Finding Ways to Help

By Sister Chan Khong

I n 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh and I moved with several fliends to a house near Fontvannes, France. The war in Vietnam had ended and we were cut off from our country with no way to help. We named our community Les Patates Douces, Sweet Potatoes. In Vietnam, when peasants have no lice, they eat dried sweet potatoes. It is the poorest food, and we knew we needed some way to be in touch with the poorest people in our country. Thanks to that house and land, we were able to heal some of our wounds and appreciate the beauties of France.

mb22-Finding

Life at Sweet Potato Community was beautiful, but I felt forlorn. More than anything, I wanted to help the hungry children of Vietnam. Then, one day in my meditation, I realized that I could go to Thailand, Bangladesh, or another country to work for social change. There was so much suffering in the world. If I could not help the Vietnamese at this time, why not help somewhere else? In less than a month, I flew to Bangkok and started working in the slums with two Thai friends. But, within a few weeks, I realized that my friends did not do things as I did. I could not reproach them for not following my advice. I knew I was ignorant of their culture and could not impose my plans on them. After three-and-a-half weeks, I decided to return to France. On the way home, I stopped in India and Bangladesh, and I saw the great misery there. Children and adults were so thin they looked like skeletons under the burning sun, as they canied huge bags of rocks and soil. In the mines, the daily wage was less than the price of one kilo of rice. These workers could barely feed themselves, much less their families. I tried to find good local organizations that I could support.

After six weeks, I returned to France, even sadder than before. I had been unable to help anywhere. All I could do at Sweet Potato was to immerse myself in sitting meditation, walking meditation, planting-lettuce meditation, doing everything while following my breathing to stay focused and not carried away by my sadness or thoughts. After many months, I had an insight. Because I was born in Vietnam, I knew the language, culture, and moral values of Vietnam; I was an expert in that part of the world. I had to devote all my energies to finding ways to help there!

A few weeks later during sitting meditation, I remembered a sentence in a letter from my sister: “The medicine you sent Mother for hypertension was very useful, but she didn’t need the other medical supplies you sent, so we sold them in the market, and with that money we were able to buy several hundred kilograms of rice.” When I read the letter, I had felt sad, but in my meditation, I realized that this was the solution! If I could not send money to the orphans without its being confiscated by the new regime, I could send medical supplies for them to sell at the market.

Thay always teaches that when we are in a difficult situation, if we calm ourselves, we may find a solution. But he also says that the first solution that comes into our mind may not be the best; in a few days, another solution may arise that is even better. So I continued to practice sitting and walking meditation, sowing fresh, calm seeds of peace in my mind, and after a few days, I remembered another sentence in the letter. My sister had written that she was interrogated at the police station several times because of her relationship with me. I knew that if I wanted to send medicine to hungry children, I could not use my own name. So, I began sending parcels of medicine to social workers we had worked with in the past, and with each package I gave myself a new name and wrote in a different handwriting. If I used my name, the workers could get into trouble. I enclosed a letter saying that I was a person living abroad who had lived in the same province in Vietnam as that social worker. Sometimes I was a nun, sometimes an old lady, sometimes a little girl. I wrote that I wanted to send medicine to the social worker, but that if she did not need all of it, she might wish to exchange some for food and share it with hungry children. Then I asked her to send me the addresses of some destitute families so that I could send aid to them directly. In tltis way, I began to accumulate a list of the poorest families.

In just a few months, I had more contacts than I could stay in touch with by myself. I could only send packages to 200 or 300 families by myself, because I was concerned that my address would become suspicious to the communists. So I decided to ask a number of young Vietnamese refugees who came to Sweet Potato to help me.

This made the work even more enjoyable. I was able to get in touch with our network of sponsors, and I could establish a relationship between the sponsors who contributed the funds, the young refugees who helped me write the letters and pack the medicine, and the children who received the medical supplies. I tried to be deeply in touch with each child, to find out his or her worries and aspirations. With this new project, I was able to correspond with each child. In my letters, I taught them how to enjoy the many positive things around them, not just the food and medicine, but their healthy eyes that opened to a world of shapes and colors and many other beauties of their homeland. In some cases, I was also able to help the parents through the child. It is difficult to teach adults when you are giving them money; they might feel offended. So, I tried to teach the children in ways that could also benefit the parents. In just two years, we set up dozens of small groups of young Vietnamese in Europe and Amellca working silently for hungry children.

In October 1982 we left Sweet Potato and moved to Plum Village. Here, many friends and I continue the work to relieve the suffering of poor children and families in Vietnam by sending parcels and finding sponsors to help support our efforts.

mb22-Finding2

One day, seeing how absorbed I was wrapping parcels for hungry children in Vietnam, Thay Nhat Hanh asked me, “If you were to die tonight, are you prepared?” He said that we must live our lives so that even if we die suddenly, we will have nothing to regret. “Chan Khong, you have to learn how to live as freely as the clouds or the rain. If you die tonight, you should not feel any fear or regret. You will become something else, as wonderful as you are now. But if you regret losing your present form, you are not liberated. To be liberated means to realize that nothing can hinder you, even while crossing the ocean of birth and death.”

His words pierced through me, and I remained silent for several days. No, I was not prepared to die. My work was my life. Being a nun in the West, I do not carry undernourished babies in my arms, but teenagers and adults do cry silently as they share the stories of their childhoods of sadness and abuse. By listening attentively to their pain and helping them renew themselves, I am able to help heal many of these wounded “children.” I also had found ways to help the hungry children, despite the difficulties. I knew that every time people received one of my packages or some other helping act, new hope was born in them, and also in their sponsors in Europe and America. If I were to die suddenly, who would continue this work?

When Thay asked me about dying, I contemplated many practical questions while following my breath. I was not exactly trying to find a solution. I knew the ability to find one was in me and that when I was calm enough, an answer would reveal itself. So I continued to breathe and smile, and a few days later, I did see a solution. I knew that the only way I could die peacefully would be if I were reborn now in others who wished to do the same work. Then my aspiration could continue even if this body of mine were to pass away. I thought about the young people who came to practice mindfulness with Thay, and I decided to share with them my experiences and deepest desires about helping suffering people. I would teach them how to choose medicines, how to wrap parcels, how to write personal letters to the poor, and how to keep Western people in touch with the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Under my guidance, a few young people were inspired to start their own committees for hungry children. With those who wanted to do my work in the West, helping those who suffer a lot in their minds, I asked them to join the Plum Village Sangha, to be trained as a monk or a nun, like me, trying to live in peace 24 hours per day with those who are very different, so that in a few years, they will be able to listen to the pain of others and try to help. If I die tonight, by a car accident or a heart attack, these 38 small groups working for hungry children, my 38 incarnations and these young monks and nuns-my continuations–will allow me to die in peace. If tonight my heart ceases to beat, you will see me in all these sisters and brothers-those who enjoy my work for hungry children, those who enjoy my work of listening to the suffering of people in order to help them be healed. You can see my smile in their look and hear my voice in their words.

Whenever I do anything, I see the eyes of my parents and grandparents in me. When I worked with villagers, I always had the impression that I was doing the work together with them and also with the loving hands of those friends who saved a handful of rice or a few dong to support the work. My hands are their hands. My love is the wonderful love of the network of ancestors, parents, relatives, and friends born in me. The work I do is the work of everyone. Even now, I can see that I am already reborn in many of my young sisters and brothers, and in many of you too, who continue my work.

Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, is a nun living in Plum Village. She has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s associate for over thirty years. This article is excerpted from Learning True Love (Parallax Press). She continues her humanitarian work in Vietnam. (Please see The Mindfulness Bell, Issue 21.) Since Spring 1998, seven new self-help villages have started: four in Phong Dien, Thua Thien Province, one in Suoi Bac, one in Ba Ria, and one in Lam Dong.

PDF of this article

Be A Flower

Children’s Questions to Thay
Summer Retreat 2001

Child: Why do you shave your head?

Thay: This question is classic. Many children have asked why do you shave your head? The answer I usually give is that we want to save shampoo. But there are other answers as well. The Buddha said to the monks and nuns, every morning when you wake up you have to touch your head and remember that you are a monk or a nun, not a person who lives in the world. Remembering that you are a monk or a nun you will know that you shouldn’t try to run after fame or profit, you should try to cultivate more compassion and understanding every day. That is one ofthe reasons why we shave our heads, in order to remember that we are monks and nuns.

mb31-Be1

The other reason is that to shave one’s head is a symbolic act we make in order to show our determination not to do as we did before. We really want to begin anew. We want to live a spiritual life. That is an expression of a determination. Shaving one’s head is a kind of language saying I want to pursue the spiritual path of the Buddha.

Another reason is that we want to tell people that we are already monks or nuns and they should not try to run after us and to take us as their husband or their wife. It is an indirect message that I am already a monk, please don’t try to seduce me. I am already a nun, please don’t try to seduce me. Please leave me alone so I can follow the path of the Buddha. It is very clear. Don’t run after me; I am already a monk; I am already a nun.

Child: Thay, mosquitos keep biting me and I want them to stop it. Can I kill a few everyday?

Thay: When I was a little boy I also had that question. Later on I learned that a mosquito needs to get some food in order to live. It is like us. When we are hungry we also look for something to eat, that’s very natural. I think there are ways in which we can protect ourselves from being bitten by mosquitos. In Vietnam everyone has a mosquito net to sleep under at night. If they don ‘ t use a mosquito net they have to kiII mosquitos the whole night. Not only a few, because after you kill one another will come. So you  spend the whole night killing mosquitos. So killing mosquitos is not the best solution. One way we can protect ourselves is by using a mosquito net. I think there are a few mosquito nets in Plum Village. You may ask the brothers to let you borrow one so you can spare the life of little mosquitos.

mb31-Be2

In my practice , from time to time I allow mosquitos to get a bite. Some of the brothers and sisters practice like that also. When a mosquito lands on us we just breathe in and out and we just allow the mosquito to get some food. We don ‘t do it very often. But from time to time we want to practice to nourish our compassion and understanding. Sometimes when I saw a mosquito land on me I produced a kind of storm to make the mosquito fly away. But we do it without any anger. Wejust prevent the mosquito from biting.

Child: How can we help our bad teachers?

Thay: What do you mean by bad?

Child: Teachers that like to blame others and give extra work for the children to do.

Thay: When we say that our teachers are bad, are we sure that we are good students? That is the first question, are we good school students? Helping our teacher is a very good thing to do. I think first of all we should show our sympathy and we should not show our anger to our teachers. We shou ld have an opportunity to s it down and talk to our teachers. Your teacher must have something good in him or her, although she may have some negative things also. So during the talk with your teacher you can mention what is good in him or her. After that you can say what is good in other teachers, especially the good things that you don’t see in your teacher. You have to speak in such a way that it doesn’t sound like you are blaming your teacher. You say what you appreciate in your teacher and then you say what you appreciate in other teachers. That is an indirect way to help your teacher to develop these positive things that she has not developed.

Also we can say that we students can be silly sometimes, we are difficult sometimes. So please help us so we can be less silly and less stubborn. If we talk to our teacher like that and we listen very deeply our teacher will appreciate us. We make an effort to please our teacher and our teacher will make an effort to be a better teacher.

mb31-Be3

There are many ways in which we can come to our teacher. We can come to our teacher as one or two students and sometimes we can talk to another teacher and ask that teacher for help. Sometimes we can write a loving letter to our teacher, not blaming. If you don’t have a chance to talk directly to him or to her, you can write a letter acknowledging all the goodness in her and you can ask her not to do the things that will make you suffer. Three or four of you can sign the letter together. If you write with loving speech your teacher will have a chance to read it. I hope these suggestions are helpful. Please try.

Child: Why do we have to die one day?

Thay: Imagine there is only birth, there is no death. One day there will be hardly any place to stand on earth. To die means to leave the place for our children . And who are our children? Our children are ourselves. Our children are our new man ifestat ions. The son is the continuat ion of the father. The father looking at his son has the feeling that he will not die because his son is there to continue him. Looki ng like that you see that you are not dying, you are continuing in your son . And your son is not dying because he is continued in the grandson and so on. Buddhist meditation helps us to look deeply to see that there is no real dying only continuation in different forms .

mb31-Be3

Look at the c loud in the sky. The cloud may be afraid of dying. But there is a time when the cloud has to be transformed in to rain and to fall down. But that is not really dying. That is changing form. The cloud changes into the ra in and the cloud continues in the rain. If you look deeply into the ra in you can see the cloud. There is no real dying. You continue to be in many other forms. The cloud can continue in the form of snow, in the form of rain, in the form of a river, or in the form of ice. One day the cloud can become ice cream. If the cloud does not die how can we have ice cream to eat?

Thay is not afraid of dying because Thay sees himself in his disciples, in you. You have come to learn with Thay and there is a lot of Thay within yourself. Thay is giving himse lf to you. If you have received some understanding, some compassion and some awakening from Thay then Thay is continued in yo u. Later on if someone wants to look for Thay they just come to you and they see Thay. Thay is not onIy here [pointing to himself], Thay is here also [pointing to the children.] This is what I like best about Buddhist meditation. Buddhist meditation can help us to transcend death.

You know that death is very important for birth, for our continuation. In our body there are many cells that die every minute in order to leave space for new cells to be born. Birth and death take place every minute in our body. If there is no death it is impossible for us to continue in our body. That is why birth and death are linked to each other. Birth gives rise to death and death gives rise to birth . If we cry every time one of our cell s dies we will not have enough tears left. If every time one of our cells dies we organize a funeral then we will spend all our time organizing funerals. That is why we have to see that birth and death take place every moment in us. That is why the role of death is very important. That is about the first answer. But the second answer is better. Looking deeply you don ‘t see birth and death, you see that there is a continuation. If you study more deeply you will see more deeply.

Child: Dear Thay, how many hours of meditation do you practice daily and of which how many hours of sitting meditation and how many hours of walking meditation?

Thay: Every time I sit it is sitting meditation, whether in lotus position or half-lotus position or chrysanthemum position or any other kind of position that is sitting meditation. I am not a good mathematician so that is why I don ‘t count very well. My practice is to do like this. Any time that I sit down it is sitting meditation. I want to sit quietly and peacefully. During the time that I have to give a Dharma Talk, although I have to speak that is also sitting meditation. I sit with stability, with peace. You don’t count the time of sitting in the sitting meditation hall only, you count the time of sitting everywhere. Sitting on the grass, sitting on the hill; any sitting is sitting meditation .

Any time you move your feet and touch the ground, any time you go from one place to another you can practice walking meditation. In Plum Village we are recommended to do like that. We do not do it just for one hour or one and a half hours a day, but all day long. Every time you walk it should be walking meditation because it brings you more happiness, more peace than the other kind of walking, in forgetfulness. Also we are not supposed to talk while we walk because we have to invest ourselves completely in the walking. In every step you give 100% of yourself so that you can produce the energy of stability and peace. If you talk then the energy is taken from the walking by the talking. Monks and nuns are always encouraged to walk like that. If you need to listen to someone you stop and listen with 100 % of yourself.

The practice in Plum Village is not to just have some time in the day for the practice. You try to practice the whole day. Whether you are cooking or washing you follow your breath. If you do things mindfully that is already meditation. In Plum Village we practice continuous meditation and we want to do everything in a relaxed way. Driving a car, talking on the telephone, washing our dishes – we want to do everything peacefully. We consider each activity as important as the time of sitting meditation . You can enjoy it. Now we are having a session of questions and answers. I do not think of it as hard labor. I think questions and answers can be a very joyful time. You ask a question and [put all my energy into listening to you and trying to understand you. I try my best to respond to your question with all my heart. We can have a lot of fun and happiness. We can have a lot of peace and calm doing that.

mb31-Be4

Child: Dear Thay, what should we do when other children make fun of us?

Thay: There are many ways to practice. If you are a good practitioner, then you can go back to your mindful breathing and you just smile to the person who is making fun of you. That is the most beautiful response. You don’t get angry, you just look at him and smile. It shows him that you are not affected by his attempt to make you angry. Although you don’t say anything, even though you just look at him or her and smile, your message is very clear. I have peace in me. I am not going to get angry. You cannot provoke me to be angry. This is also a teaching for him or for her. You can do that only if you practice in advance. At home if someone says something or does something that is irritating, you go back to your breath. Breathing in, smiling. Breathing out, calming. You just look at him and say silently, why are you doing that? You don’t say it out loud. You just look and smile and there is compassion in you. You see that the other person is not happy and that is why he is expressing his violence and irritation. Because you know that people who are happy don’t do that. They don’t make other people unhappy.

I wish all children who have come to Plum Village can practice this teaching. Every time there is an irritation in you, don ‘t say anything. Don’t do anything. Just go back to yourself and practice mindful breathing. Breathing in, I feel calm. Breathing out, I am not going to get angry. Keep smiling like a flower and you will disarm everyone. They will not provoke you anymore. They will learn from you. Be a flower.

mb31-Be5

When you provoke a flower, when you call a flower mean names, what will the flower do? The flower will continue to smi Ie to you. When someone comes and tries to make fun of you or provoke you, just practice “flower fresh.” Breathing in, I am fresh as a flower. Breathing out, I am solid as a mountain. Thay has transmitted to you the flower and the mountain. Right? You have the flower and the mountain in yourself. Make good use of the flower and the mountain in you and you will not be affected by what other people say and what they do to you. If you begin to practice at your young age you will become a great practitioner in the future and you will be able to help so many people, including your children and your grandchildren .

PDF of this article

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.

mb31-We1

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.

PDF of this article

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.

mb31-Entering1

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.

PDF of this article

Buddba Body

Larry Ward

mb31-Buddha1

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.

PDF of this article

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.

mb31-ATear1

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.

PDF of this article

You Can Use a Knife to Kill or You Can Use a Knife to Chop Vegetables

An Israeli Soldier Asks About the Use of Force

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Question: I am from the Israeli-Palestinian group. I want to ask about force. I am in the Israeli army. At times we need to use force to prevent an act that will cause suffering, and yet that force causes suffering to another person. My question is, can force be used? And if I don’t understand, I want permission to ask again.

Thich Nhat Hanh: If you have understanding and compassion in yourself, then what we call force, what we call military force, may help to prevent something, to achieve something. But that shouldn’t prevent us from seeing that there are other kinds of
force that may be even more powerful. We don’t know how to recognize and make use of them so we have the tendency to resort to military force. There is also the spiritual force and the force of education. These forces are much safer to use. Because we have not been trained to use these forces, we only think of using military force.

Suppose there are two people, both of them full of anger, misunderstanding and hatred. How can these two people talk to each other, even if they are negotiating for peace? That is the main problem – you cannot bring people together to sit around a table and discuss peace if there is no peace inside of them. You have to first help them to calm down and begin to see clearly that we ourselves, as well as the other people, suffer. We should
have compassion for ourselves as well as for them and their children. This is possible. As human beings we have suffered. And we have the capacity to understand the suffering of other people.

