We All Belong Together

Sister Thuc Nghiem (Sister Susan)

Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Insight Gatha

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

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

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha given to Sister Thuc Nghiem

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

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

Thay’s Words of encouragement

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

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

Excerpt from Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Dharma Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Entering the Stream of the Practice

Brother Phap Hien (Brother Michael)

Brother Phap Hien’s insight gatha

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

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Br. Phap Hien

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

Excerpt from Brother Phap Hien’s Dharma Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buddba Body

Larry Ward

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Larry Ward’s Insight Gatha

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

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha

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

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

Thay’s words of encouragement

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

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

Larry’s Dharma Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Tear FeU Into My Hand

By Lisi Ha Vinh

Lisi’s Insight Gatha

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

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Lisi

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

Excerpt from Lisi’s Dharma Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Warriors to Peaceful Warriors

Veterans Lighting the Way

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis in Conversation

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Brother Phap Uyen (Brother Michael) served in the military during Desert Storm, Desert Shield. He was ordained as a monastic by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 26, 2002, with the Nimba Family. Paul Davis served in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968. In 1966, he was in Vietnam when Thich Nhat Hanh started the Order of Interbeing. He took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the mid-1990s and was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and facilitates the Being Peace Sangha.

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis are part of a group planning a Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery this November. To share with the Sangha their experiences and insights as veterans within the Sangha, they met by phone for a Dharma discussion on February 25, 2014.

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Roots of Personal Suffering: Family, Military, and War

Brother Phap Uyen: You and I have had numerous conversations because we were both in the military—you during the Vietnam War and me during Desert Storm, Desert Shield.

Paul Davis: I went into the Marine Corps three weeks after I graduated from high school. I grew up in a rural part of northeastern Ohio. I went into the Marine Corps not out of patriotism, but because I didn’t have anything better to do at the time, and two of my friends were going into the Marine Corps. I turned eighteen when I was in boot camp at Paris Island in 1964. About a year later, I got orders to go to Vietnam. By then I was nineteen. I didn’t really know much about life, and I knew nothing about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people. I was a field radio operator, which meant I carried a radio and I kept communications with headquarters. When I went to Vietnam I had no opinions, I was just there. It was probably different for people who went later, when they knew more about the war and formed opinions about whether it was good or bad. But I grew up in the fifties and early sixties with John Wayne and America being right, so those were the filters that I took to Vietnam with me.

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I had been in Vietnam for about ten months when I was wounded and evacuated. I spent three months in the hospital. And still I had not really thought about my experience in Vietnam. That came about a year later, in 1967. The brother of a friend of mine asked me to participate in a presentation at Ohio State University. It was about the cultural aspects of Vietnam, not about the war. A speech teacher was coordinating the event, and he asked the three of us if we felt that the people of Vietnam wanted us in Vietnam. I volunteered to answer the question, and I gave a long answer. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question.” I just sat there. I was numb, almost. I still get emotional thinking about that moment in my life, because it changed me in so many fundamental ways. I’m grateful for that question because it started my process of rebuilding who I was.

I came across Thay and his teachings much later, sometime around 1991 or ’92. I had just experienced a deep loss—it was a period of reflection and questioning. I left Vietnam in 1966 just two or three months after Thay left. I know you left Vietnam when you were two. Is that right?

Brother Phap Uyen: Yes. I was born in June 1973, in Saigon. In 1975, my family left Vietnam. We were in the last plane to leave Tan Son Nhut Airport before the communist government took it over. Our plane was up in the air already when the soldiers stormed the airport. My aunt had married a person that worked for Air America, the CIA’s covert flying group. He was able to help us get out of Vietnam. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about two weeks, and then we ended up in Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California. After that, we went to Arizona to live with my aunt and uncle who had sponsored us. I was in the US by ’75. For my parents it was a huge adjustment. In 1979-80, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles started coming over from Vietnam.

My dad had served in the South Vietnamese military. He had traumatic experiences from the war, as well as being a heavy drinker, so it was quite challenging for the family. He and my mom separated when I was nine and a half. They divorced and I lived with my mom for a while. Then there was the battle between my mom and my dad. I was pushed back and forth between my parents, and they were kind of using me against each other.

Paul: I do know that the journey that took me to the Marine Corps was because of issues growing up. When I was in the service, I wasn’t angry. I was more mentally unconscious. When I got out of the service, I enrolled in college at Kent State University and began classes in 1968. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, the National Guard came on campus and killed four students and shot more. I got involved in the anti-war movement, not a peace movement. I was a lot angrier as a war protestor than I was as a Marine. I had a lot of energy as an angry person. I know that part of your story is issues of anger as well.

Brother Phap Uyen: My mom remarried, and I didn’t feel a sense of security in that relationship either. I hung out with the wrong elements and joined a gang. We got into a lot of trouble. After high school, I didn’t have plans to go to college, so I joined the military. I wanted to try a challenge, so I tried out for the Navy SEALS. I went through the training program but I didn’t graduate from the program. Later on, I was an executive bodyguard for a four-star admiral.

Practicing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After coming out of the military, I ended up with what we now call PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even though I had known Thay since 1989 and I had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him, I didn’t really practice because I was still very young. I didn’t know how to handle the anger and frustration. I had nightmares at night. I didn’t want to be alone, so I was married when I was twenty-three. My ex-wife and I divorced about a year and a half into our marriage because I couldn’t handle my anger and my emotions. That also led to a disconnection between my daughter and me for a while. My daughter is now eighteen years old.

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There were moments when I was in a really dark place, thinking about killing myself because I was hurting the people I loved and cared about. My mom was quite scared for me because of the lifestyle that I was living—in and out of relationships, not being able to focus and go to school or handle a job. I didn’t like conflict. I would just up and leave my job and move to a different job if I didn’t feel the workplace was harmonious enough. I couldn’t really be around a lot of people at that time. Both of my marriages ended within a year and a half because I couldn’t communicate. There was always a part of me that was trying to hide the things inside of me, not being able to share openly or intimately. A lot of times, my anger would do the talking. After leaving the military, there was a time where within three months I moved six times. That’s partly because I couldn’t accept myself and I didn’t know how to be my own best friend. I wasn’t happy with myself. You can run away from a lot of things, but the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself. Around 2001-2002, my mom suggested for me to go to Plum Village and possibly take a break, because I hadn’t had a break since I left the military.

