New Habits, New Life

A Winter Retreat at Home

By Participants in the Maison de l’Inspir Winter Retreat

“Doing the winter retreat while staying at home, why not?”

Thanks to this wonderful idea, the first winter retreat for laypeople at the Maison de l’Inspir was manifested. The Maison de l’Inspir (literally, House of the In-breath) is a small monastery of monks and nuns in the eastern suburb of Paris, which opened its doors in early 2008. Sister Giac Nghiem (Sister Elisabeth) is its abbess.

In November 2008, a proposition was made to the members of the Paris Sangha to commit to a program of regular practice during the three-month winter retreat, linked with the Maison de l’Inspir. In a week, about fifteen people had expressed their wish to participate in this adventure, and thus to deepen their practice during the winter retreat while remaining at home.

mb53-New1

A Commitment to Practice

Inspired by the monastics’ winter retreat activities, we committed to the following practices:

Listen to at least one of the two teachings given by Thay each week of the retreat. It was possible to listen to this teaching either on Thursday at the Maison de l’Inspir during the Day of Mindfulness, or at home at any time thanks to the Internet.

Make one or two resolutions.

Write daily in one’s journal.

Share about our practice once a week during meetings at the Maison de l’Inspir with Sister Ton Nghiem (Sister Stephanie). On the occasions when we could not come together in person, sharings were done by email.

Practice a new gatha each week. Gathas are little poems that are recited with daily activities to help us go back to ourselves in mindfulness (see the book Present Moment, Wonderful Moment – Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living).

We practiced the gathas for opening the tap, opening or closing a door, throwing out the garbage, sitting down, lying down, contemplating our food, beginning to eat, and finishing our meal. During the course of the retreat, we began to re-write the gathas in rhyming verses that were short and very pleasant to recite.

The gatha for throwing out the garbage (In the garbage I see a rose; In the rose I see the garbage; Everything is in transformation; Even permanence is impermanent) became:

Rose et déchets,

Tout inter-est.

(Rose and rubbish,

All inter-is.)

The one for finishing our meal (The plate is empty. My hunger is satisfied. I vow to live for the benefit of all beings) became:

L’assiette finie,

Je n’ai plus faim.

Voeu pour ma vie:

De tous, le bien.

(The plate finished,

I am not hungry any more.

A vow for my life:

For the good for all.)

mb53-New2A New Level of Mindfulness

When one does a retreat in Plum Village, it has a very strong effect which makes it possible to reach a state of deep calm and concentration. After this experience one always feels like going back to this state, and it is a strong motivation. However, as soon as one goes back home, I find that one loses that state, more or less rapidly, depending on the environment to which one returns.

The winter retreat at the Maison de l’Inspir was a different experience, which presented two big advantages. First, as we tried to practice during the retreat, we were forced to find solutions and adjustments in our usual environment, and this elevated the level of our mindfulness. The new quality of mindfulness remained less than the one attainable in Plum Village, but I found that it was more solid: it was in our normal life, at home, that we had created new habits. Secondly, by doing the retreat without being physically separated from the family, there was the possibility for the family to be associated with it. This is what happened with my husband, although he was not particularly interested in practicing.

One retreatant, Francoise, wrote: “This winter retreat at home, in the office, in the metro, in the streets of Paris, generated space and time for a more intense spiritual practice. I have a dream that the seeds that we have sown will germinate in other sanghas, and for the winter retreat 2009-2010 we will be a thousand laypeople participating in the retreat ‘at home.’ I make the wish that the energy generated by our collective meditation dispels the veil of ignorance and soothes the suffering of all living beings around us.”

Another practitioner, Celine, shared: “To summarize how I feel about this retreat I would like to tell this story. A magnificent hundred-year-old bonzai was given to a friend; despite all the care taken as far as light and hygrometry, after a few months, the bonzai was losing all its leaves and was showing less and less vitality. My friend took his bonzai back to the shop, and they told him to come back in three months’ time. Three months later, the bonzai was splendid with brand new leaves, and my friend asked: ‘What did you do?’The answer was simple: ‘Nothing, I just put it with the others.’ I feel deeply the necessity of practicing/sharing in the Sangha to help each other out. Moreover, the other is a mirror.”

This retreat was very beneficial for our practice and brought us a lot of joy. And its first manifestation had a beautiful continuation. During the winter of 2009, French members of the Order of Interbeing made the “winter retreat at home” available in many places throughout the country. OI members signed up to facilitate weekly groups to talk about the special practices offered by monastics via email. More than 170 people participated in the retreat at home!

PDF of this article

 

The Joys of Nurturing Regional Mindfulness Practice

By Jack Lawlor

mb54-TheJoys1

We know that practicing without a Sangha is difficult. That is why we try our best to set up Sanghas where we live. To be an Order of Interbeing member is wonderful. Wonderful, not because we have the title of OI membership but in that we have a chance to practice. As an OI member you must now begin to support a practice group or to organize one if none exists in your area. It does not mean anything to be an OI member        if you do not do this in your area. So if we know what it really means to be a Sangha-builder, an OI member, or a Dharma teacher, it is a very good thing. To receive the Mindfulness Trainings transmission and a brown jacket and decide not to build a Sangha would be like getting a student identity card at a university and not using the library or going to class, but telling people that you are a student of a very famous university. It would be very funny. Sangha building is what we do. It is the practice.
–Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

mb54-TheJoys2

Sometimes, in the wake of receiving ordination into the Order of Interbeing, a new ordinee can feel a bit lost. New OI members express their desire to be of help but sometimes don’t know what to devote their time and energy to.

Let’s not forget Thay’s observation about the Order of Interbeing, that “Sangha building is what we do.” The need for Sangha builders—and where Sanghas already exist, Sangha nurturers—is hidden in plain sight. It is a life’s work, since there are so many needs and opportunities. There is plenty to do!

We all remember that our interest in joining the Order was to express our bodhicitta, our heart and mind of love, which aspires to practice mindfulness not only for our own sake but also for the benefit of others. As the Order’s charter describes, “With the aspiration of a bodhisattva, members of the Order seek to change themselves in order to change society in the direction of compassion and understanding by living a joyful and mindful life.”

We may have forgotten the historic interrelationship between the Order and local Sanghas, with the result that we may have not yet applied our time, energy, and talents to help nourish existing local spiritual communities or help create new ones where needed, and where doing so will not fracture an existing healthy Sangha. We may forget from time to time that the Sangha is one of the Three Jewels in the Buddhist tradition and that most of the Buddha’s life was devoted to living in the context of spiritual communities. As students of Thay we are encouraged to enjoy a Sangha-based practice and to remember that Sangha building is part of the Order’s very reason for existing. The Order’s charter states that “members are expected to organize and support a local Sangha,” and that Order members are to “help sustain Mindfulness Trainings recitations, Days of Mindfulness and mindfulness retreats.” Hopefully, Order members do these things with a frequency, buoyancy, and dedication that inspire other Sangha members.

