A Net of Sangha Jewels

By Jack Lawlor

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There is a famous metaphor in the Avatamsaka Sutra about the Jeweled Net of Indra, which likens the interdependent, interwoven nature of reality to a vast net of jewels in which each jewel is reflected in the other.

The Sanghas that have been inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings resemble the Jeweled Net of lndra. They too are vast, now extending throughout the world. They extend from the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam (our Root Temple where Thay at age sixteen began practicing and studying as a novice), to Plum Village in France, to affiliated monastic practice centers in China and Korea, to our Deer Park and Blue Cliff major practice centers in North America, to twenty-year old Sanghas comprised primarily of lay practitioners located throughout the world, and to the newest Sanghas just formed in a practitioner’s living room.

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Each of these jewels reflects the others. Although they may be separated by oceans, although their membership is comprised of practitioners from much different cultures, although some Sanghas are considerably older than others, they each reflect what’s shared in common: a deep reverence for mindfulness practice and a characteristically gentle but wholehearted aspiration to be mindful in everything we say and do — not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of all beings.

Stop, Be, Look, See

Early in his efforts to inspire the growth of the Dharma in the West, Thay asked lay practitioners to master just three things: sitting meditation, walking meditation, and the use of the breath poems known as gathas. The equanimity we nourish through the practice of conscious breathing in the form of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and daily gatha practice manifests not only in stress reduction, but also in enhanced understanding and insight, helping us know what to do and what not to do even in the most perplexing situations. Thay summarized mindfulness to North American practitioners in the late 1980s in a simple four-word breath poem: Stop, Be, Look, See.

We are so fortunate that Thay also impresses upon us the need to live in an ethical manner consistent with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which in so many ways help us remain together as a healthy, happy community. Another great fortune is the emphasis Thay places on Sangha practice itself. When we practice meditation and mindfulness with others, we receive loving feedback through the shared practice of deep listening and appropriate speech, and our rough edges become smooth. Our spiritual practice grows, rather than become either the fond memory of a retreat we attended or a book we once enjoyed.

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With a modest degree of persistence, we soon learn how much easier it is to practice together than alone; how we contribute to a Sangha without the need to say very much because our presence is in and of itself a gift that supports and authenticates the practice of other Sangha members; how we are inherently social beings who need the interaction and support that may not be forthcoming from books and tapes; and how someone in our Sangha will likely have been down the same road we’re traveling and have the ability to listen to us and understand us.

We’ve all experienced tastes of the grace and ease that arise when we practice together as a Sangha rather than alone. We’ve all taken our place on our meditation cushions at home, observed that it is 7:00 a.m., done our best to sit through 35 minutes of sitting meditation, only to peek at our watch and find that it is 7:03! Yet when we sit together as a Sangha, we sit in a relaxed way free of such tension and anxiety, because we have the support of friends on the same step-by-step spiritual journey.

Spiritual Friends on the Path

It is now approximately six years since I helped Thay and our Sanghas throughout the world assemble the Parallax Press manual on Sangha building and practice entitled Friends on the Path. I have continuously marveled at the effectiveness of Sangha practice and come to realize why the Sangha — together with the Buddha and his teachings, the Dharma — are regarded as the Three Jewels in the Buddhist tradition shining so brightly within Indra’s net.

There is a beautiful term in the Pali language, kaylana mitta, that describes the kind of spiritual friend we can be to one another. I have seen assemblies of kaylana mitta do so many things quite well without the benefit of resources other than their friendship and their dedication to mindfulness practice. I have witnessed how local Sanghas develop consistency in individuals’ sitting and walking meditation practices to the point where they are deeply woven into each practitioner’s life. I have seen how Sangha practice encourages Sangha members who were alienated from their blood families and their children to reconcile. I have witnessed how Sanghas help Sangha members in time of need, and even serve as primary caregivers as a Sangha member approached death. It has been encouraging to see how our Buddhist faith community contributes to political dialogue by joining hands with other faith communities in efforts to stop war and prevent further ecological destruction.

