How a Chopstick Prevented a Strike

I am a labor lawyer, representing registered nurses at contract negotiations. While I consider my work to be Right Livelihood, it brings a myriad of challenges to my practice.

One of my most rewarding challenges occurred in December 1999. I was negotiating at a large teaching hospital in New York City, and we remained apart on a number of issues that the nurses deemed vital for safe patient care. I had served a ten-day strike notice, and we were meeting for what both sides had agreed would be our last session prior to the strike deadline.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that my work brings to my practice is that it forces me to confront my aversion to conflict. When I find myself in conflict situations, strong feelings of fear and anxiety arise in me. My habit energy is to abort these feelings by reaching a resolution as quickly as possible, even if it means compromising process and leaving parties’ needs (including mine) largely unmet.  I knew that on the day of negotiations I would need to be particularly mindful of my feelings of fear and anxiety, holding them and smiling to them as I practiced patience and letting go of the outcome.

The weekend prior to our last negotiation session, I was very fortunate to be attending a two-day retreat. During Dharma discussion, I brought up my situation at work, and the challenging negotiation session awaiting me that week. Time was set aside at the retreat to create a healing circle, with everyone visualizing a successful resolution to the negotiations.

As I meditated the morning of our negotiation session, I put forth a strong intention for both parties to reach an agreement. I visualized myself welcoming conflict as if greeting an old friend. I also visualized both parties smiling and shaking hands at the end of the day. I was surprisingly calm as I drove to work.

When I arrived at the negotiation site, my negotiating team, a nurse colleague and five registered nurses who were employed by the hospital were already there. One of the nurses greeted me by holding up a chopstick, stating that it would be our ”Talking Stick.”

A Talking Stick is a method used by Native Americans during council meetings to allow everyone to speak their mind. Only the person holding the Talking Stick can speak, and the other council members must remain silent. It is similar to the method of bowing used in Thay’s practice during Dharma discussion groups, where the person bowing has the opportunity to speak without interruption, and with the undivided attention of the other members present.

With the help of the chopstick, our caucuses — discussions among our negotiating committee — were like Dharma discussions. Mindful speech and listening were present during the entire process. As a result, we were more flexible and creative than ever before in drafting contract language that met both parties’ needs.

We even were successful in obtaining staffing guideline language, something that management kept saying throughout negotiations that they would never agree to.

This atmosphere of listening deeply and being nonjudgmental carried over into our discussions across the table with management. Both parties recognized everyone’s desire to reach a favorable outcome, even when the discussions became rather heated.

With the help of the chopstick, we reached an agreement. As the parties smiled and shook hands, a number of us commented on what a satisfying negotiation session had taken place.


Lois Penn, True Energy of Awakening, practices with the New York Metro Community of Mindfulness. She has been practicing non-avoidance of conflict with the New York State Nurses Association for the past nine years.

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Dharma Talk: Brotherhood = Reunification


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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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Opening the Voice with the Practice of Chanting

Brother  Goodness

When I was in grade school and high school I attended chorus classes, but I never paid much attention. It was a wonderful time to goof around, and for my classmates and I it often turned towards playful endeavor that tested our teachers’ sanity. I was not aware of the opportunity I had in that moment. But as much as I tried to avoid and resist it, then and at other times, learning to open my voice in speech, song, and chant has become a great part of my life.

Many seasons flourished and faded away while I lived under the great fear of simply opening my voice and singing. I sensed that when we do this we reveal ourselves; our voice transmits to those around us a direct experience of what is going on inside. What is in us vibrates in the listener, and it can be frightening when we are revealed like that to others, and even to ourselves.

This is a fear of being in touch with the reality of ourselves. And this fear is based on the belief that we are individuals, separate from others. We cannot avoid the perils of such misperceptions. Now we are learning that these beliefs and fears are at the root of much suffering and that they can be addressed directly by our practice of meditation. I have experienced that the practice of cultivating mindfulness of the voice can help us grow through this fear to a deeper understanding from which no bitterness and suffering arises.

I cherish a comical and yet inspiring memory of my father as he listened to German and Italian operas while cooking dinner. He would mimic these vigorous and committed voices as they coursed passionately through passages of misfortune and glory. He was being funny, but he was also singing his heart out, and as a child I could sense the intensity and power in his voice. My father is not an opera singer, but when he loved what he was doing and he was happy, he could put aside his inhibitions and his voice soared out in full vibrato. He didn’t know it, but it marked me, and it challenged me.

As a teen-ager, faced with self-centered awareness amidst my peers, this challenge grew into fear. There were many liberating moments when I was alone, at home or in the car, and turning the volume of the stereo up very loud, I sang along with my favorite bands, fully committed to letting my voice shine out. I thought nobody could hear me, but I was wrong. I could hear myself. Through this listening relationship to my own voice, I secretly began to teach myself to sing.

Many of us hold onto these self-centered fears for our whole life. We are afraid to open our voice; we simply do not know how to do it. We always feel uncomfortable and stifled when we are with others who are singing and especially if we ourselves are asked to sing. I was lucky. I found a safe way that slowly, bit by bit, stabilized my faith in my voice. Until one day I was strong enough to really sing out and enjoy. In that moment I made a leap, uncertain where I would land, but hopeful nevertheless. My voice wasn’t very beautiful but I had to make that first jump. Then I had to do it again and again. I had to thrust myself onto the path. And thus a great fear that had once chosen dark corners for me to hide in now opened many doors. It offered me a chance to be honest and accepting of much in me that previously was hidden and unwanted. Since that time my voice has always been a great teacher and a great joy, as it continues to unfold the marvels of challenge and freedom.

Entering monastic life, I met the practice of chanting, and it was then that my voice really opened. It was then that I began the process of liberating my voice, setting it free from the sorrow and loneliness that colored it deep within my heart. For the voice carries in it all the shadow and glimmer of our consciousness, afflictions as well as wholesome seeds. Without careful awareness and training we transmit many things to others through our voice frustration, anger, longing, and despair among them. On my own path, the liberation and transformation of my voice settled itself on a regular practice of sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful movement. Soon after, it leapt joyfully into the arms of chant. I found that all aspects of spiritual practice and lifestyle will affect the voice. Likewise, all spiritual endeavor with the voice, such as the practice of chanting, will strengthen the other aspects of our practice.

Chanting as Meditation

Chanting is a meditation practice. If it is not a practice then it is not really chanting. For it is not the notes on the page or the text and font that make up the chant, it is the living voice inspired from the depths of consciousness and summoned from the relaxed and stable posture of the body. Chanting is the realization of the teaching sent out to the world in every syllable. It is the resonance of many voices held together by attentive, listening ears. It is the delicate ringing of harmonic layers left hanging in empty space, and it is the silence which fills up an open heart when it seems that tone is no longer heard.

When we chant well we are moved straight into the beauty and wonder of life without any emotional push and pull. We are moved, but not in the direction of longing, comfort, or excitement, as we are by many musical expressions these days. We are moved towards realization in the practice, towards freedom and clarity. When we chant well we remain grounded in our breathing and our practice of mindfulness. Thus the chant releases tension and knots in both body and mind, transforming us, drawing us into the current of awakening. It helps us let go and be flexible, capable of opening our heart to what is there in the marvelous moment. It reminds us of our resources and the strength of our compassion. It offers us inspiration to persevere through challenge and hardship; and it leaves a peaceful smile on our face.


In the Buddhist practice there are three realms of action in which we cultivate awareness: action of the body, action of speech, and action of thought (mind). In truth, there is no action that exists solely in one of these realms. They all have much to do with each other. The practice of chanting is a practice that consciously brings together all three realms of action into one, and does so in a very pleasant way that can be shared among many people simultaneously. Thus chanting has the potential to generate both concentration and joyful togetherness. Spiritual traditions around the world have recognized this for thousands of years, and almost all have some form of chanting as a substantial part of their practice.

