with that ideology, you put them in psychiatric hospitals. The moment you release that idea, happiness begins to be possible.

So throwing away is very important. It takes insight and courage in order to throw away an idea.

The word is “throwing away.” It’s very strong; it’s not just letting go. The Sanskrit, the Pali term, is “throwing away” in a very strong way. The Vietnamese meditation master Tang Hoi, he used the word phong xa for throwing away. Tang Hoi was the first teacher of meditation in Vietnam, who lived in the first half of the third century.

Insights from the Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away four notions. The first notion is the notion of self. It is by intensive training that you can throw away the notion of self.

If a couple knows how to live in a spirit of non-self, there will be no difficulty, no anger, no discrimination, no despair, because they have realized the truth of non-self. If a father and son, mother and daughter, have the insight of non-self, they look at each other as interbeing.

mb43-dharma5There is the idea that I am this body. This body is mine, belongs to me. This is a notion that does not correspond to reality. When we say the words “I am,” we say it on the ground of the notion “I am,” and still people do not believe very much in that statement. That is why they try to justify it with a kind of argument.

In order to demonstrate that “I am” is a reality, René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” One day I saw a cartoon picturing Descartes touching a horse. He declared, “I think, therefore I am.” And the horse asked back, “You are what?” That is a good question. If you can answer what you are, you may have a better idea that is closer to reality.

In the scripture it is written, “This is, because that is.” This is a statement about interbeing. If you are not there, I cannot be here.

So it is very important to throw away the notion “I am,” the notion of self, because it does not reflect the truth. By looking deeply into the nature of reality, you are capable of throwing away that notion of “I am.”

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away is the notion “man,” human being. This is not too difficult. When we look into the human being, we see human ancestors, we see animal ancestors, we see vegetable ancestors, we see mineral ancestors. We see that the human is made of non-human elements. We see that we are at the same time a rock, a river, a cloud, a squirrel, a rose. And if we take away all the non-human elements, the human being is no longer there.

This is the deepest teaching on deep ecology. In order to protect the human being, you have to protect elements that are not human, because these elements are our ancestors, and if you destroy them there is no way we can be here. That is why discrimination between man and nature is a wrong view. You have to see you as nature, one with nature.

That is why harmony, respect of life, is possible. So throw away the idea that the human being is the boss, man is the boss, man can do anything to nature. The key is contemplation on impermanence of non-self.

The first to be thrown away is the notion of self, the second is the notion of man. With liberation from that notion, we become less proud, less arrogant as a species. We have to respect and protect other species in order for us to have a chance. That is why we said the Diamond Sutra is the oldest text on deep ecology.

We have the notion of la matiere inerte. But if you look deeply into the notion that matter is something without soul, without life, we see that is not true.

First of all, matter is the object of our perceptions. For a long time we believed that matter exists as a separate entity, and matter is something that does not move. But now as science advances, we see that matter is not static and immobile as we thought. In fact, the atoms, the electrons, move a lot. They are very alive. And looking more deeply, we see a lot of our mind in it, and we are not sure that they are there, in the way we imagined. So the distinction between living beings and non-living beings disappears after meditation. There is no longer any discrimination.

The fourth notion to be thrown away is the notion of lifespan. We believe that there is time, and we are born at one point of time. Our birth begins here, and we shall die at another point of time—death. I’ll only spend seventy, eighty, ninety or one hundred years on this planet. After that, I’ll be gone. This is what we believe. But as we look deeply, we see that this is a notion, a wrong perception. Birth is a notion, and death is also a notion. It’s not reality.

We have spoken of the deathlessness of a cloud. The cloud can never die. It can only become rain or snow. In our mind, to die means from something you become nothing; from someone you become no one. But if you look deeply you don’t see anything like that. A cloud can never die. If we look deeply we see that the nature of the cloud is also the nature of no birth. In our mind, to be born means from nothing we become something. From no one we suddenly become someone.

The cloud does not come from nothing. It has come from the water in the river, in the ocean. It has come from the sunshine, the heat. And you know that the birth of a cloud is a poetic image. It is a new manifestation. Before being a cloud, the cloud has been many other things.

Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Birth and death are notions that cannot be applied to reality, because nothing can be born from nothing, and nothing can become nothing at all. This meditation practice of looking deeply will bring about insight. It will dissipate our fear and our despair.

Those are the four basic notions that are at the foundation of our fear, our desperation, our suffering. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to practice looking deeply, so that we can throw them away. The practice of throwing away your notions, your views, is so important. Emancipation and liberation would not be possible without this practice of throwing away.

If we suffer a lot, it’s because we still entertain a number of ideas. The practice of meditation helps us to get free from these ideas.

Our World Needs Wisdom

So the object of our meditation is not something alien to our daily life. The way proposed by the Buddha is to help yourself and to help the people around you. It is to practice looking more deeply in order to be liberated from these notions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence.

Writing a letter to a suicide bomber is true meditation. Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight. As a teacher, as a parent, a journalist, a filmmaker, you are capable of sharing your insight so that you can wake up your nation, your people. And if your nation, your people, are awake, then your government will have to act according to the insight of the people.

Meditation is essential for our survival, our peace, our protection. In fact, it is wrong views that are at the base of our suffering, and throwing away wrong views is the most important, most urgent thing.

To come to a retreat is not to get away from it all. To come to a retreat is an opportunity to look deeper, and to see exactly where we are.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Greg Sever and Janelle Combelic.

The Sutra on Mindful Breathing

This is what I have heard at a time when the Buddha was residing in the Jeta Grove in the town of Sravasti.

On that day, the World-Honored One told the Bhikshus:

“Dear friends, let us enjoy the practice of Mindful Breathing. If a Bhikshu knows how to skillfully practice Mindful Breathing, and does so consistently, he will find his body and mind peaceful; he will acquire positive investigations and reflections; his mind will be calm and pure; and he will have perceptions leading to Wisdom and be able to bring his practice to completion.

“This is how a bhikshu should proceed:

“Whether the bhikshu lives in a village or in a town, in the morning he puts on his sanghati, holds his begging bowl, and goes into town for alms round. While doing so, he knows how to protect his body and his six senses, his mind skillfully focused on whatever is present. After the alms round, he returns to his dwelling, puts his sanghati and begging bowl away, washes his feet, goes into the forest, to an empty room, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty space in the open air, and sits down in an upright position. He holds his mindfulness in front of him, releases all worldly pursuits, and lets go of his anger, torpor, restlessness, regret and doubt, his mind determined to be in accord with wholesome dharmas, leaving far behind the five hindrances that cause afflictions, weaken his wisdom and constitute an obstacle on the path of Nirvana.

1. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his out-breath.

2. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in a long or a short in-breath, fully aware of his long or short in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out a long or a short out-breath, fully aware of his long or short out-breath.

3. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his whole body.

4. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, relaxing his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, relaxing his whole body.

5. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing joy.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing joy.

6. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing happiness.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing happiness.

7. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his feelings.

8. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, calming his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, calming his feelings.

9. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his mind.

10. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, gladdening his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, gladdening his mind.

11. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

12. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, liberating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

13. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating impermanence.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating impermanence.

14. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

15. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating non-desire.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating non-desire.

16. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating cessation.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating cessation.

“Bhikshus! That is how the practice of Mindful Breathing helps make our body and mind peaceful, helps us acquire positive investigations and reflections, makes our mind calm and pure, helps us have perceptions leading to Wisdom, and brings our practice to completion.”

After the Buddha had finished his teaching, the bhikshus, having listened to the Buddha, happily put the teachings into practice.

Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 2, No. 99, Tsa A Han (No. 29) 803.
Chinese translated from Sanskrit by Gunabhadra, A.D. 435-443 ( Liu Song period ).
Translated from Chinese by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Letter to a Suicide Bomber

Excerpts from June 8 and 9 Dharma Talks

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

—Albert Einstein

How can we apply these teachings [on compassion]?

You may like to write a letter to a young man who is about to commit suicide in your country, or in Iraq. In France, many young men and women commit suicide every day. In the United Kingdom, in America, also. In every country. As a practitioner, as a dharma teacher, as a poet, you can write that young man a letter, the way Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a letter to a young poet. We can write a letter to the young terrorist, because he entertains ideas that make him suffer and make others suffer.

I learned that the young terrorists, they don’t like to be called terrorists. They prefer the term “suicide bombers.” You can, as a British citizen, as an American citizen, write him a letter—from your own practice, your own liberation. People in your countries still entertain ideas concerning peace, safety, and terrorism. Because we continue to entertain these ideas, we support violence and terror. The practice is to recognize the notions that have led to fear, to terror—to remove all these notions in order for us to be understanding, to be compassionate, and to help other people to be understanding, to be compassionate at the same time.

You may begin like this: “Dear Friend, I know you don’t want to be called a terrorist, although many people are calling you a terrorist. You prefer to be called a suicide bomber. You may think that you are acting in the name of justice, in the name of God, of Allah. You think that you are doing the right thing.

“You believe that there are people who want to destroy your religion, your nation, your way of life. That is why you believe that your act is an act in the good direction. You punish the evil people, the enemies of Allah, of God. And you are certain that as a reward you’ll be welcomed right away to the Kingdom of God, into paradise.

“In my country there are people who believe that way, too. They believe they have to go to your country and find young people like you to kill—to kill for the sake of safety and peace, to kill in service to God.

“We all are caught in our wrong views. In the past I have entertained wrong views like that. But I have practiced, and that is why I’ve been able to get rid of these wrong views. I’m able to understand myself better. I feel that I understand you and the people in my country, including the ones who commit suicide every day.”

Maybe there are a few dozen of us who would like to write a letter from our own insight, from our own liberation. We may combine all these letters into a collective letter that could be read not only by the young people who are going to die and to make people die in the Middle East, but also in our own country. Many young people entertain ideas and notions that are at the foundation of their despair, their anger, their craving. They suffer and they continue to make other people suffer, including their parents and their society.

No matter where we live, in England, in America, in Egypt, in Asia, we all have our wrong perceptions. We have wrong perceptions of ourselves, and we have wrong perceptions of other people, our friends, our enemies. Suffering is the outcome of wrong perceptions. So the letter is first of all an attempt to remove wrong perceptions—not only in the young person who is going to kill himself but in those who are going to read the letter.

The letter is a form of dialogue; the aim is to help each other remove wrong perceptions that have been there a long time. So this is a very deep practice.

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Heart to Heart

 

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on the Second Mindfulness Training (of the Five). For the Autumn 2007 issue, we invite you to write on the Third; please send your submissions, under 500 words, to editor@mindfulnessbell.org by July 1, 2007.

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The Second Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

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Aware of the realities of today’s global economy, I realize that as a U.S. citizen it is impossible for me to live without stealing from and exploiting someone else somewhere in the world. Though I try to live and consume mindfully, I know that my own lifestyle rests on the exploitation of others. It is, for instance, almost impossible to buy clothes not made in sweatshops, where the workers (mostly young women of color) are treated mercilessly — forced to work twelve-to sixteen-hour days, six to seven days a week; paid a pittance that is sometimes not even enough to live on; sometimes forced to work unpaid overtime; subject to sexual harassment by their bosses; and forbidden to form labor unions that might empower them to work for better conditions. Most likely, the computer on which I write this was also made under such conditions, as were many of the other things I use in my daily life. In order to cultivate mindfulness of these grim realities, when I put on my clothes in the morning, I look at the tags on my clothing to see where they were made. Then I try to visualize the workers, while reciting this gatha: “As I get dressed, I remember with gratitude those who made my clothes, and with compassion, the conditions under which they work.”

I do try to consume mindfully and ethically where I can–buying recycled paper goods, ecologically friendly cleaning products, cage-free eggs, leather-free shoes — but there are limits to what I can do as an individual. Understanding interbeing, I see that many of my choices are conditioned by the larger global society of which we are all a part. I cannot buy products that were not made in sweatshops if they are not available to me when I go shopping — unavailable, because our economy is built on the principle of maximizing profits ahead of human and ecological needs. It is a race to the bottom, where corporations compete with each other, scouring the world for ever cheaper labor, and thirdworld governments compete with each other to attract business by providing this ever cheaper labor. Even my ability to buy those ethically sound products that I can rests on my own economic privilege, the fact that I can afford to spend a little extra money and such economic privilege inevitably rests on a system where others lack such privilege, living lives of poverty and exploitation. Understanding interbeing, I see that however mindful my actions, I still participate in a society based on theft and exploitation.

Understanding interbeing, I see that if I wish to live a life where I and others do not steal from and exploit others, it is not enough to look at my own individual choices when I go shopping. We must work together, collectively, to change the shape of our global society — to create an economy where, at the very least, everyone has a job where they are paid a living wage, treated with dignity, and allowed to form unions that can give collective voice to their concerns. The public good must be given greater priority than private profit. Only then will we all be able to live in a way that we do not have to steal from and exploit others.

Matthew S. Williams
Reverent Joy of the Heart
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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Thay often says that if you have never gone hungry, you won’t appreciate the value of food. You take your safety, your freedom to move around, for granted. When you live behind locked doors, and don’t feel safe on the streets or walking in the countryside alone, then you know how valuable is the freedom to move around safely. This is not a freedom that we enjoy in our country, South Africa.

I live in a country where it is not safe to leave your doors open. You normally lock your doors when you go out, but we have to keep them locked even when we are at home, because this is the best time for criminals — they don’t have to break and enter –they just enter. This is not a nice way to live — behind bars in a kind of private prison to keep you safe in your own home.