The Force of Education

The spiritual and educational dimensions can be very powerful, and we should use them as instruments, as tools for peace. Suppose you live in a quarter where dozens of Palestinians live peacefully with Israelis. You don’t have any problems. You share the same environment, you can go shopping in the same place, you can ride on the same bus. You don’t see your differences as obstacles but in fact, as enriching. You are an Israeli and she is a Palestinian and you meet each other in the marketplace and you smile to each other. How beautiful, how wonderful that is. You help her and she helps you. Other Palestinians and Israelis should see that image. If you are a writer you can bring that image to many people outside of your group. If you are a filmmaker, why don’t you offer the image of peaceful co-existence to the world? You can televise it to demonstrate that it is possible for Palestinians and Israelis to live peacefully and happily together. That
is the work of education. There are a lot of people in the mass media who are ready to help you to bring that image, that message to the world. That is very powerful, more powerful than a bomb, a rocket or a gun, and that makes people believe that peace is possible.

If you have enough energy of understanding and peace inside of you, then this kind of educational work can be very powerful, and you won’t have to think of only using the army and guns anymore. If the army knows how to practice, it will know how to act in such a way so as not to cause harm. The army can rescue people; the army can guarantee peace and order. It is like a knife. You can use a knife to kill or you can use a knife to chop vegetables. It is possible for soldiers to practice non-violence and understanding. We don’t exclude them from our practice, from our Sangha. We don’t say, “You are a soldier, you cannot come into our meditation hall.” In fact, you need to come into the meditation hall in order to know how to better use the army. So, please don’t limit your question. Make your question broad – embrace the whole situation, because everything is linked to everything else.

 The Spiritual Force

There are many things we can do today to extend our understanding, compassion and peace; because every bit of it is useful, is gold. When you take a step, if you can enjoy that step, if your step can bring you more stability and freedom, then you are serving the world. It is with that kind of peace and stability that you can serve. If you don’t have the qualities of stability, peace and freedom inside of you, then no matter what you do, you cannot help the world. It is not about doing something, it’s about being peace, being hope, and being solid. Every action will come from that foundation, because peace, stability and freedom always seek a way to express themselves in action.

That is the spiritual dimension of our reality. We need that spiritual dimension to rescue us so that we don’t only think in terms of military force as a means to solve the problem and uproot terrorism. How can you uproot terrorism with military force? The military doesn’t know where terrorism is. They cannot locate terrorism – it is in the heart. The more military force you use, the more terrorists you create, in your own country and in other countries as well.

The basic issue is our practice of peace, our practice of looking deeply. First of all, we need to allow ourselves to calm down. Without tranquility and serenity, our emotions, our anger and our despair will not go away. And we will not be able to look and see the nature of reality. Calming down, becoming serene is the first step of meditation. The second step is to look deeply, to understand. Out of understanding comes compassion. And from this foundation of understanding and compassion you will be able to see what you can do and what you should refrain from doing. That is spoken in terms of meditation. In that respect, everyone has to practice meditation – the politicians, the military, and the businesspeople. All of us have to practice calming down and looking deeply. You have our support.

Follow up question: We have to pray and work for a whole lifetime to clear ourselves and purify ourselves of anger and to develop compassion for those who fly and succeed in hurting us and causing suffering. There is not a lifetime in Plum Village; there are two
weeks. There is a whole lifetime in Israel to meditate. But during that time there are situations in which I see someone who is committing an act of force, and the only way I can stop him is not through education or meditation, because those are processes that
take a long, long time, but through force.

At times the act of force that will stop somebody. from killing, hurting or wounding so many
people is done through anger or hatred and without compassion. We do not always have time to have compassion for that person. But I feel that even though I am still not pure, it is an act that I have to do because I have to protect my people. If a terrorist walks into a
restaurant with a bomb on him and I can stop him, the military can stop him, but it is only by killing him; I don’t have time to have compassion. It could be an act of hate and anger
to shoot him, but it will stop him from blowing up that restaurant with women and children and people who are my people. This is my question.

mb31-YouCan1

 

Thich Nhat Hanh: Of course it is very difficult to not get angry when they are killing your wife, your husband or your children. It is very difficult to not get angry. That person is acting out of anger, and we are retaliating also out of anger. So there is not much difference between the two of us. That is the first element.

The second element is – why do we have to wait until the situation presents itself to us as an emergency before we act, dealing only with the immediate circumstance? Our tendency is to not do anything until the worst happens. While we have the time, we do not know how to use that time to practice peace and prevent war. We just allow ourselves to be lost in forgetfulness, indulging in sense pleasures. We do not do the things that have the power to prevent such emergency situation from happening.

The third element is that when things like this happen, it is because there is a deep-seated cause, not only in the present moment but also in the past. This is, because that is. Nothing happens like that without a cause. You kill me, I kill you. But the fact that you are killing me and I am killing you back has its roots in the past and will have an effect on the future. In the past our fathers and our grandfathers may not have been very mindful
and may have said things, may have done things that have sown seeds of war. And their grandfathers also said things and did things, planting seeds of war. And now our generation has a choice. Do we want to do better than our grandfathers or do we
want to repeat exactly what they did? That is the legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren.

Of course in a situation of great emergency you have to do everything you can to prevent killing. And yet, there are ways to do it that will cause less harm. If you have some compassion and understanding, the way you do it can be very different. Bring the dimension of the human heart into it; help the military strategists to have a human heart. It’s the least we can do. Do we teach the military to conduct a military operation with a human heart? Is that a reality in the army, in military schools? They teach us how to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible, but do they teach us how to
kill someone with compassion?

Making progress on the path of Compassion

In one of his past lives it seems that the Buddha was a passenger on a boat that was overtaken by pirates, and he killed one of them while trying to protect the people on the boat. But that is an earlier life of the Buddha. If the true Buddha were there he may have had other means; he may have had enough wisdom to find a better way so that the life of the pirate could have been spared. Because life after life, the Buddha made progress. You are the afterlife of your grandfather; you must have learned something over the past three generations. If you don’t have more compassion and understanding than he did, then you are not a proper continuation of your grandfather. With compassion and understanding we can do better, we can cause less harm and create more peace.

We cannot expect to achieve 100% peace right away – our degree of understanding and love is not yet deep enough. But in every situation, urgent or not, the elements of understanding and compassion can play a role. When a gangster is trying to beat and kill, of course you have to lock him up so he will not cause more harm. But you can lock him up angrily, with a lot of hate, or you can lock him up with compassion and with the idea that we should do something to help him. In that case, prison becomes a place to love and to help. You have to teach the prison guards how to look at the prisoners with compassionate eyes. Teach them how to treat the prisoners with tenderness so they will suffer less in prison, so we can better help them. I don ‘t know whether we train our prison guards that way. Do we train them to look at prisoners with eyes of compassion? A prisoner has killed; a prisoner has destroyed. Maybe he was raised in such a way that killing and destruction were natural for him, and so he is a victim of society, of his education. If you look and see in that way, then you have compassion, understanding, and you will treat your prisoner with more gentleness. That helps him and that helps you. You can help him to become another person, and help yourself to be happy because you are capable of helping people in difficulty. That is the principle.

Cultivating a broad perspective

We should not talk only in terms of short-term action. Again, we have to look with the eyes of the Buddha. Our Dharma discussions are for that, for having a broad look and not just concentrating on the immediacy of the problem. Our lives are for that, and the lives of our children will be for that, because we are a continuation of each other. We build synagogues and mosques in order to have a place to sit down and do that – to look deeply, so that our actions will not only be motivated by desire, greed or anger. We have a chance to sit in the mosque or synagogue for a long time, and we can witness the growth of our compassion and understanding. And out there we will know how to act in a better way, for the cause of peace.

As a soldier you can be compassionate. You can be loving and your gun can be helpful. At times you may not have to use your gun. It is li ke a knife that is used to cut vegetables. You can be a Bodhisattva as a soldier or as a commander-in-chief of the army. The question is whether you have understanding and compassion in your heart. That is the question.

PDF of this article

Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

By Karen Hilsberg

BRUCE L. HILSBERG, Strong Commitment of the Heart and True Courageous Inspiration, passed away on March 29, 2005. He was forty-five years old. Bruce and his wife Karen met in graduate school, where they both received doctorates in clinical psychology. Bruce’s most recent employment was as Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital, a locked psychiatric facility where he brought mindfulness training to the staff and individuals served.

Partners for eighteen years, Bruce and Karen have two children, Emily and Ben. The Hilsbergs began the thriving Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City in 2003.

Numerous beings have provided invaluable friendships and spiritual support along the path, sharing the gifts of love and non-fear. In lieu of flowers, please offer support to the Touching and Helping Program, c/o Deer Park Monastery, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026.

mb39-Making1

Many people use the word “lemon” to refer to something that is no good. For example, a car that frequently breaks down is called “a lemon.” But a lemon is a beautiful fruit. The blossoms of our lemon tree fill our garden this very morning with an indescribably sweet fragrance. People have said many things to us during this past year and half of our experience with illness: “This is a trag­edy;” “What is happening to your family is terrible;” and “I hate cancer.” Our response has been to see this time as a wonderful opportunity to develop spiritually, to practice mindfulness, and to learn about true love and non-fear. The depth of closeness and trust that we have nurtured and developed in our marriage and our family this past year has been priceless.

It is one thing to study the teachings in the abstract, philosoph­ically, but quite another to live them day in and day out. For Bruce, that meant facing his own inescapable death; for me, it meant facing the inescapable death of my partner of eighteen years; and for our children, it meant facing the illness and loss of their daddy.

We have been taking refuge in the three jewels, practicing weekly with our Sangha, frequently visiting our teachers and broth­ers and sisters at Deer Park, and practicing with each other, with our family, and with friends. In the process, we have experienced letting go—letting go of our careers and professional personas, of our attachment to Bruce’s physical health, of our possessions, of our so-called independence, even of eating and drinking, and most important, of many long-held notions and beliefs.

In the letting go, remarkable things have been happening. We have touched deeply experiences we had only dreamed of—giving freely of ourselves to our loved ones, receiving the generosity of others, openly communicating with one another. For us, the real­ization that our spirit truly continues on, healthy and vital, even after our body has de-manifested “like a worn out, old shoe,” has been liberating.

Together, as a family, we have been able to transcend feelings of fear and despair and to touch the ultimate dimension when we enjoy simple pleasures like the garden, the flowers, the wind, the birds, the full moon, the laughter and tears of each other and our children, hugging, touching, breathing, moving our bodies sleeping peacefully. Simple pleasures mean everything when we realize that we are all “on death row.”

Just as we enjoy picking lemons from our lemon tree, squeezing them, adding sugar, then water, and tasting the fresh and delicious lemonade, we have taken this experience of cancer that has manifest­ed in our family and added our practice of mindfulness in order to touch the beautiful and refreshing truths taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago. In doing this, we transcend our suffering and touch peace, solidity, freedom, love, and non-fear in our everyday lives.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives with her children in southern California, near Deer Park Monastery

 

Letter to Bruce and Karen Hilsberg

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hilsberg,

Whether Easterners or Westerners, young or old, we are always very fearful when we are facing death. Even when we are so ill that our breath is irregular, we still don’t believe that we are facing death. We don’t accept that this physical body is disintegrating because of beliefs that lie deep in our consciousness.

But there is an ultimate truth, which you can understand with deep awareness. Life is a cycle of manifestation, and death is a cycle of de-manifestation. We are the awareness that is no birth, no death.

In the winter, the leaves fall from the trees and the branches are bare. But during that time the trees are not dead, because the living energy still exists. We know that in springtime the young shoots and new leaves will return and develop very fast. Our human life is a thousand times more miraculous than the cycle of the trees. As the trees use the cycle of rest to grow, human beings should look at the life and death of this physical body as a cycle, in which they can mature spiritually. When you look deeply into your own mind you won’t have any worry, fear, or despair.

I am not a good practitioner, and I have much suffering when I see that my loved ones are very sick and I cannot help them; when I have to face many of my friends leaving, and I do not have the power to hold them back. But because of the practice, eventually I can transform the fear and suffering in my heart. I have a strong faith that the life and death of this physical body is only a cycle of the manifestation and de-manifestation, while the nature of our true self, is no birth, no death.

Bodhisattvas and Zen masters come to this world and leave this world very peacefully and freely. They can say goodbye to this life with joy because they know that they are not truly gone. We are no different than these bodhisattvas and Zen masters, if we have a strong belief that our true self is never gone.

I sincerely hope that you have strong faith in your Buddha nature that is no birth no death, so you can overcome despair, worry, sadness, and suffering. And I pray that the Three Jewels in the Ten Direcitons will always protect you so that you will have strong faith in yourself.

Venerable Phouc Tinh

The Venerable Phouc Tinh of Deer Park, wrote this letter shortly before Bruce Hilsberg’s death. Translated by Van Khanh Ha.

PDF of this article

The Scent of Oranges

By Nancy Hom

Note: this article comes from Spoken Like a True Buddha, a compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

mb38-TheScent1

Death, and the notion of aging, has always hung over me like a heavy cloud. I have sought ways of avoiding the topic, such as staying away from hospitals, funeral parlors, and nursing homes. But here I find myself visiting my mother, recently confined to a home. All around me, I hear death hissing through the clang of bedpans and squeals of wheelchairs, through the endless drone of catatonic dining companions. Amid the vacant eyes of childlike faces, the tired bodies draped before the dinner trays, my mother sits facing me. She glances at the gift of oranges I have brought her and nods her approval.

I have come 3,000 miles to be with her, but silence forms a wall between us now. Advanced Parkinson’s has already claimed her voice. Her legs, long withered, dangle uselessly. I wheel her into her small room, still stupefied by the disease that chains us both to these white walls away from life.

My mother’s eyes are luminous, glistened pearls. Once they flashed indignantly at the thought of being in a nursing home, then accusingly, then beseechingly. Now they simply look at me with resignation. Sometimes they stare into a far off place.

I watch her helplessly as the minutes tick by. My mind races to fill the space taken up by silence. I think of meetings missed, the dinner not yet eaten, the bus and train I have to take in the cold windy night. I think, If only she had been diagnosed earlier, if only I didn’t live so far away. Then hope, not guilt, would be a visitor. I remember the warmth of her back when she carried me, my small arms wrapped around her like a shawl. How, when I was red with fever, she rocked my blistered body until I fell asleep. The hot nights on the rooftops of Kowloon eating watermelon seeds and watching the neon lights twinkling in the streets below. The first days in America, when I clung to her like a shadow. The dark times, too, when I cowered in a corner before her wrath. These thoughts I hold onto like photographs in an album, stilled images of the mother I no longer have access to.

She points a gnarled finger at the orange I had left on her table. I peel it carefully, glad to have something to do. A spray of citrus fills the air and her eyes widen like a child anticipating sweets. I hand her a slice, which she grasps unsteadily. She brings it painstakingly to her mouth and sucks with soft smacks. I eat my slice too, squeezing the little beads of juice with my teeth until the flavor bursts over my tongue like a rainshower.

Oranges were always around in our house when I grew up. They cleansed the palate after every dinner; topped pomelos on New Year’s altars, were the calling cards of visitors who always brought the fruit as a gift to the host. To me they were heavy sacks of obligation during holidays and weekends, when my mother and I wended our way through tenement buildings to visit fellow immigrants from China. The tables were littered with melon seeds and orange peels as I waited impatiently while my mother and her friends chatted; conversations I found hard to relate to, preferring instead to bury my head in a Nancy Drew book while they reminisced about the old village.

Now this bright leather-skinned fruit is the only bridge between us. We eagerly suck the memories the piquant flavor evokes. The tart vapors tickle our nostrils. I can see from my mother’s twitch of a smile that she remembers, too. She chews slowly, savoring each bite, as if the thoughts will fade away as soon as the orange is eaten and more slices of her life will peel away.

We finish the whole orange. She belches in satisfaction. I wipe her chin; then we sit and gaze at each other. There are so many words that will never get spoken; dreams that will stay unfulfilled; regrets that are etched in our skins like birthmarks. But in this moment it does not matter what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. There is only the room, the faint scent of oranges, and us, breathing in unison.

If I cease my mind’s constant chatter and look deeply, I see that she is still here, still my mother. She is different and she is the same. She will be here after her body has deteriorated. She will be in the air I breathe and in the earth I touch. Her brightness will shine through her children’s eyes, and those of their children. Although I have a long way to go with my practice, this fleeting insight becomes stronger whenever I stop my thoughts long enough to see my mother as she truly is instead of what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. We sit and breathe together. In this moment is the whole of our lives.

Nancy Hom lives in San Francisco. Her experiences as an immigrant, a mother, a community leader, and spiritual seeker provide the framework for her visual and literary pursuits.

PDF of this article

A Sweet Reunion

Transcending Birth and Death

By Beth Howard

mb38-ASweet1

I first heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on transcending birth and death in August of 2002, while on retreat at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. My father had just been diagnosed with terminal chronic lymphocytic leukemia. I was fortunate to have many months to help my father and to live with these teachings until he died on May 5th, 2003. The following September, I attended another retreat with Thay and the teachings really came home to me.

Up early one morning, at the YMCA of the Rockies, I lit a candle and dressed in its small circle of light. Leaving the room, I joined the others in the chilly, pre-dawn darkness, in the parking lot outside the building.

Hundreds were gathered as the monks and nuns began gracefully and wordlessly leading us in mindful movement –– humans moving powerfully, silently like the wind. I could see the power of the practice shifting and sweeping away old paradigms so that new thoughts might take hold and grow. This movement through consciousness is as dramatic as a forest fire destroying old growth. At first, it is the loss that is most obvious, but quite soon the new growth becomes apparent.

The group began walking meditation, moving as a human river, flowing down roads and walkways, pooling into a field for sitting meditation. We faced northeast, embraced and surrounded on all sides by mountains. In this cold darkness, we anticipated the light and warmth of the sun before its arrival, reminding me of the Sanskrit term, anahata, meaning unstruck, as in hearing the sound of the un-struck bell.

In this pre-dawn stillness, my father came to sit with me. I was so warmed by his presence that my eyes filled with tears. I held my left hand with my right hand, imitating how I had held his hand often at the end of his life. I thought, “It’s good to sit with you again.”

He replied, “You know what I remember best about you?”

“Yes,” I answered, “the time I held your hand all night and you felt the life flow back into you.” He’d remembered this to me many times at the end of his life. Only this time, the energy flowed into me, with his presence as the channel. I received deep love and peace, a blessed gift. My heart filled with gratitude for this sweet reunion.

The sky lightened. The group stood and began walking in silence, moving out of the field and into our day. This new energy would carry me back into the fullness of life.

Later that morning, during the Dharma talk, Thay held up his left hand and said, “This is your father’s hand, for your father lives on in you. If you are ever missing your father, hold your left hand with your right hand and know you are holding your father’s hand.”

I was struck by the powerful confirmation of this message so soon after feeling the fullness of my father’s presence.

These are the messages of mindfulness that remain with me: That which is part of you can never be lost. You may, however, have to find and feel it within you. Also, Something can never become nothing. This is the principal teaching of the Buddha in order to overcome fear. The energy of one you have loved remains. The challenge is to look deeply, to be quiet, aware, and willing to find and feel the energy in a new form. Once you discover this, you will begin to understand that you can never lose someone you love. You will only begin to find them again in a new form.

mb38-ASweet2Beth Howard, Living Dharma of the Heart, lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming and practices with the Bird & Bell Meditation Group at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne. Beth is an artist, weaver, and yoga teacher and she enjoys writing.