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Connecting with Thay and the Plum Village Tradition

Paul: I ultimately found Thay and his teachings in the early nineties, after my youngest son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident. The two things that led me to Thay’s teachings were the war in Vietnam and Nathan’s death. I always looked at spirituality or religion from more of an intellectual standpoint, but at that point I had to face some very serious issues of life and death. I first found an article that this Vietnamese monk had written, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name! And then I read Peace Is Every Step. I found out Thay actually did retreats here in the United States.

I went on my first retreat about 1995, at Omega Institute in New York. Being in Thay’s presence was supportive. I hesitate to use the word “healing,” but it was very supportive. When I got there, I found a veterans’ discussion group within the retreat. It was a combination of war protestors and veterans who had been to war, and their families. It was a good opportunity for families to come together and sit and heal. I kept going to Thay’s retreats every two years, and I kept sitting with the veterans’ group and getting to know other veterans and their stories.

The people who came to those groups weren’t always veterans. The woman who became known as the Central Park jogger, who was assaulted in Central Park and had been in a coma, came to one of Thay’s retreats and joined the veterans’ group because she felt it was one place where people could understand the trauma that she had gone through. So the veterans’ group was, in many ways, a safe place for others who had gone through serious trauma.

The initial group I attended at Thay’s retreat was co-facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, who was one of the early vets that got connected to Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s since left our tradition, and he was ordained in the Zen Peacemaker Order. The other was Roberta Wall, an OI member from New York. The two of them, the peace activist and the war veteran, co-facilitated that group, which I think made everybody feel welcome. A lot of people lost their youth to the war even though they weren’t there because they got so angry about it.

Brother Phap Uyen: In 2002, I was getting ready to come back to the US from Plum Village. I had already completed 1500 hours of massage therapy, and then I was going to go to school for Oriental medicine. I went in to see Thay and pay my respects. Thay said, “So, I hear you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor.”

“Yes, Thay.”

Thay asked, “So, why do you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor?”

“So I can help people heal, because the military has trained me to do things and use my skills to hurt other people, and I want to change that energy inside of me.”

But Thay said something to me that really made me stop and think: “If you want to help them heal, the only way you can do that is by helping them go to the root of their problem. And the root of their problem is in their mind. But in order for you to do that, you need training. So you need to become a monk.”

I thought, “I’m not sure if I want to commit to being a monk yet.” In the Asian culture, when you become a monk, it is for the rest of your life. I decided to do it anyway, because I saw the effect that being around the Sangha had on me.

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Healing Power of Sangha

The more I practiced with the Sangha, the more I could slowly start opening up. I slowly started being more gentle, friendly, happy. I smiled a lot more! My mom shared that seeing me grow within the Sangha has been a really great thing for her, because she saw me during the worst of my time, when I didn’t really smile.

Now that I look back at it, I see that when I was in the military, with my friends on the base, all those things that we have as part of PTSD were normal to us because everyone else around us was doing the exact same thing. They were drinking; they were not being faithful to their partners. There was anger, violence, hostility. While we’re in that environment, everything seems normal until we transition out of the military; then you realize you can’t just solve that problem by shooting that person. You can’t just blow up at that person anymore. You have to find a more civilized way. Fortunately for me, I came in contact with the Sangha.

When I was in Plum Village in 2002, the US was going to war with Iraq; later on, I got news that seven of the friends I had served with had died. Thay was in Italy at the time, and when he came back I was working in the registration office. Thay came in and asked me how I was doing. Thay said, “I’m sorry to hear that one of your friends passed away.”

“Dear Thay, it wasn’t one. It was seven of them. Right now, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, because I just received the news.”

Thay asked, “How are you going to practice for them? What are you going to do for them?”

I was looking at Thay and said, “They’re already dead. There’s not much I can do for them.”

“No,” Thay said. “They’re dead, but how are you going to practice so that you can help your other brothers and sisters that are not dead yet, or that are going to come back from the war zones?”

That really got me thinking about what I needed to do to practice—doing walking meditation and bringing the images of the soldiers up with me while I’m walking, or the images of my friends that are now dead and don’t have an opportunity to walk anymore, and to take those mindful steps for them.

But at that time I was still very young and fragile in the practice. It’s taken twelve years for me to work on my practice, to hopefully offer something to our brothers and sisters in the military. Granted, all my symptoms from PTSD are not completely gone, because they’ll never go away. But I can handle them in a more appropriate way instead of letting those emotions control me like they used to.

Paul: What stands out for me in listening to you is the importance of the Sangha, not only the monastic Sangha but the lay Sangha as well. For me, I could not do this without the fourfold Sangha. I know that if I wander off the path, once a week I have a gentle reminder with my local Sangha to return to the path. It’s the same when I’m able to spend time with the monks and nuns. It’s like meditation—when our mind wanders away from our breath, we return—and returning to the practice and the Sangha helps me maintain my practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: The way I’ve been practicing is using mindfulness like a bullet-proof vest. During your time, you had fl jackets; now they use Kevlar. Without the mindfulness practice, it’s like walking into battle without a flak jacket or a Kevlar vest on. I’m not about to walk into battle without my Kevlar vest on!

Helping Other Veterans Heal

Paul: I’m glad to be one of the threads in that jacket. You remind me of the importance of what can happen after the Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in November. I know that the veterans who have benefitted most from Thay’s retreats are the ones who found the Sangha and stayed with it. Maybe that’s one of the areas where local Sanghas could really help out—to reach out to the veterans who come to the retreat, to make sure that they’re welcome without judgment into Sanghas that continue to support them in the practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: I think it’s really important, because the veterans often feel a disconnection between themselves and the rest of society. If we can get the local Sanghas to help with that, as well as having veterans’ Sanghas in different geographical locations, and possibly get together once a year, or have a big veterans’ retreat—something that they can pencil in every year on their calendar.