Perhaps you, like me, have seen local Sanghas serve their communities in countless ways, including working with the homeless and raising funds for charitable causes both in North America and overseas. It is clear that our Sanghas and Sangha members serve in innumerable ways, without a lot of fanfare, setting examples in work places and in other social settings that have helped place the Dharma seed deep in the social fabric of the West.

Only twenty years ago, Thay opened our eyes to the possibility of Sangha practice at a time when a large Sangha would have been six or seven people sitting together in a dining room. Today, this Jeweled Net manifests in Sanghas and monastic practice centers throughout the world in which thousands of people participate. Yet all this has been accomplished in a surprisingly short period of time with no sense of hurry, in the spirit of one step, one breath. When I first met Thay twenty years ago near the busy baggage claim at O’Hare International Airport, and soon thereafter found myself following his example of practicing airport walking meditation toward my car, I realized instantly that this lineage would have its impact upon our world in no other way.

What lies ahead? Thay has predicted that the next Buddha may indeed be a Sangha. That prediction will manifest if each of us infuses our lives consistently with the most basic mindfulness practices based on conscious breathing, and if we keep doing so together with a light, loving touch, as kaylana mitta, friends on the path.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction, was ordained by Thay as a Dharma Teacher in 1992. Jack was a co-founder of Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois and practices extensively with Sanghas in the American Midwest.

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Sangha Building in Southern California

By Karen Hilsberg

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Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the Buddha of the twenty-first century may manifest as Sangha. The simplest definition of Sangha is a community of friends practicing mindfulness together and offering spiritual support to one another.

I practiced on my own in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh for ten years before beginning to practice regularly with a local Sangha and with the Deer Park Sangha. And from practicing with a Sangha my mindfulness practice has deepened exponentially. I learn so much from my friends in the fourfold Sangha (monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen)! We grow and develop together through our formal and informal practice together and through our special friendships.

Here are some tips and best practices that have worked to strengthen community and build Sangha in Southern California during the past seven years.

  • If you build it, they will come. My husband and started a Sangha in our home in October 2003. We publicized the Sangha for about three weeks before the first meeting by putting up fliers in health food stores and coffee shops, and sending out e-mails. Nine people attended our first gathering, and the Sangha has been meeting every week for the past six years.
  • Meet for at least two hours at a time so that people can have time to settle in without rushing. The format of many Sanghas is to begin with a silent or guided meditation for twenty to forty-five minutes, followed by slow walking meditation, then more sitting meditation. The second part consists of a Dharma discussion on a prearranged topic, such as a talk by Thay, an article in the Mindfulness Bell, a book by Thay, a sutra, or the Mindfulness Trainings. The Sangha may also learn a song or chant together, or practice inviting the bell. Have a different person lead the Sangha each week.
  • Meet every week at the same time in the same place. This creates continuity and dependability. Recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings or Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings once a month. Sangha members learn about the Trainings, discuss them, and then find ways to incorporate them into their lives if they like.
  • Use e-mail to remind 3angha members of the time and topic of each Sangha gathering. Create a website and add a listing on the worldwide directory of Sanghas at www.mindfulnessbell.org so that practitioners can locate a Sangha in their area.
  • Be inclusive. Welcome new members and make it easy for new members to participate. Some Sanghas offer an introduction at the beginning of each meeting or once a month. Some Sanghas have people who welcome everyone at the door at the beginning of the Sangha and are available to offer basic instruction in mindfulness practice.
  • Move the Sangha to a public space. Everyone loved meeting at our home and practicing walking meditation in the garden. However, we were encouraged to move the Sangha to a public space, which we did. Meeting in a local yoga studio has relieved the responsibility of leading the Sangha every week from any one person. It is often more comfortable for people to meet in a public space.
  • Collect dana each week to support rent for the space, community service projects, or scholarships for Days of Mindfulness and retreats.
  • Encourage Sangha members to subscribe to the Mindfulness Bell and periodically discuss an article or issue as a Sangha.
  • Lead by caretaking council. Share the Sangha leadership among a group of people who meet quarterly to make decisions about Sangha schedule, organize picnics or potlucks, arrange Days of Mindfulness, and attend to other Sangha business. Practice deep listening and loving speech during caretaking council and try to come to consensus when possible.
  • At least once a year, offer a Day of Mindfulness from 10:00 to 4:00 to the community and nearby Sanghas. Either lead the activities of the day yourselves or invite a Dharma Teacher or Order of Interbeing member to support or lead the activities.
  • When possible, attend a practice center or weekend retreat together as a Sangha. This is a wonderful opportunity to
  • get to know one another in a different context, to have unstructured time together, and to deepen the practice of the Sangha together.
  • Create an Order of Interbeing and/or OI Aspirant Sangha. Deer Park Monastery has been offering an opportunity on the third weekend of the month for OI members and aspirants to attend the monastery and meet together as a Sangha to deepen their understanding of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and the OI Charter, and to build community in Southern California. This has been a wonderful opportunity for many Sangha leaders to feel recharged and nourished in their practice of Sangha building in their home communities.
  • Welcome and support families with young children. Children are wonderful practitioners and teachers. Children can understand mindfulness practice and families can practice together. Offer gatherings for families that can support parents in the wonderful and challenging task of fostering mindfulness and peace within the family.