Local Sanghas can play a key role in filling the gaps in time between our international and national retreats with Thay. They also provide important practice opportunities for those who cannot afford travel costs or obtain sufficient time off from work or family responsibilities to attend Days of Mindfulness and retreats, either in Plum Village or in the inspiring practice centers created with care and skill at Deer Park Monastery in southern California and Blue Cliff Monastery in New York State.

Sister Sanghas

So let’s be careful not to overlook resources that are reasonably local and readily available! Let’s join hands with sister Sanghas that have evolved in our vicinity, perhaps only two or three hours away. While our local Sangha may not yet have sufficient size or financial resources to organize and support a Day of Mindfulness or retreat at a rented facility, it is likely that when our local Sangha coordinates its efforts with sister Sanghas within a reasonable driving radius, we will have the ability to practice together in grace and ease. Care must be taken to ensure that the events are not too costly or placed too close together on the calendar, in an effort to include as many people as possible.

Our midwestern Sanghas have been practicing as a network of sister Sanghas for many years. Nearly twenty years ago, sister Sanghas in Illinois and Wisconsin first began working together to rent lovely facilities, some of which were surrounded by trees and wildlife, to accomplish together what may not have been feasible alone. Over the past sixteen years more than seventy “regional” multi-Sangha Days of Mindfulness and overnight retreats have been held in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky, usually attracting between 60 and 100 participants per event. More and more Sanghas are joining in, including Sanghas in Minnesota and Iowa. The sincerity, joy, and ease manifested at each event are evocative of mindfulness practice at our root practice center, Plum Village. Events are facilitated by our local lay Dharma teachers and, from time to time, by visiting members of the monastic community, including Sister Annabel and Sister Jina. We’ve also enjoyed four visits by Thay.

When we hear that a developing local Sangha would appreciate help, older Sanghas are happy to provide it. However, Order members are always careful to be deferential to the modest differences in local Sangha practices that have evolved in various locations over the years, and to honor the sincerity and quality of mindfulness practice manifested by local Sangha members who have not elected to join the Order of Interbeing. After all, many local Sanghas functioned for years before joining in collective regional Sangha efforts, and their ways of doing things deserve great respect. Similarly, many local Sangha members who have not chosen to receive ordination have been practicing mindfulness wholeheartedly and consistently for decades.

Trust, Friendship, and Patience

What is the key component of regional Sangha practice? What are the secrets of success? There are a number of contributing factors, but I have come to the conclusion that trust, friendship, and patience are the key components of enduring success.

There is a beautiful term in the Pali language that describes spiritual friends: kalyana mitta. Spiritual friends share the aspiration to cultivate their bodhicitta, the seeds of wisdom and compassion within themselves, not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of others. We can cooperate with each other in building successful Days of Mindfulness, retreats, and local Sanghas in a spirit of friendship and fun! We can get to know and like each other as we work on the details that make a retreat successful.

Success in regional Sangha building may also depend on the organizers’ willingness to let the process evolve in an organic way, attentive to the practitioners and local Sanghas involved, rather than trying to impose a top-down model that does not respect or understand how local Sanghas have developed over time. Those involved in local and regional Sangha building must prioritize the resolve to make mindfulness practice available to as many people as possible for the prime purpose articulated by the Buddha—the transformation of suffering. The purpose behind our efforts should be this simple, this pure. The intentions of genuine Sangha builders are described in the Avatamsaka Sutra:

Not seeking the objects of desire or positions of authority,
Wealth, personal enjoyment, or fame,
It is only to forever annihilate miseries,
And to benefit the world that they arouse their will.

Patience is another helpful ingredient. Regional Sangha building need not be approached in a spirit of rushing, but in the spirit of kalyana mitta, friends on the path, embarking on a spiritual journey together in mindfulness. Our root teacher, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, never seems to rush, not even at airports! Yet think of what he has accomplished during his time in the West, and the array of local Sanghas he has inspired that gleam like a string of pearls, like a jeweled Net of Indra across the world, deserving of our care and attention.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction, has practiced in organized Sanghas since the mid-1970s. Jack was a co-founder of Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, and was ordained as a Dharma Teacher by Thay in 1992. In 2000, he collaborated with Thay and Sanghas throughout the world in compiling the anthology on Sangha building entitled Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities, published by Parallax Press.

PDF of this article

Peace, Understanding, and Compassion

An Urban Retreat for People of Color

By Valerie Brown
Copyright 2010

mb55-Peace1

“The value of a person is not his race or caste, but the value of his thinking, speaking, and acting. We are noble not because of our race, but by our way of thinking, acting, and speaking.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, Colors of Compassion Retreat, Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA (2004)

After months of planning, hundreds of emails, meetings, and discussions, the Sanghas of the New York City and Philadelphia areas held our first People of Color Days of Mindfulness, supported by the monastics of Blue Cliff Monastery, on April 17 in West Philadelphia and on May 22 in Manhattan. These were the first People of Color Days of Mindfulness held outside monastery walls. For me, these days of practice marked a real “growing edge” of the Sangha and a unique moment to bring the collective energy of mindfulness to the heart of the largest cities in the United States.

Planning these events involved extraordinary attention to details. We made efforts to ensure that people of color from a wide array of backgrounds—Indian, Vietnamese, African American, Latino, and many others—felt cared for and loved. The Philadelphia Planning Team, all people of color, worked joyfully, knowing that our mindfulness in the present moment would form the base for our practice and the entire Sangha. We were well supported by Philadelphia area Sanghas, including Peaceful City Sangha, Lilac Breeze Sangha, Open Hearth Sangha, Willow Branch Sangha, and Old Path Sangha. The Philadelphia Shambhala Meditation Center Sangha offered considerable support as well. For the NewYork City Day of Mindfulness, the organizing team was supported by the Community of Mindfulness NewYork Metro and NewYork Insight Society. We took each email as an opportunity for practice.

Safe and Supportive Practice

The Philadelphia Day of Mindfulness would not have been possible without the loving support of the monks and nuns of Blue Cliff Monastery. Their mindful practice and sharing of personal stories was inspirational. Their words of encouragement and insight about handling difficult emotions, being aware of what supports us, and what to do with erratic practice, led to the emerging of a deep theme: the importance of connecting with like-minded people.

Many people were new to the practice or had practiced meditation in isolation for years. Initially, we came together with a sense of hesitation and fear. Slowly, we released these feelings through sitting meditation practice, gentle movement, rest, and outdoor walking meditation on the city streets. In group discussions, many expressed deep gratitude for creating a safe and supportive atmosphere where people of color could practice together, knowing that our practice would benefit not only ourselves, but the entire Sangha. By the end of the day, there were tears, laughter, and a strong desire to continue what was started.

Learning to Love Ourselves

For many of us, the gifts of time and space have become increasingly hard to find, especially in New York City. This People of Color Day of Mindfulness was a huge gift to us. The gifts of time, of space, of being truly present to ourselves—all these were ways of learning to love ourselves. I recall the words of Sister True Vow: “When you give yourself space, you give yourself love.”

mb55-Peace2

We explored acknowledging and embracing our fears as they arise, and practicing listening deeply and communicating in a loving way. When asked about how to deal with difficult, harmful, deep-seeded patterns of communication, Sister Fulfillment said, “The greatest inspiration for your loved one is the fruit of your practice… Our transformation is the best we can do to help our loved one.”

