Letter from the Editor

mb54-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

When I was young I wanted to be a teacher. I held summer classes for the neighborhood kids, complete with handouts, recess, and homework (and they tolerated it!). Later I set aside that dream, believing I lacked the authority and knowledge to teach. But having taught meditation for the past year, I’ve learned that compassion and mindfulness are the most powerful teaching tools—much more powerful than knowledge.

This summer I’ll be teaching creative writing to children. To prepare for the job I observed a young teacher at the writing school. He gave his undivided attention and encouragement to each six-year-old budding writer. I realized that to teach, we don’t need to know everything about our subject. We only need to love the topic and give the class our full, caring attention. In mutual exchange, we discover and learn with our students. Similarly, if we love eating our meals with mindfulness, love being fully present with each footstep, we’ll naturally share this beloved practice and exchange discoveries with friends who practice too.

With its theme of Mindful Education, this issue offers a wonderful collection of stories, photos, activities, and resources on teaching and learning. This issue isn’t just for classroom professors and students. It’s for all of us. As students of Thay, of the Buddha, we are studying the way of awareness and always teaching by example. These stories show us how we might bring mindful practices not just to schools, but also to our families, friends, and co-workers—the people we teach every day with our actions, our words, our presence.

One of my Sangha mentors, Glen Schneider, shared an insight he learned from Thay: “What should a student expect from a teacher? The student should expect that the teacher is a free person, free from craving, fear, and despair. What should a teacher expect from a student? You should expect from your students their transformation, their healing, their freedom.” Such simple, profound expectations can alter the course of an education, a relationship, a life.

Instead of a Dharma talk from Thay, in this issue we include his essay, Bat Nha: A Koan. Thay shines a penetrating light on the coercion and violence that happened at Prajna Temple in Vietnam. Our teacher guides us to cultivate insight by looking compassionately into the hearts of others, and invites us into a fearless practice of interbeing.

May you be peaceful and at ease, enjoying your breathing as you read this issue of the Mindfulness Bell. May these stories enrich your practice and awaken your bodhicitta, your mind of love.

Editor-NBsig

Benevolent Respect of the Heart

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Inner Change Is Social Change:

ADHD and Mindfulness Activism

By Armen Kassabian

In elementary school I was diagnosed as being Emotionally Disturbed (ED) and Learning Disabled (LD), and having Attention Defi Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I was kicked out of school twice and had interactions with the law due to impulsive behavior. My first experience with paying attention to the present moment occurred at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. At weekly mindfulness meditation group meetings I noticed how the practice of paying attention to my breath helped me gain selfcontrol. I also spent time in Plum Village, where a fellow meditator said he saw a lot of growth in me, and noticed that I had calmed down greatly.

As a hyperactive young man I was deeply affected by mindfulness practice. Practicing mindfulness with my breath, thoughts, and body during my freshman year at college, I noticed that my impulsiveness and emotional reactivity were not as severe as they had been before. I began to realize that my ailments, once debilitating, were directly soothed by mindfulness practice. I learned to sit with my experiences, accept them, and work constructively with them rather than fight with them. Mindfulness had an immense impact on my concentration and emotional stability.

When I biked to my meditation group every week, I would pass the most socially unstable areas in the city, where drugs, gangs, prostitution, and homelessness were rampant. I wondered how inner city kids could benefit from mindfulness, which isn’t only a middle class luxury but is for everyone. With the mounting stresses at college, I knew I had to integrate mindfulness into my life more fully, so I designed a major called Contemplative Practice in Education at Clark University. My main focus was teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction skills (developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn) to inner city students and students with ADHD.

I am a product of the ADHD generation, which views Ritalin as the primary solution to achieving higher standardized test scores and more obedient students. The long-term effects of overprescribing drugs like Ritalin are still unknown and may prove to be negative, especially during the sensitive developmental stages of childhood. Drugs can debilitate a person’s sense of awareness, shut down parts of the brain, and make one dependent on them to achieve a sense of well-being.

Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, allows a person with ADHD to strengthen their innate capacity to slow down, and to become more aware of thoughts, emotions, and actions, integrating all parts of the brain. It’s been shown that mindfulness practitioners can rewire their neural pathways over time. Mindfulness can empower one to make more conscious choices, access inner resources, and gain confidence in the ability to focus. Instead of being dependent on a drug for well-being, practitioners learn to regulate themselves.

