Ancestral Insights

By Sister An Nghiem

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I sat here at this same lotus pond in New Hamlet just a few short years ago and wrote my letter of aspiration to become a nun. And here I sit again, this time writing a letter to Thay and my friends, a letter that shares what I will call an “ancestral insight.” During my time as a monastic here in Plum Village, many of my most treasured moments have been the realizations of these deep insights.

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In monastic life, form and conformity are an important part of our practice. One of the expressions of form is the mode of dress we assume. Luckily, we wear simple robes, and on occasion the nuns wear head scarves. I’ve always admired my dear sisters when I’ve seen them with the head scarves and robes as they are literally dressed head to toe in brown—the color of the earth and a reminder of our link to those who work the land and live a simple life. Their beautiful round faces glow with joyful smiles beneath heads wrapped in the earthen color.

Yet, when I looked in the mirror and saw myself with the same scarf, I didn’t see—I couldn’t see—the same beauty. In fact, what I saw was not beautiful at all. It was disconcerting, to say the least; I felt I looked funny and out of place. Of course, I continued to wear my scarf despite this view, and thought, “Well, maybe I just have to get used to the way it looks.” But after more than a year, my view didn’t change, and I couldn’t get used to the way I looked in the head scarf. I began to look deeply and ask, “Why do my sisters look so nice, but I don’t?” I tried tying it on in various ways in hopes of improving the look of it, but this didn’t seem to help either.

So I continued to ask this question, sitting and walking with it. And one day, when I looked in the mirror, a stunning answer came. I didn’t see myself; I saw Aunt Jemima! Aunt Jemima, just like on the maple syrup bottles and the pancake boxes of yore—that infamous trademark depicting a stereotypical African-American woman with her head wrapped in that bandana, smiling, with wide bright eyes. And the memories came flooding back, memories of days from my youth and growing up in the south, in Washington, DC. We were taught to have disdain for this cultural icon, and if we dared to wear a scarf like this as young girls, we were ridiculed and called “Aunt Jemima” in the most condescending way.*

We didn’t want to have anything to do with Aunt Jemima, least of all look like her! When I was a very young girl in the late ’60s and ’70s, there were clearly defined (though unspoken) ideas of what a young African-American girl should look like, and it definitely was not Aunt Jemima. We were somehow taught in silent ways that this important link to our history of slavery, racism, and discrimination in America was to be shunned. The mockery that was perceived when we were labeled or looked upon as icons such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Stepin Fetchit, Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben’s rice, Rastus of Cream of Wheat, and others, only brought upon us shame and confusion.

As a young girl, I could only see the shame and “ugliness” of these icons. It is only with hindsight, the insight of mindfulness, and the daily practice that I was able to see the confusion, pain, and false sense of security which manifested as a result of this particular view. I realized in an instant, with that image of Aunt Jemima reflected back at me in the mirror, that we held what I know now to be a wrong view. Any view that causes us to see ourselves as separate is a wrong view. I realized that as a child, I had shame and fear about something I didn’t quite understand. Isn’t it interesting how our cultural icons affect us, without us ever really knowing it?

And in this wonderful instant of insight I embraced my Aunt Jemima: the Aunt Jemima in me and that is me. I exhaled, felt deep release, calm, stillness … and beauty. How could I have seen her as anything other than myself? Shunning Aunt Jemima was like shunning myself—no wonder I felt disconcerted and disconnected.

Today, I don’t deny the cavernous pain and suffering that these images and what they represent evoke in all of us, but I have learned the value of embracing them and the pain and suffering that lies in my very own DNA. I am embracing, accepting, and gradually transforming these for myself, my parents, my greatgreat-great-great-great grandma Mary who was a “house” slave, and my grandmother, Grammy Nanny, who worked as a domestic in an antebellum mansion in Millwood, Virginia, until very near her death at eighty-nine years of age just over twenty years ago. She cooked, cleaned, managed the household and raised two boys, who wept like babies at the funeral of their beloved Nana. For all of us and all of you, I share and embrace these memories and insights toward transformation and healing.

Thank you Aunt Jemima, Stepin Fetchit, and all the others. Thank you all for being there.Your stereotypes represent countless real people who, through perseverance, courage, and the sheer will to survive and live, did what was necessary so we—all of us, your descendants—could be free and here today. And with the art of mindful living, we can learn to embrace all parts of our ancestral history and ourselves, because in reality we are not separate but one, and part of the same continuum.

When I look in the mirror now, I sometimes still see my old friend Aunt Jemima. But with this powerful new insight, I know not to fear, not to hate, not to have shame. Instead I have awareness, smile, and say: “Hello Aunt Jemima! I know that because you are there, you are one of the conditions that made it favorable for me to be here today … wrapped in a beautiful brown robe, with a headscarf that frames a beautiful round brown face, glowing and smiling happily.”

*Wikipedia says it succinctly: “The term ‘Aunt Jemima’ is sometimes used colloquially as a female version of the derogatory label ‘Uncle Tom’. In this context, the slang term ‘Aunt Jemima’ falls within the ‘Mammy archetype’, and refers to a friendly black woman who is perceived as obsequiously servile or acting in, or protective of, the interests of whites.” [The term was used especially during the time of slavery and the “Jim Crow” era.]

Sister An Nghiem (Sister Peace) was born and raised in Washington, DC, arrived in Plum Village in June 2006, and ordained in September 2008. She currently lives in Plum Village. Her interests include reading, organizing retreats, and traveling with the Sangha to share the Dharma and “bring it on home” to where the rubber meets the road.

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Dharma Talk: Living Practice

Question and Answer Session
with Thich Nhat Hanh and Monastic Brothers and Sisters

European Institute of Applied Buddhism
Waldbrol, Germany
May 20, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh: Today we have a session of questions and answers. We know that a good question can benefit many people. So please ask a question from your heart, a question that has to do with our practice, our suffering, our happiness. We know that a good question does not have to be very long. Young adults are encouraged to come and ask questions.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve been in a youth Sangha for almost two years. There are many Sanghas of young people growing in Holland and Germany, and it’s great to feel the brother­hood and sisterhood, and also the youth retreats that we have here in the EIAB [European Institute of Applied Buddhism]. I would also like to thank the EIAB for their support and their flexibility and trust in the wake-up group. As young people, we have this dream to create wake-up, living communities, but I wonder, how do we know that we have enough practice to make this really hap­pen? Do we need to have Dharma teachers as a foundation? Do we need to have laypeople finish the five-year [monastic] program to be the foundation? How do we create successful wake-up, living communities?

Thay: I remember one time we had a retreat in Montreal, Canada, and after the first session of walking meditation, one lady came up and said, “Thay, walking meditation is so wonderful, I enjoy it so much! May I share this practice of walking meditation with other people?” And I said, “Yes, you can share the teaching and the practice if you feel happy with the practice.” So if a group of young people are able to live happily and in harmony, connecting with the practice, they can begin to share the practice with other young people, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time learning and practicing Buddhism.

Maybe Brother Phap Linh can say a few words on this, on how to expand our movement and help more young people.

Brother Phap Linh: I know that the wake-up movement is very strong; we already feel like brothers and sisters on the path. Two years ago, Thay told us we need to have a wake-up tour of Europe, to spend ten days in each country. At the time we thought that was impossible, but already this year we’ve been able to do it in England and in Italy. We went to six different universities in the United Kingdom in March, a group of seven brothers and sisters and five young laypeople. Next year we want to make that dream come true by planning events in Holland, Germany, and Belgium.

Thay has encouraged us to invite people to practice as mo­nastics for five years. Now we will also have a two-year master’s program, for a Master of Applied Buddhism. So there are many ways that young people can come and train to become solid practitioners and to have the experience of serving others and sharing the practice.

The dream of living together as young people, sharing the practice, is already coming true. There’s a wake-up house in Aus­tin, Texas, and the core of their practice is agreeing to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the house, and that way they maintain harmony. So I think we already know the way. We just need to continue.

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Retreatant: Dear Thay, I would like to ask how to create a peaceful and friendly relationship with a person who hates you and wants you out of their life.

Thay: There are at least two things to do. The first thing is to be­come lovable, pleasant. Sooner or later the other person will notice that you have become more pleasant to be with. The second thing is that you may know people who are friends with the other person, who can help the other person notice that you are a lovely person, are pleasant to be with, so that he will adjust his first impression and recognize the reality that is now. So the first thing is, a flower should be a true flower. The second thing is that someone should remind us that the flower is there.

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Retreatant: I have a habit to be offensive against other people in my thoughts. I want to change that, but I don’t know how. For example, when I walk down the street and see people doing things, I think to myself, “Oh, what an idiot!” Things like that.

Thay: When you see something, it might be only one aspect of that thing, the aspect that does not please you. Next time you see someone or something, do not allow just one aspect of it to seize you, but allow yourself to see the other aspects as well.

In the chanting book there is a sutra talk by Shariputra [Dis­course on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger]. He said that when you have anger, you have to look deeply in order to trans­form your anger. With a person whose way of doing things may not please you, but whose way of speaking can be very pleasant, you should pay attention more to his way of speaking, not to his way of doing. That way you can transform your anger. Even if you notice that his behavior is not pleasant and his speech is not pleasant, maybe his way of thinking is very pleasant. You can see the goodness in his heart, so you accept what is not so good in his way of speaking or acting.