Walking Meditation in the Big City

Perhaps the most moving moments for me were during walking meditation on the sidewalks, which were full of city life. I was particularly moved during the Philadelphia event. As we turned a corner, directly in front of our group of sixty people were two homeless men sitting on a park bench. They were visibly fascinated, sensing the peace in our movement. In Manhattan, the experience was even more profound. People stopped and looked in wonder, knowing that something they could not explain was happening as our group of seventy-five people walked by mindfully.

I grew up in New York City and know the streets well. Normally, I am in a rush, walking, thinking about my destination or a project. I live by the language of speed, pushing myself to do more and try harder, and I am rewarded for it at work. But on this day, despite the traffic, crowds, people on skateboards, people walking their dogs and eating from street vendors, it all seemed so very interconnected, and our group of people of color seemed to fit beautifully and seamlessly into the flow of city life. A feeling of great luxury and ease came over me as I walked slowly, feeling the soles of my shoes on the cement sidewalks. Going slowly while everything around me moved at high speed, my experience seemed almost surreal. As I looked around me, some people stopped while others seemed unphased by it all. At that moment I felt so much freedom—freedom from deadlines, projects, and pressing obligations. It was a moment of great happiness.

A Step Forward

Both of these People of Color Days of Mindfulness came together organically. I am sure that we as a Sangha benefited those who participated and those who witnessed our energy of mindful walking, as well as those who assisted us but did not attend the events. The Sangha has made an important step forward by offering both Days of Mindfulness to the wider people of color community. Many people who attended had never participated in this type of event, but were very open. I am hopeful that the Sangha will continue to offer urban practice days for people of color, knowing that mindfulness at its core is about developing a heart of love.

mb55-Peace3Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, was ordained as an OI Member in 2003. She is a founding member of Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA, and has attended every People of Color Retreat since their inception in 2004 at Deer Park Monastery. Her essay on mindfulness is featured in Thay’s new book on People of Color, We Are All Together.

PDF of this article

Begin Anew Smile

By David M. Nelson

mb56-BeginAnew1

mb56-BeginAnew2

Today I take time to note the actions that feel like acts of true love toward myself. Waking up, I look deeply into the mirror and find a nearly smiling face. An intention is there. Soon a real smile warms. Within a few breaths, my body and mind feel happier, in harmony. Today I offer my smile to all.

Tweet-tweets dance around my ears, accompanying the wild bird seed tossed into the yard. Since spring, the seeds have attracted the grey squirrels’ appetite. I’ve come to accept their occasional visits. When rodent signs were recently recognized, I set out Havahart live traps. Lately a neighbor’s cat has jumped the fence to hunt the birds. So just a handful of seed keeps the back yard in harmony today. May the animals be well.

I bicycle for grocery shopping and posting a letter, sharing the road with vehicles hurrying past. I smile at the interbeing of road, bike, cars, drivers, and rider. May they be well, see the impending red traffic light, and ease safely to a stop. May they stay present and look out for each other. At the store I breathe with gratitude that advertisements no longer trigger craving. I find a few groceries, then without further browsing, go directly to the cashier who acknowledges my smile with one of her own.

Upon returning home I notice some broken glass on the street in front of my apartment, get my broom, and sweep it up. I smile, knowing that pets and bike tires will be safer. Now filling up several five gallon buckets, I haul the bath water to the yard and offer it to jasmine vines growing along the fence, rose bushes, and geraniums. May the plants be well.

Preparing a simple meal, I slowly eat in silence. When a feeling of loneliness arises, I remember there are friends all over the world, transforming suffering and generating the healing energy of mindfulness for all. I’m now living in this city to offer assistance for the recovery of my mother’s ill health. For the time being, this is where I choose to be. At the effort to do what’s right, I smile. May all beings be well, have enough food, be happy and light in body and spirit.

Getting ready to sleep, once again I find a smiling face in the mirror. It was a good day, simple, not too busy, and often mindful. My intention to show the smile as a symbol of my freedom, letting it support my actions and encounters, was frequently a success. My lotus smile blooms from the mud of my mind. Flowers freshly watered begin anew. As I’m lying down to rest, Charlie Chaplin’s tune “Smile” pops into my mind: “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you’ll just smile.”

mb56-BeginAnew3David M. Nelson, Truly Holding Equanimity, is a public health nutritionist  who has produced practice videos for the Sangha, including “Each of My Steps is a Prayer.” He enjoys sitting with the Morning Light and Mindful Peacebuilding Sanghas in Berkeley.

PDF of this article

Birth of the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism

By Brother Phap Nguyen 

mb58-Birth1

On April 25, 2011, thirty monks and nuns were welcomed at the Hong Kong airport by the Sangha and transported to the newest Plum Village monastery. A small car held Thay and his attendants, and three buses—carrying the brothers, the sisters, and our luggage—followed Thay’s car to Lotus Pond Temple in the village of Ngong Ping on Lantau Island, Hong Kong.

Halfway up the mountain, we could see a huge bronze Buddha (the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world), sitting majestically on the peak. The road was very beautiful, hugging the mountain on one side and looking steeply down to the South China Sea on the other. Lush vegetation surrounded the winding road and added to the spectacular landscape. It took a little over half an hour to reach the top of the mountain, where many tourists and pilgrims were praying in front of the statue of the Awakened One. This mountain, adorned with the giant statue, is one of the famous tourist attractions of Hong Kong.

mb58-Birth2

In front of us was the imposing, white granite main gate to Polin Temple. The place was bustling with people. They did not seem to notice that just to the left of this busy gate was a small paved road leading to the hidden Lotus Pond Temple. In there the atmosphere was quiet and full of the flavor of Zen—a world totally different from the one outside. Leaving the bus, we found Thay already sitting in the shade of an ancient banyan tree, enjoying his tea. We bowed to him. He pointed at the tree and said, “This is an old friend of Thay’s.”

We learned that Thay had left his footprint here over forty years ago. It was very moving to witness this return. How fortunate that Thay is still here to be the old sturdy banyan tree where his spiritual descendants can take refuge. “Let’s go to the Buddha Hall to touch the earth before we eat; we are not allowed to eat without paying respect first to the Buddha!” Thay said in his gentle way, with a smile. We were moved. It was truly a reminder in the language of a gentle father.

mb58-Birth3

The First Seeds

The seeds of a center were sown in Thay’s first teaching visit to Hong Kong in 2001. In 2007, during Thay’s third trip there, a practice community called Plum Village Hong Kong was formed. After that trip, Brother Phap Kham and other Plum Village brothers and sisters residing in Vietnam and Thailand went to Hong Kong every three months to lead retreats and provide guidance to practitioners. In February 2009, a mindfulness practice center was established in the commercial and tourist area Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, with Brothers Phap Kham, Phap Chung, Phap Chung, and Phap Dung as permanent residents.