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We have one of the highest crime rates in the world, and much of it is violent crime. The situation in South Africa has come to be because of the past history and collective karma that we have created. Everybody knows the story of Apartheid. The past is past, but it is still with us in the present moment. We have to work very hard to change it and to create a better future. We have undergone major transformation in our country under the bodhisattva Nelson Mandela, but social change takes much longer than political change.

We live in a hard country, and it can make you a hard person, or it can soften you and make you more compassionate. I used to be hard and uncaring before I encountered the Dharma. Since then I am constantly trying to increase my compassion, open my heart wider, and become a bodhisattva. I think of the bodhisattvas who go to the darkest places in order to help, and sometimes it feels like this path was given to me by default. “Darkest Africa” is my home, and many bodhisattvas are needed on this continent, which is plagued by tribal wars, famine, AIDS, poverty, and crime.

As aspiring bodhisattvas, there are many teachings to help us cultivate our capacity to love:

  • The teaching on Buddha nature: All beings are the same, we all have the same potential, we all want happiness and don’t want suffering.
  • The teaching on cause and effect: We take responsibility for what we are experiencing without blaming others. It is our own karma; we are reaping what we sowed. Even if we personally did nothing in this particular lifetime, we may have contributed through our non-action, our apathy.
  • The teaching on dependent origination: Everything depends on causes and conditions. Nobody is inherently “bad” — people act in certain ways because of causes and conditions that are often beyond their control. This understanding helps us to cultivate compassion, to open the door of our heart so that we can love instead of hate. Thay’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names” about the sea pirate, helped me a lot. Here is an excerpt:

I am the 12 year< old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
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 wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open
the door of compassion.

These wonderful teachings help us to transform our minds, our emotions, our ways of being. We do this for ourselves and for the world, to relieve ourselves of suffering and to create a better world in the future because happiness and suffering are universal. I know that if you suffer, you will make me suffer. We know that if we exploit people or take unfair advantage of them, oppress them, discriminate against them on grounds of race, culture, religion, gender, we are committing a kind of theft — we are stealing their dignity to be who they are. This will make them suffer and it will make us suffer, because one day their suffering will impact on our lives and become our suffering as well.

We are all creators. We are creating all the time. We are responsible for creating the kind of world that we live in, and this is why the Mindfulness Trainings are so important. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can create a better future based on love not fear, on giving not getting, on helping not harming, on supporting not exploiting, on building up not breaking down, on creating the conditions for happiness not suffering. Then we can all live in the Pure Land. The Buddha said:

If you want to know your past lives,
Look into your present condition.
If you want to know your future,
Look into your present actions.

Carol Leela Verity
True Stream of Light
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

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Retreat at Plum Village

By Cameron Barnett

Over the summer I went to a Buddhist retreat in Plum Village, France. Plum Village is a community of Buddhist monks and nuns located about an hour and a half from Bordeaux. The head of this community is a man named Thich Nhat Hanh. He is a Vietnamese monk who was forced to leave Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

He was forced to leave because he was opposed to the war and both sides wanted him to join them. He left Vietnam to come to the United States to speak out against the war and when he tried to return to Vietnam, the government refused to let him back in. He then moved to France where he remains today.

Plum Village is made up of four communities where the monks and nuns live during the year. At different times during the year Thich Nhat Hanh offers retreats where people can come and stay for one or two weeks. The community where I stayed was very peaceful with a meditation hall, dining room, and ceremonial bell located in the very center. I lived in a farm house which was about a ten-minute walk from the center. It was an eight-room house which held about twenty people. Altogether at the retreat there were about 700 people coming from fifty countries.

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Hearing Thich Nhat Hanh and visiting Plum Village were so important to me because it showed me the importance of being in the moment and taking things step by step. Thay taught me to feel sympathy for those who are mean to others or who picked on me because their souls were not better off for what they were doing. He is an extraordinary person. In his presence I felt that somehow anything that I had ever done wrong was OK, and I was happy.

When I returned home, I was much more relaxed and helped some new kids in the school dorm move in. One particular individual who before had picked on me came up to me the next day after I got back and made fun of me for going on this retreat. Although it was an extremely offensive remark, I thought back to what Thich Nhat Hanh had told me and simply replied, “How are you today?” He yelled at me again and I said, “I had a great break, how was yours?” It took about a week but by the next Monday, he no longer picked on me. Today we are good friends.

My teachers also noticed a change in me. From the second I got back to school I was much more relaxed, calm, and patient. I was also happier. Before when someone had done something I did not agree with, I put up a shell and refused to talk to that person. Thich Nhat Hanh taught me that shutting out the person was no better than picking on him and that if I shut someone out once it would become a habit. With this in mind I worked hard on becoming friendly to everyone and listening to what they were saying. It was a truly amazing experience and it has changed my life forever.

Cameron Barnett, age 13, and his mother JoAnn attended the family retreat at Plum Village in 2006, having previously attended a family retreat in Massachusetts

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

This is an excerpt of a talk at the Sandy Beach Hotel in Da Nang on April 10, 2007. Thay spoke in Vietnamese to an audience of intellectuals and answered some fascinating questions from the audience. 

Thich Nhat HanhMost of us think that happiness is made of fame, power, money. Every one of us wants to have more power. We want to have more fame and money, because fame and money give us more power. We keep believing that when we have more money, fame, and power we’ll be happy. I have met a lot of people with great power, with a lot of money and fame, but their suffering is deep. They are so lonely.

William Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company in America, is the fourth generation of the billionaire Ford family. He came to practice with us in our practice center in Vermont. I offered him the gift of a bell, and I taught him how to invite the bell each day. He told me stories of millionaires and billionaires in America who have a lot of fear, sadness, and despair.

mb46-dharma2Who has more power than the President of the United States? But if we look into the person of President Bush we see he’s not a happy person. Even President Bush doesn’t have enough power to take care of all the problems that confront him. He’s so powerful — he has a great army, a great amount of money — but he cannot solve the problems in Iraq. He can’t spit it out and he can’t swallow it. You’re very lucky that you’re not the President of the United States! If you were the President of the United States you would not sleep all night long. How can you sleep when you know that in Iraq your young people die every day and every night. The number of American young people who have died there has gone up to more than three thousand. In Iraq — in that country that you want to liberate — nearly a million have died. The situation in Iraq is desperate.

The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the people with the most power feel that they never have enough power, and this is true. We believe that if we have power, we will be able to do what we want and buy what we want. We can buy a position, buy our enemies, buy anything. If we have power in our hands, we can do anything we want. We have to re-examine that belief, because in reality, I have met people who have great power and money and fame, and who suffer extremely.

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

In Buddhism we also talk about power. But power in Buddhism is very different; it is a kind of energy that can bring us a lot of happiness and bring a lot of happiness to others.

In Eastern philosophy and literature, we talk about the spiritual path. Each one of us has to have a spiritual direction in our lives. Whether we are business people, politicians, educators, or scholars, we should have a spiritual dimension in our daily lives. If we do not have that spiritual dimension, we cannot take care of tension and despair, or the contradictions in our mind. We can never establish good communication with our co-workers, our family, our community. Each one of us must have the power of the true spiritual path.

In Buddhism, we talk about the three powers that we can generate through our practice: cutting off afflictions, insight, and the capacity to forgive and to love.

The first one is the power to cut off our afflictions — to sever our passions, hatred, and despair. If we cannot cut off passion and hatred, we cannot ever have happiness. We can learn concrete practices to do this. Once we sever the ties of passion and hatred that bind us, we become light and free and spacious. If we have passion and hatred we suffer — both men and women, you have experience with this. We cannot eat, we cannot sleep; that is hell. So the first power is the capacity to cut off afflictions.

The second power is the power of insight — in Buddhism it is called prajna. It is not knowledge that we have accumulated from reading books or learning in school. Knowledge can be beneficial, but it can also become an obstacle. In Buddhism we say that the only career of a practitioner is insight. The insight of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas — what we call enlightenment — has the capacity to cut off afflictions and to generate the noble sentiments of compassion, loving kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity. That’s our only career, to give rise to insight. Once we have insight we can unravel our afflictions and help others to take care of their difficulties very quickly, just like a medical doctor. You only need to listen to the symptoms and you’ll be able to make a diagnosis and give the appropriate treatment.

mb46-dharma3The third power in Buddhism is the capacity to forgive. When we have the capacity to accept and to love, we do not have reproach or enmity. That love manifests in the way we look, in the way we speak. When we look with the eye of compassion and loving kindness, when we speak loving words, we are the ones who benefit first of all. In the Lotus  Sutra, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks at all beings with compassion. Looking at all beings with the eye of compassion is a wonderful way of behaving like the bodhisattva — without reproach, without hatred. And the person that we are looking at in this way feels forgiven and loved. We can help others to be liberated from ignorance and from the traps they are caught in.

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

When we have these three powers — the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to accept, love, and forgive — then fame, money, and power become wonderful tools. It is then that the more money we have the better, the more power the better, because they become means to help people, to enhance life. Buddhism does not accuse or judge people who want to become rich or successful in politics or business, but while you’re pursuing these things you should have a spiritual dimension. We must behave on a foundation of love, insight, and wisdom.

In the time of the Buddha, Anathapindika was an example of this kind of businessman. If you are a business person or a politician and you have love and compassion, then you become a bodhisattva. You have the capacity to cut off your passions and your hatred; you have insight to help resolve problems at your work; you have the capacity to accept and forgive people’s mistakes. You have a lot of power — spiritual power.

As Buddhist teachers we should not abuse our power. It is not because you are the abbot of a temple or the eldest in a temple that you have power. It is because you have the capacity to cut off afflictions, to forgive, and to love. It’s not because you are the abbess or the teacher that people listen to you, it’s because of your love and compassion.

In the political or business arena, the power of the owner or the leader has to be based on the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to love and forgive. Then you use your position skillfully and the things you do will not cause dissension. If you do not generate these three virtuous powers, power and money will corrupt everything, including the life of the owner or the leader. That is why spiritual direction is very important.

The Greatest Success 

The Buddha taught that we do not have to hurry towards the future to have happiness; we can be happy right now and right here. The greatest success is to live with love right in the present moment. We have the time to take care of ourselves. If we have pain, tension, irritation, and agitation, we suffer and naturally we cause others to suffer, including our loved ones. That is why we have to have time for ourselves. Then we’ll have time for our family and our community.

Come back to the present moment, do not allow the future to occupy all your energy and time. That is a very important principle from Buddhism. To come back is not easy, because we have the habit energy of running towards the future. Stopping that momentum, coming back to each step, to each breath — that is the basic practice. By living each moment of daily life, living in a way that is deep and free, we can be in touch with the wonders of life.

In a practice center, the basic practice is to use the breath and the steps to bring us back to the present moment. For example, when you listen to a bell you stop all your thinking and speaking and you come back to your breath. You breathe and you bring the mind back to the body, you are truly present in the present moment. In our daily life there are a lot of times our body is here but our mind is wandering in the past and the future. Our minds are not truly present in the body and we’re not present for ourselves. How can we be present for our loved ones, for our wives and husbands? These practices are very practical and clear, and they’re not difficult if we have the chance to begin.

I would like to leave the rest of the time so that you can pose questions related to the topic that we discussed today. Thank you for listening.

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

Man from audience: First, I’m very surprised when your disciples still keep their religion. For example, if they are priests or pastors or ministers, do they keep their religion? Second, I know that besides being a monk, you are also a scholar. I have read a few of your writings, and I see that you have done work to spread and explain Vietnamese Buddhism to the world, just like Master Van Hanh (1). How have you contributed to the development of Vietnamese Buddhism as a scholar?

Thay: Back when Christian missionaries came to Vietnam, they often tried to convert the Vietnamese people and force them to give up their tradition to embrace the new religion. This caused a lot of suffering.

mb46-dharma4When we had boat people dwelling in refugee camps in Thailand or in other countries, there were also missionaries. They wanted to help those boat people and also tried to lure them to follow their religions. It’s a great pity to force somebody to lose their roots. That is why when we bring Buddhism to Westerners, we tell them, “Do not give up your religion; you can study Buddhist practices to help you take care of your difficulties of body and mind and to learn great love and compassion. You do not have to lose your root religion, because we don’t think that’s the best way.”

In the West, there is a great number of young people who leave their Christian religion because that tradition does not provide the practices that people need today. A lot of people give up their religion and many of them come to practice with us. I have told them, “Once you practice with us, you can go back to help renew your own tradition and religion.” If a country does not have a spiritual foundation, that nation will not endure. So the Westerners see that Buddhism is very inclusive, accepting all and embracing all without denying other traditions.

In Buddhism, we call that spirit of inclusiveness equanimity or non-discrimination. It means that we embrace all. If we say that you have to leave your religion so that you can take refuge in the Three Jewels — that’s not very Buddhist. Buddhism is very open. That is why we have been able to help the pastors and ministers. In their hearts they still love their religion, but they practice wholeheartedly because in Buddhism we have very concrete practices to help them take care of their tension and stress, and help them to help people. If we hold that only our religion has the right view, and other religions do not have absolute truth, this will cause war. Buddhism does not do that.

When we organize retreats or have public talks in the West, many thousands of people come to listen to me, but they’re not Buddhists. Most of them come from a Christian or Jewish background. Sometimes I give a teaching in a church and more people come than at Christmas time, because they see that Buddhism is very noble, very open. It is inclusive and non-discriminative. Moreover, now scientists find inspiration in Buddhism because they see interdependence and emptiness; these teachings attract a lot of scientists to Buddhism.

