Monks & Nuns:

Behind the Projections onto the Robe

Part Two

By Lori Zimring De Mori

The author questions two young monastics on their journey from lay life to ordination. Part One of this article was published in the autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Phap Tue

Phap Tue, whose given name means wisdom, ordained as a monk in December of 1999. Growing up in Northern California, his passions were nature, soccer, reading, and the Grateful Dead band. During the summer of 2003 he helped run the children’s program at Upper Hamlet in Plum Village and with great intelligence and sensitivity facilitated the adults’ discussion about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He is twenty-nine years old.

Thay often asks us to remember our fi experience on the path. What was yours?

Lots of the Vietnamese monks remember a feeling they had when visiting a temple. My family went to church on Sundays, and there I saw the seed of silence and something beyond the ordinary, but I was much more moved by the natural world, especially when I went down to the creek behind our house by myself. I was about five or six years old. Even as a child I had a propensity to be happy alone. The creek brought me into a silent space and seemed to open up my mind.

When I was in fifth grade I read a book called The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was about a group of friends on a spiritual journey to find themselves as individuals, and as friends, though the tale was clothed in mythological adventure. There were a few characters whose personalities influenced me deeply, particularly a mage, or wizard. The wizards lived virtually alone, deep in the woods, in towers, in mountains or in other hidden, mysterious places. They wore robes, had no girlfriends, and were entirely devoted to their practice. I see this character in me now. I think a Buddhist monk is quite possibly as close as you can get to a modern-day wizard.

So were you a quiet, solitary child?

Not at all. I was also a real talker and loved being in community, on teams. My dad was determined for me to play out that feeling in the athletic realm. He’d been a great soccer player when he was young but denied that first love in favor of more socially acceptable choices. Our relationship centered around competition and approval. I liked soccer, I liked learning, and I wanted approval, so in school I was a teacher’s pet and out of school my primary focus was being in nature and playing soccer.

How did those two sides of you—the solitary and the social—play themselves out as you got older?

My best friend growing up was a wild, free-spirited kid named Shane. He wasn’t a good student and he didn’t really care about people’s approval. I learned from him to be a bit more bold. By high school we’d grown apart. I was playing soccer on state teams. That made me popular and girls liked me but I was also becoming more of a loner. I started eating lunch with my English teacher who was a devout Christian. We’d talk about religion, politics, and literature. In my senior year I started reading Joseph Campbell. I had a strong spiritual inclination but it suffered from my devotion to soccer, where success was measured in terms of fame and recognition rather than through understanding. On the other hand, my coaches taught me discipline, focus, and concentration. They were very good teachers in many ways.

At the same time I started doing hallucinogenic drugs, mostly mushrooms. Mushrooms became my “spiritual path”—they showed me things about myself I’d never seen before. I’d take them every full moon and go hiking alone. I was getting in touch with the natural environment in a new way, but it was usually drug facilitated. I also loved the Grateful Dead. A whole group of us—mostly older than me—would follow them around the West Coast and go to all their concerts. We’d free dance, spinning around in circles. There was this ethic of peacefulness and love among Dead fans. We never saw each other outside of the concerts. When we left we’d just say, “Love you. . .see you next concert.” I fell in love with a girl who was always at the concerts. She was twenty-five, a vegan, and an environmentalist. I was nineteen. I didn’t tell her how old I was.

What did you do after high school?

I went to UC Berkeley and played competitive college soccer. I trained every day but didn’t really hang out with my teammates. We were friends on the field, but off the field I enjoyed other things than going to parties, drinking, or chasing women. So, I spent most of my time training, studying, and being alone in nature. Then I crashed.

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What do you mean, you “crashed”?

I got injured during my freshman year at Berkeley and I just couldn’t come back from the injury. I couldn’t walk without pain. Yet the greatest pain was not the physical pain I experienced but the psychological trauma of losing who I felt I was. I fought with my old ideas of God and “what was meant to be.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer competitively but I couldn’t really let go. I became angry and depressed, lost confidence in myself. I was so lonely, and yet didn’t want to be in a relationship. I felt like I had work I needed to do on my own. I realized I didn’t really miss soccer, that I loved dancing and hiking more. I had virtually given up alcohol and other drugs by then, and I began to distance myself from my old friends. In my sophomore year I moved into an apartment on my own. I still felt heavy and depressed so I just put all my energy into school.

Did you have any spiritual practice at this point?

Not at first, but two things happened which influenced me. I went to an exhibit of Tibetan sacred art at a place called Dharma Publishing. The gallery was lit by thankas, colorful tapestries with different deities, natural scenes, and silent stories. I was in a dark place in my life at this time, so this color was a great gift.

There was a lecture afterwards about the Four Noble Truths. It really touched me. It addressed my real experience and gave guidance in a practical way. I wanted to hear more. Dharma Publishing became my Sangha and I started going to teachings every Sunday. The teachings fit with the values of nonviolence and peacefulness which I already held from my Grateful Dead days, and I found them intellectually flawless. No dogma. No conditions. Just “see for yourself.” I started reading books about Buddhism and felt nourished by the teachings.

Around the same time I was up late one night flipping through television channels and a guy named Tony Robbins was advertising workshops to help people see what they wanted in life and teach them how to get it. His approach was not strong on the spiritual but he did talk about knowing what your values are, understanding that many have been inherited rather than chosen. His idea was to create a hierarchy of values and make them your target. But first you needed to discover what your values were.

I saw that I valued two things very strongly: one was compassionate understanding, which was in accord with my new spiritual awakening. The other was a value I hadn’t even realized was strong in me—the desire to influence people, to be seen as someone who could do things. I decided to leave that behind and to try to live without looking for approval. I wanted to be truly free. But I needed wisdom, understanding. I also needed to drop my fear of not doing well in school. I was often nervous about grades. I began to see this was another way I sought approval and recognition. I saw it was based on fear of rejection. So I made sitting meditation my new priority. I began sitting for two hours each morning. School became easier and more enjoyable and I found my happiness was not so much about what I did but what was inside. Compassionate understanding became my number one priority.

Were you practicing with a teacher or on your own?

There were lay teachers at Dharma Publishing and they were wonderful but I got to a point where I wanted a teacher “with the glow.” I had a friend who was practicing in Dharamsala. After graduation I told my parents I was thinking of going to Chile to teach or to India, to practice. I told them I was also considering the monastic life. They didn’t take me seriously.

I’d also thought about getting a teaching credential. My father said he’d pay for school if I got my credential before going away. I thought, “The practice can be done anywhere; I can practice at school.” So I took the opportunity, with one condition: I would study because I loved it. And I would not stress. So I went back to school, tutored kids, and coached soccer. I liked teaching and the kids liked me but I was aware that my love was always conditional, even to my students. I gave them attention but I didn’t really know how to love and understand them. Through meditation I was beginning to see clearly that I didn’t really understand myself, yet I was teaching. There was always an element of hypocrisy, for I still had insecurities and fears I needed to resolve.

In the meantime I was still sitting every morning and had started reading Thay’s books and I’d found a Sangha two blocks from home. It was very alive, deep, and honest. One morning I was sitting and I saw all these ideas I had about myself and suddenly thought, “It’s all a painting—you’ve made it all up.” This was one of the first deep realizations I had. As I continued to sit regularly each day, the meditation bore more insight. I remember one morning after I had sat I opened my eyes and felt extremely calm. Everything was silent. There was one of Thay’s books beside me: The Diamond That Cuts through Illusion. I opened it and read a passage. It spoke of a type of giving called “the giving of non-giving.” It meant you gave to someone without conditions, with no discrimination between self and other. I read this passage and thought to myself, “Is this possible? Is this true?” And a very honest voice, that was my own, rose out of me: “You know it’s true.” And then I thought to myself: “It’s over. That’s it. It’s all over.” I stood up and called my department counselor and told her I was withdrawing from the education program. I told my dad that he hadn’t wasted a penny but I had learned all I could learn and was going to become a monk.

Why did you decide to go to Plum Village?

I’d read many of Thay’s books—the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Your Appointment with Life. I thought that if the community of Plum Village practiced in the same way Thay set out in his books I’d be fine.

I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could come that summer and was told to wait and come after the summer retreat. So I decided in the meantime to go to Thay’s Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont to practice for a month. It’s very quiet and contemplative there. I ended up staying for six months before coming to Plum Village. I ordained a month after arriving.

How did your parents react to your decision to become a monk?

My mom was upset. At first she cried and yelled. More recently though, she’s come to visit me, practice with us, and has even taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My father was absent. When I asked him why he thought I was becoming a monk he said he thought it was because I didn’t know what else to do. My reasons were exactly the opposite.

Does anyone ever leave the monkhood?

Sometimes. Overall the percent of Westerners who leave is higher than non-Westerners. There were sixteen people in my ordination family. One has left already.

What is your practice like now?

There’s a communal feeling that comes from living in Plum Village. Sometimes I miss the quiet of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, but I believe that mindfulness and awakening can happen anywhere, at any time. I feel that practice should be engaged, not just on the hilltop. Otherwise I’ve really tried to let go of any expectations. I want to create harmony and to share. I’ve retired from sports and moved away from competitiveness to things like yoga and dance. I’m losing my sense of ambition.

Are you interested in teaching?

I don’t think about teaching too much yet. I still have thundering insights on the cushion then get up and start making judgments about others. In monastic life you’re often put up before others and expected to teach. I still prefer to train myself until I am a more stable practitioner. I know I can’t get up there egoless yet. I still want to be taught.

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Viet Nghiem

Chan Viet Nghiem received the monastic precepts when she was twenty years old, in February 2002. Born in the north of France, she is one of the youngest Western nuns to have ordained with Thich Nhat Hanh. Her given name means “True Transcendence.” We spoke under the temple bell at Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet. She began our conversation by handing me a photo album. The first picture showsa bright-eyed baby; one of the last shows Thay cutting a lock of her thick, dark hair at her ordination ceremony.

What brought you to Plum Village?

My mom and I were living in Paris. She had come to Plum Village in the spring of 1997 and wanted to bring me back with her for a week that summer. We hadn’t been getting along, and she thought that with the help of the sisters at Plum Village we might learn to communicate better. I thought she wanted the nuns to “fix” me. The idea of spending a week with her at Plum Village sounded awful!

At the age of fifteen, I felt I had no preparation to face life and its challenges, at school and in my family. I often felt lost and hurt, and carried away by my emotions. I was discovering the presence of a world within me that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t know how to communicate that to my mother. She wanted to help me, but she didn’t know that I would end up wanting to become a monastic!

How was that first experience?