In Sister Chan Khong and Thay’s Love and Understanding program, when I sponsored a child for a school year, I would receive a thank-you letter and the child would share a little bit about what’s going on with their life and how school is going. We can connect veterans and local Sanghas by asking local Sanghas to sponsor a veteran for the Veterans Retreat. If we do that, the veterans will see that people do love them and care about them. It allows the veteran to send a thank-you letter, and the Sangha sees concretely that this is a person that they’re supporting.

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When I was living in Plum Village recently, Thay was talking about wanting Sanghas to have service projects—not just practicing and gathering at one person’s house, that’s good, but also to reach out to different aspects of our community to help. This is a way that we can do both things. A lot of the veterans have trouble finding jobs because people won’t hire somebody from the military, especially if they have PTS or PTSD on their record. There are financial difficulties for a lot of the veterans. That’s why we’re trying to do anything we can to get them to the retreat.

Paul: I was very upset when we decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the people speaking at a public gathering against going to war. I was also doing volunteer work with the VA [Veterans’Administration], meeting with families whose children had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was torn between the idea of providing support for the families and honoring their loss, and at the same time speaking out against the war.

Veterans all react differently. There are veterans like me, who quickly realized that what they had been participating in was not right. There are other veterans who strongly feel they were doing the right thing, but they’re still experiencing strong emotion from those actions, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, or depression, or other things that can come from war.

Brother Phap Uyen: I understand where you’re coming from. Some people have come up to me and said, “Being a Buddhist monastic, how can you support the war?” I don’t support the war. I don’t want to ever support any act of killing or hurting people. But I support the healing of the individual. Everybody understands a human being needs to be able to heal. We see the strong power of the Sangha in being able to help us heal. The war has already happened. There’s nothing we can do about that right now. But what we can do is help them heal.

Paul: I’ve always liked Thay’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” I am the marine who went to war and I am the veteran who protested the war. Those are all part of who I am.

Brother Phap Uyen: Yeah, I see that in myself too. A big part of it is the environment. I think because we’ve been through the war, we want to stand up and not have our future generations go through what we went through.

Edited by Janelle Combelic, Brother Phap Uyen, and Paul Davis

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Poem: Feelings

My heart is blushing red
I have cried for you once, I will not
cry for you twice
How I miss you
My heart is heart broken
Somewhere deep in your heart I
I know you love me so much
I am waiting
I can feel your heart wanting me.

mb36-Feelingsakira Traub is seven years old and lives in Hove, England.  She loves animals, yoga, and miso soup.  Her mother tells us that she is dealing with painful feelings following her parents’ divorce through words and music. She is a prolific reader, loves to write poetry, and has begun playing the violin.

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Our Racism is a Crying Baby

Larry Ward Interviews Sister Chau Nghiem

June 20, 2004 at the New Hamlet, Plum Village

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Sr. Chau Nghiem, can you give us a glimpse into what it was like being a person of African American and European American descent, prior to coming to Buddhist practice and monastic life?

It’s been at the center of my searching all my life. I have always tried to understand who I am, because from a young age I felt that there were conflicting parts of me. My life has been very complex and very rich because of this.

I was born in Chicago and grew up in a large, Christian, lay residential community. My mother is African American and my father is European American. Tthere were other African Americans in the community, as well as Indians and Asians, but it was mainly European Americans. The neighborhood surrounding us on the north side of Chicago was very diverse.

When I was eight or nine, I would squeeze the bridge of my nose a lot, hoping it would become skinny like a white person’s, because somewhere I got the message that my nose was too flat. Also, my brother and I met my dad’s parents for the first time when I was nine, after my parents had divorced. It was only after my parents divorced that we were allowed to come visit them in Houston. And they had an African American maid. So that was a very stark message and it stuck with me.

But from age eight to twelve we also lived in Kenya. It was very good to live outside of the United States, which has unique racial practices. It was wonderful to live in an African country, to go to school with many African children, and to grow up in an environment where people lived simply and close to the land. Visiting the homes of my Kenyan friends, I learned some of their native language and culture. Near our home, there were always women in their beautiful, colorful kangas, selling things in the market. Something deep in me was nourished.

I went back to Chicago for junior high, and was bussed to a racially diverse school on the South Side. I had Latina, Polish, Asian, and black friends. But being different racially wasn’t something we talked about or were really aware of, I think because we hadn’t started dating yet. It all gets complicated when you think, Who am I going to date? Race wasn’t on my mind, and I didn’t see myself as a person of color or as a person of a certain race.

But when I started high school, we moved to Atlanta. I lived with my dad and his fiancée, who were both white, in an all-black neighborhood. I attended a mostly white school. So suddenly, I was out of the lay residential community that I’d grown up in all my life which had been a cushion between me and the world I now found myself in. It began to get really hard, with no other racial groups but whites and blacks, and all this Southern history embedded in the culture.

It became clear that I didn’t fit with the black folks. I’d grown up in different parts of the world, but mostly with white people, so I didn’t talk like a black person. I didn’t have the same mindset or family background. I could dance! I could always dance, but otherwise I didn’t fit in. There were other kids who were biracial: black and white, and we all had to try really hard to prove that we were black. It was very painful.

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I think not growing up with my mom also made me feel like something was missing. My parents divorced when I was seven and my brother and I lived with my dad. We only visited my mom and her relatives for two weeks every summer so I never really lived with black people. I was hungry for something they had that I felt was my inheritance, but that was somehow foreign to me.

Around that time I started to read a lot of African American authors. My dad always had us listen to many kinds of music, but especially to soul music and R&B. This cultural connection to my ancestors spoke to me on a very deep level, and helped me make sense of things.