Although the center is located in a crowded downtown area, the brothers have been able to maintain a diligent practice, keeping the same daily schedule of sitting, walking, and working meditation as at the other Plum Village centers. Some practitioners come to sit with the brothers in the early morning, but the majority come after work for the afternoon walking meditation in the park and sitting meditation in the evening. These practitioners see the importance of the practice, which helps them feel less stressed and brings them peace and happiness in everyday life. Hong Kong, especially in the Tsim Sha Tsui area, is extremely crowded. Many people in this small territory live in small, high rise condominiums. Among such tight quarters, the light and relaxed steps of walking meditation are surprising for many onlookers.

Thay’s 2010 teaching tour brought much benefit to many in Hong Kong. Over 1,400 people participated in the retreat held at the Hong Kong YMCA. More than 300 people received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the end of the retreat. Among those was a venerable monk from another part of China. He had obviously received the Five Precepts elsewhere, but the Venerable insisted, “The Five Mindfulness Trainings as enunciated by Plum Village are so wonderful, I would like to receive them so I may transmit them to my disciples.” There was also an ordination ceremony for twenty-five new Order of Interbeing members from Hong Kong. It was a ceremony of warmth and great joy.

During this same tour, Thay gave a public talk to over 8,000 people at the Hong Kong Convention Center. A Venerable from Hong Kong observed, “Only Zen Master Nhat Hanh has the ability to attract such a large audience. Normally, we would be very happy if eighty people came to a Dharma talk.” Thay’s teaching tour made a big impact on intellectuals and business leaders, and the Hong Kong press published many news articles on Thay and the monastic Sangha as well as the teachings given during the tour.

One businessman interviewing Thay inquired, “Which realm would you prefer to go to when you die?” Thay looked at the person with his compassionate eyes, then gently answered with a smile, “It does not matter where I go. If we live deeply and solidly in the present moment, and are happy right here and now, then we will be happy no matter where we go.” Thay’s answer surprised the businessman. Normally people think that Thay might want to go to Nirvana or the Pure Land, or to the Tushita Heaven to help Maitreya Buddha prepare his appearance on Earth, or even back to this world to help people achieve liberation. Thay’s very practical answer was beyond expectations.

A Renewed Buddhism 

After the interview, the businessman described the status of Buddhism in Hong Kong and the difficulties practitioners were facing. Young people were no longer interested in coming to the temples. There were fewer and fewer monastics. The man spoke of his dream to reintroduce Buddhism in Hong Kong in a way that could bring more peace and happiness to individuals and communities. He acknowledged that wealth, power, and fame would not bring true happiness and peace.

mb58-Birth4

Thay said the only way to achieve such a goal was to bring forth a renewed Buddhism, responsive to the needs of today’s society. There had to be practices to help people relax, have less stress, calm the body and mind, resolve personal difficulties and suffering, bring reconciliation between family members, friends, and colleagues, and generate peace and happiness in the present moment. We should work to establish a healthy environment that appeals to young people. If not, they would no longer come to the temples and Buddhism would seriously degenerate over time. He said this phenomenon had happened and was still happening—not only to Buddhism but also to Christianity, and not only in Hong Kong but in other countries as well—and would continue if we failed to renew our spiritual tradition.

Thay went on to share about the practice of monastics at mindfulness centers at Plum Village in France; Deer Park Monastery, Blue Cliff Monastery, and Magnolia Grove Monastery in the United States; Nhap Luu in Australia; and Tu Hieu in Vietnam. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Germany brings the practice of Buddhism to modern society in the most practical way. At these centers, all practitioners, regardless of spiritual background, may participate in and benefit from the wisdom of the Buddha.

At the EIAB, unlike other Buddhist institutes around the world, the teaching staff includes more than fifty monastics residing together. The monastics live, practice, and teach on-site. Classes are taught on subjects such as living in harmony with others, managing anger and other emotions, ministering to the dying, etc. Retreats of various lengths are held. Consultations may be set up with the monks and nuns to resolve any question. The energy of the practice is pervasive and palpable. Every Sunday is a public Day of Mindfulness, open to everyone. The monastics in residence are the bedrock of the Institute. Having a large number of monastics in residence helps create strong practice energy and brings the quality and effectiveness of instruction to a very high level.

Thay said we could also establish an Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism (AIAB) in Hong Kong, known as one of the four rising tigers of Asia and as a land of respect for human rights and religious freedom. If an AIAB was established in Hong Kong, it would help not only Hong Kong and in particular its youth, but also countless others in East Asia.

The businessman was very interested in Thay’s statement. He said he had a good-sized temple on Lantau Island, about a ninety-minute drive from downtown Hong Kong, which could be offered to Plum Village for use as a practice center if Thay agreed.

Ideas were exchanged between Thay’s senior disciples and the businessman, who offered to transport Thay and some monastics to visit the temple the following morning. The offer to make the temple into a Plum Village practice center was happily accepted.

Lotus Pond Monastery 

Our sisters moved into the new temple, called Lotus Pond (Lien Tri), nearly a month before our arrival in April 2011. The temple is well laid out and spacious, built in the traditional architecture of Chinese temples. The Buddha Hall, which can seat around 150 people, occupies the top of the three-story building. The middle floor is the residence of the sisters, and the bottom floor is divided into two parts: in front is the ancestors’ hall, and behind it is the dining hall. Outside and to the left of the temple is Thay’s cottage, next to the path leading to our new Bamboo Forest (Truc Lam) Temple where the brothers live. The Bamboo Forest Temple is not as large as Lotus Pond, but it is a comfortable and cozy place for the brothers to live and practice together.

In the last few days of our stay, Thay took us to visit a number of temples on Lantau Island. Most of these temples are deserted, or occupied only by one, two, or three people. We were saddened to see the temples so abandoned. According to local Venerables, the number of monastics in all the temples in Hong Kong totals only about 200. One sister shared that once, on a round to visit nearby temples, she sighted a rather large one on the mountain, with beautiful architecture. Full of anticipation, she went up for a visit. When she arrived, she found all the gates locked. She rang the bell at the front gate. After a while, a man came out and asked, “What do you want?” She woke up to the stark reality that the temple housed no monastics, only a manager and caretaker.

Offering the Temple 

On April 28, 2011, in his first Dharma talk at Lotus Pond Monastery, Thay stated that Lotus Pond would be the foundation of the AIAB, whose purpose is to offer retreats for youth, families, social workers, government officials, teachers, businessmen, psychotherapists, etc. from Hong Kong and other Asian countries. AIAB will train monastic and lay Dharma teachers from Hong Kong and other neighboring countries. Furthermore, AIAB will offer coursework and guidance in the practice toward a Master of Applied Buddhism degree in a cooperative program with Thailand’s Buddhist University, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya. A two-year curriculum will require residency at the monastery under the guidance of monastics. In addition, AIAB will offer a public Day of Mindfulness (DOM) every Sunday.