I didn’t like it at all in the beginning. The distractions of society had been keeping all my fears and feelings of insecurity hidden. It was very overwhelming to face them all in the silence of this place. I wanted to go home but my mom insisted that we stay for the whole week. After three days I started to settle, and discovered a sense of home and safety within me. During Thay’s first talk, he asked an American and a Japanese to practice hugging meditation as an act of reconciliation. It was so powerful. I noticed that the sisters and brothers practiced to make everything sacred in and around them, just by breathing in and out.

Did you take the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

Not that first year; the ceremony scared me. I was shy and didn’t want to stand up and kneel in front of the sisters. But I really liked

my first retreat at Plum Village, so I made my mom promise we would come back for a longer time the following year. And that time I took the Mindfulness Trainings and they really helped me. I was in a teenage crisis, rebellious and reactive against the whole world. Taking the Trainings was a foundation for me to learn to respect myself and others. They were seeds planted in the soil of my being. They gave me guidance, something to help me “swim” in society, They were a light in the dark for me.

What happened?

Something changed in me, slowly but deeply. I went back to my environment with a powerful tool of protection. I could imagine the misery I would put myself through without the Trainings. I had hard times, especially with my friends and my boyfriend, and their influence on me. But I knew I had support from a spiritual community, and that meant a lot.

Thay helps people to “re-become” human. Back at school it felt like the teachers and other students helped me lose my human nature. It was all about good grades—not about acknowledging our feelings, our suffering. Thay teaches through his actions. This really made an impression on me. I could listen to a Dharma talk and have no doubts. I had a capacity to put it into practice, at my own pace. Sometimes I would cry, seeing the difference between the love that Thay embodies and the lack of sensitivity that I met in some of my teachers.

Is this when you decided to become a monastic?

Not really. I was almost seventeen and thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I decided I wanted to live in community. I didn’t want to marry or have kids and I didn’t want to work for money. I felt a deep aspiration for service, but I didn’t want to be a monastic. I wanted everything about monastic life but to be a monastic.

The Christmas after my second retreat my mom and I returned to Plum Village together. Sister Jina became the abbess of Lower Hamlet that winter. As I watched the ceremony, with the rows of monastics in their yellow robes facing each other, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. From then on I started coming to Plum Village to get to know the life of the sisters. I developed and found a deep support from them.

How did your mother feel about your wanting to become a nun?

I hadn’t told her at this point. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friends. But deep down I knew this was what I wanted to do. At eighteen, I graduated from high school and came to spend the summer in Lower Hamlet. I started helping in the teenage program.

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When I came home from the summer retreat I told my mom that I was planning to return to Plum Village to ordain. She thought I was joking. When she realized I was serious, she asked me many questions to test me. Now I realize that I’ve been quite rude to her: I never really told her anything until three months before I left home! I’m her only child and my leaving for monastic life was hard for both of us.

Though my teachers supported me with many opportunities to go to university, I decided not to go. I was afraid I would be caught in some kind of study that would prevent me from discovering who I am. Finally, I left everything behind and decided to come to Plum Village to give it a try.

When did you become an aspirant?

I returned to Plum Village in November 2000 and became an aspirant on my nineteenth birthday. The sisters advised me to wait a year before ordaining as a novice. I shared a room with two other women—both were Vietnamese and old enough to be my mother and grandmother. We didn’t share a common language and I felt a bit lost, at first. The cultural differences were difficult for me to handle, but the practice we shared helped all three of us to get to know and support one other.

What are your days like now that you have ordained?

When there isn’t a retreat, we practice sitting meditation, chanting, and walking meditation every morning. We study basic Buddhism, chanting, and languages. We gather to listen to Dharma talks on Thursdays and Sundays and once a week we have a lazy day.

I’ve become interested in Christianity since I’ve become a nun. I have met Christian monks and nuns and we share our practices. Between us is born a dialogue (which they call communion), in which each one of us expresses the heart of our tradition.

I have so much fun here, in Plum Village. I feel happy, like I’m really blooming, getting to know myself better and at the same time, serving and getting to know others. I like interacting with people, listening to them, helping. For me it’s more important than a formal practice. I received full ordination in November 2004, exactly four years after I arrived in Plum Village to ordain. There is so much for me to learn, I feel I’ll never stop discovering something new!

Every sister has a mentor who is an elder sister in our community, a guide in the practice. My mentor has been a wonderful example of what true patience and listening are, and we share joy and love for life. Our relationship is sometimes sister-to-sister, sometimes mother-to-daughter, and sometimes simply between friends on this path.

Have you stayed in contact with your old friends in Paris?

They think it’s strange that I’ve become a nun. Some of them think I’m crazy. I’m still in touch with a few friends but none of them have come to visit. Most are indifferent to their church and don’t understand what I’m doing here. For them religion is something that changes your thoughts and takes away your freedom. To me, it is the opposite, it is where freedom begins. An inner freedom, the real one!

mb41-Monks6Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

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

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

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

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Logical Proposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Right Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Territories of the Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being on Automatic Pilot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Out of Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Key to the Door of Happiness

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

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

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

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

A New Year’s Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Right View?

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

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

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

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

Tasting the Wonders of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sangha Carries Everything

An Interview with Anh-Huong Nguyen

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Anh-Huong Nguyen has been practicing mindfulness in the tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh for more than thirty years. She has led mindfulness retreats in the United States since 1988, and in 1992 was among the first students to be ordained as meditation teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh. She and her husband, Thu Nguyen, founded the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia, in 1998. The center offers sessions of mindfulness training and practice in a nonsectarian way. MPCF (www.mpcf. org) is located in the beautiful, secluded setting of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, Virginia.

In a phone interview with Natascha Bruckner for the Mindfulness Bell in September 2013, Anh-Huong shared these stirring Dharma teachings in a gentle but passionate voice.

The Mindfulness Bell: You’ve been practicing for many years in the Plum Village tradition. I’m curious to know how you started, especially how you first encountered Thich Nhat Hanh and what effect his teachings had on your life then.

Anh-Huong: I met Thay long ago, when I was still in my mom’s belly. My mom and dad came to Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon to say goodbye to Thay when he left Vietnam the first time, on a fellowship to study comparative religion at Princeton University. It was in the summer of 1961, when I had been in my mommy’s tummy for seven months.

When I was ten, while sitting in our living room, I picked up the book Hoa Sen Trong Bien Lua (Lotus in a Sea of Fire). On the back was a photograph of Thay pouring tea from a teapot. I felt very drawn to the photograph, so I looked at it for ten or fifteen minutes.

MB: What did you receive from the photograph? It sounds as if a transmission was happening.

AH: It’s hard to describe. I felt a sense of warmth and peace inside. I felt happy just looking at the photograph. It reminds me of Thay’s story about looking at the drawing of a Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine when he was a boy.

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MB: When did you meet Thay in person?

AH: Our family escaped Vietnam in a small boat on February 14, 1979. We almost lost our lives several times on the sea because of high waves. We were moved around to several locations and finally settled in a big refugee camp on Pulau Bidong Island in Malaysia. Our family––my parents, my two younger sisters, and my younger brother––flew to Philadelphia on December 13, 1979. We were sponsored by a Catholic church and settled in Audubon, New Jersey.

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About six months after that, I met Thay. I still vividly remember him giving me my first lesson on mindful breathing. He said, “Lie down, my child. Put your hands on your belly, and breathe.” That’s all! Not even, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

I put my hands on my belly and began to feel my breath. My family was Buddhist. We prayed and chanted at home. Occasionally we went to the temple. But this was the first time I received direct teaching from a Buddhist monk. I found my breath. I was aware that something very important had just happened to me. The first lesson on mindful breathing stayed with me and sustained me from that point on.

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We all studied hard in school. After high school, I went to Rutgers University. I had learned English when I was in Vietnam but it was still hard to understand and to speak. So when I began at Rutgers, I took a tape recorder with me and recorded some of the lectures. I listened to them again at home and if there were things I did not understand, I would be the first student waiting to ask the professor for clarification. I was very enthusiastic. I wanted to learn and to do well because in my heart, I wanted to go back to Vietnam and other places in the world to help in any way I could.

But, after the first exam during my first year, I lost interest in studying. I looked at the textbook but nothing would sink in. Only in recent years, I realized that I had been in depression. I missed home so much; I missed my friends. And I knew that the suffering was still going on in my homeland.

In my heart there was an urgency to do something to help. I could not go back to Vietnam or to the refugee camp. I felt helpless and paralyzed. Despair built up inside me. But I still had to study. My parents were working hard to support us so we could focus on our studies. As the eldest, I had to set a good example for my younger sisters and brother. But my heart and my mind were still in Vietnam, which pulled me away from my desire to study. As I say these words, I have so much compassion for this nineteen-year-old girl in me.

A True Rebirth

MB: What got you through that time?

AH: Mindful breathing and writing letters to Thay and Sister Chan Khong. Sister Chan Khong shared with me how she sent packages to poor families in Vietnam, so I started doing that. I sent packages to the families of some of my friends, especially those whose parents were put into reeducation camps because they worked for the old government.

Thay wrote to me and gave me an assignment. He said, “Write down all your conditions for happiness, all the things that you still have.” I started writing, and to my surprise, I ran out of paper. I was learning not to be so caught up in what I couldn’t do for the people in Vietnam and in the refugee camp. I cried and cried. Tears of awakening. Even before I finished the assignment, transformation already happened inside of me. I felt more present, peaceful, and happy. In fact, that assignment is not to be finished.

So I continued going to school and sending letters and packages to poor families in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong taught me to use different names when sending the packages, so the communists wouldn’t question why one person was sending so many packages to so many families. I would use the family name as the sender, as if I were a member of that family.

In my letters, I tried to water the good seeds in them and encourage and comfort them. I shared about my life in the U.S., both the challenges and the beauty of what I encountered. Sometimes I wrote in the voice of a woman who was twenty years older than me, sometimes in the voice of a younger sister or brother. This work and mindfulness practice made it possible for me to have the balance I needed in order to continue my studies.

Sometimes when a big wave of despair suddenly came upon me, I could not go to class. It happened less and less as time went on. But when it did, I would choose to miss the lecture and walk through the campus. I did not know that I was doing walking meditation, but I was breathing and walking. I felt more relaxed, solid, and calm walking among the trees and flowers on the campus grounds. Then I would go to the next class.

The teaching on mindful breathing that was transmitted to me nourished and sustained me each day. I was told that Thay and Sister Chan Khong fasted one or two evenings a week because they wanted to remember the hungry children in Vietnam. I also decided to skip one meal each week. Small things like that helped me stay connected with those who were less fortunate and keep my heart warm.

We had survived the perilous trip by boat. It was a miracle that our family of six could make it to the States, to this “land of freedom,” in my dad’s words. My parents said that they would sacrifice everything in order to free their children from the communist regime. But the transmission I received from Thay and Sister Chan Khong was the most precious gift of all. It opened my eyes and my heart. I was reborn.