Inner city children with ADHD did not have the resources that I had had to find safer, more natural forms of treatment than Ritalin prescriptions. In order to help inner city children learn new ways to reduce behavioral problems, I used a grant from the Worcester Cultural Coalition to teach an after-school program called Citizen Schools. The grant allowed me to teach the art of mindfulness to at-risk high school students who had been kicked out of school. Later, in the Dominican Republic, I taught meditation and yoga classes for first graders, many of whom were hyperactive and aggressive. All three classes aimed at teaching stress reduction skills to young people.

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My journey into mindfulness has empowered me to know that ADHD and ED are not lifelong ailments. Instead, they are conditions that can hinder my performance in school, relationships, or work if I do not regularly practice and strengthen my inner capacity for stillness, calmness, and focus. My spiritual practice has empowered me to pursue social action through inner transformation. I believe that inner change is social change and becomes community change. I am committed to sharing mindfulness with young people with ADHD, and those from inner city environments, as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. This desire for social justice has come from the roots of the practice that have flowered in my own life and the lives of others around me.

Armen Kassabian graduated from Clark University in 2009 with a major in International Development and Social Change, Spanish, and Contemplative Practice in Education.He practices with Empty Hand Zen Center.

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Teaching the Whole Child

By Susan Kaiser Greenland

mb54-TeachingTheWhole1In classes with kids, I hold up a Quaker Oats box and ask, “What’s in here?” We get all sorts of answers, from Quaker Oats to lizards to spiders to candy. But we come down pretty quickly to the fact that we don’t know what’s in it. And it’s not always comfortable to sit with not knowing.

I like to help children become more comfortable with not knowing, to approach it with curiosity, an open mind and an open heart. We start to think about how our bodies feel when we don’t know something and we feel we should. Very often we feel a clutching in our body, in our throat for instance, or our heart races. By encouraging kids to notice how their bodies feel when they don’t know something, and wish they did, we’re building an awareness that helps them identify what’s happening in their inner and outer worlds. Do they look with an open mind, with curiosity, with as little fear as possible, with the perspective of the friendly, impartial spectator?

The next question is extremely important. Once you’ve looked at something, what do you do about it? After looking, we develop a capacity to respond to what we see, in a way that is both in our own best interests, and also kind and compassionate to all those involved. As we better understand interconnection and change, we’ll understand that what’s compassionate for all involved is also in our own best interest.

Clear Seeing

Everyone in education is looking for the magic wand. One thing that comes close, for me, is clear seeing, a concept deeply embedded in traditional Buddhism. For kids it’s clearly seeing what’s happening, as it’s happening, without an emotional charge. Then they’re able to respond with compassion.

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I love this quote: “Rowing harder doesn’t help if it involves moving in the wrong direction.” How often have we worked so hard at something, and it’s just the wrong thing to be working at? The only way we can figure that out is if we learn to clearly see, without an emotional charge. That requires us to step back from experience before we dig in and start trying to fix it.

mb54-TeachingTheWhole2This is how mindfulness is used in real life situations. You see a child who is upset calmly take a breath, settle down, and use calming skills to settle the mind and see things more clearly. Sometimes it takes quite a while. They get upset again, they get excited again; that’s normal. We use our calming skills over and over again.

The Hello Game

We start every class with the Hello Game. Kids say “hello,” and look at the color of each other’s eyes. It’s a terrific practice that helps kids really look at somebody else in a way that’s not emotionally charged. This grounds what we’re doing in the practice of mindfulness. Children start to notice and identify what’s happening in their minds and bodies when they look at people closely. They start to recognize their mind-body reactions to social exchanges. It is rare for people to really look at each other without bias, with an open mind. Kids can learn to see the value of gentle curiosity in the friendly, impartial spectator.

The Whole Child

We work to integrate the whole child. We start with the body, and then the mind (thoughts), and the heart (emotions and worldview). Mindful awareness can’t leave any of these three elements out: body, mind, and heart.

Also important for kids is integration of left hemisphere/right hemisphere processes. We use mindful awareness to integrate right hemisphere creativity and left hemisphere analytical or linear processes. That’s very important in today’s school system, which is tilted toward traditional left-brain processes: memorize information, analyze data, report back.

How do we teach kids about non-conceptual experience? One example is a movie I show about a fabulous Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier. It has 180,000 lights, each one powered by wind and sun. It took a really smart left-brain processing person to figure out how to make those lights, but also somebody with right-brain creative skills to come up with a beautiful work of art that lights up the Santa Monica skyline.

Mindfulness can, through focused awareness practices, build left-brain concentration skills, and also more holistic, right-brain skills. But that’s only the first part, because mindful awareness is more than the sum of its parts. It’s also about getting on that Ferris wheel, strapping yourself in, and taking a ride. It’s fully experiencing the present moment the best you can. It’s taking that ride through the integration of the left brain and the right brain.