The second question addresses the issue of learning. In truth, each time we have a new retreat designed for a specific group of people, for example a retreat for police officers or Congress people or business people or environmentalists or war veterans, I have to do research. I have to study beforehand to understand their difficulties and suffering so I can offer appropriate practices. That’s why during all my years in the West I have learned a lot. If you do not understand the teachings and practices of the Jewish or Christian traditions, you cannot help those people. If you do not see the suffering of business people, you can never teach them to practice so they can take care of their tension and stress.

You do not need to become a scholar. As a monastic, we do not aim to become scholars, but we have to know enough in these areas to speak their language, to bring people into the practice. When you say that I’m a scholar and I spread Vietnamese Buddhism, that is not quite correct. When I taught at Sorbonne University [in Paris] about history or Vietnamese history or Vietnamese Buddhism, I had to do research. Just for that occasion I read books on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. I had to use the pen name Nguyen Lang because I was not allowed to publish under my name Thich Nhat Hanh. The government said that I called for peace and that I was a friend with the Communists, so they didn’t allow my books to be published. My aim was not to become a scholar or a historian, but the truth is I had to teach in the university. And I just wrote it down, so that younger generations could benefit.

The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and whose mother was a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. An artist drew his picture for me so we could have it on the altars at our different centers.

In Vietnam we have the Mahayana tradition and the Hinayana tradition. I was lucky that when I was trained in the Mahayana tradition I also had time to research the stream of original Buddhism. I discovered that Zen Master Tang Hoi had used the original Buddhist sutras with a very open view of the Mahayana tradition. That is why when we organize retreats in Europe or North America, many people come from different traditions and they feel very comfortable. Our practice combines both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions and the basic sutras we use in meditation are present in all different schools — in the Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, Korean, and Tibetan Canons of Buddhist scriptures. I have translated and written commentaries on sutras about meditation like Learning  the Better Way to Live Alone and The Mindfulness of Breathing. Even though I didn’t talk about them tonight, the spirit of my talk was based on the insight of these sutras.

Our true aim is not to spread Vietnamese culture in the world, but I want to help people to relieve their suffering by sharing with them the methods of practice. That’s why they know about meditation and practices that have Vietnamese roots. I say this so that you see clearly that when I go to the West it’s not to spread Vietnamese culture to other countries. I just want to help people.

When I went to the West to call for peace, I only asked to go for three months. The chief of the police station asked me, “What do you plan to do there? Whatever you do is okay, just don’t call for peace, okay?” And I did not reply. Because my aim was to call for peace, for the world to end the war, I just stayed quiet. Then I went to the United States and called for peace — how can we end the Vietnam war? So they didn’t allow me to come back to Vietnam. That’s why we cannot say that I left Vietnam to spread Vietnamese culture in the West. I only wanted to go for three months. Who would have suspected that I would stay forty years! The truth is that during the time I was in exile in the West, as a monk I had to do something to help people. If I couldn’t help my own people, then I could help Westerners. It seems like I had this aim to spread Vietnamese culture, but it happened naturally.

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

Man from audience: On this trip you came to Da Nang. How do you think we can help develop our city, including the Buddhist practice in Da Nang? And do you plan to have a monastery in Da Nang, where we have monastics and lay people, and where scholars in Da Nang can participate?

Thay: Da Nang is already very beautiful. It’s developing very quickly, very well. But we know that economic and technological development comes in tandem with social evils, such as gangs, suicide, and prostitution. If we know that, we should work to prevent it. The scholars and humanitarians, the monks and nuns, you have to sit down together and make a very concrete plan to prevent these social evils. That is something I can share.

The second issue has to do with our Buddhist path. Even though Buddhism has been in our country for many years, we have to renew it. If we do not, it does not have enough strength and it cannot carry out its mission. Our learning is still too theoretical, and mostly we still practice by worshipping or praying. That’s very important, but Buddhism is not just a devotional religion. If we can break through the shell of religious ritual, we can touch the deep source of insight. With that insight we can contribute a path for our nation that will bring true civilization, true culture. It will bring harmony, prosperity, auspiciousness. In the time of the kingdoms of the Ly and Tran dynasties (2) they also praticed with koans; they did not just worship and make offerings. Those were very auspicious eras, with love and understanding between the king and the people.

If Buddhism played such a role in the past, helping the country to be powerful and to dispel invaders, it can contribute to the country in the same way now and in the future. To that end we have to renew Buddhism in the way we study, teach, and practice. It is very necessary to establish monasteries, training new Dharma teachers and lay people to help young people with their problems in their families.

We think that Plum Village can contribute in this area. If the great venerables, the high venerables here in your Buddhist Institute want to stop these young people from getting corrupted, you need to establish monasteries. You can train five hundred or a thousand monks and nuns so that they can help people in society. They can help people in their districts and bring balance to those areas. They can help re-establish communication in the family so that young people do not go out to look for some sort of relief and then fall into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and drug addiction. That is the mission of Buddhism in this modern age. We can send Dharma teachers to you to help you train a generation of new monks and nuns. I think that our country is waiting for this rising up — to “uncloak the old robe” — and to renew Buddhism.

Question: Thinking About the Future

Man from audience: Respected Zen Master, from the beginning of this talk I listened to your teaching about meditation. My understanding — I don’t know if it’s correct or not — is that meditation is only for people who have suffering or misfortune, or people who have a lot of extra time. People who work, study, or have normal activities, they need to think about the past so that they can do certain things that are good for the present, but in meditation you talk about liberating yourself from the past. And they need to look to the future — only you know your dreams, how to be successful in your career— but in meditation you cut off thinking about the future. So the people who need to think about life, about society, about themselves for the future, should they practice meditation?

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

Thay: We can learn a lot from the past. We have to reexamine the past and learn from it. But that does not mean that we are imprisoned by the past. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.

While we are looking into the past, we can still establish our body and mind stably in the present moment. It is because we establish our body and mind stably in the present moment that we have the capacity to learn from the past. Otherwise we just dream about the past, or we are haunted by the past. The future is the same way. If we sit there and worry about the future, we only spoil the future. We have the right to design projects, to plan for the future. But this does not mean that you are frightened and worried about the future. These two things are completely different.

mb46-dharma5The future is made up of only one substance, and that is the present. If you know how to take care of the present with all your heart, you are doing everything you can for the future. Thinking and dreaming about the future does not take a long time — you don’t need twenty-four hours to dream about it! You only need one or two minutes, and that’s fine.

What is meditation? Meditation is not something you can imagine. Meditation first of all means you have to be present in the present moment. Earlier I brought up an image that the body is here but the mind is wandering elsewhere. In that moment you’re not present. You’re not present for yourself. You’re not present for your husband, your wife, your children, your brothers or sisters, your nation, or your people. That is the opposite of meditation.

In the present moment there are needs; for example, you have certain pains and difficulties. Your loved one has certain pains and difficulties. If you cannot be present in the present moment, how can you help yourself and the other person? That is why meditation, first of all, is to be present in the present moment. Being present in the present moment means you are not imprisoned by the past and your soul is not sucked up by the future. Meditation is not thinking, not something abstract.

Sitting meditation, first of all, is to be present, to sit still. Once we have that stillness, we’ll be able to see the truth. We can have projects and take actions that are appropriate to the truth in order to take care of a situation. That is why dwelling peacefully, happily in the present moment, is so important. You come back to the present moment to be nourished, to be healed, and also to manage the problems and issues in the present. If we can take care of the issues in the present, then we’ll have a future.

Dreaming about the future and planning about the future are two different things; one is a scientific way, the other one is running away. For example, perhaps there is sadness in the present and we want to run away. Dreaming about the future is a kind of calming medicine, like barbiturates, that can help you temporarily forget about the present.

We have to practice. Taking steps in freedom, with ease, is something that you have to practice. Once you have joy and happiness in the present moment, you know that these moments of happiness are the foundation of the future.

Please remember this for me: If you don’t have happiness in the present moment, there is no way to have happiness in the future.

To the friends practicing Pure Land tradition I say that the Pure Land is a land of peace, of happiness. There are those among us who think that the Pure Land is in the west and in the future. The west is not about Europe or North America — the western direction! Those who practice Pure Land, especially beginners, believe that the Pure Land is in the future. They think that only when we die we go there, and then we go in a western direction, the direction of extreme happiness.

People who have practiced Pure Land for a long time go more deeply. The Pure Land is not in the west or in the east, but right in our mind. When we practice meditation, and we practice properly, we practice in the Pure Land. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look can bring us happiness in the present moment.

The Buddha, wherever he went, never left the Pure Land. If now we can live in the Pure Land with each step, each breath, each smile, everything can give rise to the Pure Land; with certainty the Pure Land is something in our hand. But if we suffer day and night, and we think when we die we’ll go to the Pure Land, that something is not so sure.

That’s why I want to remind you once again: If you have no capacity to live happily right in the present moment, in no way can you have happiness in the future.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

1 This is the master who helped the first Ly king in the eleventh century when Vietnam had just gained independence from the Chinese.

2 The Ly and Tran eras spanned the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries in Vietnam.

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Getting Better, not Bitter

The Dharma in Tanzania

By Karen Brody

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Thay’s teachings have been words deeply etched in my heart for years, but this summer was the first time I encountered their true meaning. My husband’s work for an international non-profit took us to Arusha, Tanzania. What luck, we thought, that we had found a location in Africa that was suitable to live in with children. We had lived in Nairobi, Kenya and had complete clarity that Nairobi’s routine aggressive violence was not an atmosphere in which to raise our children. Johannesburg, similar in its extreme violence, where people not only lived behind gates (routine in Africa) but talked about how many levels of security they had before intruders could get to them, also felt like an unacceptable life to me. But Arusha — a small yet rapidly growing town an hour from Mount Kilimanjaro, protected by Mount Meru, and the gateway town to the Serengeti, where five years ago security companies didn’t even exist — it seemed perfect.

Here’s what happened ten days after arriving in Arusha with our sixand eight-year-old boys.

My husband returned home just past midnight after dropping off a friend at her hotel after she had dinner with us that night. The night guard opened the gate; my husband drove in, got out of his car, and went to the gate to lock it from the inside with a padlock. He heard a man say, “Open,” so he opened the gate. Three gunmen were holding the guard, guns to his head. Two guns immediately went to my husband’s head and the gunmen led him and the guard to our house, ordering my husband to open the door. I was downstairs when the door opened and at first I noticed just my husband walking in, very pale. Then I saw the gun. A second later I saw the first gunman. I gasped in a whisper, “Oh my God!” as one of the gunmen ran over to me and pointed his gun at my head. In that instant the words of the Dharma popped into my mind:

Life is impermanent.

These words bathed me. I felt clear and strangely calm as the gunmen sat us down on the couch, took our wedding rings off and tied my husband up on the floor with wire. I repeated to myself:

Impermanence.

The tallest gunman led me upstairs. As we approached my children’s bedroom he put his gun to my nose and told me if I did anything stupid he was going to shoot me and my children. I breathed deeply thinking:

Breathing in,
Breathing out,
I am free.

As I repeated to myself “Breathing, Free” my thoughts became illogical in a Western sense. Logic would have told me to hate this gunman; instead I felt deep compassion. Thay’s teachings flooded my body and mind.

“Where Are the Dollars?”

In my bedroom the gunman shouted at me, “Where are the dollars?!” We actually only had fifteen dollars in the house that night. I emptied my wallet. He was getting angrier. “Where are your jewels?” he demanded. I gave him the few things I carried with me. No diamonds, nothing expensive. “Where’s your husband’s gun? Get the gun!” The gun? It had never dawned on us to get a gun. Even my husband, not a practicing Buddhist, felt that violence is never solved with more violence. There was no gun.

Unhappy with what I had produced the gunman put his gun to my head and told me I must find him some money and jewels. So I ransacked the room, and as I threw our belongings on our bed another mindfulness moment occurred.

Breathing in,
I see the goodness inside of you,
Breathing out,
I smile at your goodness.

It was obvious to me at that moment that the gunman wasn’t looking for money or jewels; what he was really looking for was love. So I watered the flower in him. As I dropped my clothes on the bed I imagined each piece of clothing filling the robber with love. Fifteen minutes later he brought me downstairs and tied me up on the floor next to my husband and the guard.

Tied up on the floor, my hands and feet tightly wired together, I thought: I should be scared. But then I heard Thay’s voice whisper to me: Call them by their true name. So this is what I did. I recited:

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs
at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Lying on the floor, face down, I repeated to myself, “Wake up, Compassion” as the gunmen put all of our computers and electronic equipment in bags to steal.

The Open Door of Compassion

Our Kenyan friend, Rose, was staying with us. Rose is a poor African woman who had been our maid in Nairobi years ago. She came down to help us settle in and meet our boys. I consider her a member of our family, which is why she was living in our home, not typical in Africa. The tall gunman spotted her room and asked me, “Who’s in here?” “Our friend,” I replied. He walked in. Rose later told me she wasn’t sleeping, and because our floors were concrete and the gunmen spoke to us in a whisper she did not know anything was happening inside the house, but of course she was shocked to be taken out of bed in the middle of the night. They tied her up also in the living room, searched the house again for money and jewels and then untied her, took her into her bedroom … and raped her.

Breathing in,
Breathing out.

I didn’t know at the time she was being raped, but that’s what the tall gunman did. He raped her. And then, twenty minutes later, after talking for a while about taking me with them in one of our vehicles that they stole to get away, the gunmen tied heavy cloth over our mouths so we would not scream and put all four of us in Rose’s room, tied up, in the dark.