The Realm of the Body

There are many ways to approach the practice of chanting in terms of techniques and methods. Yet there are certain elements of the practice that are important to any method. One of these is the breath.

It is essential in meditation practice, and especially in chanting, that the breath be relaxed and easy. If we can succeed in this then the breath, of its own accord, becomes full, deep, flexible, and strong. To relax the breath we need also to relax the abdomen and the abdominal organs. Thus the diaphragm muscle (which is an elastic membrane separating the lungs and the lower internal organs) can move (drop) easily and allow the lungs to expand to full capacity. If the belly and its contents are relaxed, then the diaphragm muscle can move downwards with very little effort more like letting go than making an effort. Then the chest can gently open, from the inside out, to accommodate more air. This allows our chanting, which relies on the firm and steady force of the out-breath, to come from the center of the body. It comes from the natural upward movement of the diaphragm, rather than the forced constriction of the chest. In this way we avoid using a lot of tension and unnecessary energy for a process that is designed to be relaxed and easy. If we breathe only with our chest, expanding it with the in-breath and contracting it with the out-breath, then we make unnecessary effort. Granted, this can help us to add to the total volume of air in our breathing, but it is not the natural mechanism for the lungs.

This is my experience of the natural process of breathing and its effect on chanting. You can help yourself to enter into this experience of the breath by learning to truly follow your breath without manipulation and keeping your abdomen flexible, warm and relaxed. Allow the diaphragm to draw the air down towards the belly and relax completely into the process of breathing.

Healthy breathing is encouraged by eating in moderation, massaging and stretching the torso of the body regularly, and by an upright and relaxed posture. It is very nice to stand while chanting, softening the knees a little to stay grounded and balanced. If you practice while sitting, be sure not to slouch.

We can also cultivate an awareness of the throat, larynx, neck, and ears. Be gentle, soft, and open in these places. Do not strain the neck forward while chanting. Do not force tones out of your throat. Chant the middle way, not too strong, not too soft. Chant in such a way that you can hear your own voice and also the voices of people chanting with you. Keep the neck and head warm and relaxed at all times. These things will help make it possible for the healing vibrations of sound to work in the body and transform the voice. It will also help to prevent tearing and scarring to the vocal chords and damage to the inner ear.

The Realm of Speech

The practice of chanting lies at the crossroads of spoken word and song. A chant is not a poem and is not just recited. A chant is not a song and is not simply sung. It is expressed with wakefulness somewhere between these two as a powerful poetic recitation and as an uplifting song, carefully blended. When we chant well we benefit from both the clarity of shape and texture and the steady, light, and yet grounded feeling imparted to us through tones.

When speaking and reciting in the English language we primarily use consonant sounds. The consonants sculpt and develop the texture of the voice. The consonants give shape to the meaning of words and can be powerful, beautiful, and sometimes emotionally unsettling.

When we sing a song, we are expressing primarily in vowels. You cannot sing a consonant; you can only sing a vowel. Singing out the vowel sounds, we express the meaning of the song directly in the realm of feeling. Thus, the significance of a song comes to us less from the message in its lyrics and the shape of its consonants, and more from the way its melody and harmony make you feel. This is very important, because the vibration of the tone has no filter before it impacts us. It goes straight past reasoning and we must embrace it as it is. Sometimes the intended meaning of a song and the actual feeling it gives us are in conflict with one another. For example, the lyrics express something light and uplifting but the melody and harmony of tones give rise to sadness and nostalgia. And even if the melody and harmony are appropriate, the voice of the singer can be influenced by his or her state of mind and emotions. Thus the song may not bring about the intended or appropriate feeling. The feelings brought about through the expression of the vowel sounds have great potential. They can be healing and transforming or agitating and even painful. We need to be aware of these things so that the healing spirit of the practice can shine through our chanting and singing.

We can develop awareness of these things by cultivating mindfulness in the act of chanting, as well as at other times; practicing the mindfulness trainings, carefully choosing what we listen to, watering wholesome seeds in our consciousness. Slowly we tear away the veils of our conditioning, and we begin to recognize truth and beauty in music and the voice that carries it. Slowly we bring a spiritual quality and resonance into our own voice and music.

The Realm of Thought

Our thoughts play an important part in chant. Of course the message of the chant is influential. Its content gives rise to energy, inspiring a kind of movement. We might describe this movement as the opening of the heart or stilling of the mind, a beginning anew, the settling of afflictions, or the cooling of desire. These phrases describe not emotions but spiritual activity, an entering into the realms of happiness that lie beneath our busy worldly affairs. The presence and practice of our spiritual ancestors are found in these thoughts expressed in chants. The stability to be gleaned from tradition and lineage is contained in these thoughts as well.

But the very thoughts that enter our mind during the moment of chanting are equally important. We should always remember that chanting is a process of meditation. Do not allow the mind to wander aimlessly. Maintain concentration on the breath, the posture of the body, and the content of the words you are chanting. Then your authentic presence and the chant join together into a living vibration that is shared among all present; and indeed, even those not present will benefit.

It is easy to be distracted by imperfections in your own voice or in the voices around you. Try not to be carried away by such judgments. You do not need a trained and controlled voice or “perfect pitch sensitivity” to chant well. Chanting is about being right where we are, and practicing. Chanting is a process, an unfolding into the present moment. This present moment is a place where many powerful things can happen, especially with the support of our spiritual ancestors and our community of practice. Because chants carry with them the understanding and the compassion of the ancestors, if we don’t feel skilled or confident, we can lean on them. The ancestors and our community are there for that.

I have discovered that a talented singer with a beautiful voice can sing horribly, wounding the heart and ears of the listener. I have also listened to people chant, whose voices, according to technical evaluation, were horrible. But because they chanted with full presence and sincere intention, what came out of them was something spiritually inspiring and beautiful. Talents are often the learning of behavior that brings one the love and recognition one needs, and not necessarily an expression of truth or something beautiful, because what hides beneath the talent is a fear, a longing it is suffering. This untended and unwanted suffering has twisted itself into something acceptable in an attempt to gather recognition that fills the emptiness inside, the void of loneliness. I believe that an artist who meditates must understand these things and take on the path of transformation in order to purify their talent, to make it a conscious, well -tended, and fully embraced expression of their life.

Some people, especially those with some talent or training, find it difficult to chant with others whose voices are not technically skilled. There are many ways to remedy this. The best is to do away with our idea of how things should be. Then happiness reveals itself. It is only difficult to chant with those who have unskilled voices because of our expectation, desire, and on a deeper level, because of the fear of what is not harmonious in us. So leave expectations and desires behind, and do not be afraid to rejoice in the reality of what is there. Start simply, with basic chants suited for the whole community. Have the Sangha practice lots of recitation, reading the texts aloud together. As a community, take up some basic training for the voice; there are huge resources available for this. But most important, always endeavor to do these things as ways to strengthen your practice and the practice of your community. This is cultivating wholesome thoughts in the practice of chanting.


Suggestions for Chanting in Community

Here are several suggestions for individuals and Sanghas to aid in the practice of chanting:

Take time to memorize the words and learn the content so that you can concentrate easily during the chant. Be aware of what you are saying so that you enter into a process of realization and are not simply repeating the text.

Take time to memorize the melody and the basics of the rhythm and dynamics of the chant so you do not have to rely on a piece of paper to remind you of what you are doing. Then you can begin the process of unfolding the tapestry of the chant.