There’s been a lot of research about mindfulness, with scientists picking it apart into “concentrated attention” and other elements. When we bring mindfulness practices into a school, we need to show how we combine all these elements to teach a certain way of being, a felt sense of experience that is more than the sum of its parts. That’s why it is so important that those who are teaching mindfulness practice it, know it themselves from experience. They have to embody it.

Friendly Wishes

Along with attention, you must have kindness and compassion. To teach that, we start with what we call “friendly wishes.” It’s basically the metta practice. The traditional instruction is to send friendly wishes to yourself, to people you like, to your friends or family, then to your enemies, and then to the whole world. But that’s awfully abstract for little kids, so we start with friendly wishes to me, and then friendly wishes to people I know. If I have enough time I’ll start with people in the room, and then people we don’t know, and then everyone and everything. It’s important to give examples each time.

After they’ve done it for a while, I ask kids, “Who do you send friendly wishes to?” They say, “I send friendly wishes to me,” and I post that on the board. Then we post “grandma and grandpa,” “the farmer,” and “my sister.” Then we go through the animals. “The frogs.” “The bunnies.” “Cats.” Then I say, “What kind of things do we send friendly wishes to?” “The sun, the corn, the breakfast cereal, the rain.”

Four-year-olds can understand how these things relate. One of the fundamental pieces in mindfulness training is teaching people about interdependence. That helps explain why it makes perfect sense to be compassionate to everyone involved, and to pay attention. A child will say, “The rain is connected to the corn because it makes it grow.” Somebody else will say, “Grandma is connected to the corn because she makes the cornmeal.” Then they’ll say, “And we eat the corn!”

Metta for Enemies

For years I stayed from away from the traditional metta practice, which includes sending friendly wishes to enemies, because I am extremely sensitive to the violence in the world. I read that one in five children in the U.S. has been a victim or a witness of domestic violence. I was recently told by a trauma expert that the number is one in three. I didn’t want to encourage kids to end friendly wishes to people who were hurting them.

But recently, Mathieu Ricard, who is one of my heroes, encouraged me to figure out a way to include friendly wishes for people we really don’t like. He had some ideas, which I have tried, and it has been feeling safer to me. I still don’t practice this with young kids, but I do practice it with older kids in elementary schools.

It’s wonderful to see how powerful these practices can be for kids. There’s no magic wand, but clearly seeing and responding with compassion for yourself and others does have a magical quality. What’s amazing is how many kids take this home to their parents, and how many parents report back that the kids are singing the breathing song in the back of the car.

Susan Kaiser Greenland develops mindfulness programs for children, classroom teachers, parents, therapists, and health care professionals. She is co-founder of InnerKids and is on the clinical team for the Pediatric Pain Clinic, UCLA’s Children’s Hospital. This article was excerpted with permission from the Insight Journal, Winter 2010 (www.dharma.org/bcbs).

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Homeschooling as Mindfulness Practice

By Lisa Pettitt

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Our family has been homeschooling for over five years. We had not envisioned this path for ourselves: my partner and I had professional careers, and our kids were in day care as infants. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is because that is, and this is not because that is not.” Our decision to homeschool arose at the intersection of a variety of conditions.

A college friend who homeschools shared her family’s experiences with us. The events of September 11, 2001 led us to reassess our priorities and values. I attended my first mindfulness retreat in Estes Park, CO, very pregnant with our third child in the fall of 2003. Not long after we welcomed this child into our family, my career path reached a plateau and my partner’s demanded more time and attention. Our children were transforming us with their pure hearts, curious minds, and mindful presence. Time with them inspired me to practice more and nourished my practice more than my professional work did. Homeschooling spoke to us because it seemed to provide a healthy blend of intellectual challenge, spiritual richness, family focus, space, and time.

As homeschoolers who have practiced as a family, with family Sanghas, and at days of mindfulness and retreats, we find that our homeschooling and mindfulness practice have enriched each other. The homeschooling schedule allows for a slower, flexible pace and for stopping—we can awaken in the morning without rushing to get everyone out the door, we can take breaks when we need them, we can adjust our schedule to make the most of special opportunities for learning, travel, and time with family and friends.

The flexible schedule promotes being in touch with the present moment. We learned in depth about Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, we studied extensively about southern Colorado before a visit there, and we took one daughter’s participation in a performance of Godspell as a chance to study parables from the Bible.