Untying wire is not easy, but I got free first. Then the guard, then my husband, and finally after I shouted out “Rose, are you okay?!” she slowly sat up. “Thank goodness they did not hurt the kids,” were the first words from her mouth. It was only later that she told me she had been raped.

I expected logic to rise up in me; I expected to feel mad. How could they have done this to Rose? Yet, again, instead the Dharma surfaced and I found myself not angry at the gunmen. The news that she was raped just made me want to water the seeds of love in the gunmen even more. My intellectual self thought, this is crazy, how could I not be mad? It felt like a betrayal of Rose to not be mad at them. Surely, Rose was mad.

Two nights after the incident, with my family and Rose settled into the safety of a hotel room in Arusha, Rose slipped a note under my door that I discovered at bedtime. She wrote of moving on from the experience. And at the end she wrote, “Let’s get better, not bitter. ” At that moment it was clear to me that she was watering the same seeds I was. The Dharma lived in her as well.

We left Tanzania one month later having lost over $30,000 from the move to Arusha, and we returned to the United States without a home, job, cars, or a school for our children to attend.

Thank you, Thay, for your teachings. Love and compassion is the only way forward. Of this I am clear.

Karen Brody is a member of the Budding Flower Sangha in New Paltz, New York.

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Be Still

The Mindful Christian

By Diane Strausser

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We all know the importance of words. Relationships are built with them. Our important teachers use words that help us structure our lives and we carry those words in our minds as we go about the business of living.

Despite the fact that I had been flirting with Buddhist practice for over twenty years, I had not devoted myself with any consistency. My practice finally began on a spring morning several years ago. I sat in a room of three hundred strangers who had gathered from all parts of the country to experience a day of mindfulness. A diminutive woman gazed out at us from the elevated stage with a very gentle smile on her face. She took her sweet time looking at us and eventually uttered the words, “Welcome, my dear friends.”

The world changed for me with those four simple words. I thought about the possibilities that existed as I considered the strangers in this room to be “dear friends.” What if I went home and thought about my neighbors as “dear friends”? And the grocery store clerk. And people I ran into in my small town. The casual people in my life. Extended family. What if I included the people who had disappointed me to also be “dear friends”? I thought about all of this in the flash of an instant after Anh-Huong Nguyen uttered those words. It was her first Dharma teaching to me. I’m not sure there will ever be a more powerful teaching in my life. I fell in love that morning with the practice of Applied Buddhism.

Teaching Not-Buddhism in a Catholic Church

I took that frame of reference with me when I gave my yearly Lenten presentation to a rural Ohio Catholic church. I am invited each year to speak about creating sacred relationships. My role as a relationship coach and therapist takes me to venues both secular and religious. As I considered what topics I might cover, I struggled with the potential difficulty in sharing the joy of my Buddhist practice with a conservative, Catholic population. My practice is my life and keeping it in the closet is not possible.

Once again, I heard the words of Anh-Huong. In teaching us about community building she reminded us about the importance of compassion. “If people are uncomfortable with a statue of the Buddha, take the statue away.” So, I took the statue away.

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) became the basis of my presentation to my seriously Catholic friends. I reframed my practice and used their Christian language to teach them how to create peace in their lives so that they could offer it to the world — just as we practice in Applied Buddhism. My focus that night would be as it always is: stopping, calming, and resting which lead to healing and transformation, the principles of the Buddha’s teachings.

That evening I sat in the sanctuary on a step just below the altar. Behind me was a wall of stained glass softly illuminated by the setting sun. Christ hung on a huge cross above me. The parish priest sat with his congregation in the pews facing me, and I began with the words, “Welcome, my dear friends.”

I picked up my singing bell, held it high on my fingertips and let it ring three times. I simply closed my eyes, breathed in and out three times and consciously set the tone for my presentation. My friends looked at me. Confusion filled their faces and I just smiled.

The first thing I taught that night was breath awareness.

Shhhhh,” I told them. I rang the bell.
Hear the bell of God calling…

Now, pay attention to your breath, and as you breathe, think of these words…

Breathing in, I am aware of God calling.
Breathing out, I give love.

We talked about the importance of being still enough to hear the voice of God.

Can you hear God’s voice as you wash the dishes?

How about when you’re driving, or waiting in line?

Can you hear God’s voice when somebody disappoints you and you struggle with a response?

The Gift of a Smile

We moved on to giving the gift of a smile.

One of the best ways to relax is to smile. When we smile, it is impossible to be upset. When we smile, our throat relaxes, our cheeks rise and our eyes lift. The muscles of our face send messages to the nerves at the base of our skull. Those nerves send relaxation messages to our brain. Our brain is happy because the signal is sent that communicates,“all-is-well” to the“fight-or-flight” centers. Oxytocin is released in our brain because we are wearing a smile. Oxytocin is the chemical released when a parent cuddles an infant or when lovers hold each other. Oxytocin is the medicine that God gave us to help create compassion and love.

Your smile is a miracle. Your smile has no negative side effects. Your smile is absolutely free. Your smile is a sacred gift to yourself and to others because that one little gesture helps you to make space for the presence of God.

Hear the bell of God calling.
Breathing in, I smile to God.
Breathing out, I smile to my sisters and brothers.

We sat there, looking at each other and smiling. The priest leaned back in the pew with his huge hands resting on top of a friar-like belly, glancing at his people, smiling at them and taking delight in our togetherness. He welcomed my words in front of his pulpit and his smile invited me to keep talking.

Sacred Touch

The practice of sacred hugging was my next topic.

Sharing a physical connection is a sacred act visible in all of God’s creatures. Watch puppies, or lions, or giraffes. Watch the touching that goes on in nature. We human beings are often unconscious about how we touch each other. Being awake, being conscious allows us the pleasure of sacred touch.

Consider offering a very special hug, a sacred hug to the people you love. A sacred hug is not the typical quick leaning into each other and offering a few limp pats on the back. A sacred hug is an act of love given with great tenderness and great generosity.

Follow this recipe for sacred hugging:

Stand facing the other person, making eye contact.
Smile.
Put your hands together over your heart.
Bow to the divine presence of the Holy Spirit in them.
Give them the gift of your smile.
Take three breaths in and out.
Open your arms and embrace the other.
Take three breaths in and out while holding.
Release.
Put your hands together over your heart.
Bow to the divine presence of the Holy Spirit in them.
Say a silent prayer of gratitude for them in your life.

Think about offering a sacred hug to the important people in your life. Then, think about hugging more people. Smile.

The wonderful people of that congregation emptied the pews and spent time giving each other sacred hugs. The farmer hugged his wife and then the blond little girl across from him. The new father cuddled his infant and hugged his mother-in-law with one arm wrapped around her. The priest went from person to person holding them close to his huge body, breathing in and out. The women hugged each other. The men hugged each other. Smiling.

I watched the scene as I held my bell in my lap feeling the joy of this moment. I was deeply moved at the willingness of these quiet, self-contained folks to breathe, smile, and hug. Once again, I understood that no matter what we are or who we are, when the goal is peace we are all the Buddha, or Christ, or Krishna, or Yahweh.

Love Never Fails

No teaching is complete until we talk about loving-kindness. So I read one of the most powerful biblical scriptures:

“Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

We were created by God to be an example of His love and we are challenged to be visible symbols of that divine love. Transformation is a vehicle that carries us to the Kingdom of God.

Our loving nature allows us to look deeply at our beloved and those around us. The peace in our heart gives us the ability to let go of our misperceptions. We look at others and know that there is deep suffering in them. We are able to be with them without blame, shame, or judgment. As we look deeply and begin to understand the nature of pain in those around us, we are able to be there with them in their place of suffering. We offer them our true presence with love and with kindness.

Loving-kindness is a gentle spirit that whispers healing into the lives of others. Loving-kindness transforms who we are in this very moment.

Hear the bell of God calling.

Breathing in, I feel loving-kindness.
Breathing out, I give love.

As the evening came to an end, a few people hurried off to another meeting. Others came to me with their smile and a desire to hug me. The priest congratulated me and said, “You always teach us such new ways of looking at relationship.” I smiled to myself knowing that what I taught is more than two thousand years old.

My husband and I drove back to the city that night, winding through the quiet country landscape. I was reminded of some of the words in a Christian hymn.

Let there be peace on Earth.
And let it begin with me…
Brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brothers

In perfect harmony.
Let this be the moment now.

That night was a “burning bush” experience for me — a miracle. I shared the most amazing evening with a group of people in a small church in rural Ohio. Despite our differences, there were far more similarities and we were perfectly at ease with each other. I had the privilege of sharing the beauty of my practice. They were open and absorbed my words as they learned how to deepen their Christianity. They were in me and I was in them. Although the world didn’t notice us, I believe that we made things just a bit better for all of us with our smiles, hugs, and mutual breath.

Never once did I utter the “B” word. It just wasn’t the point.

Diane Strausser, Peaceful River of the Heart, practices with Bliss Run Sangha in Columbus, Ohio. She is a therapist, author, and a frequent speaker for both local and national conferences on people and relationships (www.successfulrelationships.com).

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How to Live with Two Religious Paths

By Emily Hilsberg

I am seventeen years old, and I am Jewish and Buddhist. I study mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery. I have been going to Deer Park since I was six years old. This year marks my eleventh year being a part of the Sangha. I am also involved in my Jewish community. I am a member of Temple Beth Am’s youth group, and I have volunteered at many Jewish organizations. Every summer, I attend the family retreat at Deer Park and then I spend a month at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleep-away camp in Ojai, California. When people ask me my religion, I say, “I’m Jewish and Buddhist.” Their reaction is always the same. They ask, “Why do you have two religions? You can only commit to one god.” This idea is false.

mb65-How1Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me so much since 2003. Thay says that you need to show compassion to others and that compassion is the basis for true happiness. Similarly, one of my Camp Ramah directors has had a huge impact on my life. He taught me to be a person who fights for change. Be that person who steps up and takes charge and is always trying to make the community a better place. I’ve also learned that lesson at Deer Park. For example, one year some developers wanted to build houses on the ridge facing the large meditation hall. The community fought to preserve the ridge and after many months, they earned enough money to save it.

Many people underestimate others. I was born with Asperger’s disorder, which affects my brain, and I’ve struggled socially and in school. People have often underestimated my capabilities. I’ve been beaten down by the speech and actions of others. Administrators at my elementary school had no confidence in my abilities and the so-called resource specialist often yelled at me and gave me answers to classwork without teaching me how to do the work myself. The principal did nothing to help me. My fifth grade teacher did not understand me and did not help me when other kids bullied me because she never caught them in the act. Kids can be so mean and they often harassed me! As a result of my life experiences, I want to make a change in the world.

I’ve learned so much from going to Deer Park and from the five summers I’ve spent at Ramah. I can be who I want to be and I can teach others to be active leaders. I recently attended Thay’s public talk in Pasadena. My mom was on staff and I decided to help out. I had a long talk with one of the brothers, whom I hadn’t seen in years. I told him that I’ve changed. I learned so much from Deer Park and appreciate how much it’s helped me. He was very impressed. Later that day, while my mom and I were driving home, I thought to myself, “I am proud to be both a Jew and Buddhist. Having both makes me stronger as a person.”

I consider Sister Ho Nghiem, one of the monastic sisters, to be my godmother. She’s known me since I was a young girl. Before the children’s program was started, I often spent time in the sisters’ hamlet. One year when she broke her leg, I visited her in her room to cheer her up and keep her company. For many years I helped her in the bookstore. When I saw Sister Ho Nghiem at the public talk, I was overjoyed. I can’t imagine my life without my brothers and sisters of Deer Park. The practice has grown on me, and I hope to teach it to my own children one day.

Buddhism teaches me to be more compassionate and understanding toward other people who are suffering. Judaism teaches me to be close to god and to be the person I want to become. In my mind, these lessons are very much alike. Both focus on ethics and the value of strong community. I am fortunate to have two very supportive communities to guide me on my path: my Jewish community and my Buddhist community.

Emily Hilsberg, Crystal Mountain of the Heart, lives in Culver City, California.

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Dharma Talk: Life is a Wonder!

By Thich Nhat Hanh

On May 10, 2008, during the “Engaged Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century” retreat at the Kim Lien Hotel in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh answered questions from retreatants. Here are a few of those questions and answers.

Thich Nhat Hanh

A Beautiful Continuation

A written question: My father is retiring after fifty-five years of leading companies. He has decided that unless he can remain a very important person by having a high position or being affiliated with a prestigious institution, he is “irrelevant.” As a result he does not want to live. He has said he cares about no one and has no interests left in life. I’ve tried watering his good seeds and spending time with him. But his anger is very deep and his manas is 72 years strong [laughter]. How can I help him?

We might help him by telling him to learn to look deeply into his own person, to understand himself. We are usually caught in our notion of self. We are not aware that a self is made only of non-self elements, just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements. Sometimes we notice that we have certain talents and skills, but we should know that these talents and skills have come from our ancestors. When you know that your own talents, as well as your suffering and your happiness, have come from your ancestors, you are no longer caught in the idea that all these things belong to you.

In the Buddhist tradition when we Touch the Earth we make the gesture of opening our two hands to show that we have nothing in us. Everything has been transmitted through our ancestors. There is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be proud of. We inherit many things from our ancestors. In that light we can release everything very quickly. The insight that self is made up of nonself elements can be very liberating. Then it will be possible for us to see ourselves in our children and in our friends.