PDF of this article

Poem: Zadie’s Manifestation

By Clay McLeod

mb38-ZadieTo my ears,
Your cries give voice to the sorrows
of the whole world.
To my eyes,
Your smile gives light to the darkest
places imaginable.

Your dark eyes hold so many promises
To the world not yet revealed.

I waited my whole life to meet you,
And yet I cannot imagine a time
without you.

You are my continuation,
Yet you are so much more than me.

You are the manifestation of love and hope.
With your life, you will unfold
A tapestry of joy and sorrow,
Each moment a sunrise,
Each breath a miracle.

I cherish your arrival;
welcome to the world.

Clay McLeod lives and practices in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, with his wife Meaghan, his daughter Zadie and the students he teaches.

PDF of this article

Dreaming with My Dad

Growing closer to those we love who have already passed away

By Sister Hanh Nghiem

mb42-Dreaming1

How many of us have suffering from our past, especially when it comes to relationships and how we live our life? Many people ask how we can fix mistakes or heal deep wounds we carry with us in our daily life. The Buddha teaches us that impermanence is life. We like impermanence when it benefits us and gives us what we want, but when it takes us away from our loved ones or causes us to suffer, we don’t know how to accept it. We want to be with our loved ones forever. We want to make our life meaningful and precious.

I was raised Jewish and went to synagogue for all the High Holidays; we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover at home with the family. Every once in a while we went to minyan (prayer service) on Friday night, but still I felt a sense of emptiness and a lack of spirituality and guidance. I did enjoy the Jewish traditions and how the Jewish observances were so family oriented. When it was time for the family to gather for holidays, it wasn’t about gifts; we came together to remember our ancestors and to let go of regular daily routine, to reflect on our lives.

A Heart-Breaking Loss

Actually it was my dad, Barry Allen Brodey, who had the Jewish roots. My dad passed away ten years ago, when I was sixteen years old. Some teenagers shot him in order to get into a gang. I remember the day my mom had to break the news to us. She wanted to do it as skillfully as possible and took us to a beautiful wooded area near our house, where we sat on a log surrounded by trees in the early summer sunshine. The news was so shocking that I didn’t even cry. I didn’t know how or what to feel. I thought you only heard this news on the TV. I just turned into a frozen block of ice, filled with disbelief and despair. A part of me wanted to believe that he just went on a vacation. But he wasn’t on a vacation, and he would never come home. I never got to say good-bye or I love you one last time. He had to die alone and far away from home.

My father was like the summer sun, making everything around him vibrant and alive. There was no way any person could have a dull moment with him. He was the life of the party. He not only called me his little princess but also treated me like a princess. My dad was always more than happy to take me out with him, but like most kids I took it all for granted. He gave me all I needed to be happy—life and his love. But while he was still alive, I focused so much on wanting to understand his suffering, the part of him that was closed to the world and simply untouchable.

mb42-Dreaming2

I was stuck on a weed rather than enjoying his garden. I didn’t feel it was my place to pry into his life and open up wounds, but it made me feel hopeless because I didn’t know how to connect with him. I couldn’t help him for fear that the family would deny what I saw, and I felt like a fool for saying anything. If my dad did share his sadness with me, I was afraid of having to truly face it and deal with it.

Looking back now, I know what I was doing at the moment was just perfect. I was there with him and in my heart I was happy to have him as my dad.

mb42-Dreaming3

mb42-Dreaming4

A Gift of Healing

After I was ordained, I started having dreams of my dad. They are such a refl    of how I was and how I have been transformed. The first happened five years after his death. I had been ordained only a few months. In this dream, I was in my bedroom—there were no colors. My dad walked in with a melancholic look, his head bent, his shoulders slumped. He gave no hint that he might be harboring a childlike hope to receive love by coming into his daughter’s room. I just sat there on my bed unmoved by his presence, nor did it dawn on me to show my love to him.

The second dream occurred about a year later. My dad came to visit me still very sad and depressed, oblivious to the world around him. This time I acknowledged his presence happily. The atmosphere was still somewhat gloomy, but there was love present. I took him on a tour of the monastery grounds and brought him up to a room to rest. I carried with me a photo album to show my dad the special events that had taken place in the past years. Many sisters came along with us to make both of us feel supported and loved. Then we parted company as he lay down on the bed and peacefully sank into it for a much needed rest.

In the last dream, which took place a year later, I was together with my dad, my sister, and my brother at some kind of celebration. There were lots of colored round balloons, red, yellow and blue ones, and many green trees under a clear sunny blue sky. We sat around a white table with a floral centerpiece, laughing and giggling as Dad told us stories. My dad was so happy. He looked as if many of his burdens had been lifted from him and his heart was much lighter. I could see his joy and freedom as my own, which made my heart rejoice in a peaceful way. Over the course of my stay in Plum Village, I have learned how to take refuge in the Sangha and break down a few of the walls around my heart to allow the love and wisdom of the Sangha to embrace me. But it didn’t embrace only me, it embraced my dad.

The Faith and Obedience of Abraham

My dad was not a Buddhist nor would he have wanted me to be a Buddhist nun. But one thing is for sure, he always wanted me to be happy. I took to this path out of faith and in obedience to what I heard in my heart, I think much like our Father Abraham did with God. Thanks to the practice of non-fear and learning to open my eyes to the life around me, my dad and I have the chance to live together for a long time. I have no regrets about our past relationship. Nor do I feel that he is alone, because he still lives with me every day, just as our spiritual ancestors continue in us through our faith and obedience.

Each time I hug a person or share my pain with someone, I know that he too is loved and he too is cared for, and we smile together in peace.

Sister Hanh Nghiem lives at Deer Park Monastery.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Our Environment: Touching the Gift of Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh

At the Buell Theater in Denver, Colorado on August 29, 2007, Thich Nhat Hanh delivered a provocative talk on the effects of humanity’s lack of mindfulness toward the planet we call home. Thay later elaborated on this theme — and proposed an elegant course of action — in a letter to the sangha.

Thich Nhat HanhWhen we produce a thought that is full of anger, fear, or despair, that thought has an immediate effect on our health and on the health of the world. We may like to arrange our life in such a way that we will not produce thoughts of that kind very often. Producing a thought is already karma or action, and that is our continuation into the future.

mb47-dharma2Our speech may be an expression of right speech as recommended by the Buddha. Something we say may manifest our loving- kindness, our nondiscrimination, and our willingness to bring relief. After having uttered such a word we feel better in our body and mind. We receive healing and everyone in the world benefits from our speech of loving-kindness, forgiveness, and compassion. It is possible for us to say such things several times a day, bringing healing and transformation to ourselves and the world.

And when we perform a physical act that has the power to protect, save, support, or bring relief, that also brings an element of healing to us and to the world. When you are full of compassion, even if you don’t take action, action will take you. We may repeat such actions several times a day because that kind of love and compassion calls for action.

When we look at an orange tree we see it is producing beautiful leaves, blossoms, and oranges. These are the best things that an orange tree can produce and offer to the world. If we are human beings we also make offerings to the world every moment of our daily life — our thoughts, our speech, and our actions. We want to offer the best kind of thoughts, the best kind of speech, and the best kind of action; these are our continuation whether we want it or not. Karmahetu, action as cause, will bring about karmaphala, action as fruit. We are continued into the future through our own actions.

A Beautiful Continuation

When this body disintegrates we cannot bring along anything like diplomas or fame or wealth. We have to give up everything. The only thing that follows us is our actions, the fruit of our thinking, of our speech, and of our acts during our lifetime.

Of course we can assure a beautiful continuation. If we have manifested one time it means that we have manifested several times already. This can be described as past lives. And if we have manifested in the past and in the present moment we shall be manifested in the future in one way or another.

To think that after the disintegration of this body there will be nothing left is a naïve way of thinking. With deep observation we know that nothing is really born and nothing can die. Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Those of us who have tried Buddhist meditation have seen that. Before the cloud manifested as a cloud she was something else — the water in the ocean, the heat produced by the sun, water vapor. The cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from something, from many things. The moment of the so-called birth of the cloud is only a moment of continuation.

Many of us have learned from the Buddha about the Middle Way, a path that transcends pairs of opposites like birth and death, being and nonbeing. Reality is free from these notions.

When we say that God is the ground of being, you may ask, who is the ground of nonbeing? Theologians like Paul Tillich say that God is the ground of being. But looking deeply we see that the notions of being and nonbeing cannot be applied to reality. The truth is that reality transcends both the notions of being and nonbeing. To be or not to be, that is not the question [laughter].

God cannot be described in terms of being and nonbeing. In Buddhism we have the expression nirvana or suchness, which means reality-in-itself. That kind of reality-in-itself cannot be described in terms of birth and death, being and nonbeing.

If your beloved has abandoned the form in which you used to see him or her, follow the advice of the Buddha and look deeply. Your beloved is still there, maybe much closer than you had thought.mb47-dharma3

Double Retribution

Our karma, our actions, continue us. And they will manifest in two aspects. That manifestation has already started.

In Buddhism the term “retribution” refers to the fruit of your actions in the future. Retribution has two meanings: the first is our five skandhas — form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness; the other side of retribution is the environment. Retribution should be seen in its double nature. You are your environment; your environment is what you have created personally and collectively. That is why there is another step for us to take — to transcend the duality between our five skandhas and our environment.

When you look at the stars, the moon, you know that you are the stars, the moon. And when you look at the mountain, the forest, you know that you are the mountain, the forest. There is always interaction between the two forms of retribution. In fact elements like air, water, earth, fire are always going in and going out. When we breathe out, something goes out to the environment. When we breathe in, something goes into our body. So you are not only here but there.

Cognitive science and neuroscience ask about the relationship between the “in here” and the “out there.” We perceive reality subjectively and we ask the question whether the external reality is exactly the same as the subjective reality. If you pursue meditation deeply you will be able to transcend the duality of in here and out there.

You may believe that this flower is out there, but I am not sure of that at all. Whether the flower that you see there is something in your consciousness or outside of your consciousness, that is not an easy question to answer. In quantum physics or neuroscience or cognitive science it is a very hard question. But the Buddha has given us all kinds of hints so that we can touch reality as it is.

The Environment Is You

There are two kinds of environment: the social environment and the natural environment. In Buddhist practice you should take care of your five skandhas but you should also take care of your environment because the environment is you. You help create that environment, whether that is the social environment or the natural environment.mb47-dharma4

A long time ago I wrote a small book on meditation with the title The Sun My Heart. In one sitting meditation, when I focused my attention on my heart — breathing in, I am aware of my heart, breathing out, I smile to my heart — suddenly I realized that this is not the only heart that I have. I have many other hearts. Suppose that I look at the sun in the sky. I know that it is also another heart of mine. If this heart failed I would die right away. But if the other heart, the sun, explodes or stops functioning as the sun, I would also die right away. So there is a heart inside my body and a heart outside my body; the sun is one of my hearts.

When you see things like that you are no longer sure that you are only inside of your skin, and you can transcend very easily the duality of self and non-self.

In Buddhist psychology we learn that there are many seeds, called bijas, in the depth of our consciousness. We have the seed of fear, anger, and despair deep down in our consciousness. As these seeds are watered they manifest in the upper realm of our consciousness in the form of energy. We call them mental formations. If the seed of fear sleeps quietly down there we are somehow peaceful, but if the seed of fear is touched it manifests as the mental formation of fear and we suffer. The practice is to keep the seeds down there and not give them the chance to manifest.

Neuroscientists and biologists tell us that the genes in our cells cannot turn on by themselves; they need the environment. That is why it is very important to assure that you are in a good environment, that you do something to improve the quality of your environment, to ensure that only the good genes, the good seeds are turned on each day. That is the practice of protecting ourselves, our children, our family, and our society so as not to allow the negative seeds to be watered so much.

In Buddhist psychology we speak of contact between the sense organs and the objects of perception. Suppose Sister Pine invites the bell to sound, and the sound stimulates our ear. The mental formation called touch or contact will bring about another mental formation called feeling, whether that feeling is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If that feeling is not something unusual, if it is of no importance, then store consciousness ignores it. We have many kinds of these feelings throughout the day. If the feeling is strong enough there is a mental formation called attention. If the feeling is deep enough in us it crosses a certain threshold and then there is attention — manaskara in Sanskrit.

The Practice of Appropriate Attention

The environment touches a seed in us, drawing our attention to that particular point, and turns on a mental formation. That seed may be the seed of mindfulness or the seed of craving, anger, or confusion. If you live in a practice center the sound of the bell has a special meaning because you train yourself to understand it in a particular way. The sound of the bell means “please go home to yourself, enjoy your breathing and be fully present in the here and the now.” Our store consciousness has learned it well. Every time we hear the sound of the bell, without making any effort, any decision, we go back to our breath and we breathe at least three times, in out, in out, in out. This brings us peace and joy, and the insight that we are alive — what a miracle!

The sound of the bell brings about appropriate attention, the kind of attention that turns on good things like mindfulness and joy. But there are other sounds and sights that bring our attention to negative things like craving, fear, anger, distress. We have to organize our environment to have elements that are conducive to appropriate attention, otherwise it will bring about inappropriate attention. For instance, television programs might contain elements that can turn on the worst things in our children. When a child finishes elementary school she has seen 100,000 acts of violence and 8,000 murders on television. That is too much! In the name of freedom we continue to produce films that are full of violence, anger, fear, and craving.

Looking deeply if you see that your social environment is not conducive to peace, joy, compassion, and non-violence, you have to do something to change it or seek ways to move toward another environment that is safer to us and our children. Even if we have to take another job that will bring us a meager salary, live in a smaller house, or use a smaller car, we have to accept that in order for us and our children to be better protected.

If you are depressed you may have consumed sights, sounds, touch, and so on, that have stimulated the negative seeds in you and made them manifest in your daily life. That is why the practice includes taking care of the five skandhas but also the social environment.

According to the teachings of Buddhism everything is impermanent. Therefore it is possible for us to change our environment for the better. As a sangha we may want to sit down and have a Dharma discussion to find ways to improve the quality of our social environment. We can practice as a family, as a neighborhood, as a city, or as a nation. The social environment is crucial in determining our future.

Mindful Consumption in the Kingdom of God

The fifth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings in Buddhism is about mindful consumption. We have to consume in such a way so as not to bring toxins like fear and anger into ourselves.

The difficult situation in which we find ourselves has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We have created an environment that is conducive to violence, hate, discrimination, and despair. Violence is now everywhere; in the family there is domestic violence. Our young people have become too violent and their teachers don’t know how to help them deal with their anger and fear.

We are doing violence to our environment and to nature. We are now facing global warming and weather changes. Even the Kingdom of God is impermanent. Even the Pure Land of the Buddha is impermanent.

When we look deeply into ourselves we can identify elements of the Kingdom of God that are available in the here and the now. That pine tree standing on the mountain is so beautiful, solid, and green. To me the pine tree belongs to the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha. To me the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha is not a vague idea, it is a reality. And your beautiful child with her fresh smile, she belongs to the Kingdom of God and you also, you belong to the Kingdom of God. But because you don’t know how to handle the Kingdom of God you are doing harm. The Kingdom of God is such a gift. If you are filled with mindfulness and concentration you can touch the Pure Land of the Buddha right in the here and the now.

In the Gospel there is the story of a farmer who discovers a treasure in a small piece of land [Matthew 13:44-46]. After the discovery he distributed all the other lands that he owned and kept just the land with the treasure. When you have such a treasure you do not need other belongings. With the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, we may realize that happiness.

When you are inhabited by the energy of mindfulness and concentration, every step you make takes you into the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha. The practice taught by our teacher should lead us to the treasure; we don’t have to run after fame, wealth, power, or sex.

mb47-dharma5If we are capable of recognizing that beautiful river as something that belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will do our best to preserve it and not allow it to be polluted. If we recognize that this planet belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will cherish and protect it so that we can enjoy it for a long time. And our children and their children will have a chance to enjoy it.

Mindfulness helps us to be aware of what is going on. Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent. We are eating our mother, our father, our children. We are eating the earth. Scientists tell us that if we can reduce the eating of meat by fifty percent it will be enough to change the situation of our planet.

The Buddha on Global Warming

I have sat with the Buddha for long periods and consulted him about the situation of global warming. The teaching of the Buddha on this is very clear. It is a very strong teaching. The Buddha said that when someone realizes that he or she has to die, that person will first of all revolt against the diagnosis. The fear of dying is always there deep down in our store consciousness. And the Buddha advises us not to run away from that fear. Instead, we should bring it up in order to recognize it.

Breathing in, I know I am of the nature to grow old.
Breathing out, I know I cannot escape old age.

Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to getsick, terminally ill.
Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape sickness.

Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to die.
Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape dying.

Breathing in, I know that one day I will have to let goof everything and everyone I cherish.
Breathing out, there is no way to bring them along.

This practice helps you to accept old age, sickness, and death as realities, facts that you cannot escape. After you have accepted this you feel much better. Those of us who have been diagnosed as having AIDS or cancer react the same way. We cannot accept it, we struggle with ourselves for a long time. Finally we accept it and in that moment we find peace. And when we find peace, we are more relaxed, and we have a chance to overcome the sickness.

I have known people with cancer able to survive ten, twenty, even thirty years, because of their capacity to accept and to live peacefully. The Buddha told me that the same thing is true with our civilization. If we continue like this our civilization will come to an end. Before this civilization the earth has known other civilizations. Many civilizations have died because mankind was not wise enough. And the same thing will be true for ours. If we continue to consume like this, if we don’t care about protecting this wonderful planet, we will allow it to be burned with global warming. Maybe seventy percent of mankind will die. The ecosystem will be destroyed to a very large extent and we will need millions of years to start a new civilization. Everything is impermanent.

mb47-dharma6Many of us do not accept this. Oh no! God has created this world and God will not allow things like that to happen. But the fact is that we are not only our five skandhas but we are our environment, which is in a process of self-destruction. Many of us who see this course of destruction become victims of despair and fear. Before global warming brings death and destruction we will already have died of fear and despair. We will have died of mental illness before we die from the results of climate changes.

The End of Our Civilization

Breathing in, I know that this civilization is going to die.
Breathing out, this civilization cannot escape dying.

We have to learn to accept the end of our civilization. Just as we accept our own death, we accept the death of our civilization. We know that another civilization will be born later on, maybe one or two million years later. We touch the truth of impermanence and then we have peace. When we have peace there will be hope again. With this kind of peace we can make use of the technology that is available to us to save this planet of ours. With fear and despair we are not going to be able to save our planet, even if we have the technology to do it.

Scientists tell us that we have enough technology to save our planet, but psychologically, we are not capable. We are not peaceful, enlightened, or awake enough to do it. That is why, while scientists are trying to discover ways to improve our technology, we as members of the human race have to practice so that we can transcend our fear, despair, forgetfulness, and irresponsibility. A collective change of consciousness will bring about a new way of life, a mindful way of living. The technology that is available to us will be enough to help us save this planet.

If you can get in touch with the treasure that is described in the Gospel according to Matthew, you don’t have to run after anything else. You have the Kingdom as your wealth; you have a beautiful planet as a great gift. Just enjoy it. Breathing in, you get in touch with the stars, the moon, the clouds, the mountain, the river. Taking a step you make a step in the Kingdom of God. This is possible with mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful dwelling in the present moment. And then you don’t need to consume, to run after these objects of craving in order to be happy.