Shariputra went on to say that even if his behavior is not pleasant, if his speech is not pleasant, and if his thinking is not pleasant, you can still feel compassion and transform your anger. You look deeply to understand that such a bad person must be someone who suffers very much, and you might be able to help him suffer less. If you think like that, you will accept him as he is, and the anger in you will be transformed. This sutra is very beautiful. I recommend that you read it.

Shariputra used the image of water to illustrate his teaching. First, he described a lake covered with straw and algae. If a person who is very thirsty and hot takes off his clothes and gets into the water using his arm to remove what is floating on the surface, he can enjoy the cool water. If he can see underneath the straw and algae, the water is deep and fresh.

Shariputra gave a second image of a person who is traveling and is so thirsty he is about to die, but he knows there is some water left in the footprint of a buffalo. He knows that it is a very small quantity of water, and if he uses his hands to gather the water, it might become muddy. So he kneels down and drinks the water directly and is able to survive. It means that even if the situation is difficult, if the person is not very pleasant in his way of speak­ing and acting, you can recognize the goodness in him and try to enjoy that. That is one way to transform your anger, your disap­pointment. The sutra is about five ways to put down your anger and is available in the Plum Village chanting book. If you read the sutra, next time you go out on the street, you will look at them and smile and accept them as they are. Thank you. Good question.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, yesterday you talked about nirvana and states of being and non-being, the here and now, and the true self. Lately I feel that my true self is like a drop that has been taken out of the collective consciousness, something like a cloud. And I feel, as I’m aging, that this drop has been separated, and I have this longing to reunite with the ocean. I would like to know whether you notice a longing to be reunited to the true self, and how I can live in the here and now in the face of this longing.

Thay: If the wave remembers that she is at the same time water, there is no need for the wave to go and search for water. You have the impression that you are separated from your true self, from your true nature. That is only a feeling, a wrong perception. You feel that you are away from the ultimate dimension; you do not have a connection with God. That is also a feeling born from wrong perception. We know that the ultimate dimension and the historical dimension are not two separate dimensions, they are just one. So if we say that the flower belongs to the Kingdom of God, then if we get in touch deeply enough with the flower, we get in touch with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not something outside the flower. The feeling of separation is born from the fact that you do not live your life deeply enough in each moment. If we learn how to live in mindfulness and concentration, then the Kingdom of God, the ultimate dimension, is always available to us.

So we need to train ourselves to live more deeply. If we have enough mindfulness and concentration, we can touch the ultimate with every breath, every step. Nirvana, or the Kingdom of God, can be experienced in every moment of our daily life. In fact, you can touch nirvana with your feet. You can be in the presence of God twenty-four hours a day. How? Learn to breathe mindfully, walk mindfully, eat mindfully, drive mindfully.

Bell

A written question: Dear Thay, following the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I try not to kill. So for the past two years when I saw a few little bugs in the kitchen, I left them in peace. But this summer there were so many that I began to kill them, always trying to keep a peaceful mind and friendliness, wishing a good rebirth in the next life. I remembered you saying that when we followed the North Star, it didn’t mean that we had to reach it. But to perform the act of killing again and again, doesn’t this create karmic imprints in my stream of consciousness? Or do I have to decide not to kill at all in spite of some disadvantages? Thank you.

Sister Jina: We say the Five Mindfulness Trainings are like the North Star. They give us a direction in life, the direction of non- violence. And we do our best. One of the main things is to keep our mind open, not to think we have to do it this way or that way. Every time I am confronted with a situation, I look again and say, “What is the wisest thing to do?” If you do that, then you may learn to focus on prevention. In this case, we can see what we do that brings the little beings into our kitchen. Then we can determine what we can do to prevent them from coming in. This goes for all aspects of our daily life. If we did kill the insects, then we have to know we may not choose to do the same thing next time. In the meantime, practice being mindful in your daily life. Then you will have more concentration and more insight about how to protect life and how to go in the direction of nonviolence.

If we start to feel guilty, then we may get to a state where we cannot do anything anymore because guilt overtakes us. It is better to look and to say, “I regret that I did this. What can I do now?” Then we have learned something from the situation, and this will benefit many people and many beings.

Thay: When we went to Hong Kong, we had to use a mosquito net in order to sleep during the night because there were a lot of mosquitoes. It is impossible for you to kill all the mosquitoes! So using a mosquito net is a good prevention technique.

In Plum Village our brothers and sisters used to pick up the insects in the garden and release them outside instead of using pesticides. If we allowed the insects to share our vegetables, there would not be enough vegetables left for us. So at night we went to the vegetable garden and we picked up all these small insects and released them far away. Our neighbors were very surprised to see us and wanted to know what we were doing in the dark!

But that does not mean that we have the best way. We are still learning better ways to protect life. Thank you for asking the question so that we can continue our reflection on that.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear brothers and sisters, I would like to ask a question regarding my superiority complex. All my life when I’ve met people, I’ve automatically judged them and found something in them that made me feel superior. I used to go to a school where at the end of each year we had the custom to invite the best of each year onto a stage before the entire school and honor them with a golden plaque. There is still this voice in me that would really like to share that I, too, once received one of those golden plaques. But I have also discovered how in this way I create a distance between myself and other people.

I have discovered that one reason for my feeling of superior­ity is that I’ve tried to protect myself from a feeling of inferiority. Because of this discovery, things are changing a little bit. However, this feeling of having to create a distance between me and other people is still an obstacle in my way. I would like to ask you for more advice on how to manage this better. Thank you.

Thay: This morning when I touched the earth with the Sangha, I saw all the non-me elements coming together and touching the earth. I did not see me at all, only the non-me elements. That created a lot of space inside. Because you believe in a self, you compare that self with other selves. Out of it come the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, the equality complex. If you touch the truth of non-self in you, you are free.

When I was ordained, I was told how to bow to the Buddha. Bowing to the Buddha because you have the impression that the Buddha is perfect and you are not perfect is not the best way. As a young novice I was told that before you bow, you have to look deeply into yourself and into the Buddha to whom you bow. There is a verse you can recite while breathing in and out, before you bow. The verse is: “Dear Buddha, I know I have no self and you have no self. That is why I can see me in you and you in me.”

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not two separate entities. So when you remove the barrier, the distinction between the one who bows and the one who is bowed to, then the experience of the bow can be very deep. Although you conceive of the Buddha as the perfect one, your teacher, the fully enlightened one, you have no complex whatsoever.

Then there is the insight that our ancestors have transmitted to us many wonderful qualities. If we have some talent, there’s no “our own” talent. That is something that has been transmitted to you by your father or your grandfather or grandmother. You should be proud of it. If another person does not seem to have that talent, that doesn’t mean that talent is not in him or her. That person has been in an environment that has not helped that talent to manifest. You are luckier, because you have been in an environment where that talent had a chance to manifest. If you can see that, you won’t have any superiority complex over him.

Also, our ancestors have transmitted to us negative things, habit energies, sufferings. If we happen to be in a good environment where there are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we will be able to transform them more quickly than another person can. I know that the negative things in me may have been transmitted to me by my ancestors, and I know that with the Dharma, with the Sangha, I may be able to help transform them. Not only for myself but for my ancestors at the same time.

So the environment is very important. We should pay attention to how to create a good environment for us and for our children so that the good things can come out easily and the negative things can be transformed more easily.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, twelve years ago I had a crisis, and when I was in most need of the help of my friends, I was let down and even attacked by them. I became very ill and lost all my trust in other people. I have tried to look into the causes of all that happened, and I have tried to forgive myself and others. Now I am on a new path, trying to open myself up and to trust other people again. Much has changed for the better. But my old wound is being opened again by some recent interactions with people, and now I feel that people cannot be counted upon and I need to protect myself. So, dear Thay, how can I live in an open and trusting way, even with people who are not very mindful, and how can I at the same time protect myself?

Thay: We speak of protection with mindfulness. When you do things mindfully, you are in a safer situation. When you walk mindfully, you don’t risk falling down. When you speak mind­fully, you know what you are saying, and you know that what you say is going to create danger or safety. Most of the time the dangers come from ourselves, and not from others. We should learn to think mindfully, because our thoughts can draw danger to ourselves. When we do things, when we say things, when we think from a basis of anger and fear, we bring danger to ourselves and to the people around us. That is why when we notice that fear or anger is coming up, we should not say anything, we should not do anything. We should only go back to our mindful breathing and mindful walking in order to calm down these emotions. Learning to act mindfully, to speak mindfully, and to think mindfully is the best way to protect ourselves, and we can help protect the people around us at the same time.

If someone asks you to do something, to say something, you say, “Dear friend, I’m not in a position to do or say anything, because there is anger or fear in me. I risk making myself suffer more, and I risk making you suffer more.” If we can practice that, we are in a safer situation, and we can help another person to feel safer at the same time. And we can suggest that the other person, suffering from anger, do the same.

The second thing is that you are in a situation to help people in that negative environment, who have become the victims of such behavior. Mindfulness gives you that insight. These people did not have the intention to make you suffer, but they don’t know how to handle the suffering in them. That is why they do things and say things that make themselves suffer, and the people around them become victims. With that insight you are free and you are in the situation to help, because you have compassion in your heart.