We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean our end — we always continue! We continue beautifully or not so beautifully, depending on how we handle the present moment. If in the present moment we can produce thoughts of loving kindness, forgiveness, and compassion, if we can say inspiring words, if we can perform beautiful acts of compassion, then we will have a beautiful continuation. We have sovereignty over the present moment.

If your father has access to that kind of insight he will change and he will suffer less. He will have joy in living. He will see that he is in you and that you will carry him into the future. All his talents and experiences are not lost — you will continue to have them, and you will do your best to transmit these qualities into the future through your children and grandchildren.

A Deep Grievous Longing

A lay woman asks: My husband and I have been trying to conceive a child for a long time. My sister and her husband have recently had a pregnancy loss, so we’ve both been experiencing a lot of suffering. One of my highest aspirations is to experience the miracle of having a child. Sometimes it’s very intense emotionally, the intensity of life wanting to continue itself, it causes a deep grievous longing. I work in a clinic that practices Chinese medicine to help couples with infertility. So it’s very difficult not to water those seeds of suffering. It is my most sincere intention to nourish my healing practice and my patients’ healing from the heart of my own experience. It’s from here that I ask for your guidance.

Someone said that happiness is something that you don’t recognize when it is there. You feel that, once it is gone, you have lost it. Happiness can occur in different forms. We might focus our attention on one thing and we call it the basic condition for our happiness. If we don’t have that thing then we don’t have happiness. But there are many other conditions for happiness that are present in the here and the now, and we just ignore them. We think that only the other object is a true condition for happiness, which now we don’t have.

Someone looking at you may recognize all the conditions of happiness that he does not have. That person may wonder why with plenty of conditions for happiness like that you do not enjoy your life and you are looking for something else. So the practice is first of all to say that happiness can be found in many forms.

Looking deeply into the human person we see that the human person wants to continue long into the future. We want to have children and grandchildren; we want to last a very long time. That is also the nature of animals and vegetables. Every living thing wants to be continued long into the future, not just human beings.

Someone like myself, a monk, also has the desire to last into the future, to be continued. That is very normal — every human being wants to be continued, and to be continued beautifully.

We know that there are those who have children but who are not happy with their children. They say if they had not given birth to these children they would be happier. You have to take into account all these things.

I myself do not have blood children but I have a lot of spiritual children and they make me very happy. They carry me into the future and I am very satisfied! I do not need to have a blood child.

Transmission can be done in many ways. You want to transmit the best thing you have into the future. You can transmit yourself genetically or spiritually. When you look into my disciples and friends and spiritual children you can see me.

We are not blood children of the Buddha but we feel that we are real children of the Buddha because we have inherited a lot from the Buddha. He has transmitted himself to us not genetically but spiritually. If you take into account these different modes of transmission you will see that we need not suffer because we cannot transmit ourselves genetically into the future.

But who knows?! Enjoy the conditions of happiness you actually have and one day you may enjoy that happiness also. But I think that if you enjoy this you may be completely satisfied. Every door is open. Good luck!

Treating Depression

Sr. Tung Nghiem speaks: Dear Thay, we had a few friends who wrote to Thay after Thay spoke about depression and how nothing can survive without food. They wrote either from their own experience or the experience of a loved one or a client if they wrote as a psychotherapist. They shared their belief that there’s also a physiological aspect causing depression and some people truly need to take medication. The friends who wrote were concerned that Thay’s teaching could be misunderstood by the people who still need to have medicine and who may stop taking their medicine if they think they only need to stop consuming those things that are harmful to their mind and that’s enough. So they ask Thay to clarify.

In the teaching of the Buddha the biological and the mental inter-are. They manifest based on one another. Our emotions and feelings are very connected to the chemicals in our bodies. Our emotions and feelings can produce chemicals that are toxic or that inhibit the production of certain chemicals like neurotransmitters, and create an imbalance in your body. The mental can create the biological and the biological can have an effect on the mental. We don’t reduce the importance of one side.

All of us have the seed of depression, all of us. All of us have the seed of mental illness. We have received these genes from our parents and our ancestors, and we know from science that genes don’t turn on by themselves. They are turned on by our way of thinking, our feelings, our perceptions, and our environment. It is the environment that helps turn on the negative and positive genes. The genes are equivalent to the bijas, the seeds that we talk about in the teachings of the Buddha.

Neuroscientists ask the questions: Is it true that the brain produces the mind? How could the activities of neurons bring about the subjective mind? But the brain and the mind inter-are. This is because that is; this is not because that is not. It’s not that the body produces the mind or the mind produces the body, but mind and body are two aspects of the same thing. The mind always relies on the body to manifest. It’s like a coin — there is the head and the tail. Without the tail the head cannot exist and vice versa.

The seed of depression that now manifests may have been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors. There may have been generations when that seed did not manifest. But now, because of the new environment, that seed has a chance to manifest. That is why we have to take into account the element of environment.

The environment is an object of consumption because elements of the environment touch and turn on the genes in us. That is why the teaching of the Buddha on food is very important. We consume not only edible food but also what we see, hear, feel, and touch; sensory impression is the second kind of food. The third kind of food is intention, our volition, the deep desire in us. The fourth kind of nutriment is consciousness; we consume consciousness. If we live with a number of people around us, we consume their collective way of thinking and perceiving. For instance we may see something as not beautiful but because everybody around us sees it as beautiful, slowly we also come to see it as beautiful. We are influenced by the collective thinking around us and that is also consumption. Our depression has to do with all these sources of nutriments.

Medication can help but don’t rely on medication alone. You have to change your way of life and your environment, and one day you’ll be able to stop taking medication. If you don’t change your way of life and you continue to use the medication, at a later time it will not work because your body gets used to it.

Scientists know full well that it is our environment and our attention that turn on the seeds in us. There is a practice called yoniso manaskara, appropriate attention, where we focus our attention only on things that turn on the good seeds in us. For example, when we hear the sound of the bell, if we are a practitioner we naturally stop thinking and go back to our breathing and enjoy the present moment. The sound of the bell helps with appropriate attention, to turn on the good seeds.

We should create an environment where the good seeds and genes in us have many chances to turn on. If you are in a bad environment you know that even if you are taking medication it will not be a long-term solution. So go on and take the medication that you need but you should do something more. Change your way of life. Look at the source of nutriments you are using to feed yourself. Look at your environment to see if it is turning on the negative things in you. And if possible, just change your environment — even if you need to live in a smaller house, drive a smaller car, have a meager salary. If you can move to a better environment do not hesitate to do so because your health depends on it.

Why Are We Here?

A lay woman asks: What is the purpose of life?

That is philosophy! [laughter]

No, but there must be a reason! Why are we here?

This is a chance to discover the mystery of life. Very exciting! [laughter] You have something to discover, something very deep, something very wonderful. That practice of looking deeply can satisfy your curiosity, and that is one reason to be alive — to discover yourself, to discover the cosmos. This is a joy.

You might like to focus your question on “how” and not be caught always in the “why”. Life is a wonder! We are here to experience the wonder of life. If you have enough mindfulness and concentration, you can have a breakthrough and get deep into the reality of the wonder.

Life is a wonderful manifestation. Not only is the rose wonderful, not only are the clouds and the sky wonderful, but the mud and the suffering are also wonderful. So enjoy touching life; discover the mystery of life. And don’t spend your time asking metaphysical questions! [laughter]

Defusing the Bombs in the Heart

A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, before I came to Vietnam I had the privilege to spend several weeks in Laos where I was able to meet with many people who had been affected by the war. As I stood in fields that still had a lot of unexploded ammunition, sometimes forty or fifty bombs in a small field, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and anger. Speaking to people who continue to be affected, whether it’s friends or family who are killed by the unexploded ammunition, or a poor farmer who had his arm and his leg blown off at a young age, plunging his family into further poverty, I felt very sad. This young farmer said to me that this experience was his luck. I find it hard to accept that such experiences can be luck! Is this karma? And is this a time when we can be righteously angry? What is the mindful way to deal with these intense emotions?

Many social workers we trained in the School of Youth for Social Service died because of bombs, guns, and assassination. Some lost one foot, one arm. A young lady got more than 300 shards of metal in her body, from a type of bomb called anti-personnel bomb dropped by the American bombers. The doctors helped to extract many pieces of metal but there are still hundreds of them in her body. When she was in Japan for treatment she could not use an electric blanket because of these pieces of metal in her body. And they are my own students, my disciples.

I know that there are many unexploded land mines and bombs in Vietnam and in Laos, that continue to kill people. We need to get the attention of people in the world and ask them to help remove these engines of death. There are dedicated professionals who are helping. What is essential is to learn how to do it with compassion because that amount of violence is part of our legacy, our heritage. We should make the strong aspiration not to repeat that kind of action from now on.

But the bombs are not only embedded in the land, they are in the hearts of many people today. If you look around you see that many people, even young people, are ready to die and are ready to punish others.

How to defuse the bomb in the heart of man is very important work also, how to remove the hate in the hearts of so many people. So far the war on terrorism has not diminished the number of terrorists. In fact it has increased the number of terrorists, and each of them has a bomb inside his or her heart. Terrorists want to die for a cause, they want to punish others. That is why cultivating compassion and helping these people to remove their hatred and anger is also very important work. That is also to defuse the bombs.

You can see that the situation in the Middle East is very difficult. Not only are there bombs that explode on the land but there are bombs in the hearts of very many people. Compassion is the only answer.

As we help to defuse the bombs, whether in the land or in the heart, we should keep our compassion alive. I admire those of us who continue to help removing those death engines from the soil, but I also urge my friends to practice in order to defuse the bombs in the hearts of many people around us. We pray to the Buddha, to Jesus Christ and all our spiritual ancestors to support us in this compassionate action. We should think of our children and their children, and we should clean the Earth and our hearts, so that our children will have a better place to live.

Thank you for reflecting on this.

An Inoculation of Suffering

A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha: Yesterday you taught us that we should never give the negative seeds a chance. I agree with just 90% of that. [laughter] Ten percent of that is this question: there are young people who grow up in a very loving and supportive environment but when they go to big cities or other countries to study or to work, they will face some really negative pressure and the challenge is so big that they cannot deal with it. My suggestion is that we should vaccinate their mind and we should give them a bit of challenge when they are still young, so that their immune system is ready. What do you think of this? [laughter]

Thay says sometimes that each of us needs a certain dose of suffering. Remember? Suffering can instruct us a lot and help us cultivate compassion and understanding. So the art is to give each person an appropriate dose of suffering. [laughter] With too much suffering people will be overwhelmed and their heart will be transformed into stone. That is why parents and teachers have to handle this with care and intelligence.

In fact we cannot grow without experiencing suffering. When we say we should not give the negative seeds a chance we are referring to the teaching of Right Diligence. This means first of all that when positive seeds are present we should keep them alive as long as possible. One example of a positive seed is compassion. We should keep the seed of compassion alive in our hearts and our minds. One way to keep this seed alive is to be aware of the suffering. The practice of Right Diligence secondly means that we do not give negative seeds like hatred and anger a chance to increase by watering them everyday. If you are experienced in the practice of mindfulness you can complete the practice of Right Diligence by the practice of embracing strong emotions.

From time to time there is a mental formation that refuses to be replaced, like a CD that plays over and over. Even if you have a strong intention to replace it, it is too strong. If you are a skillful practitioner you will not try to change the CD. You will say, “You want to stay? It’s okay!” [laughter] You accept the CD; you accept the feeling, you embrace it tenderly and look deeply into it. That is also the teaching of the Buddha, to recognize the painful emotion, not to fight it but to recognize and embrace it in order to get relief. Look deeply into its nature in order to find all the roots of that feeling or emotion, because understanding is the way of liberation. Mindfulness and concentration lead to insight that is liberating.

Suffering exists in the context of family and school. There should be collaboration between parents and teachers, between parents and children, between teachers and students, to teach them how to handle their suffering. This is very clear in the tradition of Asia. When you come to learn from a teacher, what you have to learn first is how to behave – how to behave with others and with the teacher. You learn ethics first. And then after that you learn to write, to read, to study literature, history, mathematics, and so on. It is possible for us to do that in the context of family and school.

Making a living is important but that is not everything. Parents should show their children that although they are busy making a living for the whole family, they also devote enough time to make sure that harmony and happiness exist in the family. You can bring home a lot of money but that is not enough. You have to be there for your partner, your spouse, your children.

Their happiness depends on your way of being around them. The same must be true with school teachers. Not only do they need to transmit technical knowledge so that students will get a job later on, but we have to transform school into a family, into a Sangha. We should devote enough time to just being together. If there is deep communication between school teachers and children, the atmosphere of school will be pleasant. This helps the learning process to happen easily. So we have to offer retreats to parents and school teachers so they can take better care of their families and their students.

And that is part of Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from Barbara Casey and Sr. Annabel, Chan Duc.

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War, Conflict and Healing

A Buddhist Perspective

By Ha Vinh Tho

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According to the first of the five precepts (panca sila) given by the Buddha to his lay disciples (upasaka):

“Lay students of the Buddha refrain from killing, put an end to killing, rid themselves of all weapons, learn humility before others, learn humility in themselves, practice love and compassion, and protect all living beings, even the smallest insect. They uproot from within themselves any intention to kill. In this way, lay students of the Buddha study and practice the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.” (1)

Even though all religious and spiritual traditions agree to condemn the destruction of life, and although the precept “do not kill” is one of the most universally recognized ethical rules, war and violent conflicts remain an ever-present reality in the history of mankind. For this very reason, it is of utmost importance to reflect on ways to prevent conflicts, to alleviate suffering once conflicts have occurred, and to facilitate reconciliation and healing in post-conflict situations.