Because we spend so much time together, we have many opportunities to nourish our relationships and be aware of how we inter-are. We help one another with lessons, we work together on projects, we listen to and support one another during difficult times, and we help each other remember to smile and laugh. We come to recognize and appreciate one another’s strengths and care for one another when we are struggling with difficult emotions. We are aware of how one person’s feelings can affect the rest of us.

In turn, our mindfulness practice and the teachings enrich our homeschooling. Through the practice, we cultivate creative insights for responding to challenging situations. We breathe to calm ourselves before practicing multiplication tables. We smile to our Spanish lessons. Of course, there are times when our practice is not as strong and we are not as skillful as we would like to be, but we have faith that mindfulness is always available to us and we can return to it for nourishment.

In contemplating mindfulness and education, we shared our ideas with one another. Teresa (age eight) said that mindfulness helps her when she’s having a strong emotion; she can sit and meditate in order to calm down. She also told us a story that illustrated how mindfulness can help us understand others better. When she and a friend were being chased by a boy, she stopped to ask him why he was chasing them. He told her he didn’t feel like he had any friends so that was his way of getting attention.

Hugh (age six) shows us all the time how hugs can be bells of mindfulness. When some of us are arguing, he reminds us that “there’s a cake in the refrigerator.” And he told us that when we teach others mindfulness to help them calm their own emotions, the world will get “mindfuller.”

Sophia (age ten) offers us a haiku on mindfulness and education:

The Silent Bell

The silent bell rings.
Sit down. Listen to the trees.
Mindfully learn today.

Sophia (Loving Nectar of the Heart), Teresa (Crystal Light of the Heart), and Hugh (Tranquil Dragon of the Heart) teach and practice with their parents, Lisa Pettitt (Great Guide of the Heart) and Dave Kenney in Evergreen, Colorado.

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Santepheap Sangha

By David Biviano

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The Cambodian Children’s House of Peace is a residential home for thirty children in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the location of the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat. There are twelve girls and eighteen boys, ages 10–18, who come from the poor countryside villages in the province.

The nickname for the children’s home is Santepheap (santaypea’-ap), which means “peace” in the Khmer language. In a country still recovering and rebuilding after fifty years of civil war, the bombing campaign during the Vietnamese/American war, and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, building a community of peace is a main purpose for the home.

I went to Siem Reap, Cambodia, following the three-week segment one of Thay’s 2007 pilgrimage in Vietnam. I volunteered at a children’s home during my visit, resulting in the founding of The Friends of the Children of Cambodia (FOCC) charity in Washington State, USA. When I returned in 2008 to volunteer at that home, it closed, leaving eight children with no home. So, I returned to Seattle, sold my home, and came to work in Cambodia, to start a new home. FOCC now supports Santepheap through the donations of friends from around the world.

The parents and guardians of the children are grateful for the opportunity to send their children to Santepheap, which provides food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and most importantly, access to education that is unavailable in the villages. The children have lived at the home since November of 2008. During that time, they have grown physically and their health has improved from the malnutrition they suffered. They have made great progress in school, moving from the bottom of their classes to the top. Some were able to be promoted two grades after their first year, overcoming some of the lag they suffered from being unable to attend school in their village, due to poverty or lack of schools.

The children of The Cambodian Children’s House of Peace gather each evening after supper for a five-minute silent meditation and brief talk on growing up and living in peace. This is also a time when any conflicts or misunderstandings are resolved, restoring peace to the community and teaching ways to reconcile after a fight or bad behavior.

Here are some of the things the children have to say about the importance of the evening meditation in their lives:

Mol (15-year-old girl): Meditation causes us to be calm in mind, and mindful of how to do the right things for our life.

Bon (14-year-old boy): Meditation makes our suffering less and less, by enjoying breathing in/out.

Sey (13-year-old boy): Meditation teaches us how to be thoughtful and grateful for the present moment. I like meditation and learning to sit quiet and about peace.

Kha (17-year-old boy): Meditation teaches us how to manage our mind when we are feeling angry.

Ny (13-year-old boy): Meditation makes people’s spirit stronger and stronger for a better life.

Voleak (17-year-old girl): I like to live at Santepheap because it is like a real family — school, a place to study, have good food, a place to sleep, and to learn to live in peace.

Visitors and volunteers are welcome at Santepheap, and of course, may join the Sangha for the evening meditation. Information about the home, directions, and contact information are available at www.santepheap.org and info@santepheap.org.

David J. Biviano, Wonderful Stillness of the Heart, of Seattle, WA, is the Founder and Advisor of the Cambodian Children’s House of Peace.