Stay in touch with the process of breathing; learn to take deep and relaxed breaths while chanting. The point is to remain truly present and to cultivate stability and insight while chanting, not to get out of breath and make a flawless performance. If you need a breath, take one, it’s okay to miss a couple of words. Maintain awareness of body posture, holding yourself up right in a relaxed way. Every few breaths check to make sure you are not straining the neck, throat, and facial muscles. Soften them, relax them, and smile.

Listen carefully to other chanters around you as you chant.

All who are chanting must learn to chant with one voice.  This is a very deep and wonderfully fruitful practice. Chant lightly, not too loud, so that it is easier to hear those around you. This encourages togetherness.   When we chant well together we can begin to allow the expression of the chant to change subtly according to the experience of the content.  The chant then becomes something totally alive and the collective experience of being together in freedom can arise very easily. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, when practicing the chants marked “breath by breath,” be aware that each breath is usually for one phrase and there is space to draw an in-breath between phrases. We do not need to maintain the rhythm continuously through the chant each phrase stands on its own. They are not marches, and they should express the natural rhythm and dynamics of the English language. Only general guidelines are given as to how long each note is held or how much volume it receives. These chants are open to the expression of the chanters in the present moment and require a lot of listening to each other. They are inspired by the Gregorian technique, but they are not truly Gregorian.

When practicing other chants in the chanting book, we can follow the standard music notation more closely, adhering more to the timing and dynamics that are scored. There are no breath marks, but do not rush to take breaths in between notes. There is no need to worry about saying every syllable or word, skip one or two if necessary in order to take a real in-breath and maintain calm and presence.  Remember to listen carefully to those around you as you chant. Rely on the group to carry the chant. We don’t have to do it all by ourselves when we practice as a Sangha.

The musical notation of a chant cannot contain its vitality. The notes and the technique are used as a guide to learn and transmit the basic form of the chant, but we should eventually let them go in order to truly live the chant. Please remember that chanting is not about getting somewhere or attaining something. Come home to the wonderful moment, open your voice, and enjoy!

Brother Chan Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained as a monk in 1996 and became a Dharma Teacher in 2001.

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Peace Song Circle

Tricia  Diduch

The entire Sangha had been praying for sunshine for months leading up to this day. Yet, when I woke up and peered out the window, I was greeted by gray skies and a light drizzle. Had it been a few months ago, I surely would have panicked. Instead, I donned my raincoat, decided to adopt a sunny attitude and headed out the door to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill to begin setting the stage for the first annual Peace Song Circle organized by Pine Gate Sangha and Friends for Peace. It would be the culmination of three months of effort by the organizing committee. A total of seven local choirs, one dance group and three soloists would soon assemble to share a message of peace through song with their community and the world. With a sense of excitement and just a little nervous anxiety, I could hardly believe the day had arrived.


Early in December, when Ian Prattis, the founder of the Pine Gate Sangha, first proposed the creation of a Peace Song Circle, I was skeptical about the plan. He envisioned several local choirs singing in unison in the name of peace, along with members of the community, other peace organizations, and spiritual groups. The assembly would create a sense of solidarity and strength during a time when we were all feeling increasingly powerless to change the course of world events. It would be a reminder that through our daily practice of mindful living we are doing our part to help create a better world. I fully supported the purpose and need for such an event; I just didn’t see how it would be possible. I suggested it was highly unlikely that we could assemble enough choirs to attend with only three months’ notice. It would require too much rehearsal time and coordination.

A week later, Ian asked for volunteers to help organize the event in Ottawa, on Saturday, March 22. Jean, a woman new to our Sangha, was the first to volunteer. Her contagious enthusiasm set off a chain reaction and a committee of seven organizers was established. I too found myself volunteering to take an active role in this project. I don’t know what possessed me. With a full-time job, how on earth would I find time to contribute?

The organizing committee adopted as our motto, “Stand for Peace, Sing for Peace, Be Peace.” Since Ian was preparing to attend a two-month retreat in India, he was leaving the initial planning entirely in our hands. Now, not only would I be assisting with communications, but I also volunteered to recruit choirs to participate. Having never been involved in such an activity before, I felt overwhelmed.

I was also experiencing a personal crisis in my life after having been laid off from a position I had held for five years. As we were discussing plans for the Peace Song Circle at a committee meeting in late January, I shared my recent news over tea and cookies. Fighting back tears, I offered to devote more time to the project. Soon, I was overcome with emotion. While I hadn’t been happy with my employment situation for some time, I regretted leaving behind talented co-workers with whom I had developed close relationships. I also considered my departure a personal failure, feeling I hadn’t been able to live up to my employer’s expectations of me. As I let the tears fall, the entire group offered their support. As the meeting wrapped up, Jean said to me, “Divine intervention is at work here – just trust in it. You are simply needed elsewhere.”

Through these words, I realized that losing my job was a blessing. During the preceding months, I had often been overcome with work-related anxiety. Being asked to leave brought with it an enormous sense of relief. It eradicated a lot of fears, offering me an inner peace I hadn’t experienced in a long time. And now, I had been given an opportunity to better employ my talents, helping the Sangha to organize the Peace Song Circle. From that point on, I made a conscious choice not to focus on the past, but on the task at hand.  When I actually shifted my energy to organizing the Peace Song Circle, I felt a sense of purpose, which my life had been lacking for a long time.

Organizing tasks began to fall into place. Our first major obstacle was finding a sound crew and system on a non-existent budget. Somehow, one miraculously materialized. Next, we had to recruit the performers. Although I received many, many rejections, we eventually did end up with just the right number of choirs and soloists. When two choirs backed out three weeks before the event, I stayed relaxed, and within two days, two more choirs offered to participate.

And then, there I was, on Parliament Hill, as the final preparations for the Peace Song Circle were underway. The sound system was assembled, and all of the choirs and individual performers had arrived.

As the clock on the Peace Tower struck 10:00 am on March 22, Chris, the master of ceremonies, launched the proceedings. Ian came forth and thanked the two or three hundred gathered for having braved the weather to join us in our stand for peace. He invited everyone to remain strong in the face of the overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, and hatred that tend to arise during such difficult times. Given that war had actually begun just days before, uniting to convey this message of peace seemed more crucial than ever. As I stood at my post near the sound booth, I was grateful to Ian for having had the leadership and vision to initiate the event. The Peace Song Circle had already created an enormous impact on my life; I just hoped it would have an equally powerful effect on everyone gathered to share in it.

As the first choir broke into song with, “All Within Me Peaceful,” the atmosphere began to transform. With each graceful sway of their arms, the accompanying dancers cast a calming spell over everyone. In turn, each performing group shared its unique talents and message with the audience. Whether it was through the middle-eastern flavor of the music of Jeanette de Nazareth, the spirited rhythms of the Ottawa Community Gospel Choir, the aggressive guitar riffs of the local rock group, Nir Blue, or the gentle folk melodies of the Oddities, the call for peace was strong and consistent. Throughout the two hours, children in the crowd danced happily as their parents joined in the singing, lending further strength to our call for peace and attesting to the healing energy that had been generated.

During the final performance, it dawned on me that the light rain was appropriate for the occasion. The sky seemed to be weeping tears of joy on the colorful array of umbrellas assembled, thankful for the peace offering we had just made. I too shed a joyful tear, grateful that, despite my fears and anxieties, everything had run so smoothly and that I had been able to contribute to this special event. I surrendered to the beauty of the moment. And in that moment, I found peace.


A one-hour documentary of the Peace Song Circle is available, please contact:

Trisha Diduch practices with the Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. After four months of unemployment, Tricia is now happily working in Ottawa’s tourism industry.