I was happy and grateful to be reborn. My deepest wish is to share this happiness with others. What happened to me when I was at Rutgers was a true rebirth. And since then, I have been born again and again. Each day, I continue to receive transmission from Thay and Sister Chan Khong, and I continue to pass it on to family and friends.

Sharing with Others

MB: I’m curious how you have shared that with others. Have you helped people to experience that kind of rebirth?

AH: My desire to share this practice springs from a deep well of gratitude. I share through Sangha building; the Sangha is the place through which I can share all of my life experiences.

My story from Rutgers is about maintaining a balance between being present with the pain arising in you, and at the same time embracing the joy of being alive. When our deepest desire is to understand the suffering that is there, mindfulness practice is not hard work. Each breath or each step taken in mindfulness is a pure delight. It is in the places where there is suffering that the practice of mindfulness becomes clear and alive––whether it is the practice of cultivating joy or transforming suffering. True healing and transformation cannot happen without insights. When we practice together as a Sangha, the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration is steady and strong, which becomes fertile soil for the ripening of seeds of insights.

The Sangha helps us to be present with our pain and to nourish joy and happiness in a way that no one individual can. We may learn how to breathe, walk, release tension in our bodies and minds, how to cultivate joy, and how to be there for a painful feeling. But sometimes our mindfulness is not strong enough to hold the pain that arises in us. We need to lay this pain inside the Sangha’s cradle, so that it can be held by the collective mindfulness and concentration.

When I was in New Jersey, I did not have a local Sangha to practice with. Although Thay and Sister Chan Khong were in Plum Village, I felt their presence in me. I was nourished and sustained each day by the teachings that they had transmitted to me. The trees and the birds and my friends at school were also part of my Sangha.

We need a Sangha in order to practice. Sangha is our refuge. Our pain is not only individual pain, but also ancestral pain, collective pain. Without a Sangha, it’s very difficult to embrace and transform this pain alone. And when we talk about building Sangha, we talk about building brotherhood and sisterhood.

MB: What does building brotherhood and sisterhood mean to you?

AH: Brotherhood and sisterhood are the substance of a true Sangha. When we can listen deeply to the stories of our Sangha brothers and sisters, we may be able to hear their ancestors and ourselves at the same time. Their stories are never theirs alone. The joy and pain that we share in the Sangha are held by the entire Sangha. When the discrimination between my pain and others’ pain is not there, the false separation between me and others disappears. Struggles that are shared in the Sangha circle can help us touch the pain that lies deep within, and our hearts may feel tender for the first time.

When I take care of a brother or sister in the Sangha, I take care of myself. When my Dharma sister or brother is in pain, I want to be there for the pain. It’s not my obligation as a Dharma teacher or a senior member of the Sangha. Building brotherhood and sisterhood, taking care of the Sangha, is taking care of myself. It’s taking care of my mother, my sister, my family. It’s natural. I see myself as a small segment of a long bamboo, and the ancestral teachers’ wisdom and compassion flow through the entire bamboo. The energy that runs through me and allows me to serve the Sangha is not really mine. My practice is to keep my segment hollow so that water from the source can pass through easily.

MB: To follow up on what you shared before––are you still sending packages to Vietnam, or are you currently engaged in supporting people there?

AH: I stopped sending packages to Vietnam after I was allowed to visit when the Vietnamese government loosened their travel policy. I visited the orphanages and the poor families. Now instead of sending packages, I send money. With the help of a number of friends, we started a non-profit organization, Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam. People can send money to us, and twice a year we send it on to Vietnam to support several projects. You can learn more about the work we’re doing at www.crpcv.org. This work sustains me and sustains our Sangha. One member of our Sangha often brings vegetables from her garden to share, and the dana she receives goes to help the poor children in Vietnam.

MB: What helps you to sustain a connection with Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and the teachings?

AH: What sustains my connection with Thay and Sister Chan Khong as well as the Buddha and the Dharma is Sangha building. We are like trees that grow in the Sangha soil. Without the Sangha, we cannot grow beautifully and strongly. For me, the Sangha is everything. When I sit with my Dharma brothers and sisters, sharing stories, I feel all of our spiritual and blood ancestors are present with us. Whenever I take a walk or give a talk, Thay and my Sangha and all of my ancestral teachers are always with me.

MB: So there’s no reason to feel alone.

AH: I’ve never felt alone. Even in the most challenging times in our family and in the Sangha, I deeply trust that everything will be all right. We just need to allow ourselves to be carried in the stream of our ancestral teachers. I do not have to make any decisions or solve any problems alone. Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and all of our ancestors are doing everything with us. The Sangha is like a float. When we left Vietnam, my dad hung tires around our small boat. If he hadn’t done that, the boat would have sunk immediately as soon as we encountered high waves. For me, the Sangha is like those tires; it keeps us afloat.

The Sangha is a body. Some of us happen to be the head, some happen to be the belly, and some to be the feet. We are different parts of that body. A Dharma teacher is often perceived as Sangha leader, which can be a misperception. A Dharma teacher may belong to the head part of the Sangha body, but he or she does not have to be the leader. I or we do take care of the Sangha. But believing in the idea that there is an “I” or “we” who take care of the Sangha may take away the joy, freedom, and happiness of Sangha building. There’s taking care of the Sangha, but there’s no one who’s taking care of the Sangha.

MB: If someone has that perception of “I am taking care,” or “we are taking care of the Sangha,” how do you suggest that people work with that perception to open their minds?

AH: We are so conditioned to living, practicing, and helping in that way. When we walk in the mist, our shirt gradually gets wet. If there is one person in the Sangha who serves the Sangha without thinking that “I am taking care of the Sangha,” that spirit will penetrate into the entire Sangha. Building Sangha in the light of interbeing can bring us endless joy and freedom. People often say, “Oh, you’re an OI member, you have these responsibilities. You have to build Sangha. You have to do this and that.” Or, “As a Dharma teacher, you take on a lot more responsibility.” But I don’t feel that way because I never thought of myself as a Dharma teacher. [Laughs.]

Receiving Lamp Transmission from Thay or entering the core community of the Order of Interbeing can only help us feel more free and happy, because we are now entering the stream of our ancestral teachers. We should not let the “brown jacket” or the title “Dharma teacher” get in the way! If you’re happy, you are already a true Sangha builder. Responsibility is a wholesome trait, but when it is mixed with the notion, “I have to carry it,” then it becomes a burden, a source of unhappiness. We don’t have to carry anything. The Sangha carries everything.

Embracing Our Pain

The message I’d like to repeat is: Don’t run away from the pain, sadness, or depression in you. Sometimes there’s a voice inside saying that if you go back to your pain, you will die. This voice may tell you not to trust the Sangha, and that this practice can only take you thus far. I name this destructive energy “ill will,” which is present in each of us. It prevents us from taking deep root into the Sangha soil. It threatens and prevents us from opening our hearts to our Sangha. It instills us with fear and doubts. We don’t need to argue with or listen to this voice. You know the mantra I’ve been sharing with my friends in the Sangha? If you hear this voice, take a few deep breaths and practice this mantra: “Okay. I will die. I accept dying. If I die in the Sangha’s arms, that’s the best place to die. If I die in the Buddha’s arms, what could be a better place to die?”

mb65-TheSangha7Regardless of what happens, we are committed to showing up at our Sangha. I have a Dharma brother who carries deep suffering and old traumas. In the past, he didn’t come to Sangha when emotions arose because he wasn’t able to drive. Now, when that happens, he can take a taxi to Sangha. He shows up. Sometimes when old trauma returns, we suddenly do not feel safe coming to the Sangha. I suggest to him pinning a note on his shirt, saying, “Dear Sangha, I need your support so that I may rest in the Sangha today,” when he comes and lies down in the Sangha.

At the end of the day, when we are tired, we go home and rest. We can lie in bed, relax, and drop all our self-images. I wish that my brothers and sisters can find that same rest, that same comfort in their Sangha. Sangha has to be a place where people can feel safe so that they can close their eyes, relax, and enjoy their breathing. When Sangha becomes a safe place, we’re not just talking about being cells in the Sangha body, we’re living it. Brotherhood and sisterhood come alive when we go through difficult as well as happy moments together. Sangha practice weaves threads of individual practitioners into a Sangha blanket, keeping everyone warm and comfortable.

That’s why Thu quit his job as a software developer and I quit my job as a biochemistry researcher, so that we could devote our lives to Sangha building. During the first year of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, there were many days that the dana basket was empty. We lived on our savings. Our son Bao-Tich, who is now twenty, was still in kindergarten at the time. We wondered how the future of the MPCF would unfold. Many moments, we looked at each other and smiled, then looked up at Thay’s calligraphy on our altar: An Tru Trong Hien Tai (which means “Dwelling happily in the present moment”). We left it all in the hands of our ancestors and of the Sangha. We continued to share our lives and practice with friends near and far. We are happy.

Engaged Buddhism

MB: How do you define “engaged Buddhism,” and how do you practice it?

AH: Engaged Buddhism begins with being there for our pain. Not only our individual pain, but also our collective pain. We learn safe and gentle ways to pick up that baby of pain, to hold and soothe that baby with mindfulness. When our son was born, even though my mom had taught me how to hold him, and I had seen mothers holding their babies, I had to feel my way through. You have to hold the baby in your arms to bring alive that experience, not just intellectual understanding. With mindfulness and concentration, both mother and baby will be safe, comfortable, and happy.

For me, engaged Buddhism is like water. Water has no shape. When we put water in a square container, it takes on a square shape; in a round one, it has a round shape. The mindfulness practice center comes out of Thay’s brilliant idea to share the practice of mindfulness in a nonsectarian way. The Dharma takes no form, or any form. We would like to make the capital “B” of Buddhism into a small “b.” We do not need to have Buddha statues or burn incense. We do not need to bow to each other or use Buddhist terms. We learn to be present to the situation at hand and share the Dharma in a way that can help people feel safe, so that they can release tensions from their bodies and minds.

This explains why a Day of Mindfulness at MPCF begins with total body relaxation. People are so stressed. Guided meditation that is offered in the lying down position helps people to stop and connect with their bodies easily, especially for those who are new to mindfulness practice. Their minds become quiet and their hearts open. When we can be truly present, a new Dharma door will be open for that particular situation. So the format at MPCF comes from the needs of those who attend, not from us who facilitate.

Thay’s dream is to see a mindfulness practice center in every town and city. I have an image of mushrooms––centers sprouting up everywhere. Many Sangha brothers and sisters have already brought mindfulness into schools, prisons, and other places, without Buddhist form.

Once we are able to cradle the pain in our own hearts, understanding and compassion will guide us in every step along the path.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Natascha Bruckner

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Dharma Talk: Life is a Wonder!