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Media Reviews

mb54-BookReviews1Who Am I in This Picture? Amherst College Portraits

With Brett Cook and Wendy Ewald
Amherst College Press, 2009
Soft cover, 96 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

Who Am I in This Picture? documents a community art project conducted by Sangha member and artist Brett Cook and photographer Wendy Ewald at Amherst College in 2007 and 2008. The college was the setting for a massive experiment in cultivating new forms of knowledge and consciousness through portraits and interviews with staff, faculty, and students. The book follows Cook and Ewald’s intimate work with eighteen members of the college community in contemplative, educational, and creative exercises that focused on learning. The project acted as a multicultural process of community building and resulted in six 12-foot by 30-foot portrait triptychs mounted across the Amherst College campus, as well as an exhibition at the Mead Art Museum.

The artworks themselves—each of which portrays a student, staff member, and faculty member—were generated by Ewald and Cook, with participation from students in Ewald’s seminar “The Practice of Collaborative Art,” members of the campus and western Massachusetts communities, and the subjects of the portraits. The six triptychs combine photographs, painting, and words in striking ways. The fact that the artworks were made by thousands of participants endows the pieces with great power. Each portrait is a reflection of the community, not unlike a Sangha. As our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “The one contains the all, and the all contains the one.”

In a spirit of inquiry, the subjects of the portraits reflected on questions that they themselves generated about being a part of the Amherst College community. The questions are very thought-provoking: What does the term “learning” mean to you? How has your life journey helped you to determine what learning means? Who/what has been your most influential teacher? Is it possible to learn everything about yourself? Does being educated make you happier? Do different cultures learn differently? How should a teacher define success? This is a mere sample of the questions posed by this project. As I reflected on these questions and the stories of the portrait subjects, memories of my own experiences at college arose. I also contemplated some of these questions in relationship to my experience as a member of the Sangha and the Order of Interbeing.

I appreciated the sentences that each subject wrote by hand on his or her own portrait. After reflecting on the questions above and many others, each person came up with a phrase that encapsulated his or her experience or understanding and wrote this on his or her portrait in big letters. Some of the sentences read: “You can’t be invisible or you will miss out.” “I feel the loneliest when I am not learning anything.” “I use people’s names so they know that they matter.” “I feel like I was taught to learn by listening.” “I am so much the people who are around me.” “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.” “Am I any different from the guy around the corner who knows everything about a ’67 Bonneville?” “When people aren’t educated, they can’t hold their governments accountable.”

The book beautifully documents the project from start to fi with lovely photographs and fascinating interviews with the artists and members of the community. I feel very inspired by the community building that took place at Amherst through this contemplative project.

mb54-BookReviews2Child’s Mind
How Mindfulness Can Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm and Relaxed

By Christopher Willard
Parallax Press, 2010
Softcover
128 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Did you know the words meditation and medicine are derived from the same Sanskrit word for “inner measure”? This is a pivotal gem from Parallax’s new book on mindfulness for kids. Indeed, mindfulness practice is good medicine—for both young and old.

A great resource book for teachers, doctors, mindfulness practitioners, therapists, parents, grandparents, and all who work with the young, Child’s Mind is chock full of ideas and sensory exercises for centering children in the Here and the Now. Beginning with the premise that children are the embodiment of beginner’s mind and therefore a fertile field, Willard lays out exercises for “child-sized attention spans and the diverse sensory learning styles of children.” Backed by solid and extensive research, the author builds a case for the advantages of meditation in general, and then tells how meditation specifically benefits children and other humans. Among other perquisites, Willard notes, mindfulness strengthens one’s ability to adapt, increases concentration, and reduces reactivity.

“Because the purest water flows from closest to the spring, I try to use original meditation techniques that have been well-practiced through the years. These include adaptations of grown-up practices from respected meditation teachers East and West that I have integrated with contemporary research.”

Citing world experts like Jack Kornfield, Sigmund Freud, John Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, and one of my personal favorites for children, Maureen Murdock (Spinning Inward), the author begins with the premise that an adult who practices mindfulness is capable of passing the skill to children. He offers a definition of and introduction to mindfulness, methods adults can employ to establish their own practice, and methods for teaching meditation and mindfulness to kids.

Part II of the book offers Meditations for Mental and Emotional Well-Being, to transform or calm the effects of depression, anxiety, psychological trauma, impulse control, and the autism spectrum in children. Subsequent chapters deal with specific childhood issues such as sleep deprivation and test anxiety. Part III provides resources and program ideas. The book ends with a comprehensive bibliography.