AIAB will have a minimum of thirty monastics in residence. This minimum is required to provide the appropriate level of support and guidance for the various programs. Thay believes that with the inspiration of AIAB, young people from local areas and neighboring countries will come to apply for the monastic program. The number of monastics in residence will gradually increase to 125, and it is Thay’s wish that a third of these be from Hong Kong. The audience responded with a round of applause, Plum Village style.

mb58-Birth5The first Sunday Day of Mindfulness at Lotus Pond Monastery was attended by over 200 people and included a ceremony to offer the temple to Plum Village for the establishment of the AIAB. The ceremony was modeled after the simple procedure used by King Bimbisara. According to this ancient Indian tradition, the offering has to be handed personally to the receiver. If the object of offering is too large or is something that cannot be touched or seen, water is poured onto the hand of the receiver. When offering the Bamboo Forest Monastery to the Buddha, King Bimbisara knelt in front of the Buddha with a container of water in his hands. After expressing his respect and wish to make the offer to the Buddha, the king poured water into the Buddha’s palms. The businessman who offered Lotus Pond Monastery likewise asked to make the offer, then poured water onto Thay’s hands. The ceremony signified Thay’s acceptance of Lotus Pond Monastery for the establishment of a Plum Village practice center in Hong Kong and marked the formation of the AIAB.

After the offering ceremony, the lay practitioners were jubilant. One woman related that she had quit her previous job in order to have a schedule that would allow her to come every Sunday. She has now found a new job, with permission from supervisors for time off during weekends for practice at the monastery.

mb58-Birth6

There were over 350 participants at the second (Sunday) DOM. The day began with walking meditation, led by Thay. In addition to the regular schedule, the monastic Sangha also held a Vesak (Buddha’s birthday) celebration ceremony after Thay’s Dharma talk. The children who helped set up the statue of the baby Buddha with the monastics in the front garden were very happy to be given first priority to bathe the baby Buddha.

mb58-Birth7After the ceremony, the Sangha was invited to have lunch in mindfulness with Thay. We all sat in a circle under the trees of the monastery’s front yard. Among us was Father Thomas Kwong, a Catholic priest from Hong Kong who had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at Plum Village. The image of teacher and disciples quietly enjoying a meal together reminded one of the Buddha with the original Sangha. One practitioner remarked, “To have a quiet meal with Thay and the Sangha like this is rather like having the honor of sharing a meal with the Buddha.”

Another practitioner, a Hong Kong woman of Vietnamese origin, said joyfully, “Now that our temple is here, we feel like we have the home of our maternal grandmother to come back to.”

mb58-Birth8Brother Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in International Business and Finance, and worked in the financial field until he moved to Plum Village in 2007. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since.

PDF of this article

Solidity and Generosity

A Retreat for the U.S. Congress

By Susan Hadler

mb63-Solidity1

Word came from Sister Peace that Thay and the Plum Village Sangha would visit Washington, DC toward the end of their North American tour in October 2011. Thay would offer a talk at the Warner Theater, sponsored by Omega Institute, and then a talk at the Library of Congress, followed by a special overnight retreat for members of Congress. The Faith and Politics Institute, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Fetzer Institute would sponsor the retreat and the talk at the Library of Congress.

Thay had offered a retreat for Congress in 2003. The Washing- ton Mindfulness Community (WMC) and the other area Sanghas had provided support in a multitude of ways. Sister Peace had been part of that effort (before she was Sister Peace). Now she was inviting the North American Sangha to bring mindfulness into Congress by writing letters and visiting members of Congress, inviting them to attend the talk and retreat.

I was not part of the organizing team in 2003. I had recently scaled back my professional life so that I could deepen my practice and have more time to sit, walk, and enjoy the trees and the sky, my family, and the Sangha; to write, play my flute, and paint. At that time, I had very little inner space, and I needed time to slow down, to come home to myself, and to heal. I needed to take one breath and then another. The Sangha supported and nourished me deeply during that time, never demanding or expecting more than I could be or give.

Sitting in silence with others on Sunday evenings, followed by true sharing of our practice, strengthened my whole being and gave me the space to be with myself in the midst of being with others, something that I had seldom experienced before. By 2011, I had changed. I was no longer fiercely guarding my privacy and my need for silence. I understood the need to mindfully reach out to Congress.

Early in September, Sister Peace invited the WMC to organize visits to Congress and to support the Plum Village Sangha when it arrived in DC. Having no plan except to follow the guidelines on the Plum Village website for contacting Congress members, I sent out an announcement for a meeting. All the rest flowed from deep Sangha energy. Friends came to the meeting. Joey designed an invitation and Abbie printed it. Local Sanghas contributed funds to purchase seventy-five copies of Thay’s new book, Peace Is Every Breath, to give to Congress members.

Some of us met in a friend’s Congressional office with books, invitations, letters, and a list of members of Congress to visit. After stopping to breathe so that we could walk the marble halls with mindful steps and deliver invitations with Buddha smiles, we began to open the heavy doors and greet our new friends, the staff who support the members of Congress.

Almost everyone was receptive. When we spoke of Thay’s understanding of their stressful, pressured, busy lives, most of them laughed and said they sure could use the retreat. As we left the offices, many were already beginning to read Peace Is Every Breath. We were heartened. We felt Thay’s presence as help arrived exactly when and how we needed it.

Sangha energy continued to flow like a river of mindfulness. Sangha members met with Sister Peace to plan ways to support Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. One member of the WMC, a caterer, volunteered to make dinners for the monastic Sangha on the evenings of the talks. Another member designed and printed cards with information about area Sanghas to be handed out at the talk. At the Warner Theater, some Sangha members handed out programs and fliers while others sold books for Parallax Press. Thay’s Dharma talk was like good medicine. Tiredness vanished from people’s faces as Thay led them to a deeper, more spacious place where they could breathe and know they were breathing.

Knowing that only plastic flowers would be available at the Library of Congress for Thay’s talk the following night, I asked Skip at Omega if we might rescue any unwanted flowers for that event. Abbie volunteered to take the flowers home and bring them to the Library of Congress the next night. Smiling, I watched Abbie drive away with huge bunches of flowers filling her car. Early the next day at the Library of Congress, Sister Peace and I found out that the flowers would have to go through an off-site inspection lasting an hour and a half. Laughing at the impossibility of this, we called Abbie, who decided to prune the flowers and arrange them into smaller security-acceptable containers.

Hours before the talk began, we were informed that Thay had requested that each person receive a copy of the new Five Mindfulness Trainings at the door. We shared this news with the woman guiding us through the details of the evening at the Library of Congress. She offered to help us print 500 copies. When we delivered them, we found out that the Faith and Politics Institute had also made 500 copies. Later, I passed the fliers on to Sister Chan Khong to use at the Day of Mindfulness in New York. I was learning that everything works out beautifully and I don’t really need to worry.

mb63-Solidity2

Entering the auditorium, I noticed the flowers standing like monks lined up in front of Thay, adding color and simplicity. I listened to Thay encourage us to come home to ourselves, listen deeply to each other, and nurture clarity, compassion, and courage through the concentration that mindfulness practice generates. I listened with the ears of a person in the midst of a divided situation and felt hope. I know that Thay’s way works because of my experience with my own family: sitting and breathing and sending peace to myself and to each family member from whom I was estranged, I gradually shifted my heart and my perspective until full reconciliation happened.