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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A Beautiful Continuation

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

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

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

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

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

A Deep Grievous Longing

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

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

Someone looking at you may recognize all the conditions of happiness that he does not have. That person may wonder why with plenty of conditions for happiness like that you do not enjoy your life and you are looking for something else. So the practice is first of all to say that happiness can be found in many forms.

Looking deeply into the human person we see that the human person wants to continue long into the future. We want to have children and grandchildren; we want to last a very long time. That is also the nature of animals and vegetables. Every living thing wants to be continued long into the future, not just human beings.

Someone like myself, a monk, also has the desire to last into the future, to be continued. That is very normal — every human being wants to be continued, and to be continued beautifully.

We know that there are those who have children but who are not happy with their children. They say if they had not given birth to these children they would be happier. You have to take into account all these things.

I myself do not have blood children but I have a lot of spiritual children and they make me very happy. They carry me into the future and I am very satisfied! I do not need to have a blood child.

Transmission can be done in many ways. You want to transmit the best thing you have into the future. You can transmit yourself genetically or spiritually. When you look into my disciples and friends and spiritual children you can see me.

We are not blood children of the Buddha but we feel that we are real children of the Buddha because we have inherited a lot from the Buddha. He has transmitted himself to us not genetically but spiritually. If you take into account these different modes of transmission you will see that we need not suffer because we cannot transmit ourselves genetically into the future.

But who knows?! Enjoy the conditions of happiness you actually have and one day you may enjoy that happiness also. But I think that if you enjoy this you may be completely satisfied. Every door is open. Good luck!

Treating Depression

Sr. Tung Nghiem speaks: Dear Thay, we had a few friends who wrote to Thay after Thay spoke about depression and how nothing can survive without food. They wrote either from their own experience or the experience of a loved one or a client if they wrote as a psychotherapist. They shared their belief that there’s also a physiological aspect causing depression and some people truly need to take medication. The friends who wrote were concerned that Thay’s teaching could be misunderstood by the people who still need to have medicine and who may stop taking their medicine if they think they only need to stop consuming those things that are harmful to their mind and that’s enough. So they ask Thay to clarify.

In the teaching of the Buddha the biological and the mental inter-are. They manifest based on one another. Our emotions and feelings are very connected to the chemicals in our bodies. Our emotions and feelings can produce chemicals that are toxic or that inhibit the production of certain chemicals like neurotransmitters, and create an imbalance in your body. The mental can create the biological and the biological can have an effect on the mental. We don’t reduce the importance of one side.

All of us have the seed of depression, all of us. All of us have the seed of mental illness. We have received these genes from our parents and our ancestors, and we know from science that genes don’t turn on by themselves. They are turned on by our way of thinking, our feelings, our perceptions, and our environment. It is the environment that helps turn on the negative and positive genes. The genes are equivalent to the bijas, the seeds that we talk about in the teachings of the Buddha.

Neuroscientists ask the questions: Is it true that the brain produces the mind? How could the activities of neurons bring about the subjective mind? But the brain and the mind inter-are. This is because that is; this is not because that is not. It’s not that the body produces the mind or the mind produces the body, but mind and body are two aspects of the same thing. The mind always relies on the body to manifest. It’s like a coin — there is the head and the tail. Without the tail the head cannot exist and vice versa.

The seed of depression that now manifests may have been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors. There may have been generations when that seed did not manifest. But now, because of the new environment, that seed has a chance to manifest. That is why we have to take into account the element of environment.

The environment is an object of consumption because elements of the environment touch and turn on the genes in us. That is why the teaching of the Buddha on food is very important. We consume not only edible food but also what we see, hear, feel, and touch; sensory impression is the second kind of food. The third kind of food is intention, our volition, the deep desire in us. The fourth kind of nutriment is consciousness; we consume consciousness. If we live with a number of people around us, we consume their collective way of thinking and perceiving. For instance we may see something as not beautiful but because everybody around us sees it as beautiful, slowly we also come to see it as beautiful. We are influenced by the collective thinking around us and that is also consumption. Our depression has to do with all these sources of nutriments.

Medication can help but don’t rely on medication alone. You have to change your way of life and your environment, and one day you’ll be able to stop taking medication. If you don’t change your way of life and you continue to use the medication, at a later time it will not work because your body gets used to it.

Scientists know full well that it is our environment and our attention that turn on the seeds in us. There is a practice called yoniso manaskara, appropriate attention, where we focus our attention only on things that turn on the good seeds in us. For example, when we hear the sound of the bell, if we are a practitioner we naturally stop thinking and go back to our breathing and enjoy the present moment. The sound of the bell helps with appropriate attention, to turn on the good seeds.

We should create an environment where the good seeds and genes in us have many chances to turn on. If you are in a bad environment you know that even if you are taking medication it will not be a long-term solution. So go on and take the medication that you need but you should do something more. Change your way of life. Look at the source of nutriments you are using to feed yourself. Look at your environment to see if it is turning on the negative things in you. And if possible, just change your environment — even if you need to live in a smaller house, drive a smaller car, have a meager salary. If you can move to a better environment do not hesitate to do so because your health depends on it.

Why Are We Here?

A lay woman asks: What is the purpose of life?

That is philosophy! [laughter]

No, but there must be a reason! Why are we here?

This is a chance to discover the mystery of life. Very exciting! [laughter] You have something to discover, something very deep, something very wonderful. That practice of looking deeply can satisfy your curiosity, and that is one reason to be alive — to discover yourself, to discover the cosmos. This is a joy.

You might like to focus your question on “how” and not be caught always in the “why”. Life is a wonder! We are here to experience the wonder of life. If you have enough mindfulness and concentration, you can have a breakthrough and get deep into the reality of the wonder.

Life is a wonderful manifestation. Not only is the rose wonderful, not only are the clouds and the sky wonderful, but the mud and the suffering are also wonderful. So enjoy touching life; discover the mystery of life. And don’t spend your time asking metaphysical questions! [laughter]

Defusing the Bombs in the Heart

A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, before I came to Vietnam I had the privilege to spend several weeks in Laos where I was able to meet with many people who had been affected by the war. As I stood in fields that still had a lot of unexploded ammunition, sometimes forty or fifty bombs in a small field, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and anger. Speaking to people who continue to be affected, whether it’s friends or family who are killed by the unexploded ammunition, or a poor farmer who had his arm and his leg blown off at a young age, plunging his family into further poverty, I felt very sad. This young farmer said to me that this experience was his luck. I find it hard to accept that such experiences can be luck! Is this karma? And is this a time when we can be righteously angry? What is the mindful way to deal with these intense emotions?

Many social workers we trained in the School of Youth for Social Service died because of bombs, guns, and assassination. Some lost one foot, one arm. A young lady got more than 300 shards of metal in her body, from a type of bomb called anti-personnel bomb dropped by the American bombers. The doctors helped to extract many pieces of metal but there are still hundreds of them in her body. When she was in Japan for treatment she could not use an electric blanket because of these pieces of metal in her body. And they are my own students, my disciples.

I know that there are many unexploded land mines and bombs in Vietnam and in Laos, that continue to kill people. We need to get the attention of people in the world and ask them to help remove these engines of death. There are dedicated professionals who are helping. What is essential is to learn how to do it with compassion because that amount of violence is part of our legacy, our heritage. We should make the strong aspiration not to repeat that kind of action from now on.

But the bombs are not only embedded in the land, they are in the hearts of many people today. If you look around you see that many people, even young people, are ready to die and are ready to punish others.

How to defuse the bomb in the heart of man is very important work also, how to remove the hate in the hearts of so many people. So far the war on terrorism has not diminished the number of terrorists. In fact it has increased the number of terrorists, and each of them has a bomb inside his or her heart. Terrorists want to die for a cause, they want to punish others. That is why cultivating compassion and helping these people to remove their hatred and anger is also very important work. That is also to defuse the bombs.

You can see that the situation in the Middle East is very difficult. Not only are there bombs that explode on the land but there are bombs in the hearts of very many people. Compassion is the only answer.

As we help to defuse the bombs, whether in the land or in the heart, we should keep our compassion alive. I admire those of us who continue to help removing those death engines from the soil, but I also urge my friends to practice in order to defuse the bombs in the hearts of many people around us. We pray to the Buddha, to Jesus Christ and all our spiritual ancestors to support us in this compassionate action. We should think of our children and their children, and we should clean the Earth and our hearts, so that our children will have a better place to live.

Thank you for reflecting on this.

An Inoculation of Suffering

A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha: Yesterday you taught us that we should never give the negative seeds a chance. I agree with just 90% of that. [laughter] Ten percent of that is this question: there are young people who grow up in a very loving and supportive environment but when they go to big cities or other countries to study or to work, they will face some really negative pressure and the challenge is so big that they cannot deal with it. My suggestion is that we should vaccinate their mind and we should give them a bit of challenge when they are still young, so that their immune system is ready. What do you think of this? [laughter]

Thay says sometimes that each of us needs a certain dose of suffering. Remember? Suffering can instruct us a lot and help us cultivate compassion and understanding. So the art is to give each person an appropriate dose of suffering. [laughter] With too much suffering people will be overwhelmed and their heart will be transformed into stone. That is why parents and teachers have to handle this with care and intelligence.

In fact we cannot grow without experiencing suffering. When we say we should not give the negative seeds a chance we are referring to the teaching of Right Diligence. This means first of all that when positive seeds are present we should keep them alive as long as possible. One example of a positive seed is compassion. We should keep the seed of compassion alive in our hearts and our minds. One way to keep this seed alive is to be aware of the suffering. The practice of Right Diligence secondly means that we do not give negative seeds like hatred and anger a chance to increase by watering them everyday. If you are experienced in the practice of mindfulness you can complete the practice of Right Diligence by the practice of embracing strong emotions.

From time to time there is a mental formation that refuses to be replaced, like a CD that plays over and over. Even if you have a strong intention to replace it, it is too strong. If you are a skillful practitioner you will not try to change the CD. You will say, “You want to stay? It’s okay!” [laughter] You accept the CD; you accept the feeling, you embrace it tenderly and look deeply into it. That is also the teaching of the Buddha, to recognize the painful emotion, not to fight it but to recognize and embrace it in order to get relief. Look deeply into its nature in order to find all the roots of that feeling or emotion, because understanding is the way of liberation. Mindfulness and concentration lead to insight that is liberating.

Suffering exists in the context of family and school. There should be collaboration between parents and teachers, between parents and children, between teachers and students, to teach them how to handle their suffering. This is very clear in the tradition of Asia. When you come to learn from a teacher, what you have to learn first is how to behave – how to behave with others and with the teacher. You learn ethics first. And then after that you learn to write, to read, to study literature, history, mathematics, and so on. It is possible for us to do that in the context of family and school.