The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, very strong, and not difficult to understand. We have the power to decide the destiny of our planet. Buddhism is the strongest form of humanism we have ever had. It is our actions and our way of life that will save us. If we awaken to our true situation there will be collective change in our consciousness. Then hope will be possible.

Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

PDF of this article

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

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.

PDF of this article

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

Letter from the Editor

mb50-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

Today is Martin Luther King Day here in the United States. Tomorrow we inaugurate a new president, the first black man to serve in that post. Along with what seems to be the whole world, I rejoice in the dawning of a new era.

Perhaps we are truly approaching what Thay mentions in his New Year’s letter (see the Mindfulness Bell website), what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” At least I dare to hope so, though I know that much will be required of each one of us for it to become a reality.

In my own life the political excitement of the last few months has been overshadowed by the illness of my sister-in-law, dying of ovarian cancer. For much of that time she lived in our home and we were blessed with the presence of many

angels, including hospice staff and volunteers and friends. Now she has moved to a nursing home where she receives better care. By the time you read this, I suppose, her body will be ashes.

How can it be that the person I know and love will no longer be here? Of course, in the ultimate dimension, she’s not going anywhere. As Thay says in this issue’s Dharma talk, “We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean the end — we always continue!” I have been with other loved ones as they died, and a palpable energy is released that fills the room with love and enters the heart like grace. Still, the wrenching away, the physical loss of a loved one is ever so painful and the grief is as sharp as a sword.

In this issue Lauren Thompson shares her transformation as she journeyed with a Sangha sister during a terminal illness. She writes that “through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing.”

Glimpses of interbeing can not only guide us through personal loss but may be critical in solving global issues. “Unless we are aware,” said Angela Tam in a powerful talk at the Vesak Conference, “of the connection between our habits and the planetary problems we have, nothing will change.” Her solution: interbeing, mindfulness, Sangha. Brother Phap Lai similarly points to a spiritual solution for the complex problem of overpopulation: “We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community.”

As Martin Luther King wrote fifty years ago, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

May the vision that Martin Luther King lived and died for become reality here on earth. May the Buddha-to-be that Thay has foreseen be born in each of our hearts. May we practice with diligence, wisdom, and compassion so as to bring about the beloved community of all living beings.

Blessings to you all,

mb50-Editor2

PDF of this article

The Journey Home

By Van Khanh Ha

mb50-TheJourney1

In May, Van Khanh Ha traveled to Vietnam with her daughter Lauren and her friend Karen Hilsberg. Here are excerpts from the journal she wrote to her loved ones back in the United States.

3 May — Returning Home Again

Yesterday morning our plane landed in Hanoi smoothly. My heart was filled with joy and peace. As I walked out, I was welcomed by so many sweet familiar faces and warm and humid air. The memories of war and its destruction are fad-ing. Hanoi today is alive more than ever.

I stopped and breathed deeply to the fact that, yes, I’m returning home again, after thirty-seven years.

mb50-TheJourney2

5 May — A Dream Come True

Hanoi impresses me with its beauty and wonderful culture. I’m taking each step, each breath with deep gratitude to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Lauren and I are happy here. Everyone is wearing the temple robe — ao trang — Lauren is so cute in this outfit.

We continued to explore the historical sights of Hanoi: Chua Tran Quoc, Den Ly Thai To, the botanical garden, and the water puppet show. As I listened to the classical opera, I felt as if Papa was there listening with me and embracing  me  with  his tender love.

This was a promise that I made to  him  before  his death — that some day I would return home to his beloved village of La Chu, to visit his ancestors’ tombstones. And now this is it. My dream has come true for myself and for my dear Papa.

Last night we had our orientation with Thich Nhat Hanh. There were four hundred retreatants from more than forty different countries.  I  looked  around the  room filled with people, as this small, simple, and humble monk talked. His Dharma talk was deep, lovely and with a great sense of humor. He gave wholeheartedly and I received his words with gladness, with joy and tears. The theme was “dwelling happily in the present moment.”

9 May — Peace in Ourselves, Peace in the World

The Golden Lotus Hotel where we are staying has 450 rooms and only two computers for guests to share. So it’s a challenge and we are learning to be very skillful with our time.

The retreat here with Thich Nhat Hanh is wonderful. Early every morning, we start our day with walking meditation. Thay walks mindfully with each step and we follow him with our breath and our smiles. Outside of the hotel, the streets are crowded with people going to work. The sound of silence is mixing with the sound of cars and motorcycles to become an orchestra of real life.

mb50-TheJourney3

After breakfast is the Dharma talk. Imagine a big room filled with hundreds of people and it’s quiet except for Thay’s voice. His voice is gentle, yet his message and his mission for peace are very powerful: “With deep listening and loving speech, we can transform our suffering. Peace in ourselves, peace in the world.”

mb50-TheJourney4

Last night Lauren woke me up to say: “I love Hanoi, I enjoy Vietnam so much. Thank you, Mommy.” At that moment, I knew deep inside my heart that I’ve made a good decision — for both of us to return to our roots, to our ancestors, and to discover Vietnam together. We are very grateful to be here and to receive the beautiful teachings of love and compassion from Thay with many of our friends.

12 May — Friendliness to Foreigners

The retreat ended, leaving a great impression on me and many others — looking at this gentle monk in his eighties who puts out so much energy for mankind with one simple wish: that the world be a better place to live for all beings.

Today is the beginning of the UN celebration of Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. The theme this year is “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society.”

Yesterday Lauren, Karen, and I went to the One Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature. Again, we went to our favorite Indian restaurant. We also had a chance to have ao dai [the traditional long silk tunic] made at the tailor shop; they are going to be so beautiful!

Despite the crowds and noise, Lauren and I embrace Vietnam with the connection to our ancestors. This trip has made me appreciate even more the old values and virtues of Confucius. I still see the happiness of the people, and the friendliness they offer to foreigners, even Americans. Life is difficult for most of the people here, but they accept and find peace in their lives.

16 May — Wholesome Seeds of Compassion and Peace

Today is the conclusion of the United Nations Day of Vesak Celebration 2008. The last three days have been so amazing. Being here helped to water and cultivate the wholesome seeds of compassion and peace in me. Many representatives and guest speakers from over sixty countries came together for one purpose — to promote peace in the world. We are united as one to bring happiness and love to all beings on this Earth.

I feel so blessed to witness such a sacred event. This is the first time for Vietnam to host this special event, and the organization did a wonderful job. Every meal, we were served with a banquet of delicious foods, desserts, and fresh fruits. The entertainments were excellent — a combination of old and new — from traditional music and songs to modern dance.

Tomorrow we go to the Avalokiteshvara Cave, Chua Huong and then to Ha Long Bay for two days.

18 May — Ha Long Bay

Today we went to Ha Long Bay. It’s so beautiful. We visited the caves and walked up to the mountain, the scenery is unbelievable. Every moment living in Vietnam made me appreciate the beauty of this land even more. Lauren and I are sharing a room with ocean view.

People here are simple and so loving. They are glad to know that I’m Vietnamese. I thought after living in the U.S. for most of my life, I had lost touch with my own roots but the first step in Hanoi, I know I’m home, with my own brothers and sisters.

20 May — Proud to Be Both

We are in Hue now. It is much more quiet and tranquil, even though our hotel is located in the heart of downtown. Meals are served with many types of special dishes. The dining area is on the balcony of the top floor overlooking the city and the Perfume River. It’s so nice, especially at nighttime.

Yesterday we went to Tu Hieu Temple. Thay with his gentle steps on the ground of his root temple brought tears to my eyes. This trip is more meaningful for us because of the practice and of his teachings. I’m forever thankful.

In the afternoon we visited preschools in the remote areas of Hue. The children sang songs and danced for us. They live on small boats or on stilt homes by the river. The living conditions are very poor but they are full of laughter and big smiles.

Last night we went on a boat to celebrate Vesak. We chanted and then released fish back to the river under the light of the full moon.

This trip continues to nurture my deep connection to my homeland and its beauty. I treasure my time here and just like Papa said: “You should be proud to be an American, but never forget your roots and your values.” He’s a wise man and I know in my heart that I’m proud to be both.

24 May — Visiting Ancestors

Yesterday Lauren and I went to visit my parents’ birthplaces near Hue with my relatives Chu Phu and Cu Chau’s children that I have not seen for over forty years. We went to La Chu, my father’s village, then later to Vi Da where my mother was born ninety-three years ago. Being by my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ graves, I felt the deep connection to them, even those I never met.

Early in the morning we walked on a narrow dirt road leading to my grandmother’s last resting place. Both sides of the road were rice fields ready to be harvested. The wet roads were so slippery, Lauren almost fell into the ditch. We burned incense and touched the earth three times to each of the tombstones.

Later, we went to Nguyen Khoa cemetery where my maternal grandparents are buried. I knew that Lauren and I are the continuation of our ancestors. There is no birth and no death. They are in us, in our every cell, and in every breath we take. And I could feel their love sent to us from above.

Central Vietnam is hot, with humid weather, and we were dripping with sweat. But we looked forward to being with our ancestors, so we just smiled and embraced the moment.

Today we visited the Emperors’ tombs and the Forbidden City. When Chi Hoa, Mu Chuc’s daughter, found out that we were here, she came to visit us in the hotel. She told us many stories about my family and she warmly greeted us with deep true love.

1 June — Memories and Gratitude

After Hoi An we went to Da Nang, where I spent most of my childhood and where I finished my education from elementary to high school. It brought back many warm memories — of family, friends, and the beautiful beaches. My Papa often took us to the ocean so my sisters and I could play in the water.

Lauren and I took a tour to the Cham Museum. It has artifacts that are thousands of years old. Then we visited my beloved math teacher’s home — Mr. Bui passed away years ago but his lovely wife welcomed us warmly. I sat there holding her soft hands, and her heartbeat and mine became one. We did not say much, but deep inside our love was interconnected. It was a hot, humid day, and our visit was sweet. I was touched by her tranquility and her kindness.

After that, we stopped to see my high school, Phan Chu Trinh. I used to walk with my friends to class; we shared our teenage years with so much laughter and silly jokes. Another stop was the courthouse where my father worked as a judge for twenty years. I could not find our old home in Da Nang because it’s now an office building.

The last stop in Da Nang was My Khe beach. Lauren and I were so happy when our feet touched the white sand and warm water. It was a perfect day, the sky was blue with patches of white clouds. Warm summer breezes caressed our faces softly. I picked up some seashells and feathers on the beach. I took a few deep breaths to treasure my youth, and my presence in the here and the now.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) three days ago. It’s a lovely break: we called our time here are our “lazy days” — great food, and nice times spent with my brother’s family. We also visited with Uncle Tu’s children, Aunt Dieu Phuong’s daughter, and my dear friend Thuy Anh that I have not seen for forty-five years.

Lauren and I feel very fortunate to be able to take this trip together. Vietnam has helped us to open our hearts and our souls, to be touched by the kindness of many people and to be proud of my homeland’s natural beauty.

I’m looking forward to being back in America soon. May all beings be at peace.

Van Khanh Ha, True Attainment of the Fruit of the Practice, left Vietnam in 1971 to study in the United States, where she married and had a daughter, Lauren Mai. Her father, who had been a federal judge before the war, and her mother were able to come to the U.S. and live with Van in their old age. Van practices with Sanghas in Maryland and Virginia.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: The Buddhist Understanding of Reality

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village, France — 21 June 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the Path of the Buddha retreat, Thay focused on global ethics. A handout (see below) summarized four different approaches to ethical questions. Here is an excerpt from Thay’s last Dharma talk, in which he discussed the Buddhist approach.

We study this line: “Both subject and object of perception manifest from consciousness according to the principle of interbeing.” This expresses an understanding of deep Buddhism. The question of whether we continue to be after the disintegration of this body has been asked by so many people. And there are many ways to answer, according to our capacity to understand. There are at least two kinds of Buddhism. Those who practice popular Buddhism are practicing more devotion than meditation, so their understanding of rebirth is quite different. But to answer this question satisfactorily, you have to use the understanding given by deep Buddhism, the understanding that is in accord with science.

We usually believe that consciousness is something inside of us, and we go and look for the world outside. We think there is an objective world outside and there is a subjective world inside. Remember when we read from “Winnie the Pooh”? Winnie the Pooh thought he saw the footprints of a hostile animal, and he became afraid. But with the help of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh discovered that the footprints he found on the snow were his own footprints! The same thing is true with the object of our inquiry – the so-called objective reality of the world. We think it is something distinct from our consciousness, but in fact it is only the object of our consciousness. It is our consciousness. That’s the hardest thing to understand and a basic obstacle for us and for science. Now a number of scientists are beginning to understand this concept. The British astronomer, Sir Eddington, said that on the unknown shore we have discovered footprints of unknown people, and we want to know who has been there before us. We come, inquire and investigate, and we find that they are our own footprints.

The world outside is our consciousness, is us. It is not something separate and distinct. The object and the subject of perception inter-are. Without subject, there is no object; without object, there is no subject. They manifest at the same time. To see means to see something. The seer does not exist separately from the seen; they manifest at the same time. If you imagine that the seer is independent and goes out in order to see the seen, that is a mistaken perception.

The Nature of Consciousness

Consciousness is always consciousness of something, and consciousness only lasts a millisecond. Consciousness is like an elementary particle, like an electron; its nature is non-local. Nonlocality is a word used by scientists about time in quantum physics. An elementary particle can be everywhere at the same time. We think that one thing cannot be several places at once, but scientists have agreed that an elementary particle – an electron – can be both here and there at the same time. It can be both this and that at the same time. It can be you, it can be me.

Many philosophers and scientists have said that the nature of consciousness has a cinematographic nature. A film is made up of separate pictures that last only a fraction of a second. Consciousness is like that, it just lasts one millisecond. Then, because moments of consciousness succeed each other continuously, you have the impression that consciousness is something that lasts. But the notion of a permanent consciousness is illusion, not reality. Consciousness is only a flash.

It’s like a flame on the tip of a candle. You think there is one flame, but really there is a succession of millions of flames, one after the other, that give the impression that it is only one flame. The flame of this moment gives rise to the flame of the next moment, and the flame of the next moment gives rise to the flame of the next moment. Things exist only in one millisecond. And that is true not only with consciousness; it is also true with our bodies, because cells die to give rise to other cells. In a month, all our cells will be new cells. It’s like a river. We see a river and call it one name, but the water is not the same water, it’s always changing. You cannot swim twice in the same river, and it is not the same person who goes into the river. Tomorrow it will not be “you” who goes into that river. You will have changed, just like the river constantly changes.

Buddhism offers the example of someone holding a torch and drawing a circle in the dark. Since he moves the torch quickly, you have the impression that there is a circle of fire. But in fact there is only one dot of fire. Everything is fleeting and impermanent. Modern science acknowledges this.

No-Self and Samadhi

Science is now capable of demonstrating no-self. Neuroscience teaches that neurons communicate with each other very well, and they operate together without a leader or a boss. They are like an orchestra playing beautiful music without a conductor. Our bodies are made of many cells and there is coordination among the cells; they don’t need a president of all the cells in order to make decisions. There is no-self.

If a scientist knows how to maintain that insight on life, then that flash of insight will become a liberating factor. If you just accept that idea as a notion, that is not enough to liberate you from your fear, your desire, your despair. No-self and impermanence as notions are not very helpful. You need to maintain a long-lasting understanding in order to get liberation. That is why samadhi has been translated, “you maintain it like that.” You keep the insight alive and you make it last. In your daily life you are able to maintain the vision of impermanence, the vision of no-self as a living experience. Only that insight can liberate you from fear, from anger, from separation. It is like when you boil potatoes, you have to maintain the fire underneath them for at least twenty minutes for the potatoes to cook. If you light the burner and then you turn it off, you will never have cooked potatoes. Samadhi is like that. Samadhi is the concentration needed to maintain the steady presence of that insight. Scientists are capable of finding no-self and impermanence, but what they need is samadhi to maintain that understanding throughout the day. They need the tools of mindfulness, concentration, and samadhi, in order to discover more. It would be helpful to have practitioners of meditation and scientists to collaborate, in order to discover more about ourselves.

You can be sure that the world is an object of mind. The sun, the moon, the earth, the cosmos, the galaxies – they are all objects of mind. And our body, also, is an object of our mind. And our mind, also, is an object of our mind. That is why we can investigate the object of our mind. When we understand the object of our mind, we understand our mind, because mind and object of our mind inter-are. One cannot be without the other.

When we believe that consciousness is permanent, and only the body perishes, that the soul continues and goes to heaven or hell, that is eternalism. A right view should transcend a view of eternalism. A permanent, immortal soul is something that cannot be accepted, either by good Buddhists or good scientists. But the opposite view – that after this body disintegrates, you disappear altogether, is another extreme, another wrong view, called nihilism. As a student of Buddhism, you are not caught in either of these views. There’s only continued manifestation in different kinds of forms; that is rebirth, continuation, in the context of impermanence and no-self. Good scientists see that nothing is born and nothing dies.

Being a Cloud

Suppose you are a cloud. You are made of tiny crystals of ice and water and you are so light, you can float. And maybe floating as a cloud, you encounter a block of hot air so you become drops of water and fall as rain. You go down, you come up again, you go down, and you come up again. Transmigration, reincarnation, rebirth is always taking place in a cloud. And yet a cloud does not need to become rain in order to have a new life. A cloud has a new life every moment. Rebirth, continuation takes place with us in the same way.

There is a lot of cloud in us, and we continue to drink cloud every day. Birth and death are taking place in every moment of our daily life. We should not say, “I will die in twenty years, in thirty years;” no, you are dying right in this moment and you are reborn right in this moment. Rebirth is happening in the here and the now – not in the future. So when someone asks you, “What will happen to me when I die?” Ask him or her, “What happens to you in the here and the now?” If you know what happens in the here and the now, you can answer the first question very easily. You are undergoing birth and death right now because mentally and physically you are of a cinematographic nature. You are renewed in every instant, and if you know how to do it, your renewal is beautiful.

In every moment we produce thought, we produce speech, and we produce action. That action will have an effect on us and on the world: that is our karma. If you know how to handle your thinking, your speech, and your action, you’ll be more beautiful. You don’t have to wait until you die to see what happens to you. Look in the present moment and you see that birth and death are going on in you at every moment, both in your body and in your consciousness. Every moment of our daily life there is input and there is output. You breathe in, you take food, you have new ideas, new feelings. And things go out from you, like urine, air, and water. So the cosmos is renewing you and you are releasing things to the cosmos. Birth and death does not wait; it is happening now, in the present moment.

Suppose one part of the cloud transforms itself into rain and the rain falls and becomes part of a river. The remaining part of the cloud is looking down from the sky and sees its continuation on the earth. It says to its rain part, “I enjoy floating up here but you’re part of me and I hope you enjoy it down there. To be floating up here is nice, but to be flowing down there is also nice.” The cloud is both floating in the sky and flowing as the rain.

As a human being, we can see that too. I see myself in my students and in my friends. I wish them good luck, because their good luck is my good luck. When my disciples and my friends carry me with them, I wish them the best. My happiness and suffering depend on them. So when I look, I don’t just see me here. I see me there, and there, and there. I wave and say, “Have a good time in there!” That is the way to look. You see yourself not just in this body, you see yourself everywhere, because every moment you produce thought, you produce speech, you produce action that continues you in the world.