In high school it became clear that I did belong to a certain color, and that was black. I took that on, and said, “I have a white father, but I am black, because that’s what society says I am.” So I dated mostly black men and checked the African American box on official forms. But I knew that the boxes I checked and the messages I was receiving did not fully describe who I was.

In my junior year of high school, I wanted to spend a year abroad as an exchange student and I chose Brazil. I wanted to experience being in a society where the lines of racial discrimination were less rigidly drawn and where people interact with other races with more humanity and ease. The African Diaspora became the focus of my academic interests. I learned capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. My master’s thesis in university was on capoeira as emancipation practice for African American young people. A major concern of mine as a teenager and young adult was to understand and help to change the suffering caused by racism that I experienced and witnessed around me.

What was the purpose of the People of Color Retreat?

For me it was to embrace people of color, to reach out and say, “Hey, you! We want you to feel like this is your space, too.” It was motivated by a deep wish to help people feel at ease. Like our other retreats which focus on a group of people with a common life experience (i.e., police officers, congresspeople, children, artists, psychotherapists, etc.), we wanted to provided one more condition to help people feel safe and bring mindfulness into their lives. Sometimes you have to open lots of doors; this was just opening one more door. Also many of the monastic brothers and sisters felt that in order to be complete as a community, we needed to reach out to a wider group of people, to include a missing element in our Sangha.

Who attended the People of Color Retreat? What were we like and where were we from?

The first night in the front of the Dharma hall, looking at the sea of colored faces, I could have cried. It was so beautiful! Mainly we were from the United States, many of us coming for the first time to this practice, and many who were new to Buddhism. Many were also from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender communities. The two biggest racial groups were African American and Asian American,  although most people had quite a mixture in their backgrounds. There were also Latinos and Native Americans, and a few European Americans.

Why has it taken so long to introduce this practice to people of color?

Actually, I think a majority of Buddhists in the United States are people of color: they’re Korean Buddhists and Chinese Buddhists and Japanese Buddhists. They are mostly in insular communities that are preserving a tradition.

Another aspect of Buddhism is influencing mainstream American society. When we become Buddhist practitioners it’s difficult not to reflect in our Sanghas whatever racial blindness we carry. If we live in a white neighborhood with white schools and primarily white work environments, of course our Sanghas will reflect that. There are also economic obstacles. But the number of practitioners of color is definitely growing. A hundred people attended the African American Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock in 2002. This year at Deer Park there were almost three hundred.

What was the biggest challenge in the organization and development of the retreat?

For me the biggest challenge was defining the terms of inclusiveness. How do you handle requests from people who aren’t of color but who want to come? How do you design a Dharma discussion where people of color feel at ease, and also include our forty white monastics? At first we felt the retreat should be for people of color only, but Thay suggested that while priority could be given to people of color, European Americans could still come if there was space.

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When we began to reach our maximum capacity, I had to turn away white people. Some felt that they were being discriminated against and were hurt. The monastery is usually open to everyone, so being a person of color and having to explain to a white person that they can’t attend was quite painful. I told one person he couldn’t come because we had to save the last spaces for people of color and he said, “Well, white is a color!” I wrote him and said, “White is a color, but white is not the color that is undergoing racial oppression in this country.” I sent him some concrete statistics on the racial discrimination happening here. Several other cases were not easy to resolve. How do you determine who is white or of color anyway? Some people look white but have ancestors of color; who are we to say they are not people of color? These difficulties illustrate how people of color often spend so much time thinking and worrying about what white people feel and think. It’s not a helpful habit energy to always see ourselves through the eyes of white people. In the end, retreatants were happy that the majority of people were of color and asked that future retreats have the same ratio.

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There was so much karma coming at me at the registration desk! It was difficult to feel like I was taking sides but at the same time trying to offer people of color the safe and supportive environment they needed. I don’t know how to be fair and compassionate all the time.

Next time there should be at least three people to help with registration, for greater collective insight into such situations.

For me just to talk about “them” and “us” and “white people” and “people of color” is painful. Since becoming a nun, I don’t think about my European and European American brothers and sisters as white, I just see them as my brothers and sisters. But in this retreat full of people of color, I felt an incredible joy and glory in myself being a person of color; it was profound and healing. I had never been around that many people of color practicing mindfulness.

How has the practice been helpful to people in dealing with their suffering?

It was so important for people to hear that Thay understood and shared their difficulties. In his orientation, he talked about his struggle for peace in Vietnam, his connection to Dr. King, and his own experience of being discriminated against. He told of being detained at the Seattle airport in the 1960s when he was on tour speaking out against the war in Vietnam. Because he did not have a transit visa, immigration officials seized his passport and locked him in a room with big “Wanted” posters on every wall. Thay was telling us, “I’ve been there. I’ve been through what you have experienced.” And people felt, Ah! Okay. I’m not going to be preached at by someone who doesn’t know where I’m coming from. Here’s someone who has been where I am and has reached a very beautiful place in spiritual life. So I don’t have to be stuck.

Usually when we have a transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thay puts the incense on the Buddha altar and gives the second stick of incense to a monastic to put on the ancestor altar. But at this ceremony, Thay offered incense to both altars. I think people really felt embraced and honored by Thay.

People also felt moved by the sense of community. For many, there aren’t other people of color they can share these concerns with in their local communities. Here we nourished each other, shared our common ancestry, and our desire to transform. We invited everyone to put an object connecting them to their ancestors on the ancestors’ altar. Someone brought a bag of rice, someone brought a book about slavery. Someone brought a T-shirt, with a picture of Indian chiefs that said, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492: the Department of Homeland

Security.” [Laughs.] There was a necklace, a bag of seeds, a doll. People brought pictures of their families, their ancestors, a drum. The last night retreatants shared a song or poem, or talked about their object on the altar. It was a highlight of the retreat: each sharing was so rich and nourishing. We were honoring and healing our blood family in the context of a spiritual family.

How can practitioners help increase access to Buddhist practice for people of color?