Making a living is important but that is not everything. Parents should show their children that although they are busy making a living for the whole family, they also devote enough time to make sure that harmony and happiness exist in the family. You can bring home a lot of money but that is not enough. You have to be there for your partner, your spouse, your children.

Their happiness depends on your way of being around them. The same must be true with school teachers. Not only do they need to transmit technical knowledge so that students will get a job later on, but we have to transform school into a family, into a Sangha. We should devote enough time to just being together. If there is deep communication between school teachers and children, the atmosphere of school will be pleasant. This helps the learning process to happen easily. So we have to offer retreats to parents and school teachers so they can take better care of their families and their students.

And that is part of Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from Barbara Casey and Sr. Annabel, Chan Duc.

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

Healing from Abuse

Footsteps of Freedom, Love and Peace

by Brian Kimmel

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On the day of his sentencing, my former stepfather said to me in front of the judge, my family and his, “I never did anything to hurt you, and I’m sorry you felt I did. I loved you like a son.”

Although it may have seemed empathetic to my personal feelings of hurt and betrayal, it was not an apology and he had not admitted he had sexually abused me. The judge sentenced him that day for seventeen years on two counts of child rape in the first degree. I was twelve years old; his sentence “in the first degree” meant that I was under the age of ten when the acts occurred, and that he did have the intent to harm. Still, I was convinced he loved me. I was convinced that something in him knew that he loved me.

Despite my insights into love, it took me many years to heal and to find freedom from the effects of the abuse. I was introduced to mindfulness practice when I was sixteen years old. I remember the first time I tried sitting meditation, under an old cherry tree in my dad’s front yard. There was a passage in Thay’s book, Being Peace, that read something like: “If you don’t have a Sangha to practice with, practice with a rock, a flower, or a tree.” And that’s what I did. I went outside, bowed to the tree, and sat on the grass as if it were a cushion. I closed my eyes, and for an instant felt at peace.

That one time of feeling at peace was enough to motivate me to continue to practice. Even though I continued to suffer with the effects of the abuse, experiencing anger, depression, anxiety, thoughts of committing suicide, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the more I practiced, the more confident I became in the refuge the practice offered me.

I tried so many different methods to deal with my anger and other challenging emotions. I tried beating pillows, screaming, running, and throwing fits. Each time I acted out my feelings in those ways I felt angrier and more out of control. So I began Thay’s method of sitting and walking with my anger, and I made the practice my own.

When I’d feel angry I’d stop, breathe, and sense the feeling in the center of my body, or wherever the feeling expressed itself. I experienced the emotion deeply, feeling it on many levels through my senses, and through a deeper, intuitive awareness. I’d sit with my feeling as if to hold it in my arms like a crying babe or I’d walk with the feeling as if walking quietly and peacefully with a good friend. I knew the feeling was hurting, and as long as it was hurting a part of me would hurt. Every time I felt anger or whatever the feeling was, if I acted it out through bodily actions, through my words and through my thoughts, I made that feeling grow, I made my suffering grow.

Sometimes anger, like people, says things, does things, or thinks things it doesn’t really mean. Sometimes anger, like people, does things, says things, or thinks things from its own hurt. I know my anger was hurting and as I became aware of how much my anger was hurting, based on how much I was hurting, I started to listen, to really listen.

“Anger, my little one, what are you trying to say? How can I help you suffer less, to ease your pain? How can I help you to be free?”

Anger became a sort of meditation; I allowed anger to be there, without the expectation of getting rid of it. Every time I would try to get rid of anger, I fed it more. If it died down for a moment, in another moment or at a different time it would come back even stronger. Whether I was sitting or walking I made sure to keep my anger close to me. With my anger close to me I was better able to take care of it, to manage it and to make sure it wasn’t doing me or others harm. I learned to walk with my anger for hours, very slowly. I gave myself the permission to spend time unraveling, and getting to know this thing called anger and other challenging emotions or habits of mind. Anything I felt was a threat to my well-being I walked with, sat with, and I encouraged myself to listen and to take care of it with mindfulness, with loving-kindness and compassion.

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Sometimes I even walked with my former stepfather in my heart. I felt how it must have been to have caused so much pain in another, and to inherit that pain in his body and mind. “How might he be experiencing the feeling of anger in him?” I wondered. I walked with my former stepfather like walking with a friend, slowly allowing his world to unravel before me, in our footsteps of freedom. We walked in freedom together. He and I were not trapped in the delusion of self and other or in the identity of abuser and abused. We walked together through my actions of mindfulness, concentration, and love. Yes, love.

For many in my family and perhaps in society too, my former stepfather may be a challenging person to love. But he is composed of everything we are all composed of. He has air in him, fire in him; he has beauty and light and love; he has the seed of anger, of hurt and betrayal; he has kindness and compassion, forgiveness and joy; he has all the capacity one needs to live in freedom. For me, my former stepfather was easy to love, because I knew how much he needed love. To have caused another person to suffer causes so much suffering in him. And he may be unaware, unable to forgive all the people who may have “unintentionally” hurt him.

So much of our world depends upon the way in which we view it. If we change our views, the miracle of life tells us that everyone can love, and everyone has love somewhere inside of them. With love the whole world will experience freedom in togetherness and peace.

mb52-Healing3Brian Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, lived for five years in Las Vegas where he helped found the Tuesday Night Mindfulness Group. He will be a full-time student this fall at Naropa University in Colorado.

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Diamond Life

Losing my Brother in a New York State of Mind

By Nate Metzker

mb53-Diamond1My girlfriend, Cameron, and I moved to New York City in 2005 with great expectations for her career as an educator and my career as a musician and novelist. My girlfriend’s career soon exceeded expectations. I, on the other hand, did not fare as well. By the end of six months, I’d run out of savings and found it difficult to locate a job that gave me time for my art.

Optimism carried me for a while, but eventually, my optimism began to wear off: gigs were hard to come by, selling music was next to impossible, and depression set in. I was attending Sangha meetings in the city, which I enjoyed, but I was not able to let go of my attachments to my version of success.

I had been at Deer Park Monastery the day it opened, and had spent a lot of time there—sometimes months without leaving—and now I returned to the monastery, thinking I could get my head together. And I did. And it was wonderful. But when I returned to the city, I began a slow descent back into depression. I started to think I needed to get back to the monastery again, but then realized: No, Nate, you need to deepen your practice where you live. I vowed that I would go back to Deer Park only when I had been able to become peaceful and happy in New York City.

Transforming New York City

My plan of action was simple. Scheduled meditation was difficult for me, so I had to recognize that, and not be too hard on myself. I was spending a lot of time en route to different parts of the city to participate in open mics, jam with other musicians, explore, and commute to temp jobs. So, the sidewalks had to become my mountain paths, and the subway had to become my hermitage.

The reason people walk so fast in New York is not because the entire city is composed of Type A go-getters. It’s because one often has to walk long city blocks, over long bridges, or to and from subway stops. If you walk slowly here, it takes forever to get anywhere. I decided on a pace that would get me where I needed to go, but allow me to relax at the same time—something along the lines of driving on the highway at sixty or sixty-five miles per hour rather than seventy; just enough of an adjustment to take the edge off. At that pace, I could really enjoy my steps and take each one with all my love and compassion.

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Breathing in, love and compassion flow from the soles of my feet.

Breathing out, I am happy.

Love and compassion.

Happy.

This meditation allowed me to smile to passersby and enjoy the city for the extraordinary place that it is. It inspired me to write positive music that deepened my practice, instead of turning to laments and despair.

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Time on the subway became a time of deep practice for me as well. Once I found a job, I had to commute forty to fifty minutes each way, and wanted to make sure that I was alive during that time. I always had a book about the practice with me, and I often carried my Five Mindfulness Trainings certificate too. On the subway, I would enjoy my reading for a while, then stop, breathe, and look at the people around me. It was easy to see what a wonderful, extraordinary situation I was in: people from all nations, cultures, and religions packed into a small space together. With this new perspective, I was constantly amazed at how courteous people were—giving seats to the elderly, helping people onto trains, making space for others. There are many places in the world where this doesn’t happen.

Many times I’ve heard Thich Nhat Hanh say, “At the airport, when they search you before boarding a plane, they are not looking for your Buddha nature—they are looking for your terrorist nature. We have to start to recognize our Buddha nature.” It was important for me to notice manifestations of Buddha nature in the city.

Sometimes I sat, closed my eyes, and meditated on my breath. I got in over an hour of sitting meditation every day, and just as much walking meditation (I almost always took the stairs at the workplace). The only other place in which I had that much time to practice was at the monastery.

In the spring of 2008, my worldly situation hadn’t changed a lot, yet I was much happier. Practicing mindfulness had allowed me to transform New York City in my mind, so I was now able to walk in a city that was a beautiful practice center. At that time, I was studying Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. Reading the text helped me achieve a lot of insight into the nature of interbeing, and the way we erroneously define our world. In the Diamond Sutra, there are ideas akin to: A tree is not a tree; that is why we call it a tree. After some meditation, I took a tree is not a tree to mean that a tree is the whole cosmos, composed of awakened nature. We call it a tree because we are under the illusion that it has a separate self. But like everything else, a tree is of the nature to be both birthless and deathless. With the teachings of the Diamond Sutra in my heart, looking at the faces in the subway car became even more wonderful because I felt more connected to my community.

My Brother’s Presence

On May 28, I got a phone call in the middle of the night with the news that my brother, Jason, had died. He was thirty-seven years old. In a hotel in Elko, Nevada, where he worked as a dentist, he had run up three flights of stairs to avoid being on a full elevator. He then bought a drink from a vending machine, turned from the machine, took a few steps, fell forward with his arms hugging his chest, and died. We later found out that he had died from an overdose of Demerol.

My family went through a complex process of mourning. And while Jason was the sibling to whom I felt closest, I am sure that my suffering was reduced because I entered it meditating on interbeing and our birthless and deathless nature. When I saw my other siblings and cried, I wasn’t always crying because Jason wasn’t there with us. Sometimes I cried because I was so happy to be in the presence of my family. Now, many months later, much of my family is still sometimes crippled with despair and sadness. But, because of my practice, I feel very in touch with my brother and feel his presence in all things when I am mindful. In fact— and I know this may sound strange—his death feels to me like he made a decision to move forward with his life.

Everything’s in Everything

I returned to Deer Park in the second half of December, 2008. I’d achieved my goal of deepening my practice in New York City and now felt I had to be in a quiet place to make sure I wasn’t in a state of denial about my brother’s death.

During my retreat at Deer Park, we were put into groups for Dharma discussion. I told the group about my experience with the Diamond Sutra and my brother. There was another man in the group—I’ll call him “H”—who had also lost his brother the year before, and still appeared to be in a lot of pain. The next day, as the Sangha walked among the sage and boulders of the surrounding mountains, I thought to myself, Jason is not Jason. That’s why we call him Jason. “H” was walking ahead of me, and he immediately stopped and turned around. He smiled and gave me a great big hug that pushed my hat askew and stopped the long line behind us.