The members of Congress and guests seemed to be deeply affected by Thay’s talks and by the collective energy of mindful- ness at the retreat. They were completely engaged and appreciative of the practice. One said to me how much she enjoyed eating mindfully in silence, and that she would take this home with her. Another came to the retreat quite tense, and I noticed how much more relaxed and young she looked over time. I understood the depth of these seemingly simple changes.

Retreatants were eager to learn ways to communicate effectively with each other in Congress and the nation. I left the retreat aware of suffering caused by lack of understanding mutual needs. I also felt a deeper appreciation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, a quintessential ethical and spiritual guide for living a life of meaning and connection with oneself and all other beings.

I became aware of many fruits of the practice. As the oldest daughter of seven children whose father was killed in war, I know how to respond and to take care of others. But this time, I saw the difference between responding out of desperation and necessity and responding out of inner strength. In the past, I often gave of myself heedlessly, neglecting my well-being until sickness made me stop and rest; or I would protect myself, holding back to avoid becoming exhausted. This time, even as I dealt with the challenges of planning and organizing, I was aware of the pleasure of supporting the Sangha. Another delicious fruit was experiencing, over and over again, the joy and sturdiness of true Sangha generosity.

mb63-Solidity3Susan Hadler, True Lotus Recollection, practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC.

PDF of this article

No Heat, No Fear

By Peggy Rowe Ward

mb60-NoHeat1

“Bring a sleeping bag,” announces a sign on the Zendo. “Hmmm,” I wonder. I stick my head into the room and am greeted by a cool blast of air. Ah, the power is out. I turn around and walk briskly back to my dorm room in Lower Hamlet and return to the Zendo with more layers of clothing and my sleeping bag. I cannot recognize anyone in the hall this morning. I sit.

It’s January and the poplar trees stretch their bare arms into a grey sky. It is Sunday, the day that we open the monastery doors for a public Day of Mindfulness. Not that many folks join us these days. It’s the early 1990s, and the French have yet to discover that there is a Zen master tucked away in the rolling green countryside of southern France.

mb60-NoHeat2

Thay will offer the Dharma talk in the Lower Hamlet dining room, as there is a wood stove in this space. My roommates and I strategize on how to prepare for the talk. From experience, we know that one side of the room will be very hot and the other side will be very cold. We calculate a perfect time to arrive and sit right in the middle, and then we prepare to dress for this event. We take out all of our clothes and help each other layer up. Each of us looks like a strange cross between a bag woman and a gypsy as we are covered with shawls, blankets, coats, and hats. We laughingly lumber out of our room and link arms as we make our way to the dining room.

The dining room is jammed with benches and chairs. Pierre sits by the stove, feeding the fire. Pierre lives a few vineyards away from Lower Hamlet. He is one of a handful of friends that appears every Sunday looking wildly French. He sports a black beret, dark wool Melton coat, and thick knit sweater. He has a large nose that fits perfectly with his kind face. He has a habit of resting both of his strong weather-etched hands on the top of his wooden walking stick. He is a regular presence at Plum Village and we are comfortable with his watchful gaze.

There is no aisle, so we bump-bump-bump our way through the room. The padding has tripled our girth. We crawl on top of the chairs toward the middle of the room. We sit and spill over our white plastic chairs. We are almost wedged together with softness. I look to my left and recognize the eyes of my friend. We smile softly and look around the room. The windows are covered with steam so we cannot see out. Everyone who enters is wearing a similar disguise.

The bell is invited and Thay enters the room, followed by his attendant. Pierre moves away from the stove so that Thay can sit close by the heat. Thay settles in. He is offered a cup of tea, which he holds in his brown-mittened hands. The pine logs simmer and crack. Thay begins his talk and we cannot hear a word.

I have a moment of upset. I look around and quickly discover that none of us can hear. The fire is speaking loudly; there is the drip-drip-drip of moisture off the windows, the rustle of bodies, and no microphone. Breathing in, I breathe into that small upset, take her by the hand and put her on my soft lap. Breathing out, I smile. I sigh and settle into this day. What could be more lovely than this? Magically, I feel my neighbors doing the same. I notice several heads starting to bob and I can feel mine bobbing, too.

A small frisson moves my heart. I recognize that we are in the presence of Maitreya Buddha, that we are Maitreya Buddha. We relax together and breathe as one padded body. Thay is close by. We are warm. We are safe. We are together. Today the Buddha of loving community has manifested herself as woolen-wrapped students of the Buddha silently seated in a dining room, taking refuge in the warmth, in the teachings, and in each other.

Peggy Rowe Ward, True Original Vow, lives and practices in Claremont, California with her husband Larry Ward and dog Charlie, as well as the Baby Step Sangha.

PDF of this article

Fertile Ground

Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism

By Sister Hanh Nghiem

mb62-FertileGround1

The Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism (AIAB) in Hong Kong, on Lantau Island, was established in May 2011. It is a continuation of the At Ease Mindfulness Practice Centre, Plum Village’s first home in Hong Kong, which was opened February 2009 and located in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Before the center moved to Lantau Island, only four monastic brothers lived there. Now the AIAB is home to eighteen monastic brothers and sisters. The sisters dwell at Lotus Pond Temple and the brothers dwell at Bamboo Forest Monastery.

The AIAB is a quiet part of the Ngong Ping Village. Ngong Ping is home to several tourist attractions, including Po Lin Monastery, the Big Buddha, the Heart Sutra Pillars, and Phoenix Peak Lantau Island has many Buddhist temples and shrines, Lotus Pond Temple being one of the oldest. The popularity of this place is easy to understand, because nature has been preserved, making a beautiful natural environment for people and living beings. When people come to Lotus Pond Temple, they immediately feel more peaceful and light as they pass through the temple’s gate. The daily practice generates a special energy that penetrates the natural environment. Friends comment on how noticeably the energy of the temple has changed since the Sangha has come here. Even the temple dogs have transformed, becoming more friendly and trusting of people.

mb62-FertileGround2

Here is our typical daily schedule:

4:30 a.m.               Wake Up
5:00                       Sitting Meditation & Chanting
6:15                       Exercise
7:00                       Breakfast
8:00                       Walking Meditation
9-11:30                  Classes
12:00                     Lunch & Rest Time
14:30                     Gathering & Working Meditation
16:30                     Meetings
17:30                     Dinner
19:30                     Sitting Meditation & Chanting
21:30                     Noble Silence

As the tradition holds true, Monday is our sacred Lazy Day. Sunday is our public Day of Mindfulness, when we offer general practice for the public. We also try to give particular attention to the local Vietnamese and to children on the first Sunday of the month; Wake Up for young people ages eighteen through thirty-five on the second Sunday; Order of Interbeing members and teens on the third Sunday; and affinity groups like applied ethics and health care professionals on the fourth Sunday. There are also Days of Mindfulness and evening practice gatherings at different sites in Hong Kong.