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A Celebration of Peace

Mike  McGuire

Speech given at a peace rally in Veterans’ Park, Medford, Oregon in February, 2003

My name is Mike McGuire, and I am a veteran. Nearly thirty-five years ago I took an oath to my country and myself that I am still committed to uphold. Ironically, in substance it is very similar to the oath taken by George W. Bush as he officially assumed the role of Commander in Chief. In my case, the oath was on the occasion of receiving a commission to become an officer in the United States Navy in 1968. That oath to which we both swore our allegiance was to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America from enemies both foreign and domestic. It was clear to me then, as it is clear to me now, that it is this magnificent document, this Constitution, in particular the Bill of Rights, that makes America the country I would be proud to serve.

Much has changed in those thirty-five years. Much has changed in the last two years. It troubles me deeply that George W. Bush apparently did not take that oath seriously. Since his appointment as Commander in Chief two years ago, many of our basic Constitutional rights have been gutted.

Against everything that our founding fathers envisaged, it is now legal for an America citizen to be “disappeared,” with no right to legal council, no notification of arrest, no information as to where they are being held, and no safeguards against any misconduct or torture at the hands of their captors. All that is required is that the Executive branch of government or the military label you a “terrorist” and you are gone. No different than those countries whose actions we call inhumane and barbaric.

From an historical perspective, I believe the service given by a warrior to his society has been a heroic and honorable endeavor. It has been traditionally a selfless and necessary activity of maintaining borders and protecting women, children, and the necessities of life from the immediate dangers of invasion. But there is no honor when that warrior is instead ordered to murder large numbers of innocents in order to facilitate the theft of another sovereign nation’s resources in this case oil for the exclusive profit of the wealthiest multi-national corporations. Instead, this action turns into murder-for-hire.

How did we get to the point that the greatest threat to the U.S. Constitution is from within our own borders? How is it that the document which guarantees the human rights of American citizens is being erased before our very eyes? We each need to contemplate this question deeply. But what I want to address now is what we can do about creating a solution.

Reduced to its simplest form, this theft of our freedoms and rights has been accomplished through the calculated use of fear. Who doesn’t carry this fear? My personal fear is less about what Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein has done or will do, and more about the direction my government is heading. But fear is fear. Where it gets projected is less important than how its effects cripple my sense of peace. Often it seems that the common assumption is that peace is the absence of war. But if I’m obsessed with fear, what peace can I experience?

Sometimes it seems all too easy to assume that peace is lacking because of George Bush or members of his administration. But that’s because in that moment I perceive those circumstances as being more real than the simple reality that I am alive and breathing and that in that breath lies the experience of true peace.

If the anti-war movement is to evolve into a true peace celebration, it will be because we as individuals know peace more truly than we know the fear we are being fed. It will be because we know an absolute standard by which to evaluate all else. That is the infinite and beautiful gift of life. I am capable of respecting another’s life only to the extent that I am respecting my own. If I want peace, I am capable of creating peace only to the extent that I know peace.

So I reach out to each of you to look to that which provides for you the greatest feeling of peace and well being in your lives. Take time to listen to that small wise voice within and the silence beyond. It may be most easily heard through your spiritual or religious practice. It might be through activities in your community; it might be spending time in nature only you know what nourishes you.

I believe that when enough people know the value of their own lives, that the values of this country indeed the world will be respect, dignity, compassion, peace, and freedom.

In conclusion I say that fear is the enemy. And that only peace prevails over fear. I invite you to know that peace within you and rise up with peace in your hearts and celebrate life.

Mike McGuire lives in Talent, Oregon and practices with the Community of Mindful Living, Southern Oregon. He is an active member of Peace House, the local chapter of  Fellowship of Reconciliation.

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Breathing Into Life and Death

An Interview with Rochelle Griffin

by Barbara Casey, at Plum Village, June 2002


Barbara: Rochelle, how did you come to live in Holland?

Rochelle: I was born and raised in the United States. During my first year of college my father became the director of the American International School in the Netherlands. So the next summer I went to Holland for vacation. I decided to stay a year, and then I never returned to the U.S. I was a very angry young woman, and I was particularly angry about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I had many friends who had gone to Sweden or to Canada to avoid the draft, and I felt a lot of solidarity with them.

I was also scared, because in the United States they had shot students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. In Europe I had such a sense of solidity from the culture, from the cities and cathedrals that were a thousand years old. I liked Holland because it’s a very small country that has integrated many cultures and many religions, and I really appreciated that there were fifty-two political parties. It’s a socialist government and somehow the people are able to work together. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, and I had no fear when participating. I found work and friends in Holland. So I’m American by birth and Dutch by choice!

Barbara: Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.

Rochelle: The story starts many years ago when I was in training to become a midwife. I was critically injured in a car accident in 1980, the only survivor of a front-on collision. I was in the hospital and rehabilitation for almost two years. There were a number of times that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I have a clear memory of a near-death experience that changed my outlook on what I perceived death and life to be. During this experience I was not attached to my body, and I had a deep experience of being pain free, of being surrounded by a sense of well-being, support, love, and life. I felt that I had a choice to go towards the light or to return to my body. I was able to bring back that deep awakening with me when I returned to consciousness. I had a real sense that I had work still to do on earth.

That experience helped me begin to learn to live with chronic pain. As I started to deal with chronic physical pain I realized I also carried a lot of chronic emotional pain. At this time I met Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is a well-known Swiss-American psychiatrist and has done a lot of work dealing with the taboos around death and dying. I was her translator during a workshop called “Life, Death and Transition.” I felt very strongly that my new work would be helping people process their suffering. I spent much of the time between 1984 to 1988 in the United States and Europe, doing workshops and training with Elisabeth and her staff. Because of my accident and resulting handicaps, I received disability pay from the government. I did not want that kind of financial support, I wanted to be independent and self-supporting.  But in hindsight it’s been a blessing because it’s given me the freedom to develop the work I’m doing now.

In 1985 I started working primarily with people with HIV and AIDS in the Netherlands. I didn’t decide to work with these people in particular, but it was the group that was calling me and the door that opened. It was such an honor to be with people who had been afflicted with great suffering very young in life, and to witness their process of healing before they died. Their suffering included a great deal of stigmatization and misunderstanding and I have always felt an affinity to those issues.

In the beginning I worked primarily with gay men, but before long there were many people of mixed backgrounds including college students, middle aged women who were infected through their husbands, people using drugs intravenously, prostitutes, people in prisons, and people who had sex with someone who was infected. There were also children who were infected during birth and those who were orphans, because both parents were ill or had died of AIDS. Before there was any medication for treatment (AZT only became available in 1987,) I mostly worked with death and dying issues because people had an average life expectancy of only about thirteen months after diagnosis. Later as more medications became available, we were able to work through much of the pain and suffering at a deeper level through our Homecoming workshops, and to nourish the resulting peacefulness with mindfulness retreats.

In 1989 I set up my own foundation, called Fire Butterfly Foundation for Conscious Living and Dying. “The butterfly is a universal symbol of the soul freed from the confinement of the body. Fire stands for the accelerated transformation process which occurs when we’re confronted with our own impending death. People with a limited life expectancy can meet this challenge and increase the quality of their own lives and of those around them in a powerful and positive manner.” Rochelle Griffin

I feel that I have become a midwife in other phases of life, and am often a midwife for men too! My work has to do with finding out who we really are deep inside. In doing so we can discover that we’re really not as isolated and as alienated as we may have felt through our upbringing, that there is an energy in us that connects us as human beings to each other and to the universe. I wanted the groups to be mixed with young and old, gay and not-gay, men and women, and parents with children. Also caregivers would come to the workshop thinking it was going to be five days of lecture, but all this work is experiential, and that is what really helps to be a better caregiver. You can help others better when you understand that you’re not alone. When you’ve worked through your own feelings of anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, and helplessness, then you can be with others as they experience their own pain and suffering, without interrupting their process and without offering solutions. I don’t think that you can actually accompany people on this path futher than you have dared to go yourself. In trusting this process, we can tune into a different level of knowing what is best for us from inside out. And then we can trust that others will find their own way too, and we can be there for them, keep them safe, and encourage them to find their own answers.