We walked to an open space where we all sat on boulders and ate our lunch. I smiled, remembering a conversation I once had with Brother Phap Dung, the abbot of Deer Park, about being at the monastery. “Here,” he said, “when you need a brother or sister, a brother or sister is there for you. When you need a mom, a mom tends to appear.”

A simple, childlike painting that Cameron made hangs in our bedroom in New York. It’s a large group of people, all colors and sizes, each with a heart in their chest, sitting under a yellow sun and torn-paper sky. If you look closely, you can see that the little clouds are words torn from a dictionary: we…all…have…a…beating…heart…in…our…chest. On Christmas Eve, I played a song to the Sangha gathered in the meditation hall at Deer Park. I looked at all the faces there—the children, parents, brothers, sisters, monks, and nuns—and told them how much they reminded me of the painting. The song was called Everything’s in Everything, inspired by Cameron’s painting, The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion, and the reality of interbeing.

We all have a beating heart in our chest

There is nothing separating East and West

We are breathing in and out the same sky

We are looking at each other with new eyes Everything’s in Everything

Everyone’s in Everything

Everything’s in Everyone

Everyone’s in Everyone

I love all the people passing by me

I love all the buildings in the sky of the city

I know all the forests are my lungs breathing

I know all the oceans are my blood streaming

Peace is resting in the palm of our hands

We can see it in a tiny grain of sand

Breathing in and out we smile to the moment

Everything’s in everything and always flowing

mb53-Diamond4Nate Metzker, Compassionate Sound of the Heart, is a novelist and musician who lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the McCarton School for Children with Autism. On his website, www.natemetzker.com, is an mp3 of the song mentioned in this story.

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Touching the Blue Sky

The Story of Thay Phap An

By Thay Phap An

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Before I became a monk, I suffered from depression but did not know it. This created a deep need within me to look for something, although I did not know exactly what I was looking for. All I knew was that I wanted to search for some direction, some path. This longing began early in my childhood and it became dominant when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

I looked for meditation books and pursued different types of practice, beginning in the ninth grade, and continuing after I escaped from Vietnam to live in a refugee camp and then in America. I was a very good student, but there was this sense of sadness deep within me. Often it lasted for days, and it paralyzed me, so that I could not feel the joy of life. However everything seemed very normal to me. Sometimes we suffer and we are not aware of our suffering, so we perceive it as something normal.

“Who Am I?”

When I graduated from college at age twenty-three, I felt a strong wish to become a monk. But my parents did not want this; they encouraged me to continue my studies. So I did. After graduate school, I began to work as a mathematical researcher for an oil company. At that time, I took up the practice of koans very seriously. A koan is a set of practices in which you raise your question and allow it to go deep into your consciousness. You do not look for an answer; any answer that comes to you may not be valid, because it comes from your intellect. It may be merely a set of perceived ideas, a projection. Later on, when the conditions are sufficient, your consciousness will offer its answer to you.

I practiced the koan, “Who am I?” Whenever I moved my hand, I asked, “Who is moving my hand?” Whenever I walked, I asked, “Who is walking?” Whenever I was about to go to sleep, I would ask, “Who is sleeping?” I continued to ask the question, “Who am I?” This question began to work very deeply in me and started to interfere with my work. When I asked the question, “Who is thinking?” my thinking disappeared. This created a problem. I had to think in order to solve problems for people and earn a living.

I fell into a very deep spiritual crisis. I did not know what the best path for my life was, but I knew that I wished to become a monk. However, I loved my family very much, and wanted to respect their wishes, so I could not yet take that step. I stopped working for the oil company and took a post-doctorate position in order have more time to practice meditation and look deeply into what direction I wanted to take for my life.

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I shared with my post-doc advisor my long-time wish to become a monk. He advised me, “For once in your life, you have to listen to your heart. Otherwise you will regret it.” He kindly offered me the option to try out being a monk, and if I didn’t like it I could return to the university and he would still have a job for me. Even now, when I talk about him, I feel very moved and grateful to him for giving me this advice. I collected all my belongings and sent them back home. On March 26, 1992, I left the U.S. to become a monk. I didn’t realize at that time what a shock and source of suffering this was for my family.

When I came to Plum Village, I practiced but did not have much joy. I listened to Thay’s teaching about the present moment, about cultivating joy and happiness, but a deep sense of sadness still hung over me. I tried my best to live in the present moment, in the here and now, and to cultivate happiness. But I could not touch the reality of happiness.

After practicing for three years, I began to lead retreats around the world. I invited people to practice being happy in the present moment. But I was aware that a block of sadness in the back of my mind prevented me from being truly happy. One time, I went to Russia to lead a retreat. A young woman served as my assistant. A few years later, she traveled to Plum Village before she returned home to Vietnam. She became a very close friend who shared openly with me. I remember one time she shared with me, “I have to be very honest with you. You gave a very good Dharma talk about happiness and being in the present moment. But it really puzzles me that you do not look very happy. You look sad all the time.” She meant to ask whether my practice was effective. I offered the teaching to cultivate happiness and live in the present moment, but I still had this block of sadness within me. That was six or seven years after I became a monk.

I had a lot of questions about everything in life. Did our lives have any meaning? Was there something called reality out there that I had to touch? Whenever I had an opportunity, I would ask Thay a question. Whenever there was a question and answer session, I would ask a question right away.

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Thay tried to help me to get in touch with the beauty of life around me. When I was attending Thay, he would say, “Look! Phap An! Don’t you see the beautiful blue sky?” He would pour tea for me when I was about to ask another question, and invite me to enjoy a cup of tea. During our walking meditation together, he would stop, point out a flower and teach me, “Look! Phap An! The flower is very beautiful.” Or he would point to a cloud and ask, “Don’t you see the cloud is beautiful?” He had a lot of compassion. He didn’t give me a jumble of thoughts or theories. He pointed me directly to the source of happiness and joy, because he wanted me to taste it for myself.

Touching Images from the Past

I struggled very much with my depression. There were moments during sitting meditation when I would invite my sadness to come up and embrace it. Looking at the sunshine through the window, tears would fall from my eyes. Sadness simply overwhelmed me. When I embraced my suffering, memories slowly surfaced and the roots of my sadness began to reveal themselves. One image led to another. In the midst of this stream of my past experiences, I continued to go back to my breathing and stay aware of my body. The wave of sadness returned, over and over, until it slowly calmed down. I continued to go back to the emotion, embrace it, and observe it. I saw many different images from my past.

I discovered that I had been wounded as a child in the war in Vietnam. I was born in a rural part of Central Vietnam. There, the war was very intense. Every night I heard bombing in the distance. There were people who lived around me who became mentally ill; the pressure of the war became too much for them. There were soldiers who took off their clothes and ran around naked. I remember a woman who screamed and cried every night. She lived next to our house. As I lay down to sleep, I listened to her moaning and screaming all night long in the dark. I felt a lot of love for her and also a lot of fear.

We lived next to an air force base, and fighter jets flew by in the middle of the night. They flew above the roof of our house as they took off. The sound was very loud, and my brother who slept next to me would sit up and scream along with the jets, in his sleep. He didn’t wake up. He simply sat up in the bed and screamed. I was one year older than him. I woke up because of the noise. Every night, when he sat up screaming, I gently pushed him back down to sleep. It happened almost every night.

I lived with a lot of fear and uncertainty. Once or twice a year, the communists would attack our village. Houses burnt down. We had to get out. One time, during an attack, my father was standing. Something fell to the ground; he bent down. Just as he bent down, a bullet hit the box behind him. If he had been standing, he would have been killed. Luckily the bullet missed him and broke the box behind him. In just one single moment he would have been killed.

From time to time, South Vietnamese soldiers would come to our parents’ pharmacy and shoot into the shelves of medicine. They held up a grenade and threatened to throw it if we didn’t leave. Then they broke into the cash register and took whatever medicines they wanted. There was no law around, so they came very often, to take money and medicine. They used harsh language. They shot anywhere they liked.

Slowly but surely, I went back to the past to touch all these images as I sat in meditation. Then I saw the image of myself as a little boy. I think that I was only four or five years old. I was hiding myself in a medicine cabinet. Looking out, I could see military men in the front of our house—Americans and South Vietnamese in camouflage uniforms. They were carrying all kinds of equipment, with many weapons of war, and setting up camp in the twilight and drizzling rain. As I looked out, I felt so scared.

In my meditation, I had a clear memory that that little boy said to himself, “There’s no future for my life and I don’t want to grow up. What’s the point? If I grow up, I’ll be like these men who carry guns around, and either I will kill someone or be killed by someone.” As I looked back, I asked myself: how could I have such a thought when I was so young, only four or five? This incident continued to affect me without my knowing it.

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At the age of seven or eight, I began to draw human faces. I would spend a lot of time in my room, looking at magazines and drawing the beautiful faces I saw in them. I drew like this for about five years, until the war was over. Deep within the mind of that little boy was the belief that humans were cruel and ugly. I sensed the dark side of human beings, so I drew beautiful human faces as a defense mechanism. I accumulated several books of drawings of faces, but because of the war we fled to the South and I lost all of them.

When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, every day at about sunset, from about five to six o’clock in the afternoon, I experienced a pain in my forehead, which I now understand was a migraine. I couldn’t stand it and my father took me to the hospital, but the doctor couldn’t figure out the reason for my chronic headaches. When the war ended, the migraines went away. Thanks to my meditation, I now understand what was happening. Around sunset, the military men came and camped in front of our house. That was also the first time I had the thought that my life had no future, that life had no meaning, and that I didn’t want to grow up. Whenever the sun set, this feeling was re-activated. My depression was triggered by the sunset.

A New Perception

I worked on this block of sadness and the tendency to withdraw for many years. Sometimes, it seemed there was no hope. Many times Thay told me that the sky was very beautiful, and the blue sky was indeed very beautiful, but I could not touch that blue sky. Many other young brothers and sisters came to Plum Village and lived without much difficulty. They could be happy and play with each other. But I could never taste such joy. Therefore, I felt quite lonely in the community. I was in that state of loneliness, with my own struggle, but I tried to embrace my sadness whenever I had a chance.

I learned to go straight to this primary perception. The sadness was due to the perception that there was no future, no point to growing up because life was very ugly. It was very difficult to embrace the sadness. At first I didn’t understand how to do it, but gradually, I learned. I had to balance my mind with the energy of joy and happiness before I could embrace this pain. Over the years, I have been trying my best to embrace my emotion and I have learned that it is inseparable from the perception that I had as a little boy, that there was no future for my life. After many years of practice, I have been able to purify and transform this emotion and am cultivating a new and more positive perception of life.