One hundred years from now, if you come to Plum Village, you’ll still see me in different forms – and younger and more beautiful! [laughs] Because it is possible to be more beautiful in our way of thinking, in our way of speaking and acting if we know how to generate right view. With right view, we don’t suffer. We can produce thoughts of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. A cloud can do the work of self-purification up there, so that when it becomes snow or river, it is beautiful. It is possible.

Karma

We began our talk with the notion that both consciousness and object of consciousness are manifestations of consciousness. Consciousness is a dynamic force that is at the base of manifesting living beings and the world. In Buddhist insight, the world is a manifestation of consciousness. Many scientists have begun to agree that the cosmos is a manifestation of consciousness. As a scientist, you cannot stand outside as an observer; to really understand, you have to be a participant.

In Buddhism we speak of karma as the threefold aspect of action; thinking, speaking and acting. When we produce a thought, that thought can change us and can change the world in a good way or in a bad way. If it is right thought, if that thought is produced in line with right thinking, then it will have a healing, nourishing effect on our body and on the world. Just by producing right thinking you can change the world. You can make the world a better place to live, or you can transform the world into hell. That is karma, action; this is not something abstract. For example, the economic crisis is born from our thinking. There is a lot of craving and fear, and the value of the dollar, of the euro is largely created by the mind. Everything comes from the mind. That is why thinking is action and speaking is action. Speaking can release tension and reconcile, or speaking can break relationships. Speaking can destroy someone’s hope and cause that person to commit suicide. Physical action is also energy.

There is individual karma that has an effect on everyone. Everything that happened to you happened to the world. You produce that thought, you are affected by that thought, and the world is also affected by that thought. There is also collective karma. During this twenty-one-day retreat, the friendship, the joy, the healing, the transformation is the work of everyone. Each one of us contributes through our practice, through our insight, through our speech. In Buddhism, we do not believe in a God that arranges everything, but we don’t believe in coincidence either. We believe that the fate of the planet depends on our karma, on our action. It does not depend on a God, it does not depend on chance, it depends on our true action. Karma is the dynamic force that underlies everything. I think that scientists will have no difficulty accepting this.

Man is present in all things and all things are present in man. Man just arrived yesterday in the history of life on earth. Looking into a human being, we can see our non-human elements, namely our animal ancestors, our vegetable ancestors, and our mineral ancestors. In our past life we were a cloud, and we were a rock. Even in this moment, we continue to be a cloud, we continue to be a rock. There is a mountain in us, do you see? There are many clouds in us, do you see?

In a former time, we were fish, we were birds, we were reptiles. And our ancestors are fully present in us, in the here, in the now. We continue as a reptile. We have many reactions that belong to the reptile species. We want to say that we are created by a God in his image. But in fact, we have many ancestors. When a fish swims happily in the water, it is very proud of its talent for swimming. And a fish has the right to say that God must be the most wonderful swimmer in the world. And a rose can say, “God is the most beautiful rose in the world, because he has created me like this.” If you are a mathematician, you tend to think God must be the best mathematician in the world. Your notions of God are anthropocentric. If you are a gay person, you may think that God is the best gay person in the world. Why not? The fish has that right, the rose has that right, so we all inter-are. We continue our ancestors in us now. We are human, but we are at the same time a rock, a cloud, a rabbit, a rose, a gay, a lesbian. We are everything. Let us not discriminate or push away anything, because we are everything. Everything is in us. That’s the right view.

If we see that everything is in man and man is in everything, we know that to preserve other species is to preserve ourselves. That is deep ecology, that is interbeing. That is the teaching of the Diamond Sutra. A good Buddhist should be an ecologist, trying her best to preserve the environment, because to preserve the environment is to preserve yourself. Man contains the whole cosmos.

On the phenomenal level there seem to be birth, death, being and non-being, but ontologically, these notions cannot be applied to reality. Birth and death are just notions. The true nature of a cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. The scientist Lavoisier says that nothing is born, nothing dies. He agrees completely with this teaching. A cloud manifests as a cloud. There is no birth of a cloud, because before being a cloud, the cloud has been the tree, the ocean, the heat generated by the sun. To appear as a cloud is only a moment of continuation. And when a cloud becomes a river, that is not death, that is also a continuation. We know that there is a way to continue beautifully, and that is to take care of our three aspects of karma – thinking, speaking and acting.

Being and non-being are more wrong views. Non-being is a wrong view, but being is also a wrong view. The absolute reality transcends both being and non-being. Before you are born, you did not belong to the realm of non-being, because from non-being, you cannot pass into being. And when you die, you cannot pass from being into non-being. It’s impossible. To be, or not to be – both are wrong views. To inter-be is better.

The dynamic consciousness is called karma energy. Karma energy is not abstract. It determines our state of being, whether we are happy or unhappy. Whether you continue beautifully or not so beautifully depends on karma. It’s possible to take care of our action so that we don’t suffer much now and we will continue to do better in the future. There is the hope, the joy.

Free Will is Mindfulness

Everything evolves according to the principle of interdependence, but there is free will and the possibility to transform. Free will is mindfulness. When mindfulness intervenes, we are aware of what is going on. If we like our action, we allow it to continue; if we don’t like our action, there are methods to change it with concentration and insight. We don’t want to take a path leading to ill-being; we want to take the path leading to the cessation of ill-being, to well-being. Free will is possible in Buddhism, because we know that we can handle our thinking, we can handle our speech and we can handle our action. We are responsible for our action and it is possible to assure a good continuation. Freedom begins with mindfulness, concentration and insight. With insight, with right view we can practice right thinking. We can change ourselves; we can change the world. Everything is the fruit of action.

The one affects the all. The all affects the one. Interbeing means impermanence, non-self, emptiness, and karma. In the teaching of Buddha, every teaching inter-is with every other teaching, so impermanence should be understood as no-self and no-self should be understood as interdependence. No-self and interdependence are not two different things. If you understand interdependence, you understand no-self. If you understand impermanence, you understand interdependence. They are different words, but they are just the same thing.

Right view allows right action, leading to the reduction of suffering and the increase of happiness. This is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the active aspect of the teaching is the Noble Eightfold Path.

Happiness and Suffering

Happiness and suffering inter-are. You should not try to run away from suffering because you know that a deep understanding of suffering can bring about insight, compassion, and understanding. And that is the foundation of happiness. We do not think that there is a place where there is no suffering. The Pure Land, the kingdom of God is right here. If we are free, then we can recognize the kingdom of God in the here and the now. We need only a flash of awakening to realize that what we are looking for is already here – the kingdom of God. No birth and no death.

Please remember that without the mud, the lotus cannot grow. We should not be afraid of suffering. We know how to handle suffering. We know how to handle the garbage in order to make compost and nourish the flowers. That’s why we can accept this world with all our heart. We don’t need to go anywhere else. This is our home. We want to manifest again and again and again in order to make this home more beautiful with good action. The ultimate reality transcends notions of good and evil, right and wrong. That is the absolute criterion for Buddhist ethics.

Transcribed by Nancy Mendenhall, edited by Barbara Casey, Natascha Bruckner, and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

Four Views of Ethics

I. Theistic Traditions

Judaism and Christianity teach that the world was created by a loving, all-powerful God to provide a home for us. We, in turn, were created in his image, to be his children. Thus, the world is not devoid of meaning and purpose. It is, instead, the arena in which God’s plans and purposes are realized. What could be more natural, then, than to think that “morality” is a part of the religious view of the world, whereas the atheist’s world has no place for values?

In the major theistic traditions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — God is conceived as a lawgiver who has laid down rules that we are to obey. He does not compel us to obey them. We were created as free agents, so we may choose to accept or to reject his commandments. But if we are to live as we should, we must follow God’s laws. This conception has been elaborated by some theologians into a theory about the nature of right and wrong known as the Divine Command Theory. Essentially, this theory says that “morally right” is a matter of being commanded by God and “morally wrong” is a matter of being forbidden by God.

II. Bertrand Russell’s “Scientific” Approach

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 1902).

III. Recent Scientific Approach

The universe is some 15 billion years old — that is the time elapsed since the “big bang” — and the earth itself was formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The evolution of life on the planet was a slow process, guided largely by natural selection. The first humans appeared quite recently. The extinction of the great dinosaurs 65 million years ago (possibly as the result of a catastrophic collision between the earth and an asteroid) left ecological room for the evolution of the few little mammals that were about, and after 63 or 64 million more years, one line of that evolution finally produced us. In geological time, we arrived only yesterday.

But no sooner did our ancestors arrive than they began to think of themselves as the most important things in all creation. Some of them even imagined that the whole universe had been made for their benefit. Thus, when they began to develop theories of right and wrong, they held that the protection of their own interests had a kind of ultimate and objective value. The rest of creation, they reasoned, was intended for their use. We now know better. We now know that we exist by evolutionary accident, as one species among many, on a small and insignificant world in one little corner of the cosmos. The details of this picture are revised each year, as more is discovered; but the main outlines seem well established. (James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, McGraw Hill, 2007).

IV. Buddhist Approach

Both subject and object of perception manifest from consciousness according to the principle of interbeing. Man is present in all things and all things are present in man. On the phenomenal level, there seems to be birth, death, being and non-being, but ontologically, these notions cannot be applied to reality. The dynamic consciousness is called karma energy. Everything evolves according to the principle of interdependence, but there is free will and the possibility to transform; there is probability. The one affects the all, the all affects the one. Interbeing also means impermanence, non-self, emptiness, karma, and countless world systems.

Right view allows right action, leading to the reduction of suffering and the increase of happiness. Happiness and suffering inter-are. The ultimate reality transcends notions of good and evil, right and wrong. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Winter Retreat of 2008).

PDF of this article

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

Letter from the Editor

mb52-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

As you may know, our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was hospitalized after the retreat at Stonehill College in Massachusetts for treatment of a chronic lung infection. Thay has recovered well and as I write this he is teaching at the retreat in Deer Park Monastery. But he was unable to attend the retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, eerily titled “One Buddha Is Not Enough.”

“Dear friends,” Thay wrote from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, “if you look deeply enough, you will see me in the retreat, walking with you, sitting with you, breathing with you. I feel clearly that I am in you and you are in me.” The nine hundred participants, after feeling everything from dismay, frustration and anger to sadness and grief, experienced the truth of Thay’s words . Everyone’s practice deepened tremendously. (I was pleased to learn later that very few people actually left the retreat.)

By the end of the retreat, several long-time practitioners — including monastics — told me that this was their best retreat ever. Here in Colorado we have been fortunate to have had two monastic retreats, in the summers when Thay did not come to the US. So we know what incredible Dharma teachers we have among our monks and nuns. This was one of the blessings of this retreat — we had the great fortune to hear some voices we normally do not get to hear. Thay Phap Niem gave a powerful Dharma talk on no birth no death; Sister Chau Nghiem, Thay Phap Dung, Sister Tue Nghiem and others gave memorable talks; and a panel of lay and monastic Dharma teachers did a masterful job of answering questions.

Thay continued in his letter: “In this retreat, you will witness to the talent of the Sangha: you will see that Thay is already well continued by the Sangha, and the presence of the Sangha carries Thay’s presence. Please let me walk with your strong feet, breathe with your breathing lungs and smile with your beautiful smiles.” This is our summons to carry Thay with us always. I believe that our Sangha is vibrant and powerful enough to ensure Thay’s continuation, a continuation in beauty. The Colorado retreat was proof of that.

Please send us your stories and photos from the U.S. tour as soon as you can; we will feature some of them in our upcoming issues.

However, I am sad to say that I will no longer be editor of the Bell. I am moving on to other adventures, starting with a course in storytelling at Emerson College in England. Editing our Sangha’s journal has been a joy and a privilege.

Allow me to express my deep gratitude to all who contribute to making this magazine a reality: our talented staff, David Percival, Helena Powell, Brother Phap Dung, Sister Annabel; and wonderful volunteers Barbara, Matt, Judith, Elaine, Brandy, Richard, Peggy. It has been an honor to work with you. And to all who have participated these past four years — writers, photographers, subscribers, donors — I bow to you all. It’s been a delightful journey. I will miss you very much, but I will continue to enjoy you through these pages — and you may see one of my stories now and again.

May you be well in body and spirit. May you meet adversity with courage and grace. May you rejoice in the love that surrounds you always.

mb52-Editor2

 

 

 

PDF of this article

The Ultimate Dimension

A Practice with Dying and Death

By Haven Tobias

Some friends and I joined in a practice to write about death and dying.* When we shared what we had written, we learned that the following drama was everybody’s worst-case scenario.

I am in a nursing home where, even if someone cared enough to prop me up so that I could look out the window, I would see only a parking lot. The nursing home is so institutionally gray and dull, and my room is so gray and dull, that I cannot tell what time of day it is, much less what season. There are no flowers or plants in my room. Whatever it is I am dying of, it is taking a while, and I have been lying in this bed a long time, becoming a drooling, pants-wetting, shriveled-up old lady. I am being warehoused, away from contact with human beings, other than a nurse’s aide, whose sole expression seems to be annoyance. I can no longer see to read, or watch movies, or do jigsaw puzzles. There is no one to read to me, or play Cyrano to my Roxanne, bringing me the news of the day. There is no one to spread lotion on my dry and cracked back and feet. There is no discernible end to this nightmare—no death, just a drawn-out dying by increments.

There was an end to the nightmare—it was a writing exercise, not immediate reality. My friends and I could conceive of more horrific circumstances, such as being kidnapped and tortured to death. But all of us agreed that the worst-case scenario, lingering on without loving care in an institutional setting, was worst precisely because it was common and probable.

While I kept trying, as I wrote, to turn my attention to compassion for all those who languish in nursing homes, honesty compels me to admit I was wallowing in self-pity for that lonely little old lady that was me.

Fortunately, the exercise did not finish with the worst-case scenario. It was with some relief that I moved on to the second part of the exercise, writing about my ideal scenario.

Ideally, I know in advance that I am dying. I can take a gentle leave of my friends and family and remove myself to the sea, to a cottage along the coast in Massachusetts or Maine. I have my wits about me. The pain comes and goes, and when it comes I am able to breathe and say, hello, I know you are just pain. Perhaps my daughter is with me. I know she understands I am at peace about my death. She knows I am at peace about my dying, too.

It is late spring or early autumn. It is warm, and I am still physically able to walk to the shore when the day becomes night and sit on the beach, listening to the waves and watching the stars. As first light comes and I watch the sky over the water turn to pearl, I have enough acuity to remember the closing gatha of the Diamond Sutra: “Thus should one view all of the fleeting world; a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom and a dream.” I lie down in the sand and die.

Sharing our ideal death made all of us more emotional than sharing the worst-case scenario. There was fear that the ideal was so much less likely than the worst case. Almost all of us wanted to die on a shore or mountaintop or under a tree, and not in a hospital or nursing home, but we feared the odds.

We were ready for the third part of the exercise: what can we do, here and now, to make a life worth dying for? Most of us, perhaps to calm our emotions, became very practical. We made promises to work on wills and to speak with family members about worries and fears and wishes and feelings. But we also understood that preparation for death is not limited to practicalities.

As for myself, in preparation, I have read and reread Thay’s book No Death, No Fear. Thay teaches that when the fear of dying is exacerbated by the fear of death, it is like receiving a second arrow in a wound. Thay also teaches about recognizing choices. Choice permeates every aspect of our life, the way we live it, and the way we die.

There is no element of choice in death. The self that I call “I” will die. But I can choose to overcome fear of death.

There is an element of choice in dying. Whatever the causes and conditions of my dying may be, I can choose to participate in the process with equanimity. I have two daily practices to help me understand the process and to water the seeds of equanimity.

The Five Remembrances

I practice every day with the Five Remembrances, a meditation taught by the Buddha:

This body is of the nature to grow old. This body cannot escape old age.

This body is of the nature to decline in health. This body cannot escape ill health.

This body is of the nature to die. This body cannot escape death.

Everyone I love, and everything I have, I will one day have to let go. I cannot escape this.

I am the heir of my karma; my karma is my heir.

This teaching of the Buddha about the impermanence of life in the historical dimension, in the “mundane world,” is a core practice in Buddhism. I am also mindful, as I practice the Five Remembrances, of Thay’s teachings about the ultimate dimension, or what some would call nirvana. Awareness of the ultimate dimension informs both my understanding of the mundane world and my grasp of the reality of no-death.

This body is of the nature to grow old. This body cannot escape old age. But I am not this body, and this body is not me.

This body is of the nature to decline in health. This body cannot escape ill health. But mindfulness practice guides me to protect my health as best I can, in my choices of what to eat or not eat, and what to drink or not drink, and in the choices I make about my activities and my attitudes. The reality of interbeing, which is the truth that no self is a separate self but rather “inter-is” with every other being, teaches me that every choice I make has consequences for myself, for my family, and for society. I cannot choose to eat a steak every day, I cannot choose to drink a bottle of wine every day, I cannot opt to watch a violent program on TV instead of taking a walk outdoors, and pretend there are no personal and societal consequences.

This body is of the nature to die. This body cannot escape death. But I was never born, and I will never die. When causes and conditions were sufficient, I manifested in this body. When causes and conditions cease to be sufficient, I will no longer manifest in this body. But just as surely as the morning star is still “there” even after the sun rises, so shall I be. There is a famous Zen koan: what did you look like before your grandparents were born; what will you look like in one hundred years?

Everyone I love, and everything I have, I will one day have to let go. I cannot escape this. We all have to leave our stuff behind. That house we put so much of ourselves into, that car we thought was so important to own, the jewelry, the gadgets—all of it will turn to junk, before or after we’ve left. The important thing is love, and because the ultimate reality is the reality of interbeing—that we all contain one another—love does not die. Love continues in every kind word I have ever spoken and every smile I have ever smiled. Kind words and loving smiles get passed around the world and back again.

I am the heir of my karma; my karma is my heir. Where I am now, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is the sum total of all that I have done before now. Karma is the consequence of every action I’ve taken. But karma is not my fate. If I have had a tendency in the past to act in a certain situation with anger or anxiety, I can choose, now, not to act in that situation with anger or anxiety. In every moment, I can choose to nourish my seeds of peace and compassion rather than feeding my seeds of anger or fear.

mb53-TheUltimate1

Never the Same Path

My second daily practice is a walking meditation. I always walk with Thay, and breathe with the Buddha. Here, now. Walking, breathing. Walking with Thay. Happy feet, peaceful steps. Breathing with the Buddha. Releasing, letting go.

I walk the same path every day at the same time. But of course, it is never the same path and it is never the same time. I know, because the whole cosmos has told me on these walks that I am not walking the same path at the same time. The whole cosmos tells me that nothing lasts forever as it is now. And that is a blessing.

If everything lasted forever as it is now, five-year-olds could never become teachers or nurses or mothers or fathers. New friendships could not begin. Relationships could not deepen. Everything is in the process of change. Sometimes if we are fearful or grieving, it feels like loss. But it is not loss; it is transformation.