Dear friends, it’s time for us to do walking meditation. Enjoy the Kingdom of God. Thank you.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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

Ordination by Scorpion

By Harriet Kimble Wrye

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It’s 2:00 a.m. at Deer Park Monastery, and later today, Thich Nhat Hanh will ordain me as a lay member of the Order of Interbeing. I’m lying wide awake on my bunk, not yet sure if I’ll make it. More specifically, not sure if I’ll be able to be there.

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My husband, Jim, is fast asleep in the men’s bunkhouse. My daughter, Ariel, is sleeping soundly two bunks away. Part of me is so touched and grateful for her presence, but another part of me feels like throttling her. I am afraid, extremely afraid, that she has done something beyond foolish which could cause my imminent death.

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No Death, No Fear

Last night after evening meditation, we all walked back to our dorms. Maintaining noble silence, my five bunkmates and I removed our shoes before entering. We took turns using the bathroom and I was last, after Ariel. When I closed the door, I saw a note above the sink written in her handwriting. It said:

“Please be aware. I discovered a small scorpion on the floor near the toilet. Of course I wouldn’t violate the precepts to kill it, and having no way to capture it, I shooed it under the sink cabinet where I am sure it will enjoy a peaceful night’s safe sleep.”

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A scorpion?! Loose in the bathroom where we walk barefoot? In the spirit of the retreat, I practiced calming my rising pique with measured breathing, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed, where I fell promptly into a deep sleep.

About an hour ago, around 1:00 a.m., I awoke, padded sleepily into the bathroom, and sat down on the toilet. Just as I relaxed, I felt a blazing, piercing sting on the side of my right foot. I barely stopped myself from screaming aloud. It jolted me awake like an electric shock, and I turned on the light. There on the floor next to my bare foot, with its tail arched menacingly over its horny body, was the scorpion. I imploded with a rush of feelings: panic, fear, and rage. What to do?

Deer Park, miles from town, generally doesn’t have cell phone coverage. I had no idea where Sister (doctor) Dang Nghiem was sleeping, only that it was too far away in Lower Hamlet. Shaking with fear, I reacted impulsively. Gathering a huge wad of toilet paper, I scooped up the scorpion and flushed it down the toilet. Trembling, hoping maybe it would survive the flush, I turned out the light and climbed back onto my bunk. Had I just broken the sacred precept not to kill?

Probably the one I really wanted to flush down the toilet was my own beloved daughter! What was she thinking?! I thought about waking her, but decided that would be self-indulgent acting out. There wasn’t anything she could do for me now. I’d have been waking her up out of pique. A fleeting thought crossed my mind: “Won’t she feel horrible when she discovers my lifeless body?” I chastised myself for that petty thought.

From John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl, I knew that scorpion stings could be deadly. I also remembered that baby rattlesnakes deliver more fatal venom than grown ones. Nervously, I wondered if small scorpions were the same.

There was more than one irony to this predicament. For years, I was sure I didn’t want to be ordained. My Buddhist practice had been both beautiful and sustaining, but it was also something private and personal. Now, once I’d made this commitment, maybe I wouldn’t survive long enough to attend the ceremony. A further twist: one of the things that had helped me change my mind was Thay’s incredible talk “No Death, No Fear” at the UCLA Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Conference I helped to organize in 2006. So, I decided simply to breathe deeply, meditate, and wait. I would practice Thay’s teaching: face death without fear. If this was my fate, I would embrace it.

In the Here and Now 

So, I have been lying here in my sleeping bag for an hour, tracking every sensation in my foot, ankle, and leg. I feel them throbbing and swelling up. My leg feels hot, and I’m aware of a pulsing sensation. But I am not dead yet.

At the same time, I find myself smiling. What a beautiful ending to my blessed life. Here I am, held safe in this spiritual sanctuary, my loved ones nearby, about to be ordained by Thay, who teaches us how to face death utterly fearlessly. There doesn’t seem to be much I can do right now anyway, but simply watch and wait. If the pain really amps up, I’ll ask for help. But it continues, steadily throbbing, yet stable.

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I continue breathing deeply, smiling into fear, calmly watching my thoughts like a movie in my mind. I realize I am deeply meditating. I am fully present. I am here in the now. I am fearless. I am happy. And then I smile to myself. I have been ordained by a scorpion!

A True Precious Smile 

By 3:00 a.m., I decide that I will survive the bite. I will limp, and it will hurt, but I’ll be fine. Amazed and grateful that the teaching “This too shall pass” is yet again revealed to be wise and true, I fall into a short but deep sleep before the bell sounds for morning meditation and the day of my ordination.

The ceremony is profoundly moving. Fourteen of us are seated in the center of the great meditation hall on our zafus and zabutons. Behind the monks and nuns are all those who have come for the ceremony. I can’t turn around to find Jim and Ariel, but I feel their presence and it lifts me.

The ceremony begins with chanting, then a recitation of the Heart Sutra, and an invitation to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. All the ordinees are called to stand and come forward to “touch the earth,” to make three full prostrations in gratitude for our parents, our teachers, our friends, and all beings who have guided and supported us. That is easy, as my heart is brimming with gratitude. As each of the Fourteen Trainings is read, we make our commitment to practice it, prostrating our bodies.

Reciting each one, I realize I am finally fully owning my values and holding myself responsible to these philosophical and spiritual precepts. Performing seventeen deep prostrations is a real challenge to my old knees and shoulders, but I feel tears of gratitude that I can do it, and that, for this moment, I have completely forgotten my other ordination. I hope the scorpion swam to safety and is out in the field where she belongs. If she has died, I ask forgiveness and send her gratitude for her deep teaching, knowing that truly, we inter-are.

Finally Thay calls us forward, one by one, to give us our certificates of ordination and to bestow Dharma names chosen by our mentors and Dharma teachers with Thay. When I step forward and kneel before him, Thay hands me my certificate and grins broadly, his eyes twinkling at me as he says my Dharma name: True Precious Smile.

May I never forget today’s deep teaching—no death, no fear—and the preciousness of a smile. May I practice breathing with deep gratitude for each being who supports me intentionally or accidentally, and for each present moment throughout the rest of my wakeful life.

mb58-Ordination6Santa Cruz, California psychologist/psychoanalyst Harriet Kimble Wrye, True Precious Smile, is the author of Pulling Up Stakes: Stepping Into Freedom, due to be released in April of 2012. For information, go to www.pullingupstakesbook.com.

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There Is a Purpose

By Melissa Addison-Webster

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“The love of the Buddha is possible.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Youth Retreat at Plum Village, 2010

Even before my spinal cord injury, I had a history of driving irresponsibly. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, I put my parents’ car in the ditch twice and had my license suspended for twenty-four hours for driving under the influence of alcohol. I was young and arrogant and thought I was invincible.

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On June 9, 2000, my friend Lorena and I drove to a nearby town to buy groceries. We went out for lunch and drank some beer. Back at Lorena’s place, we smoked pot, and I invited her to my place for dinner. Before heading home, I drove to the liquor store and bought Old Milwaukee, just like my dad always drank. It was a rainy spring day. I turned onto a back road. The rear wheels of my truck skidded on the loose gravel, but I drove on. Then my mind went blank, and I have no memory of what happened next.

When I regained consciousness, I was in an emergency room. The first thing I asked was if my boyfriend Sam was there. He was. Then I asked the doctor, “What is my diagnosis?” He stated frankly, “You’ve broken your neck and you’ll never walk again.” I wept uncontrollably. Sam stood over me, unable to even hold my hand because of my critical condition.

My friend Lorena had saved my life. She was driving ahead of me, and when she noticed that I was no longer following her, she turned around to find out what had happened. She found my truck in the ditch, slammed up against a driveway, and me trapped inside with my leg caught in the steering wheel. I had smashed the driver’s side window with my head and pushed out the frame with my neck. I yelled, “I’m going to go, I’m going to die!” I felt I was about to leave my body and I was terrified. Lorena physically held my energy in my body and reassured me I would survive. The fire department arrived and extricated me from the truck, and I was airlifted to a hospital in Edmonton. I was twenty-two years old.

Learning to Survive

I had sustained a major burst fracture at the seventh cervical vertebra (C7), and the medical team decided the C7 needed to be fused to the neighboring vertebra to stabilize it. The only neurosurgeon qualified to perform the surgery was away at a conference, so I had to wait twelve days before undergoing surgery. I felt trapped in a horrible dream that wouldn’t end. What had I done to myself? Why had I not learned my lesson about impaired driving? How was I going to survive?

A wonderful nurse named Irena helped me get through those weeks in the hospital. She was a Buddhist, and she kept telling me, “Change is constant.” I had been intrigued by Buddhism since learning about it in my eleventh grade religion class, so I gladly accepted her prayer beads and wisdom. She also wrote out the mantra “Om mani padme hum” for me. She told me that by chanting this mantra, I was invoking the name of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Irena was the first of many people whose gifts helped me begin to wade through my suffering.

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After close to a month in acute care, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where I spent four months learning how to feed and dress myself, how to catheterize myself, and how to slide my body from my wheelchair to my bed and back again. My mental outlook on life was extremely bleak, and I started taking antidepressants to get through the darkness.