I think mainly it’s just to be open and not to feel like we’re doing anything wrong. When we bring up the idea of including more people of color in our Sangha, just to be aware of whatever feelings come up. It might be something comfortable, it might be uncomfortable. We have to be gentle with ourselves.

We need to talk about racism or discrimination like Thay talks about our painful mental formations: it’s a crying baby, and we need to take care of it. We need everybody’s mindfulness and insight because we’ve been running from it for a long time; we have to be careful not to be violent with ourselves, with our language; we need to have compassion for ourselves. Our attitudes about racism and discrimination are a transmission from our family and society. It’s thick, uncomfortable mud, but it can produce a lotus. We need to have a positive outlook.

Thay is so wonderful, setting the context of how we talk about racism in our practice of compassion and understanding. We also need to have curiosity and inquiry, not to assume that we know everything. We’ve been indoctrinated since birth, so we need a sense of spaciousness around our perceptions, being open to changing. We need to look into ourselves and to ask, “When did I start to identify as a person of a certain color, and how has that influenced my life? How do I act from that, in helpful and unhelpful ways?”

The history of racism in our society is so present, right under the surface; it doesn’t take much for it to come up. There’s little clarity or understanding about it. As a society, I see us going in the wrong direction; we’re becoming more stratified. We need a spiritual perspective on this collective suffering. Shining the light of mindfulness on this area of our lives will bring a lot of benefit. There are skilled people—you’re one of them, Larry—who know how to ask the right questions in a way that helps us to touch honestly the painful and scary feelings, and to see how to transform them.

For me this is totally about transformation and liberation, not about getting even or complaining or blaming.  And it’s collective––we have to heal all of us. My five-year-old nephew is already being affected by racism. Already! He’s five years old, and I can see it. And I don’t want kids to have to live with that reality. This is about healing all of us, being compassionate with ourselves, and being willing to go where it’s not easy or comfortable.

What is emerging as next steps?

There is a five-day retreat for people of color planned at Deer Park in September 2005. The exact dates will be on our Website soon. The folks at Spirit Rock have asked Thay to lead an event in the Bay Area. People are excited, saying, “Come over here! Do some of that for us!”

There is this issue of the Mindfulness Bell. Parallax Press is publishing a book this fall called, Dharma, Color, and Culture. There are plans to set up a self-sustaining endowment fund to help more people of color and other underrepresented groups to attend Thay’s retreats. We want to find ways to reach out to more young people of color. We are creating an group for people to dialogue about increasing diversity in our Sanghas (e-mail inclusivesangha-subscribe@yahoogroups.com to join in!). Trained people could come to local Sanghas or to our bigger retreats to lead us in how to unlearn racism and be more inclusive to people of color. I’d love to see our whole Sangha body engaged in a conversation about this.

I talked with a person of color from the UK who thinks it would be extremely helpful to have a similar retreat there. So this feels like a story I heard of an osprey who dove into the ocean for a fish, and picked up a whale. There is a lot of substance here to be worked with personally and collectively and globally. The inspiration of what’s already happened is starting to water positive seeds of healing and transformation in other places. Thank you for your interview.

Wonderful! Thank you, Larry. Thank you very much.

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Larry Ward is a Dharma teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina.

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From Sicily with Love

 

Finding My Family

By Concetta Troskie

“In Gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family. I see my father and mother, whose blood, flesh, and vitality are circulating in my own veins and nourishing every cell in me. Through them I see all four of my grandparents whose expectations, experiences, and wisdom have been transmitted from so many generations of ancestors. I carry in me the life, blood, experience, wisdom, happiness, and sorrow of all generations. The suffering and all the elements that need to be transformed I am practicing to transform.

I open my heart, flesh, and bones to receive the energy of insight, love, and experience transmitted to me by my ancestors. I see my roots in my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and all ancestors. I know that I am only a continuation of this ancestral lineage. As a continuation of my ancestors, I bow deeply and allow their energy to flow through me. I ask my ancestors for their support, protection, and strength.”

—Touching the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh

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“Margherita.” My mother’s name means daisy, and she is indeed as delicate and as beautiful as that flower. Born into a large family in Sicily in 1950 during an economic depression, she was introduced to the dark demon of abandonment at an early age. The Puzzo family had three boys and two girls, and was not able to financially support them all. Knowing that the boys could provide income for the family by working in the fields, the family gave their two little daughters to the local orphanage, “Il Boccone dei Poveri” –– roughly translated: “A bite of bread for the hungry.” At just four years old, my mother was alone, scared, and without a family.

Four years later and six thousand miles across the Atlantic, Mary Bilello had just finished burying her forty-five-day-old son who had died of pneumonia in Brooklyn, NewYork. Overwhelmed by grief, yet still full of the desire to love and to nurture, Mary and her husband, Joseph set about organizing an illegal adoption for an orphan child. At eight years old, my mother found herself on a boat with a lawyer, headed in true United States-immigrant-style for the Statue of Liberty.

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Unable to overcome the loss of her first child, my grandmother, although still yearning to be a loving mother, treated her adopted daughter with anger and resentment. If Margherita misbehaved, she was reprimanded with such comments as, “You are not my real child, anyway.” Or, “Is this the thanks I get for taking in a rejected orphan?” This lack of nurturing and the concrete garden of the Brooklyn sidewalks made it difficult for my mother to blossom into the beautiful flower she was born to be.

As the years passed, the communication between my mother and grandmother did not improve. At twenty-two, my mother left my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn for an apartment in Manhattan where she spent a year working at Saks Fifth Avenue and enjoying financial freedom for the first time. It was then that she met my father, who was traveling from South Africa on business. At a party of a mutual friend, Albert and Margherita got drunk on red wine and fell headfirst into what they both thought was love. My father returned to South Africa, but after telephoning and writing each other for six months, they decided to get married. Seeing this as an opportunity to begin anew, my mother flew to South Africa with visions of creating a secure and loving family of her own. She invested her idea of happiness into her marriage and two years later, in a small clinic in a suburb of Johannesburg, I was born.