In about 1982, a friend suggested that it might be helpful for me to learn to deal with my chronic physical pain by learning some form of meditation practice. I enrolled in a weekend retreat in a Christian abbey where Zen was practiced, and in that first weekend I discovered that instead of denying pain it was possible to go right into the heart of the pain and to sit in it. The pain transformed, and there came a great space where pain was present but it wasn’t only my pain, there was a sense of collective supportive energy. I also realized that my pain increased by resisting it and trying to deal with it alone. I practiced on this path for about fifteen years before I found Thay.

Barbara: Can you give us an example of some of the processes you offer in your Homecoming workshops?

Rochelle: People come to me when they find out they’re ill, usually. Or there are families, or healthcare givers, for instance, who are dealing with burn out. To prepare for a workshop, which is a very deep experience, we ask for a lot of medical information and we also do an extensive professional intake, so that we know who’s coming and if it’s appropriate for them to attend.

Usually the workshops have about fifteen to twenty-five participants and two to three staff members. It’s a very mixed group. I don’t work exclusively with people with AIDS any more because many of the doctors and healthcare services in Holland are referring people with other diseases and people with war trauma, abandonment or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse issues. Everyone seeking their own answers in dealing with issues related to loss and change are welcome to apply.

People will come thinking, “I’m coming to learn how to die,” or “I’m coming to learn how to live,” but they discover that they’ve been carrying a kind of backpack around almost all their lives they feel a weight on their shoulders that they can’t explain, so bit by bit we take some of the stuff out of that backpack and look at it. We bring the dark parts into the light and in doing so, we discover that we were actually more dead than alive by carrying this weight around! As a facilitator, my primary job is to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for this to happen.

In the beginning of the workshop we set a number of agreements about how we’ll be together, about confidentiality and how it’s okay to share our feelings, to be angry, to cry, to feel fear and express it by screaming, for instance, and it’s also okay to be quiet. We begin expressing feelings gradually, but because it’s a group process it goes very quickly but quite deep.

The first evening we have a candlelight memorial ceremony for the many losses that we have had in our lives. People just say a word or a name as they’re lighting a candle. The next morning we do some teaching around what we consider natural emotions that we are born with and enable us to survive in the world, and we teach how they become distorted in our lives, often causing more suffering. That is our ‘unfinished business.’ For example, there was a man recently who was feeling a great deal of fear and there’s nothing more scary than working with fear. I invited him to come forward and I explained: We work only with that what is present in this moment, so if you feel ready to explore this, sit down here and tell me what you’re feeling in your body, because we always start with the body. I started with a relaxation and guided meditation with awareness of breathing. The body gives us a lot of information, it’s as though the cells have a memory. This man shared that he felt as though there was a brick in his belly, it was really hard and black on the outside and bright red inside and less solid. This gave me some indication that there might be a layer of fear (the hard outer layer). The blackness could represent grief, surrounding a lot of anger represented by the inner, red, more fluid part, telling me that it could be explosive and dangerous if released unexpectedly. He told his story of having been a Spanish immigrant child, living in Germany with his family. He was left alone a lot of the time. His father was unhappy with his work and he’d become an alcoholic. His mother worked as a cleaning lady, and was away much of the time. The mother and children were abused by the father when he was drunk. This kid spent more and more time on the street, got involved in a gang to feel that he belonged somewhere and was caught dealing drugs. He was sent to jail, and in jail he was raped, and in the process he was infected with HIV. He had so much fear about getting into his feelings because he thought, If I really get into my feelings I’ll kill someone, and I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to continue this vicious cycle, I want to stop it!


I explained: This mattress we are sitting on is the boundary, this is where you can get out all your rage and your grief, step by step. Gradually he opened into his deepest feelings and he got into some very deep rage, and what he found beyond that rage was the little child that he’d been when he was three years old. Discovering this child, he sobbed deeply. At three years old, he had been taken care of by his grandmother in Spain while his parents went to Germany to work. She was his security and his love, but she died, and he had to go to Germany to be with his mom and dad, and as the family became increasingly dysfunctional, he was hurt very much in many ways. But when he was able to get into contact with that little child in himself, he again felt the joy and peace that he’d missed for a long time. He came to understand some of the ways that he had learned to neglect and abuse that child, which empowered him to take charge of his life. He began to understand that his parents had done the best they could under the circumstances. Eventually he was able to forgive his parents and himself.

I have found that this work of dealing with our feelings in a very direct way helps us to connect with our ancestors and connect with our spiritual self. We’re not teaching people to beat on telephone books or pillows continually. Sometimes people might need to do that a couple times just to get a sense that they can be angry without getting to the point that they will kill someone. In this way they learn the difference between healthy anger which enables us to say ‘no’, to be assertive and set limits, and distorted anger when we can hurt ourselves and our loved ones. I’ve worked with quite a few war veterans and people in prisons who have killed people, to help them understand that deeper inside there’s a very wounded child who needs to be healed and cared for. When we can access that child, the healing occurs, and the forgiveness develops. I think forgiveness, including self-forgiveness is a very important issue.

Barbara: Do you use conscious breathing in this process?

Rochelle: I do help people to become aware of their breathing how deep, how free it might be in a particular moment. The breath is a key tool that can be used to access the body and to understand what is going on inside, beyond the thinking. I’m very skilled in observing body language.

In the Homecoming workshop we present this work through a form of Gestalt therapy, which is a mixture of a number of psychotherapy techniques. It’s based in healing wounds so that we can come to a place of peace and joy, so that we can live our life with a sense of aliveness instead of merely surviving. Breathing is a real tool. I often will tune in to someone’s breath to understand more deeply where he or she is emotionally at that moment. Our breathing tells us a lot. I become aware of my breathing to see where it’s stopping or where it’s flowing or if it’s smooth or not smooth, kind of like taking my emotional temperature. I explore the places in my body asking for attention (by being painful, closed, restricted, cold, or empty) during my in-breath and offer space and relaxation with the out-breath. In the workshops we begin and end the day with mindfulness meditation, and do walking and sitting meditation with the participants. In the workshop we also demonstrate how we can effectively become better caregivers. If someone has survived and transformed a certain experience of suffering, others can be nourished when that story is witnessed and understood.

Conscious breathing plays a role in the workshops as it does in the dying process. When people become more ill and closer to death, mindful breathing becomes more and more conscious, because when you have no energy, what else can you do but breathe? Through your breathing, you can connect to your emotions, as a way of releasing, letting go, and relaxing. Also as a way of connecting to what is and to that which we are holding on to and avoiding.

This last winter I was very ill with pneumonia and was having a hard time breathing, and I was so grateful that I know how to connect with my breathing through mindfulness practice. From my window in the intensive care unit in the hospital I could just see a small strip of sky between the buildings. I noticed the full moon outside and in this way I connected with my loved ones, and flowed with the pain, not denying anything, but able to connect with love, with life, and with support. I felt completely safe and at one with the universe.

Often people from one of my workshops will ask me to be with them or guide them in their dying process. One of the greatest fears that we have is the fear of dying alone. I don’t think we actually can die alone, but people often fear that they might. So I offer my service of being with them as they prepare to die.

Barbara: What do you mean when you say that you don’t believe that we can die alone?

Rochelle: I feel that we have a lot of help from both sides people with us in the present as well as from the collective consciousness. Often I hear stories from people who have been close to death, who say that a loved one who has already died is present, that their essence is present somehow during the dying process, and that this eases the fear and even can increase the sense of joy and peace in going towards death.