The practice of mindfulness takes place at Sangha and increasingly in every aspect of our daily lives. Our Sangha brothers and sisters become our spiritual family with whom we share the landscape of our lives. As Thay has said, a practitioner is like a drop of water. If the drop of water is alone, it may evaporate easily. However, when many drops of water join together to form a river, all the drops of water in the river can travel safely to the ocean. The Sangha is our river that supports our practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of joy and non-fear in our lives.

For further support on Sangha building, refer to Friends on the Path by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, practices mindfulness and builds Sangha in Southern California. She recently self-published her first book entitled Be Like a Tree: Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh.

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Morning Sun Rising

By John Young

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Five years ago Fern Dorresteyn and Michael Ciborski began a series of conversations with practitioners across the United States and around the world; listening, talking and imagining a life rooted in practice outside the structured container of the monastery. Having spent nearly a decade in Plum Village (also Deer Park and Maple Forest monasteries), first as lay people and then as monastics, they knew that practice would always be the foundation of their lives. And they knew that a life of practice is vitally nourished by living closely in spiritual community. Their aspiration is to creatively meet our fast-paced, stressed-out consumer society face to face with a clear, vital alternative.

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So began the journey that has led to the creation of Morning Sun, a small (but growing!) residential lay community and practice center in rural New Hampshire.

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In dreaming and living Morning Sun, we look for balance; allowing space for the organic development of our community, depending on who arrives into it, and also ensuring that there is a glittering diamond of clear intention rooted in practice that informs all we do. For those of us (like me, for example) who come from lives of planning, power, control, and strategy, this wise fluidity is a wonderful opportunity to embrace “don’t know mind.”

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As the seasons turn from winter to spring, we are growing into the next chapter of life in Morning Sun. We will soon close on the purchase of 240 acres of beautiful land and begin construction of the first two houses, a simple meditation hall, and a couple of cabins. We’ll plant our gardens, grow our vegetables, and open our hearts to practitioners who may wish to come and join their lives to ours in Morning Sun.

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The summer ahead will be a full one — both in terms of working on the land that will house our community and in terms of programming. We’ll offer our mindfulness adventure summer camp for children, teens, and parents for the third year in a row. We’ll offer half-days of mindfulness three times a month and one full day every month, we’ll collectively offer deep ecology/spirituality workshops based on Joanna Macy’s work and hope to hold a series of these throughout New England. And we’ll continue to navigate the local planning process so that we can move forward in preparing the land to welcome new practitioners.

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As the community grows, so will our efforts to be present with and serve the world. Clustered around a beautiful pond we will slowly build our center, where people can join in practice and learn about the bodhisattva way of life. Around our central campus, individual dwellings and co-housing will be built for residents and long term guests. Our intention is to offer diverse programming for individuals and families: helping them to slow down and touch the joy of simple living; transform anxiety, confusion and stress; and develop their capacity to work through the practice of mindfulness and sustainable living for the benefit and healing of society and the Earth.