When I start my walk, I count the stars. I count a couple of dozen without even moving my head. After twenty minutes, I look again and count maybe fifteen stars. I walk a little longer, and it is dawn, and there is only the morning star. Are all the stars gone? They are here. It’s just that you can’t see them. They are not gone. Night has become morning in the natural process of change. But maybe indeed one of those stars has transformed. I could have been seeing the light of a star that exploded zillions of years ago. Is it gone? Or are we all stardust, interchanging our energies?

I close my walk, as I hope to close my life, with the Diamond Sutra: “Thus should one view all of the fleeting world; a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom and a dream.”

These two daily practices, sitting with the Buddha’s Five Remembrances, and walking with Thay’s interbeing, help me to develop equanimity about death and dying. And, oh, about life and living too, and the gift of the present moment.

* This practice was adapted from one recommended by Joan Halifax Roshi in her book Being with Dying. She advises that the exercise be done in community, so each writer has support. On two separate occasions, I facilitated different members of my meditation group sharing this practice. We found that intimacy is one consequence of this exercise and that therefore trust and respect are essential.

Hmb53-TheUltimate2aven Tobias, Embracing Freshness of the Heart, facilitates the Norman Meditation Group, which includes practitioners from many traditions. She is a semi-retired lawyer.

PDF of this article

Continuing the Path of the Buddha

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

mb64-Continuing1

The Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Center was established in 1982. Over the years, practice centers have been founded around the world in response to an increasing need from practitioners in many countries. These centers include Deer Park Monastery in California, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, Entering the Stream Meditation Center in Australia, Plum Village International Meditation Center in Thailand, the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, and the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany. All practice meditation according to the Plum Village tradition.

Challenging Times 

In its infancy, Plum Village encountered many infrastructure difficulties. Most of the hamlets were purchased from farmers who raised cattle and sheep, and they lacked electricity and heating systems. Winter at Plum Village was extremely cold, and brothers and sisters had to bring their own blankets to cover themselves during sitting meditation. When Thay wrote his books, one hand held the pen while the other hand warmed over the fire. Water, equipment, utensils, and food were limited. As the number of practitioners at Plum Village increased, it became apparent the infrastructure needed to expand. When Lower Hamlet could not meet the requirements for operating a public center, it was closed down. This has also happened to Upper Hamlet and New Hamlet.

During these years, there were many times when Thay fell ill, and it was uncertain he would recover. Thanks to the support of the Buddha and patriarchs, Thay pulled through. In addition to the physical difficulties, the Sangha also experienced spiritual challenges. The 2009 tragedy at Prajna Monastery in Vietnam was a period of deep difficulty for Plum Village. So much suffering and fear poured on those young, innocent monks and nuns who no longer could take refuge in their own motherland and had to seek refuge across the globe. Fortunately, with the support of the Buddha and ancestors, brothers and sisters adhered to the practice of nonviolence and were able to overcome that painful time.

Plum Village Anniversary 

At the start of the 2011-2012 Winter Retreat, during a monastic day at the Hermitage, Thay and his students sat together around a glowing fire. Thay said, “Next year is the thirtieth anniversary of Plum Village and we will celebrate the whole year. We can organize in such a way that we celebrate in every retreat. If we practice to generate happiness in every day, we don’t need to celebrate in a grand and luxurious fashion in order to be happy. We only need to be happy with what we are doing in our daily life, right in this present moment. That is truly to celebrate.”

Following Thay’s suggestion, we organized six working groups to focus on celebrating this anniversary. The groups presented the history of Plum Village, set up an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, exhibited the Dharma tools Thay often uses while teaching, prepared an exhibition of Thay’s books, worked on Plum Village’s annual Vietnamese magazine, and organized performances. The hamlets were filled with enthusiastic and joyful discussions, which were enough to bring us happiness each day.

Over the next three months, we prepared to celebrate thirty years of Plum Village. The first exhibition took place at the end of March 2012, during the French retreat. We organized in a way that allowed everyone to fully participate in each Day of Mindfulness, as well as in two daily sessions of sitting meditation and chanting. Our free time was used to renovate, repair, and clean the hamlet. Nearly all the tasks were completed by the brothers and sisters on the organizing team. A few brothers and sisters volunteered to sing and play the guitar while we worked, adding an atmosphere of lightness and joy to our tasks. I prepared sweet soup for all the brothers to enjoy during break, and we would sit around the pot, enjoying the soup and stories that brought much laughter. One brother said, “People can earn a lot of money in their jobs, but do they have such light and happy moments like we are enjoying now?” At Plum Village, our salary is the happiness of lay friends who come to practice with us, and our nourishment is the brotherhood and sisterhood.

mb64-Continuing2

The thirty-year anniversary ceremony was celebrated twice during the Summer Opening. After a Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet, Thay lead the Sangha in walking meditation to Son Ha (Foot of the Mountain Temple), where we held the first ceremony. The path from Upper Hamlet to Son Ha passes through a valley of pine trees, which became more beautiful when decorated with pots of flowers to welcome Thay and the Sangha. Thay’s calligraphy—“I have arrived, I am home”—was displayed below the pots in eight different languages. One venerable from China said, “I really like the way brothers and sisters decorate. It is simple, but I can feel there is much love. It is very beautiful and Zen.”

On the grass lawn in front of Son Ha Temple, the Sangha enjoyed classical music performed by our Western brothers and sisters, as well as the lion dance performed by our Vietnamese brothers with the beat of the drums. After the lion dance and a few introductory words about Plum Village and the calligraphy exhibition, Thay was invited to cut the inauguration banner and lead the Sangha into the exhibition.

The second exhibition was organized at New Hamlet. The lion dance also welcomed the Sangha, and the sisters from both New Hamlet and Lower Hamlet gave a musical/dance performance. Everyone then enjoyed some anniversary cake, and Thay opened the exhibition on his Dharma tools and books.

In an opening speech for the calligraphy exhibition, we shared that it has taken us thirty years to come this far. Some people were very touched by this, because thirty years is a relatively long time for such humble development in terms of infrastructure. They could begin to understand how much simpler and more difficult life at Plum Village must have been years ago. Yet Plum Village does not aim to develop monumental buildings, but focuses on the practices so that it can benefit people all around the world.

mb64-Continuing3

The year 2012 marked thirty years of Plum Village, which is neither a short nor a long time. Confucius said, “By the age of thirty, one can be independent.” In other words, when he reached the age of thirty, he was able to stand on his own two feet. Looking back at our history, we dare not be so self-assured, as Plum Village is still very young. As children of the Buddha, we are aware that we should not just work and neglect our practice. We have to make full use of our time to develop our bodhicitta, so that we can grow and turn the Dharma wheel further. This is truly to repay the four debts of gratitude and grow up on our path of practice.

mb64-Continuing4

Integrating Buddhism into Daily Life 

To organize and lead retreats with the intention of integrating Buddhism into daily life is part of our service. Plum Village is open year-round to welcome retreatants from all over the world to practice. Each year, Plum Village offers three or four large retreats, with seven hundred to one thousand participants. Additionally, Thay and Plum Village Dharma teachers lead teaching tours in many countries. In odd-numbered years, Thay and the Plum Village delegation go on a three-month teaching tour in North America and/or Asia. In even-numbered years, Thay goes on a teaching tour in Europe. The Dharma teachers also lead retreats in the spring and autumn. Over the past thirty years, Plum Village has helped people around the world heal their wounds, transform their suffering, reconcile and re-establish communication with loved ones.

At a retreat in Rome, Italy, last autumn, a blind lady shared, “In the 1990s I discovered there was something wrong with my eyes and I could no longer see clearly. I was told that I would become blind within a few years. When I returned home and told my mother, she said it was a hereditary condition. I was very sad knowing I would be blind without a cure. Within the next few years, the state of my eyesight progressively worsened until I was considered blind. I suffered greatly with my condition, and wanted to return to a more spiritual life in order to learn how to live peacefully and harmoniously with this disability. In 1992, I was told that a Vietnamese Buddhist monk was visiting Rome to teach. I found my way to the teaching venue of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh. The first time I heard Thay’s voice I knew he would be my teacher. Thay’s voice is gentle, expressive, and full of compassion. I was so happy! At the retreat I learned how to practice mindfulness and was guided in living mindfully every moment. I learned to breathe and walk in mindfulness, learned ways to reduce tension in my body and calm my mind. Thanks to the practices of mindfulness, I was able to take care of myself in the basic things of my daily life. Even though I can no longer see Thay’s face, I recognize my teacher when I hear that gentle and compassionate voice. I am ever so grateful because he helped me to find myself in a period of life that was full of darkness.” Everyone was very moved by her sharing.

mb64-Continuing5

Transporting Buddhism into the Future 

Today, globalization has brought people more tension, pressure, worries, competition, and violence. In this world, people need a spiritual dimension to their lives more than ever. At Plum Village, we are always enthusiastic about creating fresh, joyful, and gentle methods of practice that will encourage young people to come and practice. Young people are open-minded and creative, with a high capacity to learn. They have strong life energy, a revolutionary spirit, and a huge “fire” of love and aspiration to serve (bodhicitta).

Thay and the Sangha always encourage and support the young monastic brothers and sisters to discover their talents and potential skills. These young monastics practice to transform themselves as well as to be role models and help lay friends to overcome their difficulties. Young monastics are the future and the continuation of the Buddha, of our teacher and spiritual ancestors. They transport Buddhism into the future. Thay has ordained more than eight hundred monastic disciples. Aside from these brothers and sisters, Plum Village also has “golden eggs,” commonly referred to at Plum Village as the “Fragrant Tea Tree” ordination family, with monastics from other Buddhist traditions or temples who have joined the Sangha. The number of monastics in this family has grown to one hundred brothers and sisters, and their presence has enriched Plum Village. Within our Sangha of nine hundred monastics practicing at Plum Village centers (in France and other countries), we have brothers and sisters of twenty-eight different nationalities.

In 2008, many young people attended the retreat in Italy. Aside from the retreat, we also organized a presentation and activities for about five hundred high school students near Rome. During Dharma discussion, we listened deeply to the young people as they shared the difficulties and blockages in their lives. Many felt lonely and alienated with no sense of life direction. Others carried deep wounds and suffering from their family and society. They didn’t believe in themselves and were unable to trust others around them. They were carried away by feelings and emotions, and consequently, their speech and actions were not wholesome.

Thay suggested we initiate a movement especially for young people. The Wake Up movement builds a healthy and compassionate society based on the Five Mindfulness Trainings. It is a source of spiritual nourishment, a playing field especially for young people who seek to direct themselves towards a globalized spiritual ethic.

The Wake Up movement has become very popular, and each year Plum Village organizes several retreats specifically for this movement. Led by young Dharma teachers, these retreats take place around the world. At Trafalgar Square in London in 2012, nearly five thousand young people gathered to sit in meditation and listen to a Dharma talk given by Thay. This movement transcends all religious and national boundaries, inviting everyone to participate in activities that are refreshing, joyful, wholesome, and relevant to the youth of today. In many of the world’s major cities, Sanghas of young people participate in Wake Up activities. As a result, we have created a Wake Up website (www.wkup. org) where people can follow the latest news, practice together, share, and contact each other. The Wake Up movement not only encourages activities that are meaningful and create happiness, but also offers a wholesome context that connects young people from all over the world.

Plum Village has continued to develop methods for practicing mindfulness in ways that are most relevant and useful to modern people. Our Applied Ethics Program aims to integrate mindfulness practices into the education sector. Based on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, this program would be taught as part of the regular curriculum, with mindfulness being the method to put it into practice. Teachers of this subject must know how to practice mindfulness with happiness in order to be able to teach it to students. At Plum Village, we have a new program to train such teachers, and we have organized training programs for educators in many countries, including India, the U.S., Thailand, Bhutan, France, and Germany. At a retreat for American congressmen/women in Washington, D.C., in 2011, and at a lecture in the House of Lords in England in 2012, Thay addressed the issue of how to integrate the Applied Ethics Program into the education sector.

During the 2011 U.S. teaching tour, Thay and a number of brothers and sisters met with Jerry Brown, the governor of California. During that meeting, we addressed how to integrate the Applied Ethics program into California’s education system. Governor Brown welcomed the proposal, saying, “Currently, I manage two private schools, and we can try and apply this program in my two schools first.” During the U.S. tour, Thay also met with Senator Tim Ryan from Ohio and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to discuss the program.

Monastic Life at Plum Village

Individuals with the aspiration to serve and to practice a monastic life of chastity may enter the five-year monastic program at Plum Village. After five years, these individuals may take monastic vows for the rest of their lives, or they can return to lay life and continue to practice as lay Dharma teachers. To join this program, individuals must be under thirty-five years old and have the aspiration to serve and to practice the life of a monastic. The program allows young people to serve in ways that are similar to serving in the army. Yet our true enemies are the “ghosts” of afflictions, like anger, hatred, violence, craving, jealousy, and discrimination. Young people learn the practices of mindfulness in order to recognize, embrace, and transform these ghosts. When we can embrace and transform these ghosts, we experience happiness and freedom. If we practice with good results, we can help our loved ones, society, country, and world become more peaceful and wholesome.

The “brown robe” family, our fourfold Sangha, is comprised of monastic brothers and sisters in brown robes, and laymen and laywomen in the Order of Interbeing. We are all active in teaching and in social aid/relief programs around the world. Created by Thay in 1966, the Order of Interbeing has grown from six to more than one thousand members who practice according to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. These disguised bodhisattvas go into the world to rescue beings. The Understanding and Love Program in Vietnam and India includes more than three hundred kindergartens, operated by these Order of Interbeing bodhisattvas who invest much of their time and energy in developing and serving. Without these bodhisattvas, we cannot give poor children a glass of milk and a meal for lunch.

The brown-robed bodhisattvas of the Order of Interbeing in countries like France, England, Holland, Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Brazil, and Canada, all use skillful means to help Plum Village in its work to rescue all beings. Some translate Thay’s books; others help to print and publish his books or translate audio Dharma talks. Some compose music; others teach mindfulness in prisons; still others help to organize retreats. Additionally, some help with financial and administrative work, while others assist with fundraising or provide legal assistance. Each person is a precious jewel of the Sangha, and we are always grateful for each person’s dedication and presence.

Today there are many active Sanghas practicing according to the tradition of Plum Village, with most located in major cities around the world. Among the one thousand practicing Sanghas, eighty are in the UK, seventy are located in Germany, and more than five hundred are in the U.S. As the scope of our spiritual work is very expansive and not limited to France or Vietnam, we have always done the important work of a gardener (a monastic), to help people tend to the “garden of their heart” and to sow wholesome seeds. Through the rise of so many Sanghas, we see that those seeds have germinated and are now sprouting up everywhere.

The Continuation of Buddha

Over the past thirty years, the Plum Village Sangha boat has weathered many storms and challenges and has delivered many people to the shores of freedom, peace, and happiness. Thay is a solid captain, directing us in navigating the Sangha boat. His wisdom is like a great, ancient tree that continues to flower and produce fruits—an ancient tree in whom we can all take refuge.

We are very grateful to all those who have contributed to creating Plum Village, and to our predecessors who built and developed the Sangha. Stepping onto Upper Hamlet, we can see the shadows and the continuation of Brother Nguyen Hai in Brother Phap Huu, Brother Phap Trien, and many others. Arriving at Deer Park Monastery, we can see the continuation of Brother Giac Thanh in Brother Phap Dung, Brother Phap Hai, Brother Phap Ho, and many other brothers and sisters. When we think of the social relief program, we can also see the continuation of Brother Thanh Van and Sister Chan Khong through Ms. Xuan, Mr. Nghiem, Mr. Dinh, and many other people in the world.

As the younger generation, we are always indebted to our respected Thay, who has given his whole life for the benefit of all beings. Although advancing in age, he never ceases to renew the practices so that they remain relevant and appropriate to the times, especially for future generations seeking to take refuge.

Each of us is a cell in the Sangha body, a member of the Sangha boat. In a body, there are millions of cells. Each cell has its own function. Similarly, with the Sangha boat, we are the wooden planks, the nails, the boat captain. We are the boat. The planks have the function of keeping the water out of the boat, the nails keep the planks together, the captain navigates the boat to its destination, and the boat delivers people across the river. Thanks to the combination of these components working together, we have a solid boat to bring people to the other shore. In the same way, to continue the path of the Buddha is the duty and the collective expedition of the ancestors, of Thay and the Sangha, of all of us together. Each person gives a hand to the career of the Buddha, like one hand carries on from another hand.

Reviewing the past thirty years, we are ever so grateful for the support of the Buddha and ancestors. We are clearly aware that life is impermanent. Any doctrine, any country, any tradition will one day decline because waxing and waning is a never-ending process. But we vow to continue learning and practicing, to take more steps in freedom and solidity in order to offer another thirty years. Thay teaches us, “The first thirty years can go by slowly, but the next thirty years will pass very quickly.” Together, hand in hand with Thay, we can go as a river to climb the hill of the century. It is not a matter of time, be it thirty years or three hundred years, but we have to go in such a way that every minute can bring happiness, peace, and benefit for ourselves and for others. In doing so we can enjoy the inheritance and truly continue the career of the Buddha.

mb64-Continuing6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

PDF of this article

Right in the Middle of It

Travel and Practice in Southeast Asia

 By David Percival

Travel is a part of us. From the poorest Southeast Asian villagers who travel their countries by boat, minivan, and battered bus, to Western jetsetters, travel is in our blood. Yet, these last few years I have experienced a lot of apprehension around traveling: it brings up awareness of global warming, terrorism, poverty, the great divide between the haves and the have-nots. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We arrive in each moment. Our true home is in the present moment.” Travel is not attaching or clinging, but taking peaceful steps in mindfulness, nourishing peace and happiness, and being at home wherever we are. I realize that I already have everything I will ever need. I don’t need to travel out of want or need.

So, in April 2013, in the spirit of “I have arrived, I am home,” and holding close the realization that we always carry with us our mindfulness, I quietly slipped out the door, carry-on bag in hand, and departed. I took refuge in the words of Thai meditation teacher Ajahn Chah: “Seeing that everything is unreliable, we will take all situations of lack or plenty as uncertain and not have attachment to them. We pay attention to the present moment, wherever this body happens to be dwelling. Then staying will be okay. Traveling will be okay. Everything will be okay, because we are focused on the practice of recognizing the way things really are.”

mb64-Right4

This time, my first destination was Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I lived in Laos in what now seems like an ancient time, during the secret war, when the U.S. left a legacy of suffering—in particular from massive amounts of unexploded ordinance which kill and maim people to this day. Americans didn’t know that Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world at that time, and we have done little to help clean up our mess. Even today, it is common to see people who have lost a limb from bombs exploding in the fields. Yet there is much beauty, and life continues to thrive in Laos.

On my last morning, after a few days of wandering in Vientiane, I sat with the monks of beautiful Wat In Peng while they chanted before their morning meal. Then I did walking meditation around the Wat grounds. On one side of the temple, next to a solid wall of banana trees, I stopped for a moment surrounded by the industrial roar of motors. On a five-story building rising above me, I counted fifty-eight air conditioning units mounted on the wall. Hundreds of motorcycles roared by, people were arguing loudly, and a loud dog battle was in progress. This temple was right in the middle of life in a noisy city that doesn’t stop.