The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

The objective of this presentation is to show how the practice of Engaged Buddhism can contribute to the construction of the defenses of peace in the mind.

Developing the Great Compassion

I work in the field of humanitarian action; I train young people to help civil populations, war prisoners, the wounded and the sick in situations of war, armed conflict, and natural catastrophe.

Although neutrality and impartiality are the very guiding principles of true humanitarian action, it is often difficult to maintain this attitude when confronted with the harsh reality of violent conflict. To refuse to take a stand and to maintain an attitude of neutrality can be perceived as a lack of courage or lucidity. Indeed, how not to take sides for the weak against the strong, for the victim against the perpetrator?

I will argue that meditation on the universal law of interdependence, on non-self and on the nature of suffering, is the foundation of the Great Compassion which allows us to develop an attitude of neutrality which is not cowardice and of impartiality which is not indifference.

In the current world situation, characterized by the confrontation of cultures, religions and civilizations, it is more than ever necessary to develop non-attachment to opinions and to wrong perceptions. The Buddha teaches skillful means allowing lifelong learning, and an attitude of tolerance and authentic opening.

I recently acted as a mediator in a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and one of the participants explained:

“Our problem is that there are two competing narratives for one and the same situation.”

Not only is there a competition over land and resources, but there is a competition over the interpretation of reality. Each party is convinced, and wants to convince the world, that his story is the true story.

Each time one is confronted with violent conflicts, one can observe this phenomenon — the two sides have competing narratives, competing stories. And each side sees itself as the “the good guys” versus the other side perceived as “the bad guys.” Most armies are called “Defense Forces”; for instance the German army during the Second World War was called “Wehrmacht,” German for “Defense Force,” and on the buckle of the belts of the soldiers was written “Gott mit uns”: “God with us”, or “God on our side.”

I don’t know of any state that calls its army “Aggression Forces” — the aggressor is always the other side. The demonizing of the other side is a recurring phenomenon in any conflict; otherwise, how would it be possible to kill and maim the so-called enemy, if each one was fully aware that the other is just like oneself?

To give another example, during the Rwandan genocide, the actual physical violence had been prepared through intense radio propaganda by the “Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines” (RTLM) that was broadcasting slogans like: “Kill all the cockroaches,” referring thus to the moderate Hutus and to the Tutsis.

These few examples show clearly that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

But how can we build these defenses?

The Reality of Suffering

In his first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” Lord Buddha began by explaining the Four Noble Truths, and the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering (dukkha). Because of this, some people who do not understand the deeper meaning of the Dharma think that Buddhism is a pessimistic world view that emphasizes suffering over joy, and only sees life as a burden best gotten rid of. But this is a very superficial view; the Buddha acknowledges suffering in the same way a doctor acknowledges illness: in order to cure it.

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Suffering can be a powerful way to develop compassion and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, the Fourth Training addresses this reality:

Awareness of Suffering— Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help me develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, I am determined not to avoid or close my eyes before suffering. I am committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so I can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace and joy. (2)

I would like to share an experience that I had some years ago, and that helped me understand in a more concrete way the reality of this Mindfulness Training. During a peace conference, I heard a lady from Northern Ireland tell how her sister had lost her son in a terrorist attack, and how, soon after, the man who had killed her nephew had also been shot dead. The mother of the young man who had been killed decided to visit the mother of the one who had killed her son, not in order to seek revenge, but to console her. She said:

“Only a mother who has lost a child can understand another mother who has had the same experience.”

These two women started a powerful peace movement in Northern Ireland that was instrumental in bringing about the Good Friday Peace Agreement that stopped a violent conflict that had been raging for decades.

In the same way, in Israel and Palestine there is a movement called the Parents’ Circle; all members of this circle have lost a son or a daughter in the conflict. I have had the privilege to facilitate meetings of the Parents’ Circle. It is a deeply moving experience to see how these people have transformed suffering into compassion. They have been able to overcome the natural striving for retaliation and revenge and to come together, united by their common experience of a terrible loss, to share a message of peace and reconciliation. When they meet, they share their stories, the memories of their lost children, but out of this grief they draw strength, energy of love and compassion, and a strong will to bring an end to war and to violence. Whoever listens to them can only be deeply moved because they speak from the depth of an experience that no theory or abstract ideal can match. They have discovered through their own suffering the reality of the Buddha’s saying:

“Hate is not overcome by hate; by love (metta) alone is hate appeased. This is an eternal law.”

The Realization of Interdependence and Non-Self

From the point of view of conflict prevention and peace building, interdependence and non-self are the most important tools that Buddhism has to offer. What I have called the problem of competing narratives is always based on the false assumption of a radical, unbridgeable difference between me and you, between my community and your community.

At first sight, good and evil, right and wrong, victim and perpetrator seem to be completely separated realities; we may think that if we get rid of the negative, only the positive will remain. But interdependence or, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, interbeing, is the realization of the interconnectedness of all life. The more we become aware of the reality of interbeing, the more we realize our shared responsibility for the state of the world. On one hand, this can seem like a burden; on the other, it makes us conscious that we are not passive onlookers, but that we can do something to bring about transformation and healing. I would like to quote venerable Thich Nhat Hanh who shared a powerful example of this insight:

“One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years.”3

If we awaken to the reality of interbeing and non-self, we awaken to the wisdom of non-discrimination. This is the wisdom that can break the barrier of individualism; with this wisdom we see that we are the other person and the other person is ourself. The happiness of the other person is our own happiness, and our own happiness is the happiness of the other people, plants, animals, and even minerals.

This is not only true on a personal level; it is also true for communities, countries, religions, and civilizations.

“Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhism elements. If we look deeply we can see that the elements of non-Buddhism have made Buddhism… It’s exactly the same as a flower. A flower is made from non-flower elements; the sun, the clouds are not flower, soil is not flower, water is not flower. The self is made of non-self elements. It is the same with the other religions.” (4)

The more this insight can become not a mere theory, but an actual experience, the more we can realize that the so-called enemies are always part of a common interdependent reality. And if we strive for the freedom, the peace and the happiness of our own community, the only way to achieve it is by protecting the freedom, the peace and the happiness of the other community. This is true between Israelis and Palestinians, between Americans and Iraqis, between Tutsis and Hutus, between Tibetans and Han Chinese.

This is also the key insight that helps us to be neutral and impartial without being indifferent. I have personally struggled with this dilemma more than once, and I would like to share an experience that had a transformative effect on me.

The first time I visited a detention center, I went to meet with security detainees in a military prison. I spent most of the day having interviews with the detainees and met with dozens of men. I was listening to one story after the other, stories of violence, of fear, of injustice, of hatred, of despair. Taking all these stories in my heart, it was easy to feel a lot of compassion with them and, on the other side, to feel anger arising against the soldiers who had all the power, the weapons, the authority. At some point, I was taking a short break in the courtyard, resting from the intensity of the encounters, from the stench and the claustrophobic atmosphere in the prison cells, when a young soldier came to sit next to me. I felt he wanted to talk to me. He was very young — most soldiers are very young, war is always about elder men sending out young men to do things that they would not do themselves. I asked his age and he was several years younger than my own son. He began to tell me about his life before the military, he told me about journeys he had taken, countries he had visited, and he also said that he was active in his community, helping teenagers who had problems with their families. He told me that after the army, he wanted to study education and do something useful for the youths. I felt he wanted to show me another side of himself, he needed me to see beyond the uniform he wore and the machine gun he carried. After we had talked for a while, he suddenly asked me: “Do you think I am a bad person?”

The question touched me deeply. I realized how easy it is to perceive only the soldier, the one having the power and oppressing the prisoners. In a flash, I realized that if the causes and conditions had been different, I could have been the one with the machine gun and he could have been the humanitarian worker. And I could not be absolutely sure that if I had been the one with the weapon, I would have not been more cruel and harsher on the prisoners than he was. So I told him very sincerely: “No, I don’t think you are a bad person, I understand that you are in a situation that is not easy, just try to do the best you can. ”

Meditation and Mindfulness

True insight into the nature of suffering, interdependence, and non-self can bring about peace, reconciliation, and healing, but it cannot come from intellectual reasoning alone. It needs to be nourished by life experience, by mindfulness in everyday life, by meditation.

Meditation is not about turning away from reality and dwelling in an illusionary inner peace, ignoring the suffering that so many people and other living beings experience day after day.

Meditation is looking deeply into reality as it is, both in us and around us. It is training ourselves not to react immediately with sympathy or antipathy: I like, I dislike, I want, I don’t want, I grasp, I reject.

But rather to create an open space, free of judgment, free of notions and preconceived ideas, allowing reality to unfold and reveal itself in our heart and mind. By doing this, insight and compassion arise naturally, effortlessly, for they are the very nature of our deeper being.

  1. Upasaka Sutra, Madhyama Agama 128
  2. Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press
  3. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bantam, 1992
  4. Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village, France

mb50-War3Ha Vinh Tho, Chan Dai Tue, is half-Vietnamese, half-French. With his wife of thirty-eight  years, Lisi (both Dharma teachers ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh), he founded the Eurasia Foundation for the development of  special education in Vietnam. Tho is the head of training, learning, and development in a humanitarian organization whose mission is to protect the lives and dignity of  victims of  war and internal violence.

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Applied Buddhism & the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

By Bar Zecharya

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It’s humbling to stand here in the presence of so many whose compassion and dedication have touched the hearts and lives of so many people. In comparison to your kindness, your practice, and the fruits of your efforts, I am a very small fish indeed. But it is so much better to be a small fish swimming in the stream of compassion than a small fish frying in the pan of anger.

I speak to you as an Israeli, American, adopted citizen of the city of Rome, Jew, Buddhist, poet. As a musician, student of politics and of religion, teacher, friend, partner, ex-husband, enthusiastic motorcyclist; as a former infantry soldier who to this day still feels his automatic assault rifle like some amputees feel their missing limb, pressed against my shoulder and with the smell of sweat and grease. I speak to you as a brother, a son and some day perhaps a father. I would like to offer you the following reflection on my limited understanding of Applied Buddhism in the context of the Middle East.

You may think that in the Holy Land there is a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This is not the truth. There is great suffering, yes. Fear is all pervasive: not just the fear of army incursions, assassination, terrorist attacks, the call to report to reserve duty, or of nuclear annihilation, but fear of exploitation, fear of economic insecurity, fear of loss, of not producing enough, not being strong enough. Conflict is rife in every sector of society, from the schools to the government, the murderous traffic, the family, the army; public and private spheres, religious and secular. there is tremendous violence against women and against children, abuse of power in the workplace, corruption, wholesale neglect and destruction of the natural and human environment.

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All of this violence is the result of confusion, misperception and wrong views. The suffering is great, but if we misinterpret that suffering as the result of a conflict between two nations we are ignoring its real roots and will only perpetuate them. Using the Buddhist tool of looking deeply into the emptiness of an independent self, we can see a different reality. We Israelis and Palestinians may not be the same, but we are not different either. We are united in our fear, bound by our anger, intimately connected by our inability to listen with an open heart, and identical in holding the mistaken notion that our suffering is the result of a national conflict.

Please Don’t Join Us

This is not to say that there are no machines of war, no suicide attacks, checkpoints or existential threats. But by looking deeply into the reality we can see that the physical war is a reflection of the one in our hearts, an attempt to control our suffering by projecting it onto a clearly identifiable external enemy. To cover up the deeper reality of our suffering and its causes, to mask it with a narrative of two characters, is to do a great injustice and to render impossible any real transformation.

In my opinion, understanding the deeper dimension of suffering in the Holy Land is already a form of applied Buddhism. What practical steps can we take to alleviate suffering?

The first step, as always, is to protect ourselves and cultivate compassion. You may live in Southeast Asia, Europe or anywhere else on this planet that so generously provides for us, and often on the television you see images of political conflict. If we respond to those images out of judgment, collapsing the infinite web of social, political institutional, familial and psychological causes and conditions into a simplistic schema of two sides, one victim and the other aggressor, we are watering the seeds of judgment in ourselves. Anger and hate need no permit or passport to pass through a checkpoint or concrete wall, and just as easily they can pass through our hearts. If we strengthen the seeds of judgment, anger and hate, their fruits will find their way to all aspects of our lives and will damage the relationships with all those around us. Your partners, your children, your parents and all of your loved ones are precious to you. If would be such a shame if our confusion and ill-being led to even a moment of discord or disharmony in your family and community.

The same television images can be embraced with compassion and deep under-standing. Think of  someone who launches a Qassam rocket into Israel. Being a militant is not the entire truth. No one is only a militant. He may be a militant, son, brother, friend, artist, student, and so on, including being a victim of numerous causes on many levels and from many directions — leading to his belief that killing can solve his suffering or the suffering of his loved ones. No one is only a soldier either. The truth of a soldier is just as complex, just as human, whose confusion and whose actions can be seen as the result of many causes, deep and wide, to which he, his commander and general are all victims. Were they able to see deeper they would act differently.

Please, friends, for your own sake, and your own happiness, take this as a meditation on non-duality, signlessness and interbeing, to develop your compassion for those of us who have not yet learned to do so. You will be setting a beautiful example of non-judgment for your children, who will then be able to enrich their lives and those of their loved ones with compassion and understanding. Thus you can turn a rocket attack or a military incursion into love, transforming ignorance into a teaching of the Dharma. I believe that this practice will bring you more joy into your own life, and that is reason enough to practice it.