I am reminded of a tender time a few years after the 1989 revolution in Romania, when my husband Philip and I introduced the mindfulness bell to a group of orphans we were teaching there. One morning, a fifteen-year-old girl came to class with bandaged arms because she had used an open tin can to slit her wrists. The other children, mostly teens, were visibly upset. The room felt chaotic. We called for a translator, and in the ensuing confusion, Olivia, a lame young woman, limped to the front of the room, gingerly picked up the mindfulness bell in her shriveled hand and invited the bell. The sound calmed us all.

Here is the medicine of mindfulness—the rich offerings of Child’s Mind, a handbook that holds no less potential than the children of the world.

mb54-BookReviews3jpgTogether We Are One
Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating Our Connection

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Available June 2010
Parallax Press

Together We Are One offers profound and socially relevant teachings from retreats for people of color with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha. This new book is a distillation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks, interwoven with personal stories from a diverse group of participants of color. Addressed are such questions as:

  • How can we find our true home and feel we belong, whoever and wherever we are?
  • What are the different experiences of people of color in our Sanghas?
  • How can we and our Sanghas welcome and embrace more diversity?
  • How can we apply Buddhist insights to help heal the suffering of separation, discrimination and prejudice?

If you are interested in relating with more wholeness and celebration to all aspects of your identity, and making the treasures of your ancestors more available to you and your descendants, this book is for you. It includes original drawings, poetry, and a new and expanded version of Touching the Earth to our Land Ancestors, created during the people of color retreats.

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Listening Deeply

Public Office as a Dharma Door

By Pam Costain

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As an elected member of a school board, I regularly make difficult decisions that affect thousands of children’s lives. While all public officials make tough choices, none are quite so personal as those made by school boards. After all, nothing is more precious to people than their children.

After four years of service and dozens of challenging decisions, I can honestly say this has been both my most rewarding work and most challenging burden. Quite simply, I could not have done it without a regular mindfulness practice. My practice has enabled me to slow down, listen deeply, check my own intentions, and find comfort in the recognition that there is no guarantee about the outcome, only the possibility of creating a stronger community of support.

My Life Is My Practice

I ran for the Minneapolis School Board in 2005 because I loved the schools here, yet saw that too many children—especially those living in poverty—were not doing well. As my concern turned to alarm, I realized that I had some skills that could be useful, and put myself forward for elected office.

At this time I was also taking steps to deepen my mindfulness practice, such as attending the Estes Park retreat with Thay. Like many others, I left Colorado with many new insights, a profound sense of peace, and a strong intention to bring mindfulness practice more fully into everyday life.

Nevertheless, I was experiencing a crisis. On the one hand, I had been a social justice activist for thirty-five years, and deciding to run for school board meant committing even more time and energy. On the other hand, I was being drawn to a more contemplative and spiritual path. Part of me wanted to leave it all behind and move to a Buddhist community, while another part of me wanted to use my energy even more powerfully to act in the world.

Ultimately, I decided to try to meld the two paths into something authentic for me—a stronger practice of mindfulness coupled with a very public presence in the life of my community. This would not be a simple synthesis, but rather a process that would unfold over time.

It was not until my second retreat with Thay in 2007 that I came to a very important realization: my life as an elected official was my practice. My practice was not primarily the time I sat on a cushion or attended retreats or recited the Five Mindfulness Trainings. As important as these all were, the most significant aspects of my practice were my everyday actions as an elected official. Having finally understood that my life was my practice, I have tried to bring more of the wisdom of our tradition to my public role.

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Practicing in the Public Eye

How do I bring my practice into my role as a school board member? I try to cultivate an attitude of respect for each and every person I talk to, no matter how difficult it may be. I try to listen to everyone with focused attention and compassion for their point of view. I remind myself that when I make decisions about children and schools, I am making decisions about individual children whose parents care deeply for their well-being. I must be very careful with my words, actions, and voice. I try to be completely present and give undivided attention to all those who talk to me, even when it is exhausting. Often those who speak are very angry, but I understand that underneath that anger is fear.

Early in my fi year, we had to make a decision about closing five schools in neighborhoods where people already had lost a great deal—their jobs, grocery stores, safety, and, in some cases, their dignity. Now the school district was going to close neighborhood schools. Hours of tearful and angry testimony could be summed up as: The school board does not care about African American children.

The day after an especially painful public hearing, where emotions had run high, I ran into a woman who had been very vocal. To my surprise, she approached me smiling. Rather than being hostile, she was friendly and even thanked me for listening so thoughtfully the night before. I was able to share what I felt would benefit children in her neighborhood. As we parted, I was reminded that our practice encourages us “to make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

Through all difficult situations, my practice has been to try to remain calm (at least in public) and keep an open heart. Wherever I’m approached, my role is to bear witness to people’s fears and concerns. “Aware that the lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. We will learn to listen deeply, without judging or reacting.”