Our practice is exactly the same—right in the middle of it—in a world that hasn’t learned to stop, that runs endlessly, searching for riches, glory, and power. At that moment I was grateful for my breathing, my steps, my stopping, and in the midst of this cacophony, I saw the beauty of our practice. The miracle is that we can return instantly to our mindfulness. If we wait for the noise and arguing to stop, we may wait forever. But we can return to our inner calm, freshness, solidity, and freedom in the midst of chaos. Our island of peace and calm is within us.

mb64-Right1

mb64-Right2

 

Touching Seeds of Joy

From Laos I traveled to Thailand, where the Applied Ethics Retreat was held in Ayutthaya. Thay’s visit to Thailand started beautifully when he urged practitioners to generate the energy of mindfulness and compassion and to embrace our suffering and look deeply into it. We were urged to learn to deal with our suffering NOW and not to run away from it.

Again, we were right in the middle of it, in an incredible city, Bangkok: a generator of much suffering or a place of great beauty—it was our choice. It could be place for breathing, smiling, stopping. There was little we could control, as always, and there might be crowds, pollution, terrible traffic, heat, humidity—or we could smile at all of this, let our attachments go, and enjoy the wonderful people, food, places to visit, temples, culture, the little islands of beauty, and be at home in the here and now.

The Calligraphic Meditation Exhibit at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center was held on April 3. Thay explained that when he begins his calligraphy, he first has a cup of tea and then mixes some tea with the ink in order to generate the energy of mindfulness and compassion. Drinking tea is meditation; calligraphy is meditation. Thay said the best way to look at calligraphy is to breathe in mindfully and to be fully present in the here and now. To allow the calligraphy to touch our seeds of joy, compassion, love, and happiness, so we can obtain understanding and realization.

Happy in this Moment 

The Applied Ethics Retreat was held at the Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, just outside of Ayutthaya. The theme was “Happy Teachers Will Change the World.”*

In his Dharma talk on April 5, Thay focused on teachers and teaching. He said the Buddha was a happy teacher, a good teacher. He mentioned two aspects of the practice of Buddhism: first, we learn how to suffer. If we know how, we can make good use of our suffering so we can suffer much less. Instead of running away, we learn how to handle suffering. Secondly, we learn how to create happiness. For a good practitioner, it is possible to create moments of happiness whenever we want, wherever we are traveling.

Thay illustrated that a good teacher needs to know the art of relaxation and restoring peace in our bodies. A good teacher needs to know how to handle feelings—not to suppress or cover them up and pretend they aren’t there, but to embrace the feelings as a mother embraces her baby. Finally, when a good teacher learns how to do this, he or she can help students, other teachers, and anyone else to do the same thing. The practice of compassionate listening connects the teacher to the student.

On April 6, Thay’s Dharma talk gave detailed instructions on inviting the bell, showing how this practice can be used in the classroom to transform the class into a family while building sisterhood and brotherhood. We don’t need to use Buddhist terms; mindfulness is not tied to a religion.

A beautiful Order of Interbeing transmission ceremony was held in the early morning of April 7. Sixteen aspirants (thirteen Thai, three Western) received the transmission from senior Plum Village monastics and became the “True Spring” family. Later that day I enjoyed the happy and joyful Sister Chan Khong as she taught us the fountain of youth exercises. It was wonderful to see her pirouetting, turning, laughing, and moving her body in this healing practice.

At a question-and-answer session that day, Thay suggested that you can enjoy the moment after someone makes you really angry, and you can stop, catch yourself, breathe, and not do anything.You don’t usually think it is possible to enjoy such a moment. You don’t have to get hooked into saying something you don’t want to say or doing something you don’t want to do. You can learn and grow in such a moment of suffering. You are secure in your beautiful space of mindfulness. You can be happy in this moment, no matter how angry you seem to be. You can immediately restore your happiness. You see the other person with eyes of compassion… you smile…let go and move on.

A Beautiful Continuation 

On April 8, the last day of the retreat, Thay talked on the subject of applied ethics. He encouraged us to use secular language so we can help everyone. He placed great emphasis on the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a concrete way to bring ethics, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path into our lives. He suggested that “difficult relationship” is a new name for illbeing. He said we must recognize our suffering and we must do something about it.

In conclusion, Thay said, “We can be the hand of the Buddha helping others suffer less.” He continued, “When I look around, I see myself not in my direction. Rather, I have been reborn in my disciples, my teachings, my friends. If you look at me and think I am this, you have not seen me.” We are much more than our body. We have produced many words and actions, and these continue us everywhere. We can ensure a beautiful continuation.

After the Dharma talk, I sat a while in the great meditation hall as people were leaving, returning home. I watched as the young Thai organizers moved around, cleaning up, gathering their equipment. There were so many young people—it was beautiful to see them, eager and enthusiastic, dedicated to the practice. They were well organized and should be commended for the wonderful job they did. This retreat brought me great hope for the Sangha, for our future. The Sangha in Thailand is alive and growing. Sangha members are developing and building a new monastery near Pak Chong, a few hours from Bangkok. It is endearingly called Ban Plum, “Ban” meaning “village” in Thai.**

Then it was time to leave my home in Thailand and return to my home in the United States. With our peaceful breath and steps, our smile, our deep listening and loving speech, we can be at home anywhere. We can be happy and free wherever we walk. Traveling, we move from one home to another. Let your practice be wherever you are, right in the middle of it.

* The talks from the Applied Ethics Retreat are available on www.tnhaudio.org.

** For additional information, go to: www.thaiplumvillage.org.

mb64-Right3David Percival, True Wonderful Roots,  practices with the Rainbow Sangha in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and coordinates subscriptions for the Mindfulness Bell.

PDF of this article

To Continue Beautifully

Sangha, Loss, and the Creative Process: An Interview with Susanne Olbrich

By Philip Toy 

mb58-ToContinue1

Into the nebulous, ongoing mystery of life I welcome, as if through an open door, the continuing spirit of the one I have loved.
– Martha Whitmore Hickman

During our summer 2010 pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland, while visiting the Findhorn Community, we were invited by Northern Lights Sangha to conduct two Days of Mindfulness. One of the Sangha leaders, Susanne Olbrich, True Ever-present Stability—pianist, composer, and teacher—graciously consented to this interview.

mb58-ToContinue2

Philip Toy: Susanne, you have just returned from a concert tour in Germany, where your Marama Jazz Trio was warmly received. You composed some of the music after the sudden loss of your dear friend and former partner. One piece, “Beyond Gone,” was a meditation you played soon after hearing the news of H.’s passing. How do your practice and your music relate to such a loss?

Susanne Olbrich: It was in Plum Village during the ‘05-‘06 Winter Retreat, just after H.’s suicide, where I took refuge in the Three Jewels. Thay’s teaching on continuation supported me then, especially in light of his conviction that those who take their own lives may not have a good chance of continuing beautifully. Then and there I made a deep commitment to help my friend continue beautifully. Thus the piece “Beyond Gone”—a phrase from Stephen Levine’s book, Who Dies?

PT: Keeping such a commitment in the wake of deep loss requires extraordinary support. Where and how did you find support and encouragement?

SO: It started the first few moments after hearing the news when the shock set in and my legs began to go numb. It seemed as if what kicked in and began to operate was an emergency program designed to hold me. I heard the instruction, “Breathe, just breathe!” This inner voice lingered, and later became like a reliable old friend suggesting when I should rest, when I could let go of an excess obligation, when to focus on one breath, one step, and when to ask for help. Very unlike me! Yet, I would sit on my cushion much longer than usual, however long it took for the pain to subside.

PT: I can see how your decade of practice before this loss paid off. Yet, even with this fortunate help, how did you sustain yourself?

SO: I could not do it without my loving and steady Sangha. They gathered at my place, cooked soup, and filled the house with warm food aromas and their even warmer understanding presences. Whether I had the energy to fully participate or not, soon my isolation began to melt in the warmth of their companionship and compassion—their Sangha eyes, hearts, and hands.

PT: I know from my own experience of the death of my son, Jesse, by drug overdose, and my very close association with Sangha—the complexity of the loss of a child, likely by suicide, calls out for a rich and special brand of caring. How does Sangha embrace and minister to these complexities?

mb58-ToContinue3mb58-ToContinue4

SO: Making space and holding it, deep listening, sharing from the heart—all central components of effective Dharma discussion— together with the gift of benevolently witnessing one another in the circle. These all allow for the kind of conscious grieving and reflecting that can help dissolve searing issues and questions, such as not having time for bidding goodbye to the lost loved one, or the anger and guilt of “What did I do, or not do,” or “What could I have done,” or “If only….” We can allow all this to unfold within the stable and protective space of the Sangha without fear of getting lost or overcome.

PT: You and I share the experience of surrendering and taking refuge in Sangha following a tragic loss. For me it was key to surviving those earliest days, weeks, and months after my son’s death. As Thay teaches, the Buddha is there, too, in the midst of Sangha. Were you able to take refuge in the Buddha?

SO: The Buddha I took refuge in was the Buddha I had discovered in myself through practice, especially practice with my Sangha. It was the energy capable of witnessing tears and distress with utmost tenderness and letting me know it was okay. There arises an open space for us to recognize harsh feelings and thoughts. Within the fold of Sangha, these feelings may be held gently in the light of awareness, and we may finally watch them evaporate! This was the single most powerful act of self-care I could have given to myself—not just once or twice, but again and again with patience and perseverance. This is the love that heals.

PT: You say you made a commitment to help your lost partner continue beautifully. Tell us more about that commitment.

SO: Thay says that Dharma, too, can be found in Sangha. In Plum Village Sangha those five years ago, I read Thay’s book, No Death, No Fear. Through the teachings on no-birth, no-death, transformation, and continuation, my sense of deep loss was mitigated some and it sparked a new awareness. I was able to see the ways in which my lost friend continues: his adult children, the song I wrote for him, the tree planted at his memorial, the sturdy wooden tables he built for our Findhorn Community Centre, the grove in the Scottish Highlands planted in his honor as part of a national reforestation project, and of course, the many memories I and others hold dear. Also at that winter retreat, I birthed the idea for a new album, a CD in H.’s honor. The cover art would be one of H.’s beautiful nature photographs and the album’s name would be Continuations, in order to celebrate that: “Nothing exists on its own…. Everything is a continuation of something else, and everything will continue in manifold forms…. Nothing is ever lost.” Manifestation of the CD took nearly four years. Every step of the project was a teaching for me, from cover design to legal questions about royalties, from finding a manufacturer to creating a record label, and it was a labor of love. When I finally held the finished product in my hands, with H.’s photo of the Scottish West Coast, it was beautiful. I knew part of my grief had transformed into something else; an artistic offering, a rose from the compost.

PT: You seem to have a heightened awareness of transformation and continuation, leading to the birthing of your Continuations CD; there’s an interaction between mindfulness and the creative process.

mb58-ToContinue5

SO: Yes. The energy generated in mindfulness and the practice of deep listening, together with a present-moment focus—allowing what is to be—are working elements for me during the composition or playing of a musical piece. Composing music in its essence has much to do with listening deeply. What takes shape in my inner ear—from apparently mysterious sources—often amazes me. I simply could not have thought it out. In the case of “Beyond Gone,” that’s exactly what happened. About six weeks or so after H.’s suicide when many of my friends had gone back to normal, I was still feeling anything but normal. There was this not-so-subtle pressure that I should be over and done with this grief—ready to move on. In this emotionally stuck place, I had a strong impulse to play for H. It was a meditation.

PT: Your band members’ masterful back-up and solos on Continuations could be seen as an extended Sangha support for you in your grief journey.

SO: Yes, I am extremely fortunate to have found Anja Herold (soprano and tenor saxophone) and Jens Piezunka (acoustic bass and cello). Both bring an extraordinary quality of listening, musical sensibility, and creative imagination to the project. Both of these seasoned improvisers have significantly broadened my musical horizons. Musically, creatively, as well as personally, my work with Marama Trio has been harmonious and joyful.

PT: It seems that as your grief unfolded, your creative process ran parallel to your practice, or in concert with it. I’ve discovered that grief is different for everyone, that it’s at best a bumpy road, and that there is no fast forward button.

SO: Exactly my experience. During the final stage of the creative journey that led to the Continuations CD, I was blessed with two extra-large helpings of Plum Village energy. I was able to spend a whole month with Thay and the Sangha for Summer Opening, 2008, and again for Path of the Buddha Retreat, 2009. Feelings of inadequacy, ignorance of the technicalities of CD production, plans gone awry, bouncing between Scotland where I live and Germany where my band members live—all of these left little time for rehearsals and other preparations. So the energy of the practice was strong in me when I needed it most.

At Findhorn we have woven into the fabric of the community workday the practice of “attunement,” a kind of practical, organizational deep listening. Shifts in every department—management, kitchen, garden—begin with a joint attunement, sometimes holding hands, sometimes sitting around a candle, always breathing together for a moment in silence with a wish to benefit others, uniting heart and mind for the task at hand. While producing Continuations, for the first time in my life I adopted regular attunement sessions for my own often solitary musical work and have continued the practice ever since. We’ve discovered that our attuned work frequently yields a better result than work driven simply by efficiency-oriented thinking mind.

PT: You are very fortunate to have the dual communities of Northern Lights Sangha and the Findhorn Community to engage with, especially in times of great loss and creative struggle.

SO: Yes, I feel gratitude for these two amazing groups every day. I’ve been living in the spiritual community of Findhorn for over ten years now, and our inherent humanistic and ecological missions inform all that I do, here in my Sangha and everywhere I travel. While in the distant past my life has felt at times like pushing the proverbial boulder up the mountain, guided by Buddha mind within these two communities, the CD manifestation unfolded remarkably gracefully. I wish I could claim success practicing equanimity in every corner of my life. In fact, work and relationships are two areas where I do get caught in habit energies more often than I like. Yet, mindfulness practice over the years—be it through dark paths of grieving or inspiring musical projects—has informed and enriched my life. Music, like mindfulness, has the capacity to bring us home to ourselves and in touch with the wordless, refreshing, and healing aspects everywhere surrounding us. With it we can water seeds of beauty, understanding, and love. The piano has been my passion since age six and, long before I knew the term “meditation,” it became a refuge, a place to learn about concentration and dwelling happily in the present moment.

PT: I noted that some of the most common audience responses to your music during the Germany concerts were meditative: “soulful,” “spacious,” “it slowed me down in a pleasant sort of way.”

SO: Yes, though the project may not explicitly be about Dharma, it makes me so very happy to have touched listeners in this way.

PT: Thank you very much, Susanne. May you and your work in this world ever remain soulful and spacious.

Author’s note: On our return from Isle of Skye to Findhorn for our second Day of Mindfulness, I received news that my sole surviving elder brother had died. As I reflect on our stay at Findhorn, although we were across the ocean and far from home, we could not have been in a more accepting, loving, and understanding environment. From my sundown bedroom window at the Shambala Retreat House, I watched the tide wash out over Findhorn Bay, and I knew, despite everything—maybe because of everything—all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.

For more information about Susanne Olbrich and her music, visit www.myspace.com/susanneolbrich or www.susanneolbrich.webs.com.

mb58-ToContinue6Philip Toy, True Mountain of Insight, and his wife Judith have founded three Sanghas in Thay’s tradition. Since 1993, they have hosted mindfulness practice centers—first at Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania, and for the last twelve years at Cloud Cottage Sangha, Black Mountain, North Carolina. Philip is a poet and jazz pianist. Cloud Cottage Editions is the Toys’ Dharma publishing imprint.

PDF of this article

Touching the Earth for Ecological Regeneration

By T. Ambrose Desmond

mb63-TouchingEarth1Touching the Earth, I open myself to this beautiful planet and all of the life that is here.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see that there is no separation between my body and the body of the Earth. Every mineral in this flesh and bone has been stone and soil and it will be again. Looking into one calcium molecule in my bone, I can see that it used to be part of the body of a green leaf. Before that, it was part of the living soil in a garden. Long before that, it was a shell in the sea. I see the continuation of this calcium molecule in so many forms and now in my bone. I can see that the Earth element in me will return to the soil and manifest as other forms of life in the future.

I know that every drop of my blood has been the rain, rivers, and ocean, and it will be again. I can see the life of a water molecule in my blood extending back to before the non-beginning. I can see the water I drink becoming part of my body. Looking back further, I can see that water has been part of every river and every ocean since the beginning of the Earth. I can see that the hydrogen and oxygen that make up this water have been in existence long before the Earth formed. Although my blood feels so much like a part of “me,” I know it will continue in many forms forever.

The air that gives life to every cell in my body has lived in trees and other animals and in the vast sky, and it will again. I see the air element in me—the air that I can feel going in and out of my lungs and the air that is carried throughout my body, keeping me alive. I know this air is part of the vast ocean of the atmosphere moving in and out of all people, animals, plants, and microorganisms. I see we are all breathing together.

The warmth of my body is the warmth of the sun. I see the sun’s warmth radiating through space to the Earth and connecting with a green leaf. That leaf miraculously transforms the energy into sugar. As I take that leaf into my body, I transform the sugar back into warmth. I can see that the sun is alive in me.

I can see clearly that the Earth is not my environment. It is my body and there is no separation.

[THREE BREATHS]

[BELL]

[ALL STAND UP]

Touching the Earth, I open myself to all of the suffering that is present in the Earth.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see clearly that the Earth and I are one body. With tenderness and love, I bring my awareness to the suffering that is present in this collective body. I see the mineral element that is stone becoming soil, becoming vegetation, becoming flesh and bone, becoming soil again. I also see the suffering that is present in the mineral element. I see the toxins we have made creating sickness and cancer in living beings, and the pesticides and fertilizers poisoning the soil. I know that the suffering of the mineral element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the water element. I see the ocean becoming cloud, becoming rain, becoming drinking water, becoming blood, and returning. I also see the suffering in the water element. I see thousands of children without clean water to drink, and the toxins we have allowed to be released in streams, aquifers and oceans, and all of the suffering they cause. I know the suffering of the water element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the air element. I see the one ocean of air circulating through all life and through the vast sky. I also see the suffering in the air element. I see pollution in the air and the sickness it causes. I know the suffering of the air element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the fire element. I see the energy of the sun warming the Earth, turning into sugars when it touches green leaves, and those leaves becoming my body. I see that the heat in my body is the heat of the sun. I also see the suffering in the fire element. I see the ocean levels rising, the polar ice caps melting, and all of the destruction caused by global climate change. I know the suffering of the fire element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

[THREE BREATHS]

[BELL]

[ALL STAND UP]

Touching the Earth, I open myself to the enormous capacity for healing that is present in the ancestors and in the Earth.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see the Earth herself as a living body. I see her capacity to adapt and heal herself. I know that she is strong and that she has a miraculous capacity to transform a toxin into a resource in the same way I can transform suffering into compassion.

I can see the Earth billions of years ago, when she was covered with single-celled organisms that could breathe only carbon dioxide. These single-celled organisms produced oxygen as a waste, and the increasing amount of oxygen in the atmosphere threatened to end life on Earth. I see that in that moment, the Earth began to manifest new single-celled organisms that breathed oxygen and restored the balance in the atmosphere.

I see that this creativity is still alive in the Earth and in human beings. I know all of the solutions to our environmental problems already exist. I know my ancestors have discovered ways of harnessing the power of the wind and sun and water to provide for all of our needs. I see intentional communities, permaculture food forests, electric trains, and compassionate conflict resolution. I also see my own capacity to embrace suffering with mindfulness and love, transforming it into compassion.