Removing the obstacle of a dualistic view also presents many opportunities for Applied Buddhism on a wider scale. Just as fear is found in every sector of our society, opportunities can be found as well. We Middle Easterners would do well to learn to appreciate the many conditions of joy and happiness already present in the here and now. This includes our existing friendships, our children, the spectacular natural beauty that surrounds us, and the joy we can find by returning to the miracle of our breath.

Some of these conditions are also the countless projects of peace and development thanks to the dedication and generosity of individuals the world over. Whatever your expertise — be it social work, health care, agriculture, the environment, art and culture, or sport and so on — I believe that any contribution can relieve suffering and slowly water the seeds of joy, if given after having personally deepened the practice of compassion, non-judgment, and non-duality. Without this practice, I fear that any effort will unfortunately only contribute to further suffering. Coexistence projects are useful and welcome, but focusing solely on coexistence in my opinion risks emphasizing only one result of the underlying causes. Compassion, deep listening, and loving speech can be practiced at any level of society and in any language.

Question from the Audience

How can engaged Buddhism resolve the conflict in West Asia (the Middle East)?

That’s a difficult one! My first response is that preferring one political solution over another, from our standpoint outside the Middle East, is to practice the attachment to views, and our practice as Buddhists is to practice non-attachment to views. If we choose one particular political solution, believe that it is the correct view and attempt to enforce it on the rest of the world, we will only be practicing judgment and the inability to listen and will water those seeds in ourselves and in others. What we really need to do to have any positive effect, is the exact opposite. We need to practice the ability to listen without judgment so the seeds of love, even though they may be small, will be watered. First of all we must do this practice in our own hearts and in our own day-to-day lives. Second, we can support projects in Israel and in Palestine at any level of society: the family, government, education, etc, that involve listening deeply and using loving speech. Finally, we could bring Israelis, Palestinians or both, decision-makers and humble citizens, together to simply listen to each other and transform their own suffering. This is the only effort that will have any positive effect.

Bar Zecharya is a PhD student in Political Science at La Sapienza University. He holds an M.A. in Comparative Religious Studies and a B.A. in International / Middle East Studies from Ohio State University. Citizen of Israel and the United States, Bar currently lives in Rome, Italy; he can be reached at bar@zecharya.com.

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Sangha Building

A Lesson in Love

By Joanne Friday

Our practice is about expanding our capacity for love and compassion. We use the practice to transform our unskillful states of mind and develop fearlessness so we can go through the world loving freely with an open heart.

In my experience, this is the basis of Sangha building. It is a very deep practice of expanding our capacity to love. The Sangha, committed to practicing the Five Mindfulness Trainings, ideally provides a safe container in which we can water the wholesome seeds in ourselves and each other. It is a community with which we can practice deep listening and mindful speech and share our aspirations, our joys and concerns, and support each other in our practice.

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It also gives us opportunities to be more aware of the unwholesome seeds in us and to use all of our practices so that we can transform them. We can observe our habits of mind and our attachment to views. Because our Sanghas are open to everyone, we come in contact with some people who are difficult for us. We can feel our hearts close. It requires that we invoke Sadaparibhuta Bodhisattva, whom I see as a sort of patron saint of Sangha building. S/he is the bodhisattva of deep respect who sees the Buddha nature in everyone. We need to be able to do that for each one of our brothers and sisters. When we find our heart closing, we can look at what arises in us regarding the person we find to be difficult. We embrace those difficult feelings, look deeply in order to understand, and with understanding, we arrive at compassion and love for ourselves and the one we thought to be “difficult.” Then our heart can open again.

The Sangha gives us many opportunities to put into practice the teachings of the Discourses. We might use the Discourse on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger. If a person’s actions are not kind, we focus on their words. If their words are not kind, we focus on their actions, and so on.

In the Sangha, we have a responsibility to resolve all conflicts however small in a safe way. We can touch those things, like conflict, that scare us, and develop skillful means to transform them. This enables us to become more fearless and more honest with ourselves and each other about conflicts when they arise. Once again, we can allow our hearts to open instead of to harden and close.

These are just a few examples of the transformative power of Sangha building. If we want to build a healthy and happy Sangha, we need to discover and transform the barriers to love in our own hearts, so we can truly love every one of our brothers and sisters. We are so blessed to have a practice to help us to be truly joyfully together.

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Joanne Friday, True Joy of Giving, practices with the Clear Heart Sangha, the Radiant Bell Sangha, and the Mind Tamers Sangha in Rhode Island.

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The Courage to Change Becoming a Conscious Consumer

By Jonathan Borella

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My spirituality has become the main guiding force in my life. It plays a role in almost every decision I make, in my relationships with family and friends, and in my perspective of the world. Indeed, as the days go by, I am noticing my life and my spirituality are becoming one.

My so-called spiritual journey set off when I started becoming aware of the immense suffering in the world. I saw people unable to maintain relationships, destroying their lives with drugs, and pillaging the environment in pursuit of pleasure. So I started to look at myself, and how I interacted with the world. I didn’t like what I saw. I decided to change.

I don’t think I ever decided to become a “spiritual” person but when one dedicates one’s life to a path, it becomes a spirituality. One of the fi ways I saw this manifesting was in my diet. So much of the suffering in the world is caused by how people consume. I decided to become a conscious consumer. I was a self-described barbeque lover until I transitioned to vegetarian and finally vegan. Now, any time I decide what to eat, my spirituality is present. And my conscious consuming didn’t just stop with my diet. From there, I cut animal products out of nearly all my daily necessities. I began driving less and cutting my water consumption in half. This may seem like a drag to some people, but I wouldn’t call it spirituality if I didn’t enjoy it.

I used to be very cynical. I used to think that if other people didn’t care about me, why should I care about other people? But, as I became a more conscious consumer, I realized that all my previous consuming habits were rooted in that selfish attitude. That realization exposed the flaw in my cynical logic and I asked myself the flip side of the same question. “If I don’t care about other people, why should other people care about me?” If no one is caring about anyone else, nothing will change. The question then became: “Do I have the initiative and courage to change myself?” It became clear to me that this would be the ground of my spiritual path and the only way I could effect any real change in the world.

I started to train myself in empathy: seeing myself in the other person and seeing the other person in me. This aspect of my spiritual path has proven to require the most attention. When I see someone making mistakes, or causing harm, it is so easy to fall into judging and condemning. But that attitude has never helped me before. Now when I catch myself in this view, I have to remind myself that I am not seeing things clearly. I am only seeing the tip of the iceberg and there is still so much more to this person I don’t understand. Trying to understand someone means caring about him. Now I try to see her situation in life, her difficulties. Sometimes I may offer advice. Most of the time, though, I know my words are not needed. I used to preach a lot about what people should and shouldn’t do. Now I try to make the way I live my life an example to follow.

My spiritual path began with a sense of compassion, wanting to do something about the suffering in the world. I don’t know what ignited this initial sense of compassion but the more and more I practice, the more I keep coming back to it. Compassion has to be both the means and the end.

Jonathan Borella is a student at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, where he practices with the Cedar Sangha.

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Compassion Is the Energy that Protects

By Brother Chan Phap Lai

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Thay’s offering, Bat Nha: A Koan, is intended to nourish our collective bodhicitta—the mind of love. Thay has contributed his deep insight and invites us all to read, contemplate and practice in order to come to our own insight—the kind of insight that can show a way out.

The situation, as it has developed, is certainly sad in many ways. The Vietnamese Communist Party’s aggressive policy remains steadfast. We continue to pursue our request of France to allow some of the brothers and sisters to take refuge in Plum Village. Still, there is a greater happiness to celebrate. From a spiritual point of view, Bat Nha is a huge success. Here, I want to share a few anecdotes that for me personally gave a more intimate connection to this success.

mb54-Compassion2Recently, a number of Most Venerable monks and nuns from Vietnam were able to come to Plum Village and, along with Thay, preside over our annual ordination ceremonies. Some stayed after the week of ceremonies and shared about their monastic life in Vietnam. I asked Ven. Minh Nghia if he would mind my writing articles about his involvement with our Sangha. I understood the Venerables were likely to be given some trouble on their return from Plum Village. Although Ven. Minh Nghia has already been outspoken in his actions to support the Bat Nha Sangha within Vietnam, I wanted to be sensitive. I was most impressed by his response: “You can write what is true—the truth is good.”

There are, of course, many aspects to the truth. One aspect is that the conduct and spirit of the Bat Nha Sangha was admired by the elder monastic community, and they truly wanted to help us. They risked their peaceful coexistence with the government and put their elderly bodies in harm’s way. Ven. Minh Nghia said, “When we saw how bravely the young brothers and sisters were acting, exemplifying the precepts and enduring immense difficulties, we had to act. How could we call ourselves elders of these young monastics if we did nothing but stand by and watch?”

One beautiful aspect of the truth is that the poor townspeople of Bao Loc and neighboring villages loved us. They demonstrated their love in many ways, including secretly bringing food in the middle of the night to the 400 young monastics. This proved a lifeline during the last three months in Bat Nha monastery when electricity and running water had been purposefully cut off. After the forcible eviction from Bat Nha in September, the community took refuge in Phuoc Hue temple in the town of Bao Loc. Here, the government, try as they might, using blackmail, bribes, and relentless propaganda, found it was impossible to enlist locals against the community. Even if the local people could not intercede directly, gaining their respect and love was a spiritual success that made staying in Bat Nha and Phuoc Hue Temple possible and left the local community changed forever.

In an interview concerning the September eviction, Chan Phap Si described how a sister, during a lull in the unpleasantness of the day, handed him a moon cake. (The monastics had, in effect, been starved during the months leading up to the eviction, and were very hungry on the day of eviction.) Phap Si, having noticed a lone policeman standing in the courtyard and knowing the other police had taken time for a lunch break, walked over and offered to share the moon cake. The policeman looked at Phap Si strangely, then politely declined, saying, “You will need it; you have a long journey ahead.” Phap Si was later forcibly driven to his home town and placed under house arrest. In the months that followed, police came around on spot visits to interrogate him. When they came into his house, he skillfully had them partake in a silent tea meditation before answering their questions. As a result, trust developed, and Phap Si found himself listening to the policemen’s personal suffering. They shared their pain concerning the fact that, as police, they often had to do things they felt were wrong.

On the day of eviction from Bat Nha, both Phap Si and Phap Lam placed themselves under a taxi in an effort to prevent their younger brothers from being driven off. They had accepted they were being forced out of their home but were determined not to be dispersed. Phap Lam described his state of mind: “I was not angry with the violent actions of the police and the hired thugs. I was only conscious of my deep love for the brothers.” This desire to protect them led him to place himself under the taxi. His action did not come from an idea to demonstrate non-violently, but was the natural response of a monk who had cultivated no-harm as a way of being, yet wanted to prevent the community from being dispersed.

In Phap Si’s account we heard how a heavy-set policeman tried to drag him away from the taxi wheel he had clasped. The policeman drew back his fist to hit Phap Si. The punch would have been injurious, given the large studded ring Phap Si observed on the policeman’s index finger. At this moment Phap Si said he looked into the eyes of the policeman about to hit him. “I was completely concentrated on compassion, having no fear or resentment, focused only on protecting my younger brothers. I believe the policeman was affected by this because as his fist bore down it seems he lost the heart to follow through and his fist only glanced my face.” Phap Si is convinced it was his concentration on compassion that protected him. “In truth we had nothing and no one to protect us from the ill-will and violence of that day— it was only the energy of compassion generated among us that protected.” There are so many elating anecdotes like this—small triumphs of love over hate.

We are all sad for the country of Vietnam and the dispersion of the Sangha. The Abbot of Phuoc Hue, the Venerable Thai Thuan, cried and cried. Thay says these tears of love shall go down in the history books. Thay also shared that the Sangha has been more united by this experience than divided by the government’s actions. “The Bat Nha Sangha is already a legend in the history of Buddhism in Vietnam,” one which, I believe, we can allow to inspire and instruct for years to come.

Dear friends, it would be remiss of me to ask you to share your personal insight on the koan without sharing my own. So I will end with my reflections on this never-ending koan:

Compassion is the energy that protects. With compassion and nonviolence as our way of being, we discover non-fear and need not act from anger. Bat Nha is not a distant event, remote from our lives in the West, but a collective experience of our international community. We are in this together. As individuals and as countries we should protect our integrity so that we have the moral right to speak out and are free (from vested interest) to act. The brothers and sisters of Bat Nha used their time to prepare mentally and spiritually for what they knew would come. They made the very best of the present moment, enjoying every day of practice. We might do the same.

May your koan practice benefit all living beings. May all be well, peaceful, safe, and happy. May all attain enlightenment. No discrimination.

Thay suggests we offer our insight in written form to be published on www.helpbatnha.org. Please send your personal insights on Bat Nha: A Koan to batnhakoan@gmail.com.

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No Enemy, No Duality

Thay’s Celebrating Hanoi’s Anniversary

By Susan O’Leary

mb54-NoEnemy1Within weeks of the final official dispersion of the Bat Nha monastics, Thay presented us with two powerful teachings: Bat Nha: A Koan and Celebrating Hanoi’s Anniversary. The koan asks us to look deeply, to become determined to penetrate its meaning by reading and remaining with the experiences, perceptions, and questions of five people touched by Bat Nha. The Twelve Proposals—based not in Zen stories but in ethical action—can also be pivotal teachings for Thay’s students as we practice engaged Buddhism in the world. Strong, fearless proposals grounded in the thousand-year-old wisdom of Zen Master Van Hanh, they remind us to return to our roots as refuge when acting. They call for compassion and generosity, ethical study and leadership, global care and stewardship, and true ecumenical religious freedom.