In Upper Hamlet, there is a walking meditation path, from which we can see the sunset. Many times when the sun set this sense of sadness would come up. I practiced walking meditation along this path in the middle of sunset, and tears would come. With each of my steps, I would tell myself, “This is truly beautiful. This is truly beautiful.” I would say, “I’m really happy now. I’m really happy now.” I trained myself like that. This exercise does not do violence to ourselves; instead, it is a training that tries to cultivate a new kind of perception. I tried to look at each flower on the road, to look at each stone, and say, “I’m really happy now. The war is over. I’m not living in a time of war anymore. It’s okay. It’s safe. There’s life. There’s a meaning to life. It’s very beautiful now.” I practiced this often, for many years. I tried to build a new perception to balance the child who saw no future.

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We have to train ourselves to develop a new perception. At the beginning, this new perception is weak. It’s just a skinny bone, a skeleton; there’s no flesh to it. Over the years we have to build new flesh, to build a thicker layer around our new perception. As I cultivated this new perception, I built new flesh around it. As I said to myself, “This is truly beautiful,” I tried to feel beauty and happiness. I continued to build layers of flesh so that I could balance the block of pain and suffering that I had gone through. Over the years, bit by bit, it worked.

In addition to transforming my perceiving, I also changed my way of eating. I noticed that around five or six o’clock in the evening, at sunset, I had trouble with my colon. I couldn’t digest food, and suffered from a lot of gas. It became very disturbing. My depression had come into my body and embedded itself into my colon. I decided to stop eating dinner. I did this for two to three years. Amazingly, as the colon healed, the depression also healed.

This transformation has to do with both the body and the mind. We cannot focus on the mind alone, because our sadness and depression have turned into a part of our body. We have to purify our body in order to purify our mental difficulties. It took me a long time, but I was able to transform this block of sadness and depression within me by looking deeply into my food, taking good care of myself, fasting, exercising, and building a new perception.

I Could Feel the Blue Sky

After seven or eight years of practice, during the springtime, I was in Thay’s hermitage. He organized a picnic day for the monastics; the brothers and sisters were playing volleyball, cooking, and having a barbecue. I was standing at the veranda, looking at my brothers and sisters playing joyfully. I didn’t join them but I stood near them. Then I looked at the poplar trees, with no leaves, standing against the blue sky in spring. I followed my breathing and practiced the mantra Thay taught us. “I’m here for you. Breathing in, I am aware that the poplar tree is there, that the blue sky is there. Breathing out, I’m really here for you.”

I followed my breathing for a long time, and remained in touch with the poplar and the blue sky. Suddenly, for the first time, I could feel the blue sky. Tears ran down my face. I just stood there crying. I was able to touch that moment with such deep joy and happiness, from the depths within me. The blue sky was so beautiful that day. The poplar tree was so beautiful. After seven or eight years of practice, I was finally able to touch all that.

Nowadays, I am more stable. My anger, my temper, my sadness and depression have transformed to a large extent. This year marks my eighteenth year of practice as a monk, and I have changed a lot. I have healed my body and healed my mind, for the most part. I do not get caught by anger much. I do not get trapped by my sadness and depression much. It is very important to identify the very beginning of a negative perception before it turns itself into a mental loop, a block of strong emotion. We can learn to embrace and understand it before it begins to affect our life and our relationships.

mb57-Touching6Thich Chan Phap An, True Dharma Seal, was born in 1963 in Vietnam. He was ordained into monkhood in 1992 and received Transmission of the Lamp of Wisdom in 1999. Since 2008, he has served as the Director and Dean of Studies at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

This article is an excerpt from a Dharma talk given on January 29, 2010. It was edited by Thay Phap An, Sister Chau Nghiem, Charles Wheeler, and Natascha Bruckner.

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Dharma Talk: The Habit of Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Upper Hamlet, Plum Village June 19, 2012


Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is Tuesday, the nineteenth of June 2012, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall, Upper Hamlet. This is our nineteenth day of the twenty-one-day retreat.

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Sitting here, I can hear the sound of the rain. I know that I’m with my Sangha, sitting together, enjoying this present moment. With mindfulness, this moment must be a happy moment.

 

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The practice of non-thinking is the secret of success in meditation. When thinking settles in, you lose the first impression of contact. You do not have much chance to be in the here and the now, and to be in touch with what is in your body and around you. Instead, just become aware of contact and feelings. In this way you can be in touch with the elements of nourishment and healing available in your body and in the environment, both physical and mental.

The Universal Mental Formations

There are five mental formations called universal. They are present in every consciousness, in every mental formation.

The first one is touch, mental contact. Sparsha. When eyes and an object come together, there is contact between them, producing eye consciousness. Eye consciousness begins with contact. So mental contact is the first thing that manifests as a perception. Organ and object bring about consciousness. And consciousness is made first of all with mental contact.

It can be followed right away by feeling: vedana. The feeling may be pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.

The third mental formation is called attention: manaskara. This has the function of drawing your attention to an object. When the bell master offers the half sound, your attention is drawn to that sound. That is manaskara, attention. Several objects of at-tention may happen at the same time—three, four, a dozen—but you’re free to choose one object to bring your attention to.

And with mindfulness you can make a good choice. Instead of listening to another sound, you’re listening to the bell. Breathing in and breathing out, just focus your attention only on the bell. Listening to the bell can help you to create the energy of concentration that can help you to calm down the body and the mind. So that kind of attention is good in nature. It’s called appropriate attention. You choose to focus your attention on something that is wholesome, that will be of benefit. A good practitioner always practices appropriate attention. The Sanskrit word is yoniso manaskara.

But when we allow our attention to go to objects that do not benefit our peace and practice, it’s called inappropriate attention. It’s called ayoniso manaskara. So as a good practitioner, mindfulness helps us to focus our attention only on the objects of benefit, and that can come before contact (sparsha) or after contact. After contact, you may see that this is not a good object of attention, and you may change the object of attention. So manaskara can come before sparsha or after sparsha. These five universal mental formations are always present with consciousness, any kind of consciousness. They are a series, and they bring about a perception.

One day we had a retreat in northern California and there was a fire in the mountains. During sitting meditation and walking meditation, we heard the sound of helicopters. When you have been in a war, like the wars in Vietnam, the sound of helicopters reminds you of machine guns, bombs, and death. So it’s not pleasant. But there was no choice to avoid listening, so we chose to practice listening to the sound of the helicopters with mindfulness. With mindfulness, we can tell ourselves that this is not a helicopter operating in a situation of war. These helicopters are helping to extinguish the flames. With mindfulness, our unpleasant feelings were transformed into pleasant feelings, into feelings of gratitude. Mindfulness can transform everything.

When the feeling is pleasant, you stop all thinking and just become aware of the feeling. Like the pleasant feeling of walking barefoot on the beach, feeling the sand between your toes. Walking on the beach, you can be very happy, if you are able to let go of thinking of this or that.

The fourth universal mental formation is perception. What you are in touch with, what you are feeling, appears in your mind as a sign that suggests a name, like: flower. This is to have an idea about the object of your feeling. When this happens, bring your mindfulness to that perception, because it might be a wrong perception, like mistaking a piece of rope for a snake. Wrong perception is always possible, and can bring about fear, anger, irritation, and so on. Mindfulness can help you avoid wrong perception. The intervention of mindfulness is very important on the path of thinking, on the path of feeling.

 

The fifth universal mental formation is volition, cetana, resolution, intention. You have the concept, the idea, the perception of the object of your contact. You want to decide whether to possess it or to push it away. This is a decision, an intention, to accept or reject.

A New Neural Pathway

These five mental formations are always together. They form a neural pathway that can lead to either suffering or happiness. In your brain, there are many neural pathways that you are used to traveling on. For example, when you come in contact with something that habitually triggers a feeling in you, like the feeling of anger, your frequent traveling on that neural pathway turns it into a habit—the habit of suffering. With the intervention of mindfulness, you can erase that neural pathway and open up another pathway that leads to understanding and happiness.

 

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Suppose you are reaching for a big piece of cake. Because you have learned mindfulness, suddenly your awareness helps you to ask, “Why am I reaching for the cake? I’m not hungry.” You may have some worry, some anxiety, some irritation, and you reach for something to eat to forget, to cover up the irritation in you. That becomes a habit because a neural pathway in your brain has been created for it. As a practitioner, you have to change the neural pathway to change this pattern of suffering. You should allow mindfulness and concentration to intervene so you are not the victim of that suffering.

Suppose you are in a discussion group and you have a chance to speak about your suffering. You may express your suffering in a way that will make you continue to suffer, like you have in the past. Or you may choose another way. You know that brothers and sisters in the Dharma are listening, trying to help you recognize and embrace the suffering so that you can heal and transform. While speaking, you use mindfulness and concentration in order to share. Your way of sharing changes, and after having shared, you suffer less. Otherwise, sharing in the old way, you are just rehearsing your suffering.

With mindfulness and concentration intervening in the process of perception, a new neural pathway is created that does not lead to suffering. Instead it can lead to understanding and compassion, and happiness and healing. As a good practitioner you know how to make a new pathway in your brain. Our brains have the power of neural plasticity; they can change. Old neural pathways can disappear and new ones open so that you have access to happiness and compassion.

Suppose someone says something that angers you. Your old pathway wants to say something to punish him. But that makes us victims of our habit energy. Instead, you can breathe in and say, “Unhappiness is in me, suffering is in me, anger is in me, irritation is in me.” That is already helpful, recognizing your feelings and helping you not to respond right away. So you accept that anger and irritation in you, and smile to it. With mindfulness, you look at the other person and become aware of the suffering in him or in her. He may have spoken like that to try to get relief from his suffering. He may think that speaking out like that will help him suffer less, but in fact he will suffer more.

With just one or two seconds of looking and seeing the suffering in him, compassion is born. When compassion is born, you don’t suffer any more, and you may find something to say that will help him. With the practice, we can always open new neural pathways like that. When they become a habit, we call it the habit of happiness.

During the winter retreat, Thay stayed in Upper Hamlet for three months. Every morning, when he first got up, he washed his face. The water was very cold. Thay usually opened the tap so the water came out drop by drop, and he put his hand under the water faucet and received the feeling of cold water. It helped to make him more awake. It was very refreshing. He took some of these drops of water and put them in his eyes and felt the refreshment in his eyes. He enjoyed the washing and did not want to finish quickly. He did not have to think. He wanted to be fully alive, so he took time to enjoy the pleasure of the water.

Mindfulness and understanding helped him to see that this water has come from very far away. From up in the mountain, from deep down in the earth, it comes right into your bathroom. When you develop the habit of being happy, then everything you do, like serving yourself a cup of tea, you do in such a way that it creates joy and happiness.