Often I will ask someone who is dying, “What do I tell people who want to know about dying? What is your message, your truth that you would like me to share?” The answer is always similar to how one friend expressed it: “You don’t need to be dying to start living. You can begin now, today. You can heal old pain and finish what is unfinished. Work through your grief, anger, fear and please do express your love enough! Then you can find peace in your life and in your death.”
– Jaap Jan, age 34, lived until 1995.

Barbara: As mindfulness practitioners, how can we best be with our loved ones who are ill or dying?

Rochelle: Mindfulness practice is so important because it makes us aware of the moment and of being present, and what sabotages us from being truly present. It can be real hard when it’s your own family member, especially when we have unfinished business, expectations, and unfulfilled longing.

We can learn to be instruments of peace. If we are firmly rooted on the earth, with our head touching the sky, connected to our source of spirituality in the universe, we can be an instrument between the universe and earth. Being peace in ourselves, making peace in our family and community, then we can facilitate the peace process with others. Understanding the breathing is a real tool because dying is not much else than a deep and total relaxation!

Barbara:At retreats we do semi-totally relaxation!

Rochelle: As long as we’re alive we don’t do that quite so totally as when we die!

Barbara: Right, right.

Rochelle: When we come into this world, we fill our lungs with breath, and this is the point of birth. At the end of life we breathe out and we die. I often offer breathing exercises and relaxation exercises to people going through the dying process. If you put a little more accent on the out-breath and it becomes a little bit longer, there is a point when there’s no breath, a still point. The in-breath is effort, and the out-breath is the relaxation or letting go.


Often I meet people who are so concerned about life after this life, or life before this life. I feel we have our hands full with our suffering and our joy in this life! I sometimes wonder if we actually are able to experience life before we die. Many people seem just to be coping to survive, without feeling really alive. So what I do is to bring what we experience as painful and that which we deny or run away from, into our consciousness so that it can heal.

I’ll tell you a story about a really good friend of mine who died a few years ago. He had to have lung surgery, and he’d asked me to be present while he went through this. I stayed with him for the weekend afterwards. He was in and out of consciousness, and every time he became conscious he would grab my hand and not want to let go. But as he would relax and kind of slip away, I let go.  I stayed in a very light physical contact with him with my little finger just touching his, but not with the grasping. And I continued to breathe with him. I would support his breathing with my breath by making it a little audible.

As he came around and awakened, he said, “Rochelle, your being here has felt very supportive, but why did you keep letting go of my hand?”

I explained, “I wasn’t sure if it was your time to go, and I wanted you to feel free. I wanted to be present with you, whichever way you needed to go.”

“Oh,” he said, “I understand. I was grasping.” And I said, “Yes, and I wanted you to know that you had the choice, the courage, and the freedom to do what you needed to do for yourself.”

A few months later he was near death, and I went to the hospital, as he was asking for me. This was Saturday morning and the plan had been for him to go home on Monday so he would be able die at home, probably later that same week. But he was becoming very weak and his breathing was labored. I came into the room I looked at him and he looked at me, and I said, “You know, you are going home.” And he nodded. He knew. I added, “But, we cannot take you to your house, do you understand that?” And he nodded again. He had an oxygen mask on. I asked him, “Do you want me to come sit with you, and do you want me to guide you through this?”


He motioned with his hand, inviting me to sit close by on the bed. He took the oxygen mask off himself.

I said, “Allow yourself to be fully aware of your breathing, and follow your in-breath and your out-breath. Just in between the in and out-breath there is a still point where there is only stillness, before the in-breath starts again. Can you feel that? Gradually, allow your out-breath to become a little bit longer, and just relax into that. Is that okay for you?”

He laid his hand very gently down next to mine, not grasping. He looked at me as if to say, “I got it, I don’t have to hold on any more.” In a few breaths he relaxed completely and his breathing stopped.

It is so touching to witness this letting go, fully conscious and without resistance. He was a great teacher. That was a gift.

Barbara: Where do you see the direction of your work continuing?

Rochelle: I see myself as a privileged listener and I go where I am invited. My hope, my vision, is that my story will be an inspiration for other people to develop their own ways of healing into their own life and death. I’ve trained a few people to continue working with the emotions as I learned from Elisabeth. I’ve done this work throughout Europe, and also in Israel and the USA. At present there are fewer people dying from AIDS, so our center in Holland has become more  of  a  mindfulness practice center for anyone interested in exploring their own answers around loss and change.

In addition to this work in Holland, we have opened a center in Spain where I’ve also been working for the last ten years and there is a team trained to offer similar work there. The last couple of years I’ve been invited to Israel several times, and with the situation in the Mideast right now, I think there’s an awful lot of work to do there.  And there’s the AIDS crisis in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Some of the newer pain medications have become available in Vietnam for people with cancer; however this medication and nearly all medical care, is denied the people dying of AIDS. I do not have the illusion that I am going to all of those places, but there is much to be done. I’m watching to see what doors open as I continue being a privileged listener and training others to be also.

What I’ve learned very deeply because I’ve been so ill, is we have to take the time to take care of ourselves. We can’t care for anybody else until we take care of ourselves. At present I’m in a new phase of finding my personal balance between doing and not doing.

Barbara: Do you live in chronic pain still?

Rochelle: I have some pain always, in varying degrees, depending on how well I’ve been able to keep myself in balance. I use a combination of some medication, but mostly I use what I call my M.M.&M. therapy (meditation, massage and manual therapy) as well as taking care of my emotional needs and making time for myself to just gaze at the frogs in the pond. Every time someone dies or leaves, I feel the grief very physically. I recognize my grief when my heart feels closed off and often I feel physically cold and uncomfortable. What I’ve found is that I move through the grief process when I’m willing to go deeply into my feelings, including the resistance, by letting myself cry, feel anger, and whatever else I need to do. I am becoming more skillful at embracing these feelings without needing to express them fully; just recognizing them and their original source is often enough. Then my heart can open, be free, and feel supported by the love in the universe again. That’s what I think has helped me to repeatedly regain my balance, along with the support of my Sangha and my partner, throughout the eighteen years that I’ve worked so intensively in this field.

Barbara: As the process of birth has been brought out of the closet, you are helping to bring the process of dying into awareness also. We all need work like yours to help us to face death.

Rochelle: Yes. I’ve offered many trainings for volunteers and for healthcare professionals in the field of palliative care, and the work is always about our own issues. We often think, as professionals, we come into this work because we want to help others, but we have to help ourselves first. Because in dealing with dying people, if you aren’t completely authentic, they know! They are always a few steps ahead of us showing us the way!

Barbara: It’s like being with children.

Rochelle: Absolutely.  You can’t fool them at all.  They know when you’re being real and when you’re not!

Barbara: [laughs] That’s true! Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with the worldwide Sangha.

Rochelle: Thank you for asking.

Rochelle Griffin, True Light of Peace, Chân An Quang, practices with the Sangha Riverland. She lives with her partner, Jantien, and their golden retriever, ‘Gino-the-Joyful’ at the Vuurvlinder Center and Guesthouse for conscious living and dying, in Heerewaarden, a small village in the center of The Netherlands. Rochelle enjoys learning about the wild environmental needs of reptiles by breeding them in the safety of her large garden.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the managing editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

Photos by Harry Pelgrim.

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Reflections of a Quaker Woman of Color

By Valerie Brown

Growing up on the streets of New York City, I learned the rules of engagement at an early age, I learned to live tough and play even tougher. Violence, distrust, and anger hung around my neighborhood like the Mister Softee truck on a warm summer day.