As all of this unfolds we are delighted to be making new friends in the micro-region right around the Morning Sun land. It turns out that we are in one of those very special spots on the planet where people have been drawn to put down roots and build community in all kinds of different ways. The Orchard Hill community, school, and fantastic bakery is a just a couple of miles up the road. And a couple of miles in the other direction is the Sustainability Project, where we’ll be holding our camp this summer. And then there’s Mole Hill right across the road from our current practice house, where our neighbor Dennis holds evenings of theatre, music, and other festivities.

As we look out over the coming months and years we are filled with gratitude. So many conditions are coming together to support the vision we have been dreaming of for such a long time. We are blessed and so very happy to share the fruits of Morning Sun with all.

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John Young worked as a political adviser and activist in Canada until three years ago when he went to Plum Village for the first time. He then left his career, his home, and all his possessions to follow the path of practice. You can reach the folks at Morning Sun online at morningsunedcenter.org or by phone at (603) 357-2011.

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Intersein-Zentrum

Ten Years of Practice in Community

by Karl and Helga Riedl

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The Intersein-Zentrum, a practice and meditation center in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh, is celebrating its tenth anniversary! This means ten years of concretely and continuously building and maintaining Sangha.

After living in Plum Village for more than six years, we knew very clearly that we were wholeheartedly ready to adopt this practice and this way of life. In May 1999, together with the late Karl Schmied, we founded a residential community in the southeast corner of Germany — the Intersein-Zentrum (Interbeing Center).

Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, living under the same roof in the spirit of the Six Harmonies. Over these past ten years, quite a number of people have been inspired by the practice of Thay and happy to share this lifestyle. For some of them, after months or even many years, different priorities emerged and they went on their way — enriched, happier, and with more clarity. Others have stayed with us for as long as nine years. Today we are ten residents sharing our joy and love for the Buddha-Dharma.

The Four Foundations

The first foundation for a Sangha is to be deeply inspired by the Dharma and the practice of Plum Village.

Together with two other friends we moved into a renovated building in early 1999. At the beginning we felt quite lost in that big house, which can host as many as eighty-six people apart from the family retreats, when we host over one hundred people. The four of us began right away with the same schedule that is used in Plum Village: meditation, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, etc. One of the principles of our small Sangha from the very beginning has been to never, even in difficult and pressing situations, put the practice aside or skip scheduled activities. There was and still is a lot to do for a small group of people — running a big center and many retreats, being there for guests, implementing fascinating ideas and projects. However, before beginning a new task, we always ask the question: “Is it in accordance with the practice and our schedule?”

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The second foundation for a Sangha is that through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increases and radiates out.

Living in a residential community, sharing all activities, applying the Six Harmonies, and having only a common income from retreats and guests is a special and demanding practice in itself. The most important practice — and this holds true even for a non-residential Sangha — is to regularly come together and share. To share means to allow everyone to express their joy and their difficulties, inspire others with their insight, and ask for support and understanding. This fosters communication on a very deep level. Furthermore, it is important to be clear about organization, tasks, positions, and the decision-making process, to agree on the structure, and to expose and clarify misunderstandings.

The third foundation for a Sangha is to keep communication alive and open and to make sure the structure is transparent and clear for everybody.

Sharing also means sharing the practice with others — giving and serving. In this way we realize how much we can let go of our self-concern and how well we are rooted in the practice. Once a month we offer a retreat — generally from five days to one week— where we introduce people to mindfulness and different Plum Village practices. Refreshed and with new insight, they return to their families and workplace and when they come back, they report on their experiences: “Just knowing that you are practicing all year round gives us a lot of support and trust.” Most people come back again and again, staying for longer periods to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Each summer we offer a retreat for families, which is one of our most important. We stay connected with most of the families for many years, and we can observe with great joy and confidence that they are applying what they have learned and heard.

The fourth foundation for a Sangha is to have a common public activity and responsibility. Within this field we can express the fruit of our practice and we have the opportunity to respond to the actual problems people are facing today.

As a Sangha we are living and practicing in a non-Buddhist environment and it is very important to establish good relationships with our neighbors. Our connection with the nearby villages, which are deeply rooted in Christianity, is friendly, warm, and openhearted. Schoolteachers come here every year with their classes to experience our way of life and even the Catholic priest has visited us several times with his congregation.