It was a turbulent marriage from the beginning, as my father had a restless heart. On his frequent business trips he met many women who were responsive to his good looks, quick wit, and irresistible charm. After eight years of marriage and the birth of my brother Joe, my parents divorced.

My mother’s world was shattered as she confronted the ruins of her broken dream with two small children. Filled with anger, the three of us returned to the United States. She did not tell my father that we were leaving, and forbade us to ever speak to or see him again. “He is the ruination of our home,” she would often say. “If I ever find out that you love him, or that you speak with him, you no longer have a mother.” At four and six years old, my brother and I took these words to heart, and promised our mother that to us, our father was as good as dead.

Starting My Healing Journey

As the years passed, I began to feel an undeniable longing to know my father. As this longing grew, so did anger and resentment towards my mother. Though she worked hard to give my brother and me everything we asked for, and though there was always delicious home-cooked food on our kitchen table, we were emotionally starving. My mother’s inability to forgive my father was poisoning us all. I began to feel a strong compassion for my father. I knew that he had attempted to contact us children many times, but that my mother had prevented it. I understood how my father must be suffering, feeling rejected and abandoned by his own children. At age sixteen, I began to communicate with him secretly through letters and telephone calls. Initially, he resisted my attempts to get to know him. He felt hurt, and believed that my brother and I hated him. He had constructed a wall of guilt, sadness, and confusion. It took several years of loving and compassionate listening to earn back my father’s trust, but today I enjoy an open, loving relationship with him, though our communication is infrequent and he still lives far from me in South Africa.

Ironically, it is the parent I lived the closest to geographically with whom I felt the most distance. The anger I had built up for my mother was insidious; it grew and disguised itself so well that I did not recognize its true face until one day, I found myself with no desire to speak to or see her. I left home at sixteen, eager to leave New York City and my mother’s biting resentment. For ten years I traveled around the world searching for a place I could call home. At age twenty-two, just like my mother, I found myself in a foreign country, engaged to be married. But several months before the wedding, I became very ill. I developed a severe hormonal imbalance, producing seven times the amount of male hormones normal for a woman, and three times the normal amount for a man. My subconscious rejection of my mother and my own feminine self was physically turning me into a Superman! Sometimes not able to leave my bed for days, I fell into a deep depression––vomiting, crying, and yet praying constantly. The wise insight of my body told me that I was not ready to provide my partner with a stable love and home. One month before the wedding––dress made, invitations printed––I broke off the engagement. Although I desperately wanted to stop traveling and to plant my roots somewhere, the anger that festered in my heart against my mother prevented me from being able to love myself fully. I knew that in order to be able to settle into my own skin, I’d have to deal with my internal rage. How could I ever expect to be a loving mother if I could not love my own?

Four years have passed since the onset of my illness. I can now see that my anger at my mother for not being able to let go and forgive my father was part of my problem. However, my own inability to forgive my mother mirrored her difficulty and prevented me from feeling compassion for her and for our relationship. I am tired of fighting with my anger, and am ready to forgive. When my grandmother passed away three years ago, my mother yelled and cursed at her until the last breath left her body on her deathbed. I do not want to repeat this.

My spiritual practice is helping me to dig into my dirt, to unearth the brittle and withered roots of the maternal and the Goddess within me. Today I celebrate the eightyear-old Sicilian orphan girl who still dances in the music of my mother’s laughter, basks in the sunshine of my mother’s eyes. I embrace this little girl as the same uprooted little Concetta taken from her home in South Africa. Breathing in, I smile at the wounded Sicilian cells within me. Breathing out, I prepare myself for the road of practice which lies ahead.

I know that I need to go to my mother’s village in Sicily to look for the family that she believes has forgotten her, in order to start this healing process with her. I have only the family name and the name of the village. So I go forward, step by step, with forgiveness in my heart and love as my guide. I try to remember the uncanny parallels in my mother and in myself, both in our internal and external lives. I trust that the daisy-bud within me, the precious Margherita, has already begun to blossom, and that one day I will be able to pass this beauty on to a small flower of my own.

Traveling to Sicily

It’s seven in the morning, and already the blistering eighty-degree weather has filled the hotel pool with several guests and their children. It’s one of the hottest summers in Southern European history, and Sciacca, a popular tourist destination in Sicily, is filled to capacity. I’ve ended up at the only hotel room available, at the five star Hotel delle Terme––way beyond my budget.

I pick up my knapsack, slip on my Birkenstocks, and head down to the bus stop, in front of the Franciscan monastery at the piazza in the center of town. I’m armed with only my mother’s last name and the name of her village. Deep breath. I’m on a mission to find my family. I’m in God’s hands.

After a pleasant walk through the bird-filled central park, I arrive at the modern, bright blue bus parked with its doors closed. In front of it, smoking a Marlboro light, stands a young guy. With his stylish haircut and sunglasses and his golden chain glistening over his dark curly chest hair, he looks stylishly out of place in this antiquated little town. He smiles as I approach him, and I find the strength to mutter my pieced-together question: “Scusi, ma voglio andare a Montevago. Cuando parte il pullman?”

He takes off his sunglasses and looks at me with kind blue eyes and a big smile. He tells me that the bus leaves in twenty minutes, and asks me where I am from.

“New York.” I say.

“Me too!” His response surprises me, but immediately I can see him blending in with the Brooklyn Italians that hang out every day at Sal’s Pizzeria on my corner. His name is Vito and he was born on Grove Street in Ridgewood –– the same street where my mother’s high school still stands, the same sidewalks that my mother walked on to school for four years. We are both amazed at this coincidence, and immediately he becomes a sacred ally on my mission. I confide that I am going to Montevago to look for my mother’s lost family, but have no information other than her last name. He asks me her name.

“I know everybody here and there is only one Puzzo left in Montevago, my friend Guiseppe’s girlfriend Maria’s father, Vincenzo. All the others left for other parts of the world, or died.”

Vito assures me that if my family name is Puzzo, then this Vincenzo will know something about them. Maria works at Guiseppe‘s flower shop on the outskirts of Montevago, and he says that he’ll take me there directly. The monastery bells chime eight o’clock and Vito turns to open the bus doors.