Mindfulness and awareness were as foreign to me as an uncharted journey to a distant pole.  I was schooled in street rhythms, and learned that the world was unsafe, hostile, and filled with people who could not be trusted. Reflecting back, I realize that these feelings were rooted in a lack of safety and need for protection which stayed with me into adulthood, becoming habits of the heart, hardening my personality. I avoided intimacy, pushing people away like bits of uneaten food on the side of my plate.


The journey of dismantling this constructed self, discovering and reconstructing my authentic self that is not limited by fear has been my spiritual awakening.

The desire to develop a spiritual life was submerged in the will to succeed, to rise above my single-parent upbringing and ghetto surroundings. I yearned for success, believing that a good education, a good job, and money could immunize me from the effects of my childhood. I surrendered to this pursuit.  In my training to become an attorney, stress, anxiety, competition, and hard-driving ambition were the constructs of my daily life. I reinforced childhood patterns of distrust by relying heavily on the words of legal contracts. My distrust of others gave me permission to compete fiercely at all costs. I was immersed in doing, achieving, and analyzing instead of being. Deeper still, I had lost connection with my body, emotions, spirit and soul, and with my feminine energy—nurturance, awareness, intuition, creativity, sensitivity, receptivity, and emotionalism. I was further wounded by a failed, brief marriage and a string of broken relationships that cut into me the way a river cuts into a mountainside.

The healing began after my divorce and hospitalization with a serious illness. Only then did I stop and begin to ask questions and listen for the answers deep within me.

Can I surrender to God’s will? Are the loses, the hurts all part of my prayer? Can trust in myself and others grow in me? What are the true longings of my heart?

The way to an open heart began when I stumbled upon a meditation center near my home. I decided to try meditation, and immediately realized how difficult it was for me to quiet my mind. At first, I saw the practice of meditation as a challenge, as something to conquer. Slowly, with silence as my open door, I passed through it to find my authentic self that cannot be defined by name, color of skin, hair texture, height, or weight. This journey has been punctuated by deep longings and uncertainty, as well as clarity and peace of mind. At first when I attended mindfulness retreats and sitting practice, I was aware that I was often the only person of color. I felt isolated. With time, I realized that to focus on the differences between myself and others would reinforce separation. During retreats, in listening and sharing stories of life journeys, I released the grip of judgment and entered the field of acceptance. I made a conscious effort to surrender the outcome of my practice, be with the uncertainty, and make friends with my distrust, which is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes. I read Thay’s teachings, attended his retreats and days of mindfulness and developed a daily home practice and weekly sitting practice with my Sangha and a meditation teacher.  Gradually, my heart made tough as day-old bread by not enough loving and not enough laughter, softened. Breathing deeply, I know that emotions like anger and distrust come, stay awhile and go away.

Several years ago, through a chance encounter with a Quaker woman, I found the Society of Friends, which too has strengthened my mindfulness practice. While meeting for worship is not sitting practice, the conscious act of noticing my breath, resting in awareness of myself and others during meeting, the fellowship of gathering to worship, and sharing in vocal ministry when feeling the call of God, have deepened my meditation practice. At meeting, we sit in silence—moment to moment, gathered together to worship the Inner Light, listening to the “still, small voice within,” each in our own way.

On this sunny winter’s day, inside the meetinghouse, lit only by the light of the winter sun and the glow from the fireplace, ten or more people sit silently in simple, unpainted wooden pews. I take my seat as others come in until each pew is filled. Sitting in silent ministry, I know the seeds of mindfulness are being watered. As silence deepens, a warm glow envelops my body, heart, and mind, and I rest in deep awareness.


Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, practices with Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA. She is an attorney and certified Kundalini yoga teacher, leading retreats in the northeast. She was recently ordained into the Order of Interbeing at the Stonehill College retreat.

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“Mitakuye Oyasin”

Monks’ Experiences of the Ancient Stone People Lodge Ceremony


Immediately after the Colors of Compassion retreat, on the first of April, fifteen monks participated in an ancient ceremony of the Indigenous Peoples of this land—a Stone People Lodge ceremony. It was a historic event, in that we had the opportunity to experience firsthand the joining of Buddhist and Native spiritual traditions, from Vietnamese and Lakota lineages. Plus, it was a sacred meeting of representatives from several cultures: Vietnamese, French, English, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, Swedish, Filipino, African American, Canadian, American, Chinese, and Lakota. Truly, a United Nations meeting of the heart, a meeting of spirit.

Built on Kumeyaay land on the Viejas Reservation (east of San Diego), the lodge is a simple structure made from willow saplings. The Inipi (from the Lakota language) / Stone People Lodge ceremony is a means for purifying and renewing our mind, body, and spirit. This sacred Indigenous spiritual practice allows us to shed manifestations of ego as we sit inside the lodge—the womb of our Earth Mother, Maka Tizi—and pray for all beings. The prayer “Mitakuye Oyasin”—To All Relations/We Are All Related—encompasses this understanding of inter-being, inter-dependence and inter-connectedness with all life. Through all the preparations––covering the lodge, selecting the stones, building the fire, making the prayer bundle offerings––every step, every action is part of the prayer of the ceremony.

The experience in the Stone People Lodge is an immersion into another realm of reality, into a realm beyond time and space, where our prayers for health, peace, and the planet have a particular potency. This ceremony feels as ancient as the red hot Stone People who are sitting with us in the center of the lodge. Sitting in the lodge, touching the Earth, we begin anew with our Earth Mother and with all our sisters and brothers of the Earth. The lodge ceremony reaffirms and strengthens our connection to the sacred hoop of life, to the Sacred Mystery, to all our ancestors, and to the ancestors of this land, Turtle Island (the American continents).

Once inside the lodge, embraced by the steam—the breath of Earth Mother—and enveloped in the sacred black light, we dissolve into the black light and the stillness, as ego, distinctions, definitions, discriminations, and thoughts fade. A shift from the visible to the invisible takes place. The sacredness all around us and within us, inter-connectedness, nondiscrimination, and non-separation are experienced very directly.

It was a great honor to facilitate this lodge ceremony for our brother monks. It was an amazing and deep experience which affected each of us profoundly, and sent ripples into the world and into the cosmos. In the days following the ceremony, the participants wrote about their experiences. With deep respect and gratitude we offer some of these writings to you.

Mitakuye Oyasin / To All Relations / We Are All Related,
—Chan Tue Nang, Joseph Lam Medicine Robe


Hello to grandmother earth
Hello to the stone people, my ancestors
Hello to father sun
Hello to the fire, my ancestor
Hello to the air that I breathe
Hello to the steam and water I drink
All of you are my relations
I bow to you
We are one
Sitting in the beginning
Looking at the black light
I am in the womb of the earth
Mother’s breath penetrating into me
Spirit radiating out into the cosmos
—Chan Phap Ngo

Stone People Lodge

Four hours cooking in a willow branch hut. Too small to stand, sitting close, no room to move, next to each other, sixteen brothers, in a circle, around the red hot stone people, embraced by the steam, breath of the earth, grandmother earth, mother’s love in this womb. Together in the heat, in love, in water, with brotherhood and grandfather spirit, in blackness—there we sat to renew, to purify, rebirthing, allowing ourselves to burn, to die, but not to sleep, not to dream.

Touching the Earth, we sat on the ground—a circle of brothers, a circle of life, a cycle of ages—heritage passed down to keep us in touch with all our relations—Mitakuye Oyasin. Offering our prayers for peace, for transformation, for healing. In preparation we gathered wood and placed so mindfully the stones one by one—one to the west, one to the north, then east, then south, in line with the colors black, red, yellow, white on poles on this ceremonial site, this land within a land within a land. An expanse of flat land, with bare black burned trees, a circle of mountains made our horizon, and blue for above, green for below.