One day I was sitting alone in the physiotherapy room asking myself, “What is all this about? How can I be experiencing so much loss?” I heard a gentle, quiet voice telling me, “There is a purpose. There is a purpose.” I didn’t mention this experience to anyone because I was already having enough problems coping with reality.

My relationship with Sam was getting worse, so I made the difficult decision to leave him. I felt so much shame and self-blame for how everything had turned out. I told people I was leaving to go to university in Ontario, and I moved in with my parents.

Healing Trauma

Going to university was good for my mind, and it spurred me to become an activist. I began protesting for proper accessible parking signage at the university. The protests made the local papers, and soon after that, the university put up some signs. I was so happy! I began to see how nonviolent forms of direct action could create social change. At the same time I began organizing with antipoverty groups in the city.

As I worked for external social change, I also began exploring internal personal transformation. I started sessions with an energy worker named Lilli Swanson, who practices Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, which helps to heal past trauma, and she encouraged me to join her meditation group. Although my mind raced constantly in the beginning, I began to notice and wonder about the peace I felt within my body. Every morning when I woke up, I lit a candle and sat for fifteen minutes, and slowly I began to learn how to calm my mind.

In 2006 I entered a graduate program in Disability Studies in Toronto. On October 11, I was rushing to a talk by Stephen Lewis, a Canadian diplomat and social justice activist. I quickly changed lanes on a one-way street, and another driver crashed into the front of my van. The driver’s side window was smashed, I was covered in glass, and it was raining. Fortunately I was near Lilli’s house, and she came to help me. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, went through medical tests, and relived much of the trauma of my earlier accident, except this time I had a talented healer to help me get through much of the suffering. I realized that I carried deep unresolved trauma from the first accident; in a strange way, the second accident created an opening to release some of that trauma.

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I tried to go back to graduate school but was feeling extremely anxious and unwell. Due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I was not able to sleep. Soon I was trapped in enormous fear and constant paranoia. At Christmas I decided to withdraw from the program, and I moved back in with my parents again. I needed to take time to heal and mourn my spinal cord injury.

A Purposeful Life

For some time, I had been longing to practice with Thich Nhat Hanh. I deeply revered his work as an activist and peacemaker. I had been given some of his books and had found them wise and accessible. In October 2007, I drove to a retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery and received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which have become my roadmap for living a more purposeful life.

On the drive home, my moods were up and down. One moment I was overjoyed to have practiced with a teacher who worked so diligently for social justice and peace. The next minute I swung back to my old thinking patterns. I felt I could not love myself after I had received and ignored so many warnings about drinking and driving. Because of my recklessness, I had lost the use of 85% of my body. I hated myself.

I began practicing with True Peace Sangha in Toronto in 2009. The Sangha has supported my healing by being a place of refuge. I have been able to cultivate a stronger foundation of mindfulness by meditating with other people, and this has allowed me to handle my difficult emotions with more compassion. Whatever emotion I share, whether joy or sorrow or even despair, I always feel loved and held by the Sangha. With the help of a fellow Sangha member, I went to Plum Village for three weeks in 2010. This pilgrimage was a wondrous gift, and I returned to Canada with much less fear in my body and more joy in my heart.

I am learning forgiveness because I can feel it radiating from the hearts of Thay and the monastics. Thay says we cannot just have a willingness to forgive. We have to begin to see and understand the suffering within ourselves and other people. Only then is true forgiveness obtainable.

To nurture self-forgiveness, I have found guidance from Avalokiteshvara. Chanting to her and asking her to come into my heart, I have been able to cultivate more self-compassion. Through mindfulness I have learned to witness my inner narrative. For a long time, my very first thought every morning was that I had destroyed my life and didn’t deserve love. Through my meditation practice I have learned to calm these thoughts and work through my self-hatred. Meditation has increased my ability to be present. Cultivating happiness by dancing and going to the dog park is part of my practice. Making art and journaling also relieves a great amount of pain. Living according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and practicing Touching the Earth nurture my self-forgiveness, as well.

I deeply understand that suffering is purposeful. I had to give up the ability to walk to finally be able to look at my attachments, begin to find true love, and work toward the path of liberation. Even if I could change what happened to me, I wouldn’t, because I carried enormous sorrow within me and was unfulfilled in my existence. My injury has been a wonderful catalyst. Through my transition I have learned to be tremendously thankful for what I had previously taken for granted: mobility, living in a peaceful country, just being alive.

Walking Melissa, as well as inner child Melissa, is still within me, with her wholesome seeds of love, compassion, and joy. I am slowly learning that self-love comes through forgiveness and that I am worthy of love.

The biggest gift I give to myself is to deeply embrace and make friends with my grief. Although it may feel as though I have a vast ocean of sorrow to paddle across, I know mindfulness will keep me afloat and eventually carry me across to the shore.

mb63-ThereIs5Melissa Addison-Webster, Boundless Light of the Heart, practices with the True Peace Sangha in Toronto, and is a social worker, activist, and performance artist. Presently, she is completing her studies to become a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist, and enjoys spending time with her cat, Nina, and gardening.

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Story of a Little Limace

By Sister Trang Mai Thon

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I would like to share my story with you. But first, perhaps I should tell you a little bit about myself. How should I start? I can talk about things like who I am. Actually I am you. I am that big-mouth frog; I am that dead leaf, wet and nearly rotten. I am also that big, fragrant, and beautiful rose. So I am basically everything.

Now I have to come back and call myself by my true name. Well, many people know me as a slug, a baby one. I live on the poplar plantation, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, France. There, they call me a limace. I was born just this spring, and today is the first time I have come out to enjoy the wet ground, still covered by dead leaves from last autumn. The soft rain this morning brings about very pleasant conditions, lots of food for me to enjoy. And just like any other healthy baby, I have a good appetite.

While I am enjoying myself, especially the food, together with so many others of my kind in different sizes and of various generations, I hear stumbling noises approaching me. Then thousands, no, maybe hundreds (I haven’t learned to count yet) of giant sticks are stomping the ground. I have to shrink myself to the smallest size possible and try my best to stay safe. Ah, it’s walking meditation. I don’t know who these people are, and they don’t know me, either. But as their teacher says, we all inter-are. So I suppose I do know them, and vice versa, to a certain extent.

There’s one thing I do know: some of those people are really scared of me, or at least one person is. Her name is Sister So-and-So. I know that for a fact because a couple of days ago, I overheard her telling another sister that anything crawling is her worst fear. Just to name a few examples: caterpillars, slugs, and worms. So, she’s scared of me. And yet she doesn’t even know who I am, how I was born, what I eat, my life span, or my habitat, let alone my favorite color. She only knows my kind: limace. And yet she’s already worried about me.

I’ll tell you this, and it’s confidential, okay? She said to another sister that she is scared of me to the point that if anyone were to hold me up to her and ask, “Did you, Sister So-and-So, commit an act of killing last night?” she would say, “Yes,” even though it would violate the first precept about not killing.

Today she is one of the walking people, treading the ground where I am. So what do you reckon? Who should be scared of whom? Let’s imagine that a couple hundred slugs—all my family members, my relatives, my friends, and my whole neighborhood— had gone for walking meditation over where Sister So-and-So practices her deep relaxation. It would be a shock for anyone to hear the number of crimes to which Sister So-and-So would have admitted.

After I wrote you this story, somehow Sister So-and-So became aware of it, and she sent me the following message:

Dear Little Limace,

I am so sorry to have had such a discriminating mind against you. I have done a little bit of contemplation on it. So, today I would like to make a formal Beginning Anew with you.

Since I read your story, I have been more mindful of my steps when I walk or stand. I am aware that we share the same planet, Mother Earth. We are actually in the same family. I can’t say that I am ready to pick you up with my bare hands, put you on my palm, and take you around with me for a walk. However, I am aware that you have your own beauties—for example, your ou standing orange color, your extreme flexibility, and your mindful moving when you slide from here to there. At least I feel peaceful compassion towards you. I look forward to more meaningful conversations with you.

Your sister,

So-and-So

My dear friend, I don’t respond to Sister So-and-So. It’s not necessary. Anyway, when the heart is connected, we don’t really need to say much. You know it and I know it. That’s quite enough. Wouldn’t you agree with me?

Limace is the French word for “slug.” 

mb63-Story2Sister So-and-So is Sister Trang Mai Thon, of Vietnamese origin. Before becoming a novice nun in 2011, she lived in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and practiced with the Brisbane Mindfulness Practicing Group (English-speaking) and the Solidity and Freedom Sangha (Vietnamese-speaking). She currently lives and practices with the Plum Village Sangha in the New Hamlet.

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Step by Step out of Despair

Parenting a Child with Special Needs

By Laurel Houghton

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We were at home and I went to pick her up. She was blue, and her arms and legs limply dangled between my arms. I thought she was in a deep sleep. Then that she was dead. My first child, three days old. Not yet recovered from giving birth, I called her name, trying to bring her back to life as her father sped us to the ER. She’d had the first of many seizures that would only be stopped by literally putting her brain to sleep with drugs.

mb60-StepByStep2From that moment on, I lived in fear. I entered into a noble, instinctual struggle to save her life, changing in a few days from a scholarly doctoral student into a ferocious mother tiger. Meditation practice didn’t calm my parental instincts. Despite my ten-year morning and evening meditation practice, as she lay in Intensive Care hooked up to blinking machines and IVs, as she was prodded for blood tests, I lost my solidity. And between the pounding walls of the MRI, holding my tiny baby for a brain scan, I lost my faith.