Finding My Family

On the ride to Montevago, I notice how the landscape of Sicily is a beautiful balance of masculine and feminine. In between rugged lines of jagged brown stones sprout bushels of bright green prickly-pear fruits and deep purple grape vines. The horizon is vast, open, and welcoming, yet the valleys run deep and feel in places desolate and abandoned. I can feel the appropriation, the subjugation, and the violation of this island’s history embedded like ancient seeds in its soil. Simultaneously, its resilience, pride, and commitment to survival spring forth in every flower blossom and luscious ripe melon.

The big blue bus pulls around in front of a tiny yellow storefront. “Maria!” Vito yells, while honking the horn. “Maria!” Again, I am instantly transported back to Brooklyn.

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“Che? Che?!” A tiny yet tough female voice calls out from behind the plants and trees lining the bright stone storefront. A few seconds later, peering nervously from behind the tinted bus windows, I see a short girl of nineteen or twenty sprint from behind the green jungle and walk defiantly towards the bus. “Si, whaddya want?” Her gait and her energy are feisty and strong, though physically she is very skinny and delicate.

Vito tells her that I am here looking for my family. Maria’s expression changes to one of profound curiosity. I feel my mother’s fiery energy coming from her. Even her eyes radiate my mother’s temperament. I can feel my blood in her. My heart beats faster.

Maria boards the bus cautiously, peering in at me. “Are you Theresa’s daughter?” Maria asks me, studying my face carefully. Theresa is my mother’s sister, and I know that I have found my cousin.

“No, I am Margherita’s daughter.”

A space of silence hangs heavy in the humid air of the bus before Maria’s big brown eyes begin to well with tears. Overwhelmed by relief and disbelief, my heart is swollen and sits heavy in my heaving chest. Maria and I stare at one another, speechless.

“Mamma mia….” Vito’s deep voice breaks the weighted silence, and Maria and I turn to see him taking a handkerchief from his shirt pocket to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks. Vito seems to be both a man and a very old woman. I recognize him as my angel, my divine charioteer.

Vito’s reaction brings Maria’s composure back, and, wiping her eyes, she snaps back into her old self. She remembers that my mother’s brother is about to have one of his life-long wishes fulfilled––to reconnect with the sister he never knew. Grabbing my hand, she looks me squarely in the eye. “Come on, let’s go. My father will want to meet you…what is your name?”

Deep breath…my mother has finally come home.

Sharing with My Mother

My short time in Montevago was filled with love, joy, tears, stories told over espressos and home-baked Italian pastries. Pictures were taken, gifts given, and lots of spaghetti was eaten. However, it was the anticipation of my return home to my mother in New York that filled me with the sweetest delight. I was eager to share with her the pieces of her past that I had found, and to see how she would respond. I knew that this was a sensitive part of her life, and I was curious to see if she would open to it.

Returning to New York, my mother seemed overjoyed at my journey, willing to receive what I had brought back. Sitting at the dining room table, I spread out the pictures of me with her brother and her aunts. I placed the rock I had taken from the rubble of what was once the house she was born in on the table, and shared stories of each wonderful family member I had met. “They love you so much, mama. They miss you so much.” She looked at each picture carefully, curiously fingering the outline of her brother’s face. “I don’t have his nose, thank God.” She laughed. There was a precarious joy in her, an awakened inquisitiveness, still too new to be understood or defined. “I’m going to visit them.”

A few months later, my mother left for Sicily. She stayed a week with her brothers, met the townspeople, and traveled, seeing everything as if for the first time.

The meeting with her family was not one of carefree joy and celebration. With hearts still heavy, heads still carrying years of confused stories and misunderstandings, my mother’s return home was wrought with anger, confusion, and many unanswered questions. Upon her return to the States, she said that although she may never return, she felt that she had fulfilled a kind of duty and for that she is happy. Though she may never fully understand exactly what happened, she knows that a bridge has been re-built, a severed root re-connected so that new stems may grow––and in their own season, bear bright new blossoms.

Concetta Troskie, Compassionate Source of the Heart, lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she feels she has finally arrived.

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Sangha Building in Hanoi

By Trish Thompson

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I am living in Hanoi. Am I dreaming? How has this happened? The answers can, as always, be found in the teachings. This is because that is. Manifestation occurs when conditions are sufficient. The understanding of the answers, however, is found in life, and mine has definitely taken some unexpected turns.

When I arrived in Vietnam in January 2005 for the trip with Thây, I was feeling especially happy and free. I had finally completed a five-year divorce process, the culmination of many years (and perhaps, many lifetimes) of bobbing about in the ocean of suffering. I had lived for decades in a hell realm which left me no alternative but to practice. My teachers, the teachings, and the sangha, as well as my determination and effort, had allowed me to transform the negative energies which had been so all-consuming. Now, how perfect to begin this new phase of my life by traveling and practicing for three months with Thây and the sangha in Vietnam! I had laughingly told friends and family in the U.S. that “I just might not come back.” I was joking, or so I had thought!

Right away, riding into Hanoi from the airport, I felt a strong attraction to the landscape and architecture. The lushness of the rice paddies, and the bent backs and conical hats of those who were working them, stirred something in me. A thought came, “I could live here.”

Over the next weeks, as is usual for me, I fell in love with the sangha and with everything and everyone around me, but something was different. The ocean of suffering had been transformed into a sea of love, and I was swimming in it. The Heart Sutra became real. I was living it. There seemed to be no obstacles for my path, and consequently, the trip unfolded easily. Even though our schedule was very full and the law of impermanence sometimes manifested quickly and unexpectedly, nothing could mar my happiness.