Looking deeply, I see that all that is needed for global healing is present within me and all around me. I feel immense gratitude for this miraculous power of transformation.

[THREE BREATHS]

[TWO BELLS]

[ALL STAND UP]

mb63-TouchingEarth2T. Ambrose Desmond is a psychotherapist, student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and member of the Order of Interbeing. He offers therapy and consultation through honecounseling.net.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: “Relationships” — Community as Family, Parenting as a Dharma Door, and the Five Awarenesses

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking Refuge 

To practice Buddhism, we have to take refuge. This means that we have to base our practice on some ground that helps us be stable, It is like building a house—you have to build it on solid ground. If we look around and inside ourselves, we can find out what is stable for us, and we can take refuge in it. We should be careful not to take refuge in what is unstable.

mb3-dharma1

This morning I was touching the ground, and I felt that there is some stability in the Earth. Why don’t we take refuge in the Earth? There is also some stability in the air, the sunshine, and the trees. We can count on the sun because we know it will rise tomorrow. We have to look around to see things that we can count on. In order to practice, we need to take refuge in stable things.

Our bodies have a healing power. Every time we cut our finger, our body has the capacity to heal itself. We take care of it by washing it carefully, and then we can leave the work of healing to our body. In a few hours or a day, the cut will be healed. Our bodies have that kind of healing power. We have to take refuge in our bodies.

The same is true with our consciousness. Our conscious­ness has a healing power, and we have to trust it. When we have some anger, distress, or despair, we don’t need to panic. We can trust our consciousness to know how to heal these kinds of wounds. When we have a feeling of instabil­ity, we only need to breathe in and out consciously and recognize the feeling of instability, knowing that our consciousness is much more than that feeling. We know from our experience that there have been times in the past when we were not very solid. We know that we can take refuge in our consciousness We can let it do its work without interfering too much. After cleaning out the wound in our finger, we just let it heal. If we have a wound in our mind or heart, we just clean our wound and then we trust our consciousness to heal it.

If we have a teacher and dharma brothers and sisters who are stable, they look very much the same today as yesterday and yesterday they looked very much the same as the day before. We have to take refuge in a sangha that is stable, that we can count on. We can contribute to the quality of our sangha by our smile, and by our own stability. A sangha can be improved by our practice. We can never find a perfect sangha. An imperfect sangha is good enough. We have to do our best in order to transform ourselves into a good element of the sangha. It is not helpful to complain too much about our sangha: “This sangha is not good; this sangha is not worth my refuge,” and so on. We have to accept our sangha and build it. It is like a family. And our family is also a kind of sangha. We have to accept the members of our family as they are and begin from there. We should be a good member of our family sangha in order to help others.

Taking refuge means also taking refuge in ourselves. When we take refuge in the earth, it is because the earth is stable. When we have a friend who is stable we can take refuge in him or her. We use our insight and our experience to see his or her stability. We don’t just go on blind faith. Taking refuge is not blind faith. It must be based on our own experience. There are many stable things around. We should refrain from taking refuge in things that are not stable, that have made us shaky in the past. Sometimes we don’t know much about something. We hope that it can be a refuge for us simply because we want it. It is not based on any direct experience or observation. We should refrain from taking refuge in things like that.

Single Parenting 

If you are a single parent and if you think that you need to be married in order to have more stability, you have to reconsider that idea. Perhaps you have more stability right now by yourself than if you were with another person. Another person coming into your life could destroy the little stability you may already have. It is most important to take refuge in yourself, and to do that with your understanding, insight, and capacity of recognizing stability in the things inside you and around you. The things inside of you are just like the things around you. If they are stable, they are worth taking refuge in. By taking refuge in this way, you become more solid. You are taking refuge more and more in yourself. By doing so, you develop yourself into a ground for the refuge of your child and your friends. We need you also. The children need you; the trees and the birds also need you. You have to make yourself into someone stable, someone we can rely on. That is the practice of Buddhism.

We abandon the idea that we cannot be ourselves unless “that someone” or “that something” is with us. We our­selves are sufficient. We are enough for ourselves. When we transform ourselves into a cozy hermitage, with a lot of air, light, and order inside, we begin to feel a great peace, joy, and happiness. And we begin to be someone that others can rely on. Your child, your dharma brothers and sisters, and your teacher can all rely on you.

So return to your hermitage and arrange things from within. You can benefit from the sunshine, the trees, the earth. You can open your windows wide for these good elements to enter, because you are one with your environ­ment. Many times unstable elements try to enter our hermit­age. Then we must close our windows and not let them in. When thunder, winds, or heat are about to intrude into our cozy, refreshing hermitage, we should be able to prevent them from entering. The practice of being a refuge to oneself is a basic practice. We do not rely on someone or something that we do not know much about, something that may be unstable. We go back to ourselves and take refuge in our own hermitage.

If you are a mother raising your child alone—without the help of a man—you must learn what to do and how to do it. You have to learn to be a father also, otherwise you cannot raise your child. If you don’t learn how to be a father, you will continue to need someone else to play the role of a father for your child, and you will lose your sovereignty, you will lose your hermitage. But if you can say, “I don’t need anyone else, I can learn how to be both a father and mother to my child, I can succeed by myself, with the support of my friends and my community,” that is a good sign.

Every other year, I give a retreat for about sixty Viet­namese monks and nuns in northern California. One day, when we were conducting the closing of such a retreat, the Abbot of Kim Son Monastery said to me, “Thay, you are our mother.” Why didn’t he say, “You are our father,” which is a more normal thing to say? It was because some­thing in me has the manner of being a mother. When I am with children, I can play the role of a mother as well as a father. The love of a father is different from that of a mother. A mother’s love is somehow unconditional. You are the child of your mother, that is why you are loved by her. There is no other reason. A mother tries to use her body and her mind to protect that very soft, vulnerable part of herself. She has a tendency to consider her child as an extension of herself, as herself. This is good, but it may create problems in the future. She has to learn gradually that her son or daughter is a separate person.

A father’s love is different. The father says, “If you are like this, then you will receive my love. If you don’t do that, you don’t get my love.” It’s a kind of deal. I have that in myself, too. I am capable of disciplining my students and I also have the capacity of loving my students as a mother. That is why the monks and the nuns call me mommy, I know it is not easy for a mother to be a father, especially when she hasn’t learned how to do it. Single mothers should be aware that they can profit from the community, from the brothers and sisters in the dharma. If she does it well, her child will have uncles and aunts. If the child doesn’t have a father, he can consider his uncle as a father. It is not difficult to provide your child with an uncle. If you have a good sangha and good relationships with the people in the sangha, other members of your sangha can have a nephew or niece in your child.

mb3-dharma2

The nuclear family is very small. There is not enough air to breathe. When there is trouble between the father and mother, the child has no escape. That is a weakness of our time. Having a community where people can gather as brothers and sisters in the dharma, and where children have a number of uncles and aunts is a very wonderful thing.

We have to learn to create that kind of family. Each of us needs to be loved in order to go on. We need the kind of love that does not shatter our stability. If we cling to our teacher as a father and we want that father to pay attention to us only, that is not the way we love in the practice com­munity. We have to share the love of the teacher with everyone. We have to see the other members of the commu­nity as our brothers and sisters. This is something we can learn to do. It is already a tradition in the East, and it can be learned slowly here in the West. We can take the best from both cultures.

I hope that communities of practice will take that kind of shape in the West. Without that kind of warmth and family flavor, it is difficult to practice. When you bring your children to some practice centers, your children may be regarded as an obstacle for other people to practice. But if we have a community where people regard each other like brothers and sisters, a child of that community becomes the child of everyone. If he is doing something disturbing, such as hitting another child with a stick, his mother is not the only person who is responsible. Everyone in the community shares that responsibility. Together we try to find ways to prevent the child from hitting the other children. We might try holding the child tightly, doing that as an uncle, not as a foreigner or a policeman. Of course, the parent of the child should prevent their child from throwing rocks or hitting other children, but if the parent cannot discipline her child, then he or she has to let an uncle or an aunt do it.

When you are a student of your teacher, your children are grandchildren of your teacher in a spiritual family. The children in Plum Village call me “Grandpa Teacher.” I always approach them as a grandfather, not as someone outside the family. This is the way we conduct the practice in Vietnam. We do things as a family. A practice center should possess that kind of warmth, that kind of brother­hood and sisterhood that will continue to nourish us. and not be a place where people come only to take care of their own problems.

In a community of practice like this, a single parent can be very self-sufficient. At the same time, he or she will see that when the community is not there, he or she is capable of playing the roles of both mother and father. When you have learned and have the capacity of loving your child as a mother and a father at the same time, you are transformed. When you see stable families coming to practice, you can look at their stability and learn from it. You can learn a lot: how a father loves a child, how a mother loves a child. There must be some coordination between father and mother. A good father would not say, “If he’s spoiled it’s your fault.” It’s not her fault; it’s a collective lack of mindfulness.

The phenomenon of single parents is widespread in the West. If you practice and succeed in bringing up your child happily, then you can share the fruit of your practice with many people. Parenting is a dharma door. Single parenting is a dharma door. We need retreats, seminars, and dharma discussions on how to be parents. We cannot accept the ancient way of parenting. At the same time, we do not have a modern way of parenting. We need to elaborate on the way of being parents, drawing from our own experiences and practice. Using the greater community of practice to bring another dimension to the life of the nuclear family is important. Even though the nuclear family structure may not have much space in it, when nuclear family life is combined with the life of a practice community, a sangha. it can be very successful. You can bring your child to the practice center, very often, and both you and your child will benefit from the atmosphere there. And the practice center will benefit from your presence also.

In a good practice center, there should be a garden for the children to play in and there should be people who are skillful in helping children, people who can be good aunts and good uncles for the children. Then you will enjoy your practice, as a parent or as a single parent.

The Buddha did not specifically address the issue of single parenting. This is a new problem. But we can apply the basic teachings of the Buddha to find a way out. There are so many divorced parents: in Australia, in the West. When things become too difficult, people tend to think of divorce. Vietnamese families living in the West are also beginning to adopt this point of view. In traditional Vietnamese culture, the failure of a marriage is considered to be very bad. People don’t look on divorce with much respect.

Collective consciousness helps a lot. Instead of thinking of divorce, you make an effort to preserve your marriage, to return to your spouse with more harmony, with more understanding. In the West many people have divorced three, four, five times. They keep making the same kinds of mistakes. This is an issue which Buddhist practice has to address. We should not complain about having to deal with this issue. We should take it as an opportunity to study, look, and explore, in order to provide people with a new dharma door. How can we practice and bring the practice community into the nuclear family? How can we create a balance?

The Five Awarenesses 

Ed. Note: When Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates a marriage ce­remony, he asks the couple to repeat the Five Awarenesses and then to recite them together once each month. The fol­lowing is from a talk given at Plum Village in August, following Kathy Season and Damien Cameron’s wedding. 

Mindfulness is the basis for happiness. Before two people marry, they should practice mindfulness together, and after becoming husband and wife, they should continue to practice the Five Awarenesses as a manifestation of their Practice of Mindfulness. Happiness is not an individual matter.

In the first awareness. we see ourselves in the context of a lineage. We see that we are one element in a continuation of our ancestors, and that we open the way for future gen­erations. We play the role of connection. We can see the elements of the future and the past right in the present. The Buddha teaches us that the present contains the past and the future. By being in touch with the present, we shape the future and heal the past. If we take good care of our body and our consciousness, we take care of our ancestors in us, and at the same time we take good care of our children and our grandchildren.

The second awareness reminds us that our ancestors have expectations and that our children and their children have expectations also. Our happiness is their happiness; our suf­fering is their suffering. If we look deeply, we will know what our children and grandchildren expect of us. We may not see them in person yet, but they are already talking to us. They want us to live in a way that they won’t be miser­able when they manifest. Buddhist practitioners, especially the Vietnamese, see themselves not as individuals, separated from their ancestors, but as a continuation representing all previous generations. Actions of the couple do not aim merely at satisfying the spiritual and physical needs of their individual selves, but also at realizing the hopes and expectations of their ancestors and at preparing for future genera­tions.

The third awareness tells us how joy, peace, freedom and harmony are not individual matters. We have to live in a way that allows our ancestors inside us to be liberated. Liberating them means liberating ourselves.  If we do not liberate them, we. will be in bondage an our lives, and we will transmit that to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to liberate our parents and ancestors in us. We can offer them joy, peace, freedom, and harmony, at the same time as we offer joy, peace, freedom, and harmony to ourselves, our children, and their children. This reflects the teaching of interbeing. As long as our ancestors in us are still suffering, we cannot really be happy. If we take one step mindfully, freely, happily touching the earth, we are doing it for all our ancestors and all future generations. The first three awarenesses are all aspects of one deep teaching. We have to continue to study and practice these first three awarenesses to deepen our understanding.

The fourth aware­ness is also a basic teaching of the Buddha. Where there is under­standing, there is love. When we understand the suffering of some­one, we are motivated to help. This energy is called love or compas­sion. Whatever we do in this spirit will be for the happiness and liberation of the person we love. But, some­times we destroy the person we love. It is like the general who said that his fighter bombers had to destroy the city of Ben Tie in order to save it. We have to practice in a way that whatever we do for others will only make them happy. The willingness to love is not enough. When people do not understand each other, it is impossible for them to love each other.

The first year of marriage is a difficult time. There is excitement, enthusiasm, and exploration, but the two people do not yet understand each other well. They live together twenty-four hours a day, looking, listening, and being aware of many details that they have not seen before, discovering more of their partner’s reality. Everyone of us has flowers and garbage inside us, not just of our making but of the making of our ancestors. If we know this in advance, we can be ready to accept everything that will manifest in the other person. When people fall in love, they construct a beautiful image of the other person, and they may feel shocked when they compare it with the reality. During the first year, many illusions about the other person will vanish. Until we give up our preconceived image, we miss the real beauty in the other person. We must be mindful to discover these flowers.

When we begin to see each other’s weaknesses, we may feel discouraged. We may need to be reminded of the other’s strengths. A married couple consists of two persons who have to lean on each other to help each other. We receive and nurture our partner like a tree, and we must find ways to water and protect him or her. We take care of the tree so that it flourishes. If there is some disease on the leaves, we must learn how to treat it. If the tree flowers and bears fruit, it is we who benefit. Both partners in the couple should regard themselves as the gardener, the caretaker, of the other. When we discover a weakness in the other person, we have to accept that. This is why the Buddha said, “Everyone has Buddha-nature,” the capacity of smiling, understanding, and being awake.

When we marry, we form a primary sangha, a sangha of two, and we begin to learn to love.. If we still have the feeling of being attached to each other, that is not real love yet. Love in the Buddhist context is loving kindness and compassion. It is the kind of love that does not have any conditions. We form a sangha of two in order to practice love—to take care of each other, to make our partner blossom like a flower, and to make happiness something real in that tiny sangha of two.

“Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity and of all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. Unless I succeed in loving you, I cannot love any­one else. So I am determined to love you. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth.”

This is the real message of love. How can we take advanced steps before we succeed in the primary steps? In the first one, two, or three years. this should be our purpose—to realize peace, happiness, and joy in that small sangha. We know that the small sangha should be placed in the context of a larger sangha. We are practicing with the help of our teachers, parents, friends, and all living beings in the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. That is our larger sangha. “I want to express my love to the larger sangha, and I do it through you. Therefore I must be able to love you, take care of you, and make you happy.”

The practice of mindfulness is the practice of love itself. Looking deeply in order to understand is the basic practice. When a couple is happy, understanding and harmony are there. Then it is easy to extend that happiness, and joy to the people around us—our parents, sisters, brothers, and dharma friends.

If we blame each other and argue, we are divided. This is the fifth awareness. Everyone agrees, but when we become angry, we forget, and a force in us begins to argue and blame the other person for what happened. Only by practic­ing conscious breathing and smiling every day can we control that impulse. Conscious breathing and smiling every day help us develop the capacity to stop at that critical moment, to keep ourselves from blaming and arguing.

mb3-dharma3

Loving speech is an aspect of practice. We say only loving things. We say the truth in a loving way, with nonvi­olence. This can be done only when we are calm. When we are irritated, we may say things that are destructive. So when we feel irritated, we should refrain from saying any­thing. We can just breathe. If we need to, we can practice walking meditation in the fresh air, looking at soothing things like the trees, the clouds, the river. Once we have returned to our calmness, our serenity, we are capable again of using the language of loving kindness. If, during our expression, that feeling of irritation comes up again, we can stop and breathe. This is the practice of mindfulness.

All of us need to change for the better. When we marry, we make a promise to change ourselves and to help the other person change himself or herself so we can grow together. If we think only of changing and growing alone, eventually we will lose patience with the other person. Prac­ticing together, we change and we help the other person change. As a result, we grow together, sharing the fruit and progress of practice. It is our responsibility to take care of the other person. We are the gardener, the one who helps the tree grow. If the tree doesn’t grow well, we don’t blame it. We blame ourselves for not taking care of it well. Human beings are somehow like trees. If they are taken care of well, they will grow beautifully. If they are taken care of poorly, they will wither. To help a tree to grow well, we must understand its nature. How much water does it need? How much sunshine? If we understand, the tree will grow beautifully.

Every time the other person does something well, some­thing in the direction of change and growth, we should con­gratulate her or him to show our approval. This is important. We don’t take things for granted. If the other person mani­fests some of her talent and capacity to love and create hap­piness, we must be aware of it and express our appreciation. This is the way to water the seeds of happiness. We should avoid saying destructive things like, “I don’t know whether you can do this” or “I doubt that you can do this.” Instead, we say, “This is difficult, darling, but I have faith that you can do it.” This kind of talk makes the other person stronger. This is true with children, also. We have to strengthen the self-esteem of our children. We have to appreciate and congratulate every good thing they say and do in order to help our children grow. When we are married, we can love each other in a way that encourages change and growth for the better, all the time.

For those who have been married for ten or twenty years, this kind of practice is also relevant. You can continue to live in mindfulness and continue to learn from the other person. You may have the impression that you know everything about your spouse, but it is not so. Nuclear scientists have studied one speck of dust for many years, and they still do not claim to understand everything about it. The more deeply they look into an electron, the more they realize how little they know about it. If a speck of dust is like that, how can a person say that he or she knows everything about the other person? Driving the car, paying attention only to your own thoughts, you just ignore your spouse. You think, “I know everything about her. There is nothing new in her anymore.” That is not correct. And if you treat her or him that way, she will die slowly. She needs your attention, your gardening, your taking care of her.

We have to learn the art of creating happiness. If during our childhood, we see our mother or father do things that create happiness in the family, we can learn. But if our father and mother did not know how to create happiness in our family, we may not know how to do it. So in our practice community, we try to learn the art of making people happy. The problem is not one of being wrong or right, but one of being more or less skillful. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of good will, you can still make the other person very unhappy. Good will is not enough. We need to know the art of making the other person happy. Art is the essence of life. Try to be artful in your speech and action. Art needs some substance, and that substance is mindful­ness. When you are mindful, you are more artful. This is something I have learned from the practice.

PDF of this article

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