When Thay put on his jacket and walked, he enjoyed every step from his hut to the meditation hall. He always got in touch with the moon or the stars or the fresh air. To be alive and to be walking on this small path is a great joy. To go to the meditation hall and sit with the brothers is a great joy. So every moment can be a moment of happiness, of joy.

If you have depression, if you have some problem with your mental health, the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight will help stop you from traveling the same old neural pathways. You open a new path, a path of happiness. Focusing on your suffering is not the only way to heal. Instead, you focus on the non-suffering side that is in the here and the now.

You have many good seeds of happiness and joy in you. You have the seed of compassion, of understanding, of love in you, and you practice in order to get in touch with appropriate attention, stopping your thinking, enjoying the pleasant feeling that is possible in the here and the now. You recognize the many conditions of happiness that are here, in order to make this moment into a pleasant moment. This is possible. While you are doing so, the healing takes place. You don’t have to make any effort because you have the habit of happiness. All of us have the capacity to be happy. Suffering is not enough!

The Five Particular Mental Formations

After you have studied the five universals, you may like to learn about the five particular mental formations, which are: desire, resolution, mindfulness, concentration, understanding/insight. Chanda, adhimoksha, smrti, samadhi, prajna.

The first, desire, is intention. Intention can be positive or negative. Our good intention is our desire to practice, to open new neural pathways, to create happiness. I want to transform suffering, and I know ways to do it. Our resolution is our determination, our confidence that this is what we want. I want to practice, to change myself, to cut off the source of nutriments that lead to suffering. I want to consume only what is good for my mental and physical health. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight are the energies that develop neural pathways leading to compassion, understanding, and happiness.

Eight Levels of Consciousness

The first level of consciousness is eye consciousness. Form is the object of eyes. When eyes and form encounter each other, it brings about eye consciousness, sight. Eye consciousness always has contact, attention, and feelings, because any consciousness has the five universals within it. They happen very quickly, maybe in less than one millisecond.

The second through the fifth consciousnesses are: ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, and body consciousness. Body and touch, tongue and taste, nose and smell, ear and sound, eyes and form. These consciousnesses are a kind of flow; their nature is a continuum, always going through birth and death.

It’s like the flame of a candle. We have the illusion, the false perception, that it is one flame, but instead there is a succession of millions of flames together without interruption. When someone draws a circle with a flaming torch, you may see a circle of fire. But it is an optical illusion. When the movement is done very quickly, you have the impression that there is a whole circle of fire instead of just one flame.

Consciousness has the nature of cinematography, with one image following another, giving the impression that there is something continuous. So all the five consciousnesses operate like that. When you see an elephant walking, there is a succession of images of the elephant, subject and object always changing. These five consciousnesses can stop operating and manifest again when there are the right conditions. They are not continuous like other consciousness. When you go to sleep, maybe three, four, or five stop operating altogether.

According to Buddhist teaching, when they operate alone without mind consciousness, they might have the opportunity to touch the Ultimate. There’s no thinking. The first moment of touching and feeling can help these five consciousnesses touch the ultimate, touch reality. That is called in Sanskrit pratyaksha. There is direct contact, with no discrimination or speculation. But when the five collaborate with mind consciousness, then the thinking, the discrimination, the speculation settle in and they lose contact with the ultimate, with reality.

The sixth is called mind consciousness. It can be interrupted also, if you fall into a coma, or sleep without dreaming, or enter a meditation called no thinking, no perception. If you dream while sleeping, your sixth consciousness still operates, but it does not get the form, the sound, etc. from these five, but from the eighth, the store consciousness. The store consciousness contains the seeds of everything, so the world of dreams is created from store consciousness.

All the consciousnesses manifest from the base, from the seeds in the store. The seed of eye consciousness gives rise to eye consciousness. The seed of nose consciousness gives rise to nose consciousness. Object and subject arise at the same time.

The seventh is manas, the ground for the sixth to lean on in order to manifest. Manas has a wrong view about self. It is always seeking pleasure and trying to avoid suffering. Manas ignores the goodness of suffering and the dangers of pleasure seeking. Manas ignores the law of moderation. A practitioner should try to instruct manas to transform wrong views concerning self. We have to instruct manas that there is a lot of danger in pleasure seeking; that we shouldn’t try to run away from suffering because if we know how to make good use of suffering, true happiness will become possible. That is the work of meditation.

Mind consciousness with mindful concentration can help open up a new path in store consciousness. Every action that we have performed is preserved by store consciousness. Any thought we have produced today or yesterday, whether in the line of right thinking or wrong thinking, is always stored. Nothing is lost, and it will come back at some point as retribution.

Store consciousness receives information, receives action, and processes it and allows it to mature, to ripen. Maturation can take place at every moment. The seeds of information can manifest on the screen of mind consciousness. The store can be compared to a hard drive, which maintains and stores information. But the information on your hard drive is static; it’s not alive, while all the seeds in store consciousness are alive and changing every moment, going through birth and death, renewing all the time; they are living things.

Characteristics of Seeds in Store Consciousness

The bija, the seeds, have characteristics. The first characteristic of a seed is in Sanskrit kshanakarma. It means going through birth and death every moment, cinematographic, always changing, always evolving. Not like the information you store in your computer that stays the same. They are alive, growing, maturing. Their nature is instantaneous (Sanskrit: kshana); it means they only subsist a very short unit of time.

The second aspect of the seeds is in Sanskrit sahabhu. It means that the seed of a mental formation and a mental formation co-exist, serving as cause and effect for each other. They are always together like the left and the right. For example, cause and effect manifest at the same time. Like subject and object, left and right, above and below.

The third aspect of seeds is in Sanskrit bhavangasrota. It means it forms a continuous series. It engenders its own fruit and seeds, again and again. It makes a continuum. It is not a static object; it is a flow. It has its own nature: a seed of corn manifests only as a corn plant. The seed of anger has anger as its nature; you cannot mix it with the seed of compassion.

The fourth aspect of seeds is in Sanskrit vyakrta. It means their nature as wholesome, neutral, or unwholesome is determinate. Every thought, word, or action that you perform can be classified either as neutral, wholesome, or unwholesome.

The fifth characteristic is that seeds are always ready to manifest when conditions are right. The manifestation of a seed can be helped or blocked by other conditions.

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The sixth nature of seeds is that seeds always bear fruit. A seed brings about its own fruit. That’s the law of retribution. A good act will bring a good result. Happy, compassionate speech will bring a good result. So the seed of corn only manifests as a plant of corn, and not something else.

Retribution

Store consciousness operates in a way that is not known to mind consciousness. It’s difficult for mind consciousness to see clearly how store consciousness operates. Store consciousness has the duty to maintain, to hold these seeds. Store consciousness has the ability to receive and preserve every act, whether it is speech, a thought, or a physical action.

 

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We continue as a body, as a series of consciousnesses, because store consciousness has the capacity to hold that for us. What we perform as karma, as action, through our thinking and speaking and acting, will always have retribution, and retribution can be seen in the here and the now. Your body, your feelings, your perceptions are a certain way because you have acted in a way that will bring those results. So that is the fruit, the retribution, of your action. The state of your body, the state of your mind, and the state of your environment are the results of your action.

There are two kinds of retribution. The main retribution is your body and mind, the results of your action in the past. You are your action; you are your karma. You are the way you are because you have performed the karma that has led you to this state of body and mind.

The other aspect of retribution is the environment. The environment is you. It’s you who have created that environment because of your karma, your action. There is collective karma and individual karma. Both you and the environment are the fruit of your action, are your retribution. Store consciousness has the power, the duty, to ripen and to manifest the fruit of your action.

Vijnapti has many meanings. The first meaning is to manifest. The seeds of store consciousness manifest in body and mind and environment. You have not been created by a god; you are a manifestation from your own action. You have not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being. You will not go from the realm of being into the realm of non-being. You have not been created; you are only manifested.

To manifest in this form, and then to manifest in another form, and then in another form, is like the cloud. Now it is a cloud, later on it will be rain. Later on it will be tea or it will become ice cream. There are many manifestations of the cloud. You are like that cloud, and you can choose a path of transformation that you like, that is beautiful. So vijnapti is manifesting as consciousness, as body, as environment. In Sanskrit, all words or nouns that have the “vi” prefix have to do with consciousness. “Vi” means to distinguish, to perceive.

So to manifest as body and mind and environment, and to perceive that body, that mind, that environment, that is vijnapti. In Buddhism there is a school of thought called vijnaptimatra, meaning manifestation only, no creation, no destruction. There is only manifestation. Manifesting from the seeds, from consciousness.

The Light of the Candle

We conclude this Dharma talk with the image of a candle that emits light. Light is an action of the candle. Light is the candle itself. Here we also have another candle that emits light. The candle receives its own action, because the light emitted by one candle shines upon the other candle. What you do has an effect on yourself and has an effect on another person. There are other candles that are close to you; not only do you affect yourself, but you affect the next candle. So here you see the light of this candle, but there is the participation of the other candle also. If you analyze this zone of light, you see this is the light emitted by this candle, but also some of it has been emitted by the other candle.

Imagine there are multiple candles, and one shines in every other candle. You can think in terms of force fields. Subatomic particles can be seen as energy, and they exert influence on other atoms, other subatomic particles. The candle and the light of the candle are the same. We are the same. We and our action are the same. We are only our action. Force fields are like that. Everything is made by everything else. The one is made by the all, and looking into the one, we can see all. Looking into our rose, we see the whole cosmos in it.

You can see that everywhere there is both collective light and individual light. In fact, you can no longer distinguish between the collective and the individual, to the point that you can eliminate the notion of collective and individual, so that you can be free.

Consciousness is like that. The question you may ask is whether everyone has individual store consciousness. Think of the candle, think of our suffering. Our suffering is made of non-suffering elements. Our suffering carries the suffering of our father, our mother, our ancestors, and of the world. So you cannot say that it is individual suffering; you cannot say that it is wholly collective suffering. They inter-are. So interbeing is a good term to describe everything.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

 

Further Reading on Buddhism and Science

Click the links below  to read the following articles on Buddhism, science, and mathematics:

  • While attending “The Sciences of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June, OI member Paul Tingen was encouraged by a few monastics to write down some of his insights into the parallels between new discoveries in neuroscience and our practice. The result was an essay called “Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain: How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice.It describes how mindfulness practice and the insight of neuroplasticity can help us rewire our brains and alleviate habitual patterns of suffering.
  • Seven Interbeings” is an article written by Tetsunori Koizumi, Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies, in response to Thay’s inspirational Dharma talks given during the June 2012 retreat, “The Sciences of the Buddha.” The article demonstrates how Thay’s innovative concept of interbeing is consistent with some fundamental relational principles of mathematics.

PDF of article

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