She survived her birth, but we never found out the cause of the seizures and massive nervous system disorganization. One day she struggled to crawl and then gave up, flopping limply on the living room rug. Our baby was unable to talk, crawl, or walk. Her babble didn’t have normal sounds. It was then that I dropped my doctorate to study speech, occupational, physical, audio, and cutting edge therapies, usually staying up until midnight at our kitchen table as I studied specially ordered texts and planned an intervention program. I refused to accept her bleak prognosis, and solving her disabilities became my full-time work. For me, there was no balance and no breathing. My abdomen became rock hard.

Healthy mothers are often willing to give their life for their child. In my case, my personal determination to change her injured nervous system would dominate my life and become almost lethal. What I didn’t know or understand at the time was that trying to force a huge karmic drama of life into any particular outcome can eventually bring exhaustion and deep despair. Our efforts may be noble, but when we chronically stop breathing as we do our work, we are most likely caught in an ego- and fear-based control over life as it is. And giving my life to save my baby would nearly take both our lives.

My husband tried to help me notice what was good and easy in our family, but I couldn’t hear him. I was too frightened for my child. The already weak marriage became more conflicted and distant. An old family sexual secret that I’d been holding for years was eroding and splitting my psyche even more. Well-meaning friends tried to comfort me with: “God never gives you more than you can bear.” These well-intentioned words can be empty and irritating to a desperate person. What I needed was a powerful voice of wisdom and compassion; I needed to hear the Dharma from a teacher who knew trauma and war and could teach me how to emerge from trauma with clarity and love.

By my daughter’s fourth year, I’d become suicidal. Thoughts of suicide happen when you can no longer bear your life. Not willing to desert my baby daughter, I was feeling more frequent urges to die together with her. I heard the sad news of a Japanese mother in LA who committed suicide by taking herself and her children into the ocean surf with her. Other people were shocked, but I understood deeply. Even when life has become unbearable, a loving mother doesn’t leave her babies behind. Fortunately, years of meditation had strengthened the witnessing part of my mind, and I didn’t follow the despair that I felt. Instead I entered therapy, which brought deep understanding and healing around the roots of suffering in my family of origin.

A Bell of Happiness

In my spiritual practice, there was no one who seemed to speak to my suffering. In the Buddhist community, there seemed to be no one who warmly welcomed children. Then I heard of a monk who had been in war and came out of that violence speaking about flowers being fresh and mountains being solid. It was a faint bell of hope heard by an exhausted, traumatized mother who was struggling with too much and wondering if her child would live.

I went to hear Thay with hundreds of other people in the open meadows of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the early 1990s. Seated beside him on the platform were two beautiful young children. He appeared to inhale their sweet youthfulness. This teacher who came from war, violence, and exile, and who loved children, impressed me. His clear words were an anchor to a quiet place that was deeper than my yelling fears, and a lifeline out of shock and sadness.

It was four years after my daughter’s birth and the cause of her problems was still unknown. The fear in her baby eyes as she fell into another seizure on the porch of our little cottage in San Francisco still flashed in my consciousness. It was as if I were trying to emerge from a bomb shelter. I couldn’t feel any trace of “present moment, wonderful moment.” So I changed it to what I could honestly say: “Present moment, nothing bad is happening right now moment.”

Balancing fear and fatigue with inhaling the present moment, I played Thay’s Dharma talks at home and in the car, and attended every retreat on both U.S. coasts with my daughter in arms. I took her to Plum Village. She would lie in my lap and gaze up into Thay’s quiet and loving face during Dharma talks. She loved the slow, quiet, smiling community, a respite from an impatient culture that moved and talked far too fast for her. And over the years, though we didn’t keep the silence and she ate lots of commercial peanut butter at the retreats, I could feel Thay’s words watering a new consciousness in me.

Present Moment, Not Bad Moment

Then, one year, as I looked at my daughter, a change happened. I was able to honestly shift to a tiny new step and silently say: “Present moment, not bad moment.” It wasn’t a change in her disabilities; it was a change in my consciousness that started to ease the fear and trauma. Noticing the sweet moments of raising a child had started to shift my consciousness like rain streaming into a dried southwest desert creek. Bathing her soft skin in the bathtub with me, I started to notice that the present moment had become an okay moment.

Slow steady changes started to flow within me as I made a powerful intention to live with a persistent practice, and not in fear. I looked at the beauty of camellias when we walked the neighborhood. As my daughter did crawling exercises, I would adore the cuteness of her thick thighs and nibble her tiny toes. While still forcing my growing toddler to make sounds by holding back her carrot juice when she was thirsty, I smiled into her eyes and noticed progress in her flat and incomprehensible sounds. I learned to breathe more deeply as I listened to her various therapists. I worked with the sometimes heartless and bureaucratic schools by walking into her education planning meetings very slowly, breathing, with the soles of my feet touching the earth.

In this mothering practice, I started holding my fearful heart as tenderly as I did my growing child. Eventually, lighter moments of honestly feeling “present moment, wonderful moment” started forming one by one, like deeply lustrous pearls on a strand of our happier life together. It took about seven years of intensive practice to steady myself and diminish the internal drama.

Twelve years ago, for my ordination application, I was asked, “Are you happy?”

I still wasn’t sure. The fears and worries still yipped loudly, like a large pack of coyotes at dusk. But I understood that this barking was the natural, earthly, loving nature of a mother and child. And I’d learned to take good care of the barking worries by simply checking on my daughter’s safety and the multiple to-do lists for her disabilities.

Breathing in Beauty

What is different is this: alongside the fears passing through me are the thoughts of the rosy cherry tomatoes in our organic garden, and the miraculous memory of my daughter dancing a choreography, and now, after many years of parenting, a train adventure in Thailand together. Am I happy? Yes, mostly, I am happy. And it’s possible to still have fear for her. But now, fears don’t sweep me away from the wonderful moment.

Along with holding my daughter’s special needs, I also hold my own heart and fears more gently. I believe that Thay’s presentation of Buddhist teaching and practice was one essential part of literally saving my life from suicide and possibly the life of my baby daughter as well. He taught me to breathe in beauty and balance in the midst of fear and trauma.

My daughter—Mirabai Collamore, Joyful Clarity of the Heart—is part of the first generation of Thay’s American children, having walked hand in hand with him as a little girl and having learned to make a lotus with tiny fingers. Two years ago, at age twenty-two, she chose to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The Dharma light shines in her. The disabilities that were so frightening have been chipped away to almost nothing by her hard work. She attends a university where the worries of college studies and exams are held in gratitude as the precious jewels of a normal life. When nervous about her studying, Mirabai listens to her childhood cassettes of Thay, and at night she falls asleep in the arms of his Dharma talks.

As teachers of the Dharma, may we not rush the practice. May we all remember that just the next honest and mindful step, and then the next, and then the next, can gradually walk us out of despair and out of any dark consciousness.

To Thay, dear teacher, my lifelong prostration of deep gratitude.

mb60-StepByStep3Laurel Houghton, True Virtue and Harmony, has opened Flowing Waters Retreat at Mt. Shasta, California, a mindfulness practice center, where she hopes to offer a place to alleviate suffering through Dharma practice, the singing crystal pure waters, and the joy of wild spotted orchids growing under the cedars.

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Poem: Love Poem

Yesterday a friend declared her hatred for Israel.
Another, his fear of Iran.
A mother dragged her crying daughter through the street by the arm,
and a man pushed his way off the city bus,
seeing those before him as obstacles in his path.

The waves of fear and anger
rise high on the open sea
and threaten to erode this island
until the calm sand, warmed by the sun,
would lie buried under the raging waves.

This heart yearns to remain open
like the cloudless Mediterranean sky
permitting the sun to warm every being,
great or small.

These eyes desire to look with understanding
as the waves leave their mark on the island
and as the island leaves its mark on the sea.
These lips wish to bless all creation with awakening,
and these arms to discover loving and compassionate action.

Dear Thay, I look for your support and strength,
but Thay sits not in Upper Hamlet.
Thay sits in meditation in Rome, in Berlin, in Amsterdam.
Thay touches peace with every step in Los Angeles, in Chicago,
in Washington.

Thay listens deeply in Sao Paolo, in Shanghai, in Melbourne.
Thay eats mindfully in the countryside of Thailand, on the Sharon plain,
and in Jerusalem.
(I have witnessed Thay’s birth even in Bethlehem.)
Islands are slowly forming continents.

I know how Thay would get off the city bus:
When one’s goal is to love all beings indiscriminately,
there are no obstacles on the path.

— Bar Zecharya

mb62-LovePoem1Bar Zecharya, True Adornment with Light, lives in Jerusalem and Rome. His seeds of joy are watered by the Community of Mindfulness in Israel, the Sangha of Bethlehem, Palestine, and Wake Up Italia, and he is currently exploring possibilities for a mindful residential community.