Essential Teachings 

The curriculum of the AIAB is coming together in the sense of its ability to be articulated and implemented in our daily life practice. The material is already prepared because Thay has been teaching it for a number of decades. The core classes start with the fundamental sutras of the Plum Village practice: the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone. They are studied along with introductory Buddhist psychology as covered in Thay’s book, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body. Essential Buddhist teachings complete the core curriculum, as covered in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. These are followed by in-depth study of Manifestation-Only Buddhist psychology, as taught in Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology. These core courses are prerequisites to any further studies at the AIAB.

mb62-FertileGround3In the meantime, people can hear lectures when they attend a full day of practice at our tri-monthly course for health care professionals and monthly Day of Mindfulness focusing on Applied Ethics. We have already covered a general base for The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching and Buddha Mind, Buddha Body in our two three-month Summer Retreats. The same basic instruction was offered to the general public every Sunday, and was followed by Dharma discussion to clarify and enrich our understanding of the teachings.

In the Plum Village centers in France and the U.S., the three-month retreat for monks and nuns to stay within the monastery boundaries is in the winter months, but at the AIAB we have our three-month retreat during the summer months, at the same time as the other local Buddhist monasteries. We also have a three-month “bonus” rain retreat from December through February, when we limit teaching trips to those that are made by special request.

From March through May, and again from September through November, we collaborate with our other monastic brothers and sisters in Thailand and Vietnam to hold teaching trips in Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. We also hold teaching trips in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and other countries in Asia.

Lay practitioners are welcome to stay and practice with us. At the moment, there is not a set arrival day. You can email us to inform us of when you would like to come. We ask that people do not arrive on a Lazy Day (from Sunday at 6 p.m. until Monday at 6 p.m.).

The Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism is young and full of energy. It is a blessing to be on such fertile ground for our roots to go deeper and our horizons to broaden.

mb62-FertileGround4For more information about the AIAB, visit www.pvfhk.org or email  aiab@pvfhk.org.

Sister Hanh Nghiem, True Adornment with Action, presently lives at the AIAB.

PDF of this article

Living Beautifully, Living Solidly

A Day of Mindfulness for People of Color

By Angela Dews 

We are not noble by our race, but by our way of thinking, speaking, and acting. Nobility comes from thoughts that have understanding and compassion. We are noble by our way of life.

- Thich Nhat Hanh at the first people of color retreat, “Colors of Compassion,” March 2004

 mb62-LivingBeautifully1

The summer day selected for “Living Beautifully, Living Solidly: A Day of Mindfulness for People of Color” in New York City turned out to be the same day as the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party with 125,000 people,  a Hari Krishna parade with floats down Fifth Avenue and a street fair on Madison Avenue.

Most of the more than forty individuals who came together on June 9, 2012, walked mindfully together through the smoke and smells and sounds of drums and cymbals.  Afterwards, Brother Phap Thuat asked our small group to share the experiences of our mindfulness practice in this crowded city. The answers spoke to the deep settling we had been led to: “The crowd is made up of single people and we send love to each one of them.” “Sangha is essential.” “Today, it is easy to see that the fruits of our practice benefitted all beings.”

During the day’s practice, Sisters Lang Nghiem and Cu Nghiem and Brothers Phap Khoi and Phap Thuat led the People of Color (POC) Sangha in guided sitting and movement, mindful eating and deep relaxation, a Dharma talk, group discussion, and a question-and-answer session.

The Day of Mindfulness (DOM) brought together members of the New York Sanghas—Morning Star in Queens, Riverside in Manhattan, Rock Blossom in Brooklyn—as well as visitors from Philadelphia’s Peaceful City Sangha. Members of the New York Insight Meditation Center, where the DOM was held, also attended. For some, this was their first practice in the tradition of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. The NYI POC Sangha gratefully received gifts of a beautiful bell, one of Thay’s calligraphies, and the wonderful book, Awakening of the Heart.

The first New York City DOM for people of color in this tradition was held two years ago. Last year, the monastics concentrated on the many elements of Thay’s 2011 North American teaching tour, so there was a special sweetness inherent in the organizing team’s gratitude that the seeds of mindfulness could be allowed to again take root in New York City.

From the anonymous responses to an online survey conducted afterwards, it appears that the seeds did indeed take root and blossom:

I found the day to be inspiring, deepening my daily practice. I understand better that every moment can be mindful, like a meditation.

It was, as is always the case, a wonderful way to spend a day, in fellowship with other POC, deepening practice, listening to each other, and spreading metta in the room and beyond.

I connected very strongly with the ways in which we can practice for those in our lives who aren’t able to because of their paths. This was a new way for me to think about meditation practice as a kind of metta.

Although I did not feel as comfortable speaking in the smaller group, I was working on just listening and not feeling like I should respond to my every impulse to speak. I greatly enjoyed hearing about other people’s experiences.

 

mb62-LivingBeautifully2Angela Dews attended the first people of color retreat at Deer Park, where she took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and was given the name Peacemaker, Strength of the Heart.

 

PDF of this article

Snowy Steps

By Tracey Pickup

mb62-Snowy1The sound of the cold wind, the crunch of ice and snow under each foot and the swish of heavy coats are the only sounds of the Sangha. High on a white ridge overlooking the city, the Sangha slowly puts one foot in front of the other. It is impossible not to hunch slightly before the wind.

It is January and many degrees below freezing. It is our Day of Mindfulness. Looking at my friends, I think to myself: Why on earth should we do this? I see the great blue sky before us, small birds hanging in the bare shrubs and bushes. The dim winter light scattered over the valley.

It’s hard enough to slow down and pay attention when the conditions are beautiful and comfortable. Most of the time under these winter conditions, I run through the wind to get somewhere warmer.

Here we are, approaching this noble practice under these conditions simply because they are the ones before us. As we turn slowly towards each other and sing one soft song together, I realise that we practice this waking up for what is right here in this place. This place is our home of mindfulness. Just as Sanghas around the world take mindful steps under whatever conditions are before them, so do we. Though it is sometimes a cold and difficult place, these are our mindful steps. For us and for all beings together.

 

 

mb62-Snowy2Tracey Pickup, True Fragrant Field, began the Calgary Sangha in her apartment in 2003. She enjoyed walking meditation in the snow until she moved to a more coastal climate. She now lives at Mountain Lamp Community, a rural retreat centre near the west coast of Washington state, and serves as the Temple Keeper.

PDF of this article

Ancient Tree, Fragrant Flower

By Sister Thoai Nghiem 

mb61-AncientTree1

They’re always beautiful, the good old days. Each time someone asks me about the old days, I am perplexed, saying “umm” and “ahh,” but once I start, I often run out of time. Our memories, when we touch them, vibrate as a musical note echoing in the vast silence.

I can see the images of those days…

Plum Village Memories 

Those days, our beds were slats of wood placed on four bricks in a cement-floor room with unpainted walls, without a heater, and the winter wind freely slipped in, freezing cold.