I try to be as honest as I can with people, which is especially challenging when I have to tell them something they don’t want to hear. I have found that it is best to be honest with people about what I am thinking or how I am going to vote, regardless of how painful that may be. As the teaching says: “We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred.”

Finally, I try to operate from a belief that everyone’s motives are good and decent. Many times, I have differed with decisions of the administration or my fellow board members, or with an angry parent who has called me at home during supper. When faced with these challenging situations, I try to take a deep breath to open up the space around me. With more space and calm, I strive to give people the benefit of the doubt and to understand things from their perspective. “Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences.”

As a public official, my job is to make decisions, imperfect as they may be. It has been humbling to recognize that making decisions is much more difficult than simply having an opinion. Even when several points of view have merit and each contains a kernel of truth, ultimately I have to exercise my judgment and choose. Doing so has been both a burden and a gift. I have had to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity (which I believe is essential to the practice of mindfulness), but not allow them to prevent me from making difficult decisions.

I am very grateful for Thay’s teachings, the strength of the practice, and the support of my Sangha in this path.

mb55-Listening3Pam Costain, Empowering Communication of the Heart, is a member of Blooming Heart Sangha in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Integrating Head and Heart

Organizing a Wake Up Tour

By Brandon Rennels

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A year ago I was sitting at a cafe in Ann Arbor, Michigan, enjoying breakfast with a beloved professor from university. When I was in school he taught a course entitled Psychology of Consciousness, which was my first introduction to mindfulness practice. Peace is Every Step happened to be required reading, and after I finished the course I wondered why this material wasn’t taught in every classroom.

That day, I had gone to the professor seeking guidance. For a few years I had been working internationally in the business world as a management consultant. During this time I developed a skill set for turning high-level strategy into tactical recommendations, and for the cultural sensitivity necessary to bring messages to diverse audiences. While I enjoyed the problem-solving nature of my work, I felt I should be serving a different clientele; it was people, not corporations, I wanted to help grow. I had been keeping up my spiritual practice and also knew there was a growing interest in mindfulness in major U.S. institutions, especially in the field of education.

I knew I wanted to make a change but I didn’t know where to start.

My professor mentioned that there was a growing number of interested educators with Ph.D.s, and a wealth of mindfulness practices. Perhaps what was missing, he said, was support in managing the various threads and actually implementing these new models of learning. He asked: Instead of abandoning my business training, could I somehow integrate head and heart by leveraging my consulting skills to support the realms of mindfulness and education?

I had no idea. But it seemed like the right question to ask. As with all great teachers, he merely pointed the way… and I took it upon myself to forge ahead into the unknown.

Leap of Faith

A few months later I decided to take a leap of faith by embarking on a six-month leave of absence from my corporate post. I had two stated intentions: 1) immerse myself in mindfulness practice, and 2) learn how I might support its growth in education. My first stop was a weeklong retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. I figured it would be an opportunity for immersion. Little did I suspect that both of my intentions would be watered.

On encouragement from a friend, towards the end of the retreat I worked up the courage to ask a monastic if I might be of service. I explained my background and that I could offer my support as a volunteer for the next few months. Much to my surprise, his eyes opened wide: “Ah ha! The universe is aligning.” He told me there were a couple of education initiatives that were searching for support from someone with a business/organizational skill set. Now it was my eyes that opened wide.

Supporting the Sangha

The next month, a week before the east coast Wake Up tour, I arrived at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York. The monastics and I were unsure how I was going to help, but in that not-knowing was a freedom to respond appropriately to whatever situation arose.

Much of the work had already been completed by the time I arrived, and we were in the final stages of preparation for the tour. Entering any project mid-stream can feel overwhelming; ideally, you are there from the beginning. In most cases, however, you don’t have that luxury. More importantly, it just isn’t necessary. Asking questions, listening deeply, and being patient are all it takes to be able to contribute.

My intention was to be as helpful as I could in supporting the Sangha. I began by asking one of the main organizers, “Is there anything you need help with?” When he was feeling more comfortable, I went to the other organizers and asked them. Then I began asking a different question: “This looks like it could use help; do you want me to work on it?” Over time, this evolved into: “I went ahead and took care of this. Let me know what you think.”

This approach created conditions for me to take on operational items such as supporting the website and managing the email list, as well as strategic areas such as overseeing social media presence and helping to allocate the advertising budget. My responsibilities grew organically, and were nurtured in a supportive and collegiate environment with the backdrop of a serene monastery. Not a bad way to work!