 

Photo by Helena Powell

 

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Dharma Talk: Returning Home

By Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I have arrived.
I am home,
In the here
And the now.
I feel solid.
I feel free.
In the ultimate
I dwell.

 

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It is important for us to return home — to come back to the here and the now — and make peace with ourselves, our society, and those we love.

At times we suffer so much we want to run away. We feel burned out, overwhelmed, and so we take refuge in our projects, even our projects for social change. At these times we need a source of peace and joy, but when we arrive home, we may find a lot of violence and suffering there. We begin to practice mindful breathing, and, after a while, we are able to touch real peace and joy. Going home and touching peace is a source of great nourishment. The practice is to arrive home in each moment, to touch the peace and joy that are within us, and to open our eyes to the wonders of life around us — the blue sky, the sunset, the eyes of our beloved. When we do this, we experience real happiness.

Touching our eyes with mindfulness, we know that our eyes are a condition for peace and joy. Touching the beautiful trees, we realize how wonderful they are. We feel nourished, and we vow to do whatever we can to protect them and keep them healthy. Then, when our mindfulness has become strong enough, we can touch the war that is also going on inside us. But we must be careful. If we touch the suffering too soon, before we have developed concentration, stability, and the energy of mindfulness, we may be overwhelmed.

Sometimes when we suffer, we blame another person — our partner, our son, our daughter, our parents — as the cause. But when we look deeply in mindfulness we can see that they too are suffering. We see that our enemy is not the person. It is the seed of despair, anger, frustration, or fear in us. In Buddhism, we describe consciousness in terms of “seeds” — seeds of peace, joy, and happiness, and seeds of war, anger, despair, and hatred. All of these are in us. I know that you are not my enemy. In fact, I need you to help me transform my seeds of suffering. We are both victims of our own suffering, so why don’t we come together and touch some of the positive things instead? Looking deeply, we can see seeds of peace, joy, talent, and happiness in each other, and we can tell each other how much we appreciate these things.

When two warring parties arrive at a peace conference, they always begin by accusing each other, touching the negative seeds. A third party, someone who can practice “flower watering” — pointing out the positive jewels in the traditions of both sides — is needed. Both sides need more respect and appreciation for each other. These kinds of negotiations can drag on for months just disputing procedures. Why not devote the first days to flower watering? When two individuals are in conflict, when their fears and frustrations are too great for them to reconcile alone, the practice of touching peace and flower watering is also very helpful. In fact, in any relationship, this is a useful practice. Psychotherapists can practice walking meditation, looking at the beautiful sky, and touching the seeds of joy, peace, and happiness that have not been touched in a long time, with their clients. Then, when the balance is restored, it will be much easier to touch the pain, the war going on inside.

There is no need to be afraid to go home. At home, we can touch the most beautiful things. Home is in the present moment, the only moment we can touch life. If we do not go back to the present moment, how can we touch the beautiful sky, the sunset, or the eyes of our dear child? If we do not go home, how can we touch our heart, our lungs, our liver, and our eyes to give them a chance to be healthy? At home, we can touch all the wonders of life, the refreshing, beautiful, and healing elements.

Touching the present moment deeply, we also touch the past, and any damage that was done in the past can be repaired in that moment. We see that the future is also made of the present moment. There is no need to worry about the future. The way to take care of the future is to take good care of the present moment.

According to the Buddha, most of our suffering is caused by wrong perceptions. One man I know believed that the baby his wife gave birth to was really the child of his neighbor, and he held onto that wrong perception for twelve years, too proud to talk about it with anyone. The man became distant and cold to his wife, and the whole family suffered deeply. Then one day, after twelve years, a house guest observed that the twelve-year-old boy looked exactly like his father, and only then did the man abandon his wrong perception. A lot of damage was done during those twelve years. Wrong perceptions, like walking in the twilight and mistaking a length of rope for a snake, are common in our daily lives. That is why it is so important to practice mindfulness and stay in close touch with our perceptions.

Each of us has habit energies that cause us difficulties. One Frenchwoman I know left home at the age of seventeen to live in England, because she was so angry at her mother. Thirty years later, after reading a book on Buddhism, she felt the desire to return home and reconcile with her mother. Her mother also felt the desire to reconcile, but every time the two of them met, there was a kind of explosion. Their seeds of suffering had been cultivated over a long time, and there was a lot of habit energy. The willingness to make peace is not enough. We also need to practice.

So I invited her to come to Plum Village to practice sitting, walking, breathing, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness. Through that daily practice, she was able to touch the seeds of her anger and her habit energies. Then she wrote a letter of reconciliation to her mother. Without her mother present, it was easier to write such a letter. When her mother read it, she tasted the fruit of her daughter’s flower watering, and peace was finally possible.

If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give is your presence. If you are not really there, how can you love? The most meaningful declaration you can offer is, “Darling, I am here for you.” You breathe in and out mindfully, and when you are really present, you recognize the presence of the other. To embrace someone with the energy of mindfulness is the most nourishing thing you can offer. If the person you love does not get your attention, she may die slowly. When she is suffering, you have to make yourself available right away: “Darling, I know that you suffer. I am here for you.” This is the practice of mindfulness.

If you yourself suffer, you have to go to the person you love and tell him, “Darling, I am suffering. Please help.” If you cannot say that, something is wrong in your relation­ship. Pride does not have a place in true love. Pride should not prevent you from going to him and saying that you suffer and need his help. We need each other.

One day in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village, I saw a young woman walking alone who looked like a ghost. I thought she must be from a broken family, from a society that does not appreciate her, and from a tradition not capable of nourishing her. I have met many people like that, without roots. They are angry, and they want to leave their parents, their society, and their nation behind and find something else that is good, beautiful, and true. They want something they can believe in. Many people like that come to medita­tion centers, but because they have no roots, it is difficult for them to absorb the teaching. They do not trust easily, so the first thing to do is to earn their trust.

In many Asian countries, we pay a lot of respect to our ancestors. We have an ancestors’ altar in each home. On the full moon day of the seventh month, we offer flowers, fruits, and drink to them. It is a happy day, because we feel that our ancestors are with us. But, at the same time, we are aware that many souls, “hungry ghosts,” have no home to go back to. So we set up a table for them in the front yard and offer them food and drink. Hungry ghosts are hungry for love, understanding, and something to believe in. They have not received love, and no one understands them. They have large bellies and their throats are as small as a needle. Even if we offer them food, water, or love, it is difficult for them to receive it. They are very suspicious. Our society produces thousands of hungry ghosts like that every day. We have to look deeply if we want to understand them, and not just blame them.

To be happy and stable, we need two families — a blood family and a spiritual family. If our parents are happy with each other, they will be able to transmit to us the love, trust, and the values of our ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, we are connected with our ancestors through them. But if we are not, we can easily become a hungry ghost, rootless. In our spiritual family, we have ancestors, too, those who represent the tradition. If they are not happy, if they have not been lucky enough to receive the jewels of the tradition, they will not be able to transmit them to us. If we are not on good terms with our rabbi, our pastor, or our priest, we will want to run away. Disconnected from our spiritual ancestors, we will suffer, and our children will suffer too. We have to look deeply to see what is wrong. If those who represent our tradition do not embody the best values of the tradition, there must be causes, and when we see the causes, insight, acceptance, and compassion will arise. Then we will be able to return home, reconnect with them, and help them.

Transmission has three components — the one who transmits, the object transmitted, and the receiver. Our body and our consciousness are objects transmitted to us; our parents are the transmitters; and we are the receiver of the transmission. Looking deeply, we can see that the three components are one — this is called the “emptiness of transmission.” Our body and many of the seeds we carry in our consciousness are actually our parents. They did not transmit anything less than themselves — seeds of suffering, happiness, and talent, many of which they received from their ancestors. We cannot escape the fact that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. To be angry at our parents is to be angry at ourselves. To reconcile with our father and mother is to make peace with ourselves.

One young American man who came to Plum Village told me that he was so angry at his father that even after his father passed away, he still could not reconcile with him. The young man put a photo of his father on his desk, with a small lamp near it, and every time he got close to the desk, he would look into the eyes of his father and practice conscious breathing. Doing this, he was able to see that he is his father, a true continuation of his father. He also saw that his father was incapable of transmitting seeds of love and trust to him, because his father had not been helped by anyone to touch these seeds in himself, seeds that were covered over by many layers of suffering. When the young man became aware of that, he was able to understand and forgive. His father had been the victim of his father. He knew that if he did not practice mindfulness and deep looking, the seeds of love and trust in him would remain buried, and then when he had a child, he would behave exactly as his father did, continuing the wheel of samsara. The only thing to do is to go back and make peace with his own parents, and through his parents, reconnect with all of his ancestors.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we can also discover important jewels and values in our spiritual traditions. In Christianity, for example, Holy Communion is an act of mindfulness — eating a piece of bread deeply in order to touch the entire cosmos. In Judaism, you practice mindfulness when you set the table or pour tea, doing everything in the presence of God. Even the equivalents of the Three Jewels and the Five Wonderful Precepts can be found in Christianity, Judaism, and other great traditions. After you practice mindfulness according to the Buddhist tradition, you will be able to return home and discover the jewels in your own tradition. I urge you to do so — for your nourishment and the nourishment of your children.