The Acceleration of Wisdom

Last year we initiated a winter study and practice training that will run for three years in a row. This arose from seeing the needs and difficulties of practitioners and especially wanting to give those who are deeply motivated the opportunity to enhance and deepen their understanding. Observing the participation and enthusiasm of quite a number of people gives us the confidence that this training corresponds much to the needs of our time. This is another important aspect of a Sangha — to study and deepen the understanding of the Dharma practice and to be able to explain it to others.

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We have many Italian friends from Plum Village who come regularly to the retreats we lead in Italy. They have observed over many years the development of the Intersein-Zentrum in Germany. They felt much inspired by how this lay practice center is organized and how the practice is kept alive, so after several years of preparation they are on the way to manifesting a residential practice center in southern Italy. Those who feel committed to living in a residential community are coming here to be trained and some members of our center will go there and support them at the beginning. It is very important for a Sangha to establish a good relationship with other Sanghas, so we can learn from our cultural diversities and open up to each other.

The emphasis in our tradition is the practice of mindfulness and so it is quite natural that we take care of our bodies and our environment. In our center we serve vegetarian food that is based on the principles of Ayurveda and the Chinese five elements; we get protein from a rich variety of beans and nuts. We offer classes in yoga and chi gong. Furthermore we have solar water heating and a very modern wood pellet stove for heat, a large composting pile that we have turned into a beautiful vegetable and flower garden, and a biological sewage system. We are very concerned about driving and we have more than one car-free day. All these different activities are expressions of our practice and they are seen by our guests as examples that they can take home and apply directly in their daily lives.

When we look back over these years, we see that all the difficulties we have faced were indeed “wisdom accelerators,” as Thay calls them. We gained much understanding of the difficulties faced by people who are practicing the Buddha-Dharma in the West, a culture that is deeply materialistic. We continue to learn a lot and to experience more than ever a deep trust in the Three Jewels — while using our modern tools and language that people in the twenty-first century can understand and apply.

Helga Riedl, True Wonderful Loving Kindness, and Karl Riedl, True Communion, were ordained as Dharma teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994. Their spiritual path began in Poona, India, with Baghwan Sri Rajneesh in 1980 and in 1985 they started Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition. They also studied the Theravada tradition in monasteries in Sri Lanka and Thailand and the Tibetan Gelug tradition at the Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in Pomaia, Italy. It was there they met Thay in 1992 and shortly after followed him to Plum Village.

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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.

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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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Dharma Talk: New Century Message From Thich Nhat Hanh

Tu Hieu Temple and Plum Village December 7, 1999 

To All Venerable Monks, Nuns, Lay Men And Lay Women Of The Sangha In The Tu Hieu Lineage, Inside And Outside Of Vietnam:

Dear Friends,

The Twentieth Century has been marred by mass violence and enormous bloodshed. With the development of technology, humanity now has the power to “conquer” Nature. We have even begun to intervene in the chemistry of life, adapting it to our own ends. At the same time, despite new and faster ways to communicate, we have become very lonely. Many have no spiritual beliefs. With no spiritual ground, we live only with the desire to satisfy our private pleasures.

We no longer believe in any ideology or faith, and many proclaim that God is dead. Without an ideal and a direction for our lives, we have been uprooted from our spiritual traditions, our ancestors, our family, and our society. Many of us, particularly young people, are heading towards a life of consump­tion and self-destruction.

Ideological wars, AIDS, cancer, mental illness, and alcohol and drug addiction have become major burdens of this century. At the same time, progress in the fields of electronic and biological technology are creating new powers for mankind. In the 21st century, if humans cannot master themselves, these new powers will lead us and other living beings to mass destruction.

During the 20th century many seeds of wisdom have also sprouted. Science, especially physics and biology, has discovered the nature of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self. The fields of psychology and sociology have discovered much of these same truths. We know that this is, because that is, and this is like this, because that is like that. We know that we will live together or die together, and that without understanding, love is impossible.