I quickly made wonderful connections with Vietnamese people, first in Hanoi and then in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). During a Day of Mindfulness at Van Hanh University, the Buddhist institute in HCMC that Thây had co-founded over 40 years ago, I had surprising encounters with two faculty members and the president, who all agreed that they needed to have a foreigner on staff. And they invited me to return to teach mindfulness meditation and English. Our shared enthusiasm was somewhat tempered when they remembered that for them to receive permission to hire a foreigner would not be easy and would take time. While I knew this invitation might be withdrawn, the seed of possibility had been thoroughly watered.

In segment two, I experienced a strong connection to the land during an overnight visit with Thây and the sangha to Bat Nha [Prajna Temple], the practice center in the central highlands. I felt such profound contentment and immediately visualized myself spending time there. When the announcement was made that Bat Nha would become a Plum Village monastic center, a surge of joy ran through my body.

During Têt, which we celebrated in HCMC, my oracle was read by Sister Chan Khong and Brother Phap Tru. My question was, “I am happy here. I am also happy there. In Vietnam, however, I see love everywhere, especially in the eyes of the people. I want to live here. I want to help build a bridge between the East and the West. How can I do that?” The answer from the Patriarchs came down through the centuries, declaring, “If you meditate consistently in your meditation hut, in a balanced way, all your wishes will come true.” I think I floated out of the meditation hall. Carried by feelings of calm confidence, I had my assignment and somehow I knew I could do it. A few days later, Sister Chan Khong announced that lay friends could invest in the construction of meditation huts at Bat Nha, and I immediately committed.

My future seemed clear. I would live in HCMC. However, several times I heard myself say to others, “I wish something would happen in Hanoi.” Something seemed to be pulling me to that northern city, even though nothing very special had happened to me there. But the trip was not over.

Love and Service in Hanoi

At the end of the three-month tour, I had two nights and three whole days to enjoy being in Hanoi before returning to the U.S. An American lay-sister, a roommate on the tour, suggested that while there, I should meet her cousin, for “he is very interesting, loves living and working in Vietnam, and is a good person for you to know.” I agreed, so she introduced us via e-mail. An American lay-sister suggested I meet an American woman, a Quaker who has lived and worked in the country for more than 30 years.

Conditions were truly sufficient. I met the cousin for dinner, and we agreed to meet for a second evening. I met the woman, and we enjoyed time over lunch. They each, in their own way, urged me to stay, and I did. I postponed my departure for some weeks, then returned to the U.S. only to pack a few things for my move to Hanoi. These life-changing decisions were the easiest I have ever made.

The woman became a dear friend. The man became my beloved and my partner. I was home. I am often asked how I found this partner and this relationship that brings me so much joy. I did not find him, for I was not looking. I was becoming. I became the happy, loving person I wanted to meet, and there he was!

Planting a Dharma Garden

For years, when voicing a wish to become a monastic, I was told to create happiness through sangha building. I tried, but my practice was too weak. Sister Susan said, “Nurture yourself. Plant a garden,” and I did. I withdrew from that which brought no happiness. Several years of gardening were required before flowers could bloom, but with right effort and the support of the sangha, all things are possible.

I received the transmission for membership in the Order of Interbeing in 2002. While that is certainly not a prerequisite for sangha building, my own practice deepened, and in 2003 I started the Sea Island Sangha of Beaufort, South Carolina. I found much happiness in my work there.

The Hanoi Community of Mindful Living (HNCML) became a reality in April 2006. We are a very dedicated group, many of whom are new to the practice. Each week seems to bring one or two experienced practitioners. We are a diverse sangha of many cultures, with both foreign and Vietnamese friends. Our core is made of 15 to 18 people who love to practice together. Already, more than 120 names are on our e-mail list.

Our weekly schedule is quite full, with something for everyone. Early morning sitting and walking meditation is three days a week. A compassionate listening group meets every Tuesday. One evening is devoted to sitting, walking, and Dharma discussion. On another, we chant for peace. Occasionally, we enjoy a special practice or day of mindfulness.

I do not question for a moment why I am in Vietnam. I am here because I am happy here. I am here to build sangha. The roots of my spiritual family are in this land. Sanghabuilding here, I have discovered, is no different from sanghabuilding in South Carolina, and, I suspect, anywhere else. Nurturing myself and taking care of my inner garden is my priority. When I do that, my loving energy is boundless.

mb43-Sangha4Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace, recently helped translate and edit an anthology of Vietnamese women’s poetry, to be published by Vietnam’s Women’s Publishing House and the Feminist Press of New York City.

A Recent Evening of Sitting & Chanting at the Hanoi Community of Mindful Living

Linh’s face breaks into a broad smile, as she bows and begins to speak. “I am thirty years old, and I hope I can come to this place forever!” The rest of our group laughs. “I feel so happy here,” she says. “All my colleagues at work tell me I am so much happier, since I began to come to these meetings, and it’s true!” The next to speak is Alan who bows and offers, “I’ve done a lot of work with the mentally ill and the mentally challenged, and I’ve been thinking this week about how I can introduce that population to the practice of chanting. After only a few weeks, I can see that chanting is very healing.” Hang speaks next: “ My whole life has changed since I found this group. I have fallen in love with the teacher, the teachings, and the practice!” Daisuke introduces himself. He has meditated for many years in a Japanese tradition. “I am so surprised at my feelings,” he says as he pats his chest.

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On this Thursday evening, we are a group of eighteen. Chanting is a new practice for our members. We are learning to chant the Opening Verse and the Heart Sutra in English, after which we sit while listening to the Vietnamese version on CD.

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We follow this with twenty minutes of sitting and chanting Namo ‘Valokiteshvara, a weekly practice. We send our loving kindness energy to ourselves and then to all places and people who are experiencing violence and war.

The last thirty minutes we devote to the singing of Plum Village songs. Tonight, we learn “No Coming, No Going” in English. Tam, a seasoned practitioner, sings it in Vietnamese, earning our silent, enthusiastic applause. She agrees to teach us next week. Someone suggests we sing it in French, and we do. Huong, a newcomer, beams and says, “I love singing! My favorite sentence is ‘I am in you, and you are in me.’”

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

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking Refuge 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single Parenting 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Awarenesses 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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