Without roots, we cannot be happy. If we return home and touch the wondrous jewels that are there in our traditions — blood and spiritual — we can become whole.

I would like to offer an exercise that can help us do this. It is called Touching the Earth. In each of us, there are many kinds of ideas, notions, attachments, and discrimination. The practice is to bow down and touch the Earth, emptying ourselves, and surrendering to Earth. You touch the Earth with your forehead, your two hands, and your two feet, and you surrender to your true nature, accepting any form of life your true nature offers you. Surrender your pride, hopes, ideas, fears, and notions. Empty yourself of any resentments you feel toward anyone. Surrender everything, and empty yourself completely. To do this is the best way to get replenished. If you do not exhale and empty your lungs, how can fresh air come in? In this practice, the body and the mind are working together, in harmony, to form a perfect whole.

We prostrate ourselves six times to help us realize our deep connection to our own roots. The first bow is directed towards all generations of ancestors in our blood family. Our parents are the youngest, closest ancestors, and through them we connect with other generations of ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, the connection is easy. But if we are not, we have to empty our resentments and reconnect with them. Our parents had seeds of love and trust they wanted to transmit to us, perhaps they were not able to do so. Instead of transmitting loving kindness and trust, they transmitted suffering and anger. The practice is to look deeply and see that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. When we understand the “emptiness of transmission,” reconciliation is possible. Bowing down, touching the Earth, we should be able to surrender the idea of our separate self and become one with our ancestors. Only then should true communion become possible and the energy of our ancestors able to flow into us.

The second bow is directed towards Buddhist ancestors who came before us, those who have transmitted these teachings and practices to us for more than 25 centuries. The third bow is directed towards our land and the ancestors who made it available to us. The fourth is to channel and transmit the energy of loving kindness to those we love. We touch the Earth, look deeply into our relationship, and see how we can improve it. The fifth bow is directed towards those who have made us suffer. Looking deeply, we see that these people suffer also, and do not have the insight to prevent their suffering from spilling over onto others. Motivated by compassion, we want to share our energy with them, hoping it will help them suffer less and be able to enjoy some peace and happiness.

The sixth bow is directed towards our own spiritual ancestors. If we are lucky, it may be easy for us to connect with the representatives of our spiritual tradition — our rabbi, pastor, or priest. But if we have had problems with them, our effort is to understand how they themselves were not able to receive the jewels of the tradition. Instead of feeling resentment toward them, we vow to go back and rediscover the jewels of our tradition ourselves. Getting connected with our church, synagogue, rabbi, or priest will enable us to touch all our spiritual ancestors.

Photos:
First photo by Karen Hagen Liste.
Second photo by Stuart Rodgers.

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Dharma Talk: Brotherhood = Reunification

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Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to address the audience of a monthly Peace Forum on March 19th, 2003 held for leaders and representatives of various religious communities in South Korea on the topic of “Spiritual Reflections on War and Peace.” The following introduction was given:

Since the winter of 2002, the North Korean nuclear issue has created conflict between the North and the U.S. Since the terrorist attack that occurred in the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, many countries have tightened up their security policies. During this crisis, the people of North Korea continue to suffer from famine. Threats between the U.S. and the North have not resulted in any progress towards a workable solution. The economic blockade and nuclear tension continue. Neither North Korea nor the U.S. is ready to make any concessions. Koreans are concerned about the possibility of military conflict on the peninsula. Meanwhile, there is also a potential war in Iraq. The Peace Forum of January 28th made a national declaration that went along with the international wave of appeal for peace. People desire a world without war. The Peace Forum with Thich Nhat Hanh will address these complex issues. Based on his personal memories of the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh will share his beliefs and practice to lead Korea on the path of peace.

We are invited to enjoy our breathing. Our breath is a bridge that connects our body and our mind. When we go back to our breathing, our mind goes back to our body and we become fully alive, fully present. Breathing in, I feel I am alive. Breathing out, I smile to life.

Dear friends, peace is something that we can cultivate in our daily lives. It is possible to cultivate peace in every moment of our daily lives, while we walk, while we talk, while we sit. I know that peace is made of two elements. The first is understanding and the second is compassion. Cultivating peace means cultivating understanding and cultivating compassion. Every time we go back to ourselves we have the opportunity to do the work of cultivating peace. Every time I breathe in or I make a step I have an opportunity to go back to myself and become fully present in the here and the now.

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When you drink water, mindfulness helps you to see that the glass of water that you hold in your hand is real. In that moment of mindful drinking, you have no other thought, you are present just for the act of drinking. Mindfulness is the kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is happening in the present moment. What is happening in the present moment is that I am breathing in or I am making a step or I am drinking water. The energy of mindfulness brings the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration you have the opportunity to understand reality deeply.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. I would not like to live in a place where there is no suffering. I know very well that without suffering there is no way for us to cultivate understanding and compassion. It is by getting in deeply touch with suffering, it is by understanding suffering that compassion arises in our hearts.

Understanding is the Basic Work for Peace 

The Buddha advised us not to run away from suffering. Instead we have to confront suffering and look into the heart of suffering. Understanding the nature and cause of suffering is our practice. Suffering is the first Noble Truth; understanding is the second Noble Truth. Without understanding of suffering, the fourth Noble Truth, the path leading to the cessation of suffering, would not be possible.

Suppose we talk about terrorism as suffering. Looking into the nature of terrorism we see fear, we see anger, we see wrong perceptions. If you want to wage a war against terrorism you have to identify the causes of terrorism, namely fear, anger, and wrong perceptions. With fear, anger, and wrong perceptions in you, you become an instrument of terrorism, of war. Your action is motivated by that fear, that anger, and that wrong perception but you think you are acting in the name of truth, the name of justice, and the name of God.

The people who destroyed the twin towers in New York City on September 11th believed they were acting in the name of justice, in the name of God. The people who have gone to drop bombs in Afghanistan, who are going to drop bombs in Baghdad think they are acting in the name of justice, of civilization, of God. But the fact is that we cannot remove fear with fear, we cannot remove anger with anger, and we cannot remove violence with violence.

Imagine you are a citizen of Baghdad and you feel that your country is surrounded by troops and guns ready to attack your country at any moment. Sleeping in Baghdad for just one night with that kind of fear and despair is very damaging to our physical and mental health. Imagine our children who have to live in that situation of fear and despair for several months. In the last few months the people of Iraq have lived in such a situation of anguish, of fear, and of anger. Although the United States of America has not dropped any bombs, the damage can already be seen. It is the U.S. army that is terrorizing the people of Iraq.

If the population of America understood that the people in Iraq are living in anger, in despair, and fear they would not support their government starting a war there. I have many friends who are U.S. citizens who are enlightened, who know that waging a war against Iraq is a wrong thing, but they belong to a minority. They are doing their best to wake up their fellow citizens and they need our help. It is not by shouting against the American government that we can help the cause of peace. It is by doing whatever we can to help the American people to understand what is really going on – that is the basic work for peace.

Reducing Fear 

We know very well that the cause of terrorism is fear and wrong perception. I don’t think that the bombs and the guns can identify the cause of terrorism. I don’t think that the military forces can remove wrong perceptions; in fact they can strengthen wrong perceptions. The only way to remove wrong perceptions is to establish a dialogue. The two instruments that you need to use to restore communication are deep listening and loving speech.

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The government and the people of the U.S. can say, “Dear people, we don’t know why you have done such a thing to us. You must have suffered a lot, you must have hated us a lot in order to have done such a thing to us. Have we done something wrong? Please tell us of your suffering, of your anger, of your despair so that we understand and we will be more skillful in the future. If you tell us about your suffering, your difficulties, maybe we shall be able to do something to help. Now it is our deep desire to listen to you, to understand your suffering, your difficulties. We want to understand why you have done this to us.” The government of the United States of America has not used the peaceful methods of deep listening and loving speech. Every time there is a problem, right away they think of using armed forces to solve the problem.

Our political leaders have been trained in political science but not in making peace, inner peace and outer peace. We have to support them to bring a spiritual dimension to our political life. The United States of America may ask this question: Why, when the people of North Korea do not have enough to eat, do they spend money to make nuclear weapons? If we ask this question with all our heart we will find the answer. The answer may be something like this: We are hungry but we have to spend a lot of money and time to make weapons because we are afraid that you will attack us someday. If the Republic of Korea makes it very clear that they are not going to attack North Korea, that declaration will transform fear into brotherhood. I think that the path of peace can be seen clearly if we make some effort to look deeply into the situation. We have to make efforts to help people realize that North and South Korea are brothers, sons of the same mother.

The government and the people of South Korea might like to use an instrument of peace called loving speech. “Dear people in the North, we know that we are brothers and we do not want to see you suffer. As your brother in the South we will make the commitment not to attack the North. It is based on the realization that you are our brother and it would not be correct for a brother to attack a brother. If anyone makes an attempt to attack you, as your brother we will try to protect you.” The people and the government of South Korea can make such a pledge and that will reduce the amount of fear in North Korea. The Government and the people of South Korea can do better; they can convince the United States of America to make the same kind of commitment. I am sure that after the commitment is made, the people of North Korea will not spend more money on armaments but will use that money to better the lives of the people in the North.