The koan and the proposals are close teachings of the Bat Nha era. In the koan story of the communist government official, Thay refers to the 1,000-year anniversary of the founding of Hanoi.

Reading them together and remembering in our hearts the loving, concentrated actions of the Bat Nha monks and nuns, might shed light for practitioners on the Tenth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, a sometimes difficult training to resolve.

The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting the Sangha

Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

Just as the personages of the koan kept questioning, we might also ask questions like these in reading Thay’s proposals:

  • Am I taking a clear stand against oppression and injustice?
  • Are my actions grounded in inclusiveness, non-fear, and nonduality?
  • Is my action an action or reaction? Does it demonstrate that I do not see others as separate from myself?
  • Does my action arise from an inner freedom of compassion and understanding?

Thay’s writings of this era remind us to be engaged in the world while having no enemies. To find the beauty as we breathe and walk in moments of suffering. An engaged Buddhist political action resides in non-fear and non-duality. It is grounded in kindness and inclusiveness, and does take a stand. The action itself manifests the teachings.

Susan O’Leary, Deep Confidence of the Heart, practices with the SnowFlower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the author of several books and essays.

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Teaching the Student Within

By Sara Unsworth

“If you want to think like a hummingbird, be the hummingbird.”
Sister Dang Nghiem

mb54-Teaching1Arriving at Deer Park Monastery for the Meditation and Education Retreat last November, I kept having one recurring thought: I want to learn how to connect to students. As a new, young professor, I was surprised at how disconnected I felt from the undergraduate students in my classes. Had so much changed in the nine years since I was an undergrad? Was this a generation gap? Was it because I was Canadian? How could I support American students if I didn’t understand what they were going through? This retreat was an opportunity to figure these students out. I decided I would watch. I’d listen. I’d lurk.

It didn’t take long before the collective consciousness at Deer Park cut through my reality. “No lurking,” joked Brother Phap De at the registration desk, as he made suggestions about what I could do for the hour before dinner. How did he know? Monastic mind meld? Nah—coincidence. I left the registration desk smiling as I retreated effortlessly into my sense of separateness, my ego mind.

Walking around before dinner, I came across two students. We smiled, and one student remarked that he had nothing to do for the next hour and didn’t know what to do with himself; he was used to running from one thing to the next. The other student asked with a sense of intrigue and excitement, “Are you Buddhist? Because that would be cool.” Exhaustion and openness to Buddhism—I could easily identify with both of those sentiments.

Eating meditation was followed by a brief walking meditation and orientation, led by Sister Dang Nghiem (Sister D) and Sister Hang Nghiem. We sang songs together, but we started off quietly and with some trepidation. To bring us out of our shells, Sister D reminded us: “We’re young, strong, and idealistic at this age, so let’s really sing!” And we did! Listening to Sister D and singing with the Sangha, I remembered a time when I saw my life as a path of change and growth, when I felt I could do anything, when I thought I could change the world. Life felt a little difficult for me at that time, but I really believed that every moment was an opportunity.

Looking around now and recalling that excitement for life, I understood something that gave rise to a feeling of joy. The issue wasn’t about connecting with students. If there was a missing connection, it was with myself.

Later that night I felt the energy of the young women in the tent next to me as they oscillated between gentle giggles and roaring laughter. I imagined they were young coyotes roaming free on the side of the hidden mountain. What spirit! The next day, speaking with a few other professors, I learned that one of them had shed a tear of joy when she heard Sister D’s words, and another felt as though Sister D had been talking directly to the professors: “We are young and strong!” (A Pat Benatar song pops into my mind.) “We can be idealistic too. We can be coyotes roaming the mountainside, if that’s who we want to be. The world is full of possibilities.”

Reflecting more on my youth (well, my earlier youth), I was able to touch both the joy and suffering I experienced as a student. I had a sense of excitement for learning about the world and traveling it, and a feeling that I could become anyone I wanted to be. But I also felt an intense need to prove myself and to compete for the top spots. It was a zero sum game: somebody was going to win and somebody was going to lose. As a graduate student, I was told by professors that I didn’t know how easy I had it. These seeds had been watered in me, and recently I had found myself looking at students with the same lack of compassion. I realize now that it is very difficult to be a student when professors look down on you. I can see myself in my students, and I can see them in me. I would like my job to be focused on supporting students, rather than testing and judging them.

I was a student for the remainder of the weekend. I learned from the students, teach-ers, and monastics, and also from myself. I sat in silence with the Sangha. During orienta-tion, the students were asked how many had never sat in silence during dinner, and most raised their hands. I walked in silence with the Sangha—a group of people moving in the direction of peace and happiness. I allowed the mindful breath of others to become my mindful breath.

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During the Dharma talk, I sat as a student and learned from Brother Phap Dung about challenging the status quo in our lives, hearts, and minds. During an activity focused on the mindfulness trainings, I sat as a student and heard other students talk about true love, interbeing, gratitude, compassion, and tolerance. One student reminded us all of the importance of loving deeply and listening with compassion. What wisdom!

Later that night, the young coyotes were at it again, and this time they were howling to the tune of “One finger wiggles, one finger wiggles, one finger wiggles, it’s enough to be happy…” The next day we hiked in silence to the top of the mountain and did sitting meditation above the clouds. It was very healing to feel supported by the earth as we sat solidly in the present moment. During a question and answer period later that morning, students asked about bringing the kind of love and tolerance they experienced inside the monastery out into the “real world.” Brother Phap Dung turned our attention to the world we are, by discussing connections between our inner peace and peace in world, and by encouraging us to approach life with openness.

Brother Phap Dung suggested that we consider the ability to cultivate happiness as a necessary skill for any job or career. I realized that I could rewrite my job description as a professor to include cultivating happiness. I hope to cultivate this happiness in my classroom and in my relationship with students. I see that in order to connect with students I have to find the student inside myself, and that providing support for students depends on my ability to cultivate happiness for myself. Learning how to water the seeds of compassion for the student within me will allow me to find compassion for the students I mentor, and will also allow me to find the teacher inside myself.

I do not want to be a robot, programmed by ideas of being a professor that are based on a desire for admiration, achievement, respect, and fame. I will move in the direction of love and compassion, and will cultivate the ability to mentor with a heart that is open to the suffering and idealism of students.

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I am grateful to all of my teachers, including those who attended and helped to organize this retreat, and those who have been a part of my life and the lives of my ancestors. I’ll end with the words of a graduate student who also came to the retreat: “It was, like, the best thing I have ever done, ever.”

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Sara Unsworth, Joyful Stream of the Heart, practices with the World Beat Sangha in San Diego, California. She grew up in Alberta, Canada. She now teaches psychology at San Diego State University.

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Book Reviews

mb55-BookReviews1The Mama Bamba Way
The Power and Pleasure of Natural Childbirth

By Robyn Sheldon
Findhorn Press, 2010
Soft cover, 272 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

I met Robyn Sheldon when we shared a taxi during Thay’s 2008 tour in Vietnam. I learned that she is a midwife in South Africa who teaches mindfulness to expectant parents. This led me to reflect on my own experience being born in the 1960s. During the birth, both mother and baby experienced trauma. Not surprisingly, the labor and delivery of my first child were similarly traumatic for mother and baby.

Contrast this to the births described in Sheldon’s new book, aptly subtitled The Power and Pleasure of Natural Childbirth. Sheldon’s main thesis is: “Birth is a baby’s first experience of life. It impacts strongly on how deeply she trusts the world. Her primary need is to feel your attention and welcome at this moment.” This is the basis of the Mama Bamba method of childbirth, developed by Sheldon. The core tools of this approach include meditative awareness, relaxation and surrender, deep exploration of our unconscious processes, connecting with our babies in the womb, and labor support.

Sheldon works with women before labor so that no matter how the birth unfolds, it is a satisfying experience. Being in the moment with openness and receptivity is the fruit of her own daily meditation practice, and she brings this to bear when supporting women during childbirth. In addition to techniques for birthing with integrity and awareness, the book includes beautiful photographs by Nikki Rixon, quotations, and stories of all different sorts of births in the words of the mothers. Intermingled with the text are instructions for guided meditations, relaxations, and visualizations on the topics of simplicity, releasing tension, peaceful birth, the unborn child, and breast-feeding. There is guidance for labor, practical advice for the early months of parenting, and what to do when we suffer from the loss of a baby, preor post-birth. Finally, Mama Bamba is a remarkable example of one woman’s journey to integrate her personal mindfulness practice with her livelihood as a midwife, where she can make a meaningful difference in the way new beings are birthed: with acceptance, peace, and awareness. In the words of our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, “The stories, meditations, and lived experience in this book are powerful wisdom for expecting parents. It shows us concretely how to relax into, accept, and transform the fear and pain of birth by coming back to the present moment to be aware of our body and mind.”

mb55-BookReviews2Voluntary Simplicity
Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich

By Duane Elgin
Harper, 2nd edition, January 2010
Paperback, 210 pages

Reviewed by Brandy Sacks

Duane Elgin is considered to be the father of the voluntary simplicity movement. In 1981, when his book Voluntary Simplicity was originally published, Elgin’s ideas were widely regarded as counter-cultural and irrelevant. The book was ahead of its time. Now, three decades have passed, and the world is a very different place—a place that is unfortunately similar to the one the author warned us about.

With Elgin’s revised and updated edition we have more ways to learn “a way of life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich.” Voluntary Simplicity is not about living in poverty but living with balance. By embracing voluntary simplicity—frugal consumption, ecological awareness, and personal growth— people can change their lives. In the process, they have the power to change the world.

The book reaches beyond the how-tos of voluntary simplicity to examine the many psychological, spiritual, and cultural benefits of living more simply and consciously. Elgin makes clear that voluntary simplicity is not self-sacrifi but rather enlightened self-interest, and that this emerging lifestyle choice can foster individual and collective well-being in multiple areas. The depth and significance of Elgin’s ideas are matched by the clarity of his writing, so that Voluntary Simplicity is an education, an inspiration, and a pleasure to read.

In the introduction, Elgin writes: “Overall, the world has changed dramatically since I wrote the first edition of Voluntary Simplicity in the late 1970s. To respond, I’ve completely revised this book and more than half of it is new material. It is my hope this new edition will extend the promising wisdom and healing force of simplicity to our imperiled world, for on the other side of the fast emerging planetary systems crisis is a future bright with promise.”

For more information, see Duane Elgin’s website, www.awakeningearth.org.

mb55-BookReviews3The Wisdom of Sustainability
Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century
By Sulak Sivaraksa
Koa Books, 2009
192 pages

Red Alert
Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge
By Daniel R. Wildcat
Fulcrum Publishing, 2009
128 pages

Reviewed by David Percival

If there was ever a time for the so-called “developed world” to listen to the “less developed world” and the indigenous teachers living among us, that time is now. We—the people who don’t know how to stop—need to pay attention. These two books call us to practice deep listening and let go of much of what we have previously learned.

In The Wisdom of Sustainability, Ajahn Sulak, a lay Thai Buddhist activist and writer, is like an old friend gently but forcefully telling us that we can’t live by consuming alone. Instead, we can make a difference through understanding Buddhist teachings, holding to a moral code, embracing sustainable living, and taking care of ourselves. He takes us through basic Buddhist principles, international development, structural violence, globalization, and governance, and gives us a vision of where we need to go. “Capitalism’s promise to bring about emancipation through perpetual economic growth is, to use Jerry Mander’s word, insane. Nothing can grow forever. There are limits. Before we irretrievably erode the matter of our mother earth, we need to change direction and build a future based on wisdom and compassion.”

Ajahn Sulak tells us to stop exploiting our beautiful earth and her people. Instead, we need to rebuild our economies based on wisdom, understanding, and loving-kindness. E.F. Schumacher coined the term “Buddhist economics”—societies based on sustainability, “where people help each other in difficult times, where power is shared, rather than fought over, where nature is respected, and wisdom cherished.” The author discusses moral governance and the idea of “gross national happiness,” which, in a Buddhist democracy, would be based on compassion and nonviolence, our shared humanity, and the interdependent nature of all beings. He examines the true meaning of “real security” in our changing world.

This short but life-changing book concludes with the metta (loving-kindness) meditation exercise: “May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings dwell in peace.”

Red Alert, Daniel Wildcat’s provocative book, is a call to pay attention to indigenous realism and develop “respect for the relationships and relatives that constitute the complex web of life.” He writes: “This alert is also a wake-up call to those always forward-looking societies that have failed to inquire into the modes of living of indigenous peoples that their histories interrupted and ultimately destroyed… a challenge to replace a search for humankind’s general development along a Western-inspired universal timeline with a rethinking of our diverse human cultural development as shaped by places.”

By not paying attention, we marginalize or destroy indigenous peoples and their knowledge. If we would only listen to our indigenous elders and teachers, we could see that their wisdom and knowledge systems are all around us, and that they offer hope. Wildcat explores our fascination with technology and our vast ignorance of indigenous ways of life. This book has the power to awaken us with its wisdom and compassion. It is a strongly worded appeal to pay attention, listen, and throw away our cultural imperialism and “culture of conquest.” It is a brilliant look not only at the mess we have made, but also the hope offered by merely slowing down and paying attention, realizing our interdependent nature, and taking indigenous wisdom seriously. Although Buddhism is not mentioned, this is a very Buddhist book; it reminds us that deep listening brings great rewards.

These two books offer hope and engaged solutions to save our earth from climate change, globalization, consumerism, and materialism, and ultimately from ourselves.

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