Those days, everyone was wearing a pair of wooden clogs because everywhere was muddy. Some lay practitioners, after returning home from Plum Village, would try to look for a pair of clogs because they thought it was a fashion at Plum Village. Some left with a chunk of mud as the village token. On the day when Lower Hamlet had to lay gravel on the path around the dining hall so that firefighters’ trucks could drive there according to the law, I looked at the new white path reflecting the sunshine and felt like I had just lost something very precious. It was a little bit like civilization had come to a remote rural area, and I became someone who missed the good old days.

mb61-AncientTree2

Those days, Dharma talks in the Lower Hamlet were given in the dining hall. Every fifteen minutes, teacher and disciples stopped to breathe and listen to the clock chime. The stove was placed at the end of the hall. Anyone who cooked could secretly chop and peel vegetables if they were not spotted by Thay.

Those days, the kitchen in Upper Hamlet had a top level, which was the dining hall. Going there to eat or for Dharma sharing, when standing up, you would have to bend your head since the pillars and rafters were so low.

Those days, in the Violet Cloud building, only Thay’s room was unchanged. It used to be the cow shed. Sister Tu Nghiem’s room is a common room now; Sister Hieu Nghiem’s is Sister Chan Khong’s now. The office was a library, and the rest of the upstairs space was for storage of miscellaneous things and/or straw.

Those days, each summer, Vietnamese would be heard all over the Lower Hamlet, where there was a festive atmosphere. Wooden slats and bricks were carried from here to there to build beds. At the end of summer, a row of plastic containers full of soiled bed linens was waiting to be washed by hand. Often I jumped inside the container to wash by feet.

Those days, almost every week, Thay would teach us chanting and ho canh. However, nine out of ten people would chant in different melodies.

Transforming Mind and Body 

Those days, Thay constantly introduced new practices with which we hardly could keep up. Our personal practice was still not good enough, so Thay had to find out new practices to help us transform our mind and body.

Those days, Thay organized a Dharma festival. When each person heard his or her name called, he or she had to go in front of the Sangha, breathe in and out three times, and pick a small piece of paper with a topic from the bell. Then that person had to talk about the selected topic for ten minutes. Some were freaked out, a few were quite articulate, and others burst into tears.

Those days, Upper Hamlet only had one blue van for shopping. The side door would not close properly. It was very nice to sit in there because when the van climbed uphill, the door would slowly open, allowing the wind to blow in, just like boarding a xe loi in Vietnam (very similar to a rickshaw, being pulled by a motorbike instead of a person).

Those days, Lower Hamlet only had an old car, donated by uncle Cao Thai. Sister Hieu Nghiem was the only driver since no one else could drive a manual car.

Those days, I wandered around the whole day in the forest because the schedule was very relaxed except on a Day of Mindfulness. In the autumn I picked apples and hazelnuts and gathered wood for the fireplace in the dining hall. In the spring I hung a hammock under the plum trees and fell asleep.

Those days, all novices wore grey robes. Thay loved the memories of his novice time, so one day Thay came into the meditation hall wearing a grey robe.

Those days, bikkhus wore brown robes. Bikkhunis and novice nuns could wear only brown robes during retreats. When there was an announcement on the board about putting on sanghati, the sisters would ask each other what color robe to wear.

Those days were nearly twenty years ago. I was still very clumsy; it took me nearly half an hour each time I shaved my head. I was still up and down due to little-things-that-seem-to-be-very big happening in the Sangha. I still got very excited like a child receiving a gift each time I had a chance to play/be with Thay. I still worried about Thay’s fragile health because I was such a baby stumbling on my feet. I still anxiously wondered how Plum Village would be without Thay.

Those days, Thay talked about Vietnam, or the root temple, or the traditional protocols from when Thay was still a novice, without expecting that one day he would be able to set foot in his homeland. And I sat there, listening with a soft heart. I loved Vietnam, loved those intelligent novices who were very keen in learning and practicing, loved my beloved Dharma sisters and brothers whom I had never met, and who were trying to preserve the Buddhist conduct in Vietnam.

Inheriting the Fruits

Now, Thay has been able to go back to our homeland, although his returns were full of difficulties and challenges. I too have gotten to know Vietnam. I was there for more than four years, living in a traditional temple and being close to the root temple.

Now, Plum Village has turned thirty years old. Ten years is long enough for a child to mature; thirty years is sufficient for a newborn baby to become a well-established adult in society. And the children of Plum Village—Upper Hamlet, Lower Hamlet, New Hamlet, Maison de l’Inspire, Deer Park, Green Mountain, Blue Cliff, Magnolia Grove, EIAB, AIAB—although being born in different times, have already started to stand firmly on two feet, self-sufficient and contributing peace to the world.

In the early days of Thay’s Dharma tours, Thay was assisted by just a few lay and monastic Dharma teachers. Today, Thay’s presence is inseparable with the image of a big Sangha and retreats with approximately 1,000 attendees. Not only has Thay conducted Dharma tours, but our young Dharma teachers have also been to many different places to provide teachings. Additionally, various centers have organized many retreats. In recent years, both the Wake Up movement, which has introduced mindfulness to young people in schools and universities, and health retreats have developed strongly and have been very well received. And our very young novices have played a really active role in this work.

At this present time, Thay continues to generate new insight. For many years, the tree of wisdom has flourished and has been fruitful. Now, at the age of eighty-five, Thay has still not stopped. Thay would like us to be solid on the path to renew Buddhism. Thay would like us to bring Thay into the future.

mb61-AncientTree3It is the image of an ancient tree that suddenly produces a fragrant flower. How I love this image! The fruits of meditation practice, of daily enlightenment from Thay, have been inherited. And the fragrance will be spreading in countless directions, even if the tree grows against the wind, and regardless of storms.

Sister Thoai Nghiem resides in New Hamlet, has been with Plum Village since 1993, and likes to take care of the gardens.

PDF of this article

Sangha-that-Sings-to-Birds

By Laura Hunter

One of my favorite memories involves the time we were doing walking meditation at Deer Park Monastery soon after I had begun attending Days of Mindfulness there. We came to sit in the Oak Grove, and, looking up, we saw two Great Horned Owlets perched high in the trees. They were prehistoric looking marvels—all fluffy with their white down and patchy feathers, with big eyes open wide. Joy spread through the Sangha as we gazed up at them, and they down at us. Then, as if on cue, several monks and nuns stood up and starting singing to the owls—I am free, I am free, I am free. The owlets tilted their heads in wonder. Sitting there, under the cool oaks, bathed in the dappled forest light, surrounded by such loving people who sing to birds, I fell in love with the community at that moment. I knew I belonged with   this Sangha-that-Sings-to-Birds, and would forevermore be a part of it.

mb61-SanghaSingsLaura Hunter, True Ocean of Teachings, lives in Escondido, California with her husband Ron and Dharma dog Sprout. She sits with the World Beat Sangha, works for environmental justice, and is coordinator of the Deer Park Dharmacast (www.dpcast.net).

 

 

PDF of this article