A week later the team at Blue Cliff set out on the road to begin the tour.

Space to Breathe

Our first events were in Boston, where we convened as an entire group. The day before the Harvard University event we had a number of decisions to make, and the full community of fifteen-plus monastic and lay friends gathered around a large wooden table. I had become more familiar with the working styles of the group and was looking forward to an unfiltered view of how a Fourfold Sangha makes decisions.

Coming from the corporate world, I was accustomed to a top-down, fast-paced, heavily structured decision-making process. The monastic community operates bottom-up, in a very organic and non-hierarchical way. The meeting opened with three sounds of the bell, and we began by speaking one a time. One of the primary issues was whether or not we were going to visit Occupy Boston. Many questions were raised: How political is the event? Could we go just as spectators? What kind of message would we be sending by going? Should we just go to invite people to our sitting meditation? There were divergent viewpoints, but we eventually reached a full consensus. Afterwards it was explicitly stated that the meeting was over and it was time to let go of any residue and move on. While it was a lengthy process, shortening it would inevitably result in some people not being heard. By giving everyone space to express themselves, regardless of outcome there was no resentment and everyone felt respected.

The following day, over one hundred people showed up for a Day of Mindfulness at Harvard. I volunteered to staff the registration desk, where each attendee would be asked a series of questions that were entered into an Excel file. It was a chance for me to practice my efficiency skills in a potentially stressful environment, as most people would be arriving in a hurry just a few minutes before the start time. I felt it was important for this process to go smoothly, knowing this was the first impression most people would have.

Sitting at the desk, I found myself simultaneously wondering how fast I could process each person’s info and how many people I could get to smile. While I had my verbal script and keyboard strokes down to a science, I protected the space to provide a warm welcome to every person and to allow them space to breathe.

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One hundred people came, one hundred people went. I was gifted with many smiles.

Harmony Was the Way

As the tour progressed I gained more responsibility, and eventually some of the monastics started lovingly (I think) introducing me as “the manager.” While they were mostly joking (I think), in this structure I was perhaps as close to a lay manager as one could get.

A fundamental skill of being a good manager is knowing when to delegate tasks to others. Having faced this situation in the past, I was familiar with the trade-offs. Do the task yourself and it will likely get done faster and with more accuracy. Give the task to others and while it may take longer (and they may not want to do it), you will be teaching someone. What was unique about this situation, however, was the underlying objective. In the corporate world, the priority is productivity; here, the priority was harmony. Ideally you have both, but oftentimes you need to choose which is more important: getting it done or making everyone happy. For the first time in my life, it was clear that harmony was the way.

Near the end of the tour we aspired to send out a “feedback survey” for participants to share their thoughts following the workshops. There were multiple purposes here: for the participants, to provide an outlet to reflect on their experiences and encourage them to keep up their practice; for us, a chance to learn what went well and how we could improve for the next tour. Timing was important; if the survey was sent out too late, response rate would likely be low and the experience would no longer be fresh in their minds.

We decided to administer the survey using two online tools with which the monastics didn’t have much experience. I spent time training one of the tech-savvy nuns how to create the survey, send it out, track responses, etc. Two weeks later the surveys hadn’t yet been sent and I was becoming slightly anxious. I sat with this anxiety and it passed with the understanding of how busy our lives can be. I emailed the sister asking if she needed help, which I would be genuinely happy to provide. The next day I awoke to find all the surveys had been sent out, along with a friendly reply back thanking me for my encouragement. I smiled.

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Looking back at that afternoon with my professor in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t have imagined a more direct manifestation of my desire to integrate head and heart. Perhaps my greatest lesson on this tour was that of trust. Trusting in myself and my abilities, trusting in others and their capacity to support, and trusting in the universe to light the way.

mb60-Integrating4Since the east coast Wake Up tour, Brandon Rennels decided to resign from his post in the corporate world and continue to support mindful education initiatives while deepening his own practice. He spent three months in Plum Village this past winter, practicing and assisting with the Applied Ethics initiative, and is now heading back to California for the next chapter of his journey… just in time for another Wake Up tour.

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples’ feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child’s life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “No talent. Needs to be better motivated.” This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher’s Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students’ families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words “true person” were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, “Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?” The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, “Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?” Disappointed by the monk’s question, Linchi said, “That true person? What the heck!” No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach’s acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill’s content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.

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Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother’s illness. We should tell people, “Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance.” We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. “Resis­tance” does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society’s pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society’s destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, “In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you.” The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father’s request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him “the destitute son.” No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

Photos:
First photo by Ingo Gunther.
Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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