From these insights, many positive efforts have recently been made. Many of us have worked to take care of the environment, to care for animals in a compassionate way, to reduce the consumption of meat, to abandon smoking and drinking alcohol, to do social relief work in underdeveloped countries, to campaign for peace and human rights, to promote simple living and consumption of health food, and to learn the practice of Buddhism as an art of living, aimed at transformation and healing. If we are able to recognize these positive developments of wisdom and action, they will become a bright torch of enlightenment, capable of showing mankind the right path to follow in the 21st century. Science and technology can then be reoriented to help build a new way of life moving in the direction of a living insight, as expressed in terms of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self.

If the 20th century was the century of humans conquering Nature, the 21st century should be one in which we conquer the root causes of the suffering in human beings our fears, ego, hatred, greed, etc. If  the 20th century was characterized by individualism and consumption, the 21st century can be character­ized by the insights of interbeing. In the 21st century, humans can live together in true harmony with each other and with nature, as bees live together in their bee hive or as cells live together in the same body, all in a real spirit of democracy and equality. Freedom will no longer be just a kind of liberty for self-destruction, or destruction of the environment, but the kind of freedom that protects us from being over­whelmed and carried away by craving, hatred, and pain.

The art of mindful living expressed in concrete terms, as found in the Five Mindfulness Trainings, can be the way for all of us. The Trainings point us in the right direction for the 21st century. Returning to one’s root spiritual tradition, we can find and restore the equivalent values and insights. This is a most urgent task for us all.

I respectfully propose to all Venerable Monks, Nuns, and Lay people within our Tu Hieu lineage, in Vietnam and outside of Vietnam, to carefully reflect upon the following recommendations, and to contrib­ute some part in helping to create the direction for mankind in the New Century:

1. We should continue to set up monasteries and practice centers. These centers can organize retreats—one day, three days, seven days, twenty-one days, ninety days, etc.—for monastics and for lay people, aimed at developing our capacity for transfor­mation and healing. Activities at these centers should cultivate understanding and compassion and teach the art of Sangha building. Temples and practice centers should embody a true spiritual life, and should be places where young people can get in touch with their spiritual roots. They should be centers where the practice of non-attachment to views according to the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing can be experienced. To cultivate tolerance according to these trainings will prevent our country and mankind from getting caught in future cycles of religious and ideological wars.

2. We should study and practice the Five Mind­fulness Trainings in the context of a family, and establish our family as the basic unit for a larger Sangha. Practicing deep listening and mindful speech, we will create harmony and happiness, and feel rooted in our own family. Each family should set up a home altar for spiritual and blood ancestors. On important days, the entire family should gather to cultivate the awareness and appreciation of their roots and origins, thus deepening their consciousness of these spiritual and blood ancestors. Accepting the stream of ancestors in our own beings, we draw on their strengths and recognize their weakness, in order to transform generations of suffering. Each family should recognize the importance of having one member of their family devote his or her life to the learning and practice of the Dharma, as a monastic or a lay person. The family should invest in, support, and encourage this family member.

3. We should give up our lives of feverish consumption, and transfer all merits of action created by thoughts, speech, and work to the Sangha. Our happiness should arise from understanding, compassion, and harmony, and not from consumption. We should see the happiness of the Sangha as our own happiness.

4. We should invest the time and energy of our daily life in the noble task of Sangha building. We should share material things that can be used collec­tively by the Sangha, such as houses, cars, television, computers, etc. We should give up alcohol, drugs, and smoking. We should learn to live simply, so that we may have more time to live our daily life deeply and with freedom. Living simply, we become capable of touching the wonders of life, of transformation and healing, and of realizing our ideal of compassion in the educational, cultural, spiritual, and social domains of our lives.

The 21st century is a green, beautiful hill with an immense space, having stars, moons, and all wonders of life. Let us climb the hill of the next century, not as separate individuals but as a Sangha.

Let us go together, hand in hand, with our spiritual and blood ancestors, and our children. Let us enjoy the climb together with our songs and our smiles, and allow each step to create freedom and joy and peace.

Wishing you and your Sangha a wonderful century full of faith and happiness,

mb25-dharma1Thich Nhat Hanh
Elder of the Tu Hieu Lineage

 

 

mb25-dharma2

 

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