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A Proposal for Peace and Reunification 

I propose that the Buddhist communities, the Christian communities, and other spiritual communities in South Korea come together and make this proposal to the government and the parliament. You may want to buy a portable telephone and send it to the president of North Korea as a gift. The people of South Korea can request, “Mr. President, please use this phone to talk to our president in the South for ten minutes. We have also sent our president in the South a portable telephone and we have urged him to talk to you for ten minutes every day.” If communication is restored then fear will diminish and the hope for peace will grow. This is an example of skillful means to promote the cause for peace. This is an act of watering the seed of brotherhood that is in everyone, North and South. If we follow this practice of peace then peace will be possible in just a few weeks. This proposal is something that we can do. Religious communities in the South can come together and offer the presidents of North and South Korea one portable telephone and urge their presidents to talk to each other every day about peace, about the hope for reunification.

Dear friends I would like to leave time for some questions and discussion.

Questions and Answers 

Q: I am Sister Kim Sunan and I am a Catholic sister. About ten years ago I learned walking meditation from you when you came to Korea. Since then I have been practicing and I have taught some of my students; Christian, non-Christian, and Buddhist and they really appreciate it.

This evening you said that you don’t want to live in a place where there is no suffering because suffering is one way we can learn compassion. I agree and I try to accept suffering and to find meaning in it. In Christianity we have the mystery of the cross, but I have never thought about not wanting to live where there is no suffering. I agree but at the same time I wonder about those people who are not able to bear their suffering, and are deeply hurt by it. What would you suggest for them?

Thay: This is a very good question. First of all, suffering and happiness go together. Without suffering there is no happiness; without happiness there is no suffering. They inter-are. If you don’t know the suffering of separation it is impossible for you to realize the joy of reunification. If you don’t know what hunger feels like, you don’t know the joy of having something to eat. It is against the background of suffering that we can recognize the existence of happiness.

Happiness is made of nonhappiness elements. Suffering is made of non-suffering elements. It is like a flower – a flower is made only of non-flower elements. Nonflower elements are the sunshine, the clouds, the seed, and so on. A flower is made only of non-flower elements; it does not have a separate self. I always remind my students that Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhist elements. If you return the non-Buddhist elements to their source there is no longer such a thing as Buddhism. That is what we call the non-self of Buddhism.

If there is no garbage there cannot be flowers, because garbage is used to make compost which will bring the flowers to us. If you can look deeply, then when you look into a flower you can see the garbage that has helped to make the flower possible. If you look into a heap of garbage you can see cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes because you know that it is possible to transform garbage into vegetables.

There is garbage in us, namely violence, jealousy, and anger. But if we are good gardeners we will not be afraid of this garbage because we know how to transform the garbage in us into flowers, the flowers of understanding and compassion. The practice of spirituality is not one of running away from suffering. It is the practice of learning how to transform suffering into well-being. A good practitioner knows the exact amount of suffering that she or he needs. If we allow suffering to overwhelm us we will die; that is why we need the exact amount of suffering that will help us to understand and to love. If the amount of suffering is huge in our society, it is because not many of us know how to transform the garbage back into flowers.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion. And it is thanks to the amount of understanding and compassion that we have that we can transform suffering into well-being. I think that a healthy spiritual tradition dispenses the teaching and the practice that can help us to transform suffering with the instruments of understanding and compassion.

Restoring Communication, Restoring Harmony

Q: Thay, I would like to make a very honest, heart-felt confession to you. When I listened to your Dharma talk, I felt deep shame, guilt, and humiliation as a Korean religious person. Our president called Mr. Bush and said, Korea supports American policy on Iraq and we will send soldiers in case you start war against Iraq. The U.S. government told us, if Korea does not support the U.S., we will pull our soldiers from the Korean peninsula. I feel a deep shame because people all around the world protest against war in Iraq, but my government supports it. I feel guilty when I think about the Iraqi people and what is happening to them. I also feel humiliation because when the U.S. says they will pull out of Korea, this is a hidden threat.

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In South Korea we have fifty years of suffering due to the division of our country. We have had this contract of military support with America because they helped us during the Korean War and we are very afraid of future war and violence. After fifty years of meditation and practice you have attained liberation and enlightenment. But we don’t have long years to practice. Within fifteen to twenty days we have to make a decision in our congress whether we will send our soldiers to Iraq and I don’t know whether we Korean people have enough courage to oppose sending soldiers to Iraq if it results in the American soldiers leaving Korea. Please advise us Korean people who have only fifteen days to make a decision. Teach us what to do.

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Thay: Enlightenment is not a matter of time. You cannot talk about enlightenment in terms of months or years because enlightenment can come in an instant. We call that sudden enlightenment. Enlightenment to me is a deep understanding of our true situation. There is division, discrimination, and suffering in our countries. That is true everywhere. Even in the United States of America there are many people who feel they are victims of discrimination and injustice. Separation, hatred, and anger are present within the population of America. This is because there is a lack of understanding and compassion, based on the lack of communication. Even in a tradition like Buddhism there is separation, there is misunderstanding, there is anger. The same is true in the Christian religion. There may be separation, anger, and hatred between members of the same family. That is why restoring communication is the most urgent practice for peace.

If there are feelings of shame, of unhappiness, that means there is not true communication within ourselves. We don’t understand ourselves; there is no harmony between the elements of our body and our mind. Restoring harmony within our body is very important for a good practitioner. Restoring harmony in the realm of our feelings and emotions is a very important practice. Without communication, there is no harmony and no well-being. In this state, you cannot do anything to help your family or society. If we know how to bring peace within ourselves, then we know how to bring peace to our family. Once we have restored harmony and communication within ourselves, we will be able to help society. That is why it is very important that different factions of our community should try to communicate with each other. If there is harmony within the people of the South then communication to people of the North will be much easier. If there is harmony and mutual understanding between people of the North and the South, no country in the world can be a threat. Thank you for the question.

Can There Be Peace Without War? 

Q: You have mentioned that there is no happiness without suffering. When I change these words we might consider that there is no peace without war. Does this mean that we cannot avoid war; we should just accept it as unavoidable karma? Should we just keep silent and breathe in and out mindfully? What would you do when there is war?

Thay: This is an excellent question. War is not just the bombs falling on us. Every time you have a thought that is full of anger and misunderstanding – that is war. War can be manifested through our way of thinking, our way of speaking, and our way of acting. We may be living in war, not knowing that we are fighting with ourselves and the people around us. With the war in yourself and the war that you inflict on other people, there is suffering within you and there is suffering around you. Maybe in your daily life there are a few moments of ceasefire. But most are moments of war.

Suppose there is a couple who quarrels all the time except when they are very tired; these moments of not quarreling are not exactly peace, they are a ceasefire. Then suppose a friend comes to visit and asks, “Why are you living in war twenty-four hours a day? Why don’t you try living in peace?” And the couple says, “We don’t know. Tell us, what is peace? What can we do in order to have peace?” And the friend tells the couple how to practice in order to bring back harmony into their bodies and into their emotions and feelings and they begin to have a taste of peace. Supported by the friend, the couple’s peace grows every day until one day they say, “It is wonderful, we know what peace is now.” But if there had been no experience of living at war, then how could they experience peace?

Thanks to the mud, the lotus flower is able to grow. The feeling of well-being and peace is possible only when you have experienced the feeling of war. As someone who has lived many decades in the midst of war, I know what war is. And elements of suffering in war have helped me to arrive at the state of being in peace today. If I did not know some practice of peace I would have died in the war of suffering.

We know that we are co-responsible for the situation of our society. By the way we live our daily life we contribute to peace or to war. It is mindfulness that can tell me that I am going in the direction of war and it is the energy of mindfulness that can help me to make a turn and to go in the direction of peace. That is why I have translated mindfulness and concentration as the Holy Spirit; it can transform your life.

The Light of Compassion 

Q: Today you told us to imagine we are living in Baghdad and to understand the hearts of the people there. Yesterday I read that Mr. Bush wants to start the war in Iraq, and I couldn’t sleep. I went up into the mountains and I walked all night. I did not have fear; I did not have anger; I did not have misunderstanding. I was frustrated and sad. I have a strong feeling that I want to send a word of consolation and encouragement to the people in Baghdad, but I cannot find any words. I want to hear your consolation and encouragement to us and to the people in Baghdad. I also want to hear what is your action of consolation and encouragement to us and to people in Baghdad?

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Thay: It is very important to maintain compassion in your heart and not to allow anger and frustration to take over. On that foundation you will find things to do to help the cause of peace. You can write a love letter to your congressman and to your president, urging them to help with the cause of peace. You can contact a friend and urge him or her to do the same. Allow the light and the compassion in your heart to go out to many people around you. In the Bible it says, “If you have the light, display it in a place where many people can see it.” That light is the light of understanding and compassion. Live your daily life in such a way that understanding and compassion can be shared with as many people around you as possible. Cultivating peace is not a matter of days; it should be cultivated generation after generation. Your children and your grandchildren will be your continuation as practitioners of peace. The question is not how much you can do; the question is whether you are doing your best. If you are doing your best then you are in the Pure Land of the Buddha, in the Kingdom of God. You don’t have to worry anymore.

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