Lighting the fire, a line of energy now alive between the fire, altar and into the door through which we crouched to go inside a blacked out space—the willow branch lodge. In preparation we generated mindfulness, brotherhood, and more and more concentration. Aware, sensing, in touch with each other. Strings of prayer bundles for all beings in the entire cosmos and one for our own family and close ones. Circumambulating the lodge and the fire with my string of seven prayer bundles, I brought to mind all those who have made me, shaped me, nurtured me, neglected me, hurt me, loved and supported me, taught and guided me—with my breath I brought them into my body and those ancestors I do not know and children of cousins and children not yet born—I took them all with me into this so small space.

And so this lodge becomes a house with many mansions containing past, present, and future. We all shared deeply of our aspirations and fear and suffering—we gave thanks for this ceremony and expressed regret for past wrongs of peoples to peoples. I shared of being in touch with the suffering of my father and his brothers when one of them took his own life, and of a brother or sister who was lost before birth. We chanted in the intense heat and in the blackness. I saw a nothingness to my personality and life—what did my fear mean in that black?—and yet a sense of trust was also there.

In gratitude, Mitakuye Oyasin
—Chan Phap Lai


Black Light Night

It was a night in which the sun disappeared and, then, reappeared in the blazing wood people who transmitted their red hot energy into the stone people so that the earth men could be purified.

It was a night in which mother earth embraced all her sons, collecting them into the half sphere lodge, all her sons from all around the globe.

It was a night in which brothers huddled together, bundled their prayers for all beings in the universe as well their own individual blood families, sharing their aspirations and gratitude.

It was a night in which brothers from all over mother earth gathered to chant and send energy of the Native American and Buddhist bodhisattvas to all beings.

It was a night in which the Lakota Shaman guided his young bald headed brothers, plus one not so young, through their anxiety, uncertainty, unknowing—in the Black Light Heat—to a deeper realization and consciousness of their oneness, their interbeing with each other and all beings.

It was a night that ended with the brothers being soaked with the blessings of the cosmos, sopping wet and dripping gratitude.

—Chan Phap De


A Hut

A hut made of willow branches,
like a mother’s belly
directed to each planet,
in the center, a hole in the ground.
An altar, made of soil and stones, the moon.
The sun of fire embraced by a half-circle,
a wall protecting from the winds.
Simple blankets cover us up,
the brothers sitting in the hut are listening
to the fire, the air, the steam.
In the belly of our Mother Earth,
listening to the Mystery.
Dear Grandfather,
in gratitude for that love
that surrounds us,
for this opening and the little more abandoning,
I thank you for teaching me the confidence
of being in the here and in the now,
enriched by love and at the same time even more poor.
I thank you for being more conscious too.
On the path of celebration
in gratitude for our teacher Thay.
Discovering the Eye who sees
simple joy of being together.
Time has disappeared.
The rain is blessing the earth.
The stars are joining us.
Fire, master fire, Thay fire,
who shows us how to love,
how to respect the right distance,
without fear.
The red stones in the center of the earth
filled with the light of the stars.
The clear water perfumed with sage,
the steam which envelopes us and penetrates us.
A chant from the Buddhist tradition,
A chant from the Native Indian tradition,
one breath, one heart.
A deeper and more subtle release.
Joy of being here and now,
in the Mother’s arms, in the Father’s arms.
Mystery of an invisible Presence,
Free hands offered,
each cell offered as flowers.
In gratitude —Chan Phap Tap
The hot air brought me close to my fear, my panic of losing it totally.
Let me meet with courage the most difficult state of mind, so I can live freely, without shadows of doubt and fear.
May we all be free from our mind shadows.
May we come out to the light and stand freely there.
May compassion embrace the whole of our minds and hearts.
—Chan Phap Son


Stone Presence Lodge

There is a grace to stone that weathers centuries.
Infused with the heat of joy fire
we offer this stone to the womb of the willow.
Imbued with the tumult of sky
we offer this grace to the womb of our body.
The moon at the zenith, waxing our limbs
we offer what is to the womb of the awakened.
In time unborn we rest here
Enfolded by vapors
The sweat runs unchecked off the bulk of our baggage
To flay bare the unspoken
To fuel this still yearning
To release the stuck remnants of past altercations
For the call of the eagle,
The caress of the soil,
For the presence of stone heat enlodged in our membranes.
For the space where all going and coming is done for
and rest poised in vision subdues all desire.
Mitakuye oyasin.
For the current which guides us from known to unknowing
and blesses the soil it carries with laughter.
Mitakuye oyasin.
For the clan of the spirit that moves us as one mind
and perfumes our abode with fragrance of silence.
Mitakuye oyasin.
Let the oceans bring rain.
Let the charred stems bear branches
to bear witness to rumor, this fine simple offer.
Let this kinship of blood, sweat and steam forge a vision
of the exotic here, of unprecedented now
Casting down what with measure would ream the unbroken
And take him to the view we of old have forecasted.
Let the holy find ground
In the temple of the wishless.
—Chan Phap Luu

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Thich Nhat Hanh on the Abuse of Prisoners of War in Iraq

May 18, 2004


What is the Buddhist perspective on the abuse of prisoners of war in Iraq?

Recent news about the abuse of prisoners of war provides us with the opportunity to look deeply into the nature of war. It reveals the truth that has been hidden to many of us about what actually goes on during war and conflict. This is an opportunity for us to be more aware. This is not new; everywhere there is war, these kinds of things happen.


Soldiers are trained to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. Soldiers are told that if they don’t kill, they will be killed by the so-called enemy. They are taught that killing is good because the people they are trying to kill are dangerous to society, and that they are demons, that our nation would be better off without them. Soldiers are trained to believe they must kill the other group because they are not human beings. If soldiers see their “enemies” as fellow human beings just like them, they will have no courage to kill them. Every one of us should know the way soldiers are trained in order to see the truth about war. It is important not to blame and single out the U.S. in this kind of situation because any country would do the same thing under the same conditions. During the Vietnam War atrocities were committed by both sides also.

The statement President Bush made that the U.S. just sent dedicated, devoted young men, not abusers to Iraq shocked me, because committing acts of torture is just the result of the training that the soldiers have already undergone. The training already makes them lose all their humanity. The young men and women going to Iraq were already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves at all cost, so they are pushed to act quickly, being ready to kill at any moment.

Why would the soldiers torture the Iraqi prisoners?

When you are engaged in the act of killing, aware that fellow soldiers on your side are dying every day and that it is possible for you to be killed at any moment, you are filled with fear, anger, and despair. In this state you can become extremely cruel. You may pour all of your hate and anger on prisoners of war by torturing and abusing them. The purpose of your violence is not only to extract information from them, but also to express your hate and fear. The prisoners of war are the victims, but the abusers, the torturers are also the victims. Their actions will continue to disturb them long after the abuse has ended.

Even if the superiors of the individual soldiers have not directly given orders to mistreat, abuse, or torture, they are still responsible for what happened. Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing our human nature to die and the animal nature in us to take over. We should never be tempted to resort to violence and war to solve conflict. Violence always leads to more violence.

It is possible to achieve peace through peaceful means and there are many examples of this in history.

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A Key to Peace: Listening To Myself

By Peggy Lindquist

mb38-AKey1Kwan Yin sits on my dresser. Although she has twice taken a fall and there are chips from her veil, her eyes are half closed/half open, listening to the pain of the world. She pours from her bottle a river of endless compassion. I can enter it at any time.

Since autumn of 2002, I have belonged to the Yahoo group “Deeplistening.” Inspired by Thay’s urging for us to listen deeply to the pain of the world, we share our sorrows, our frustrations, even our rage at times. We report when we are able to be calm and when we can listen to people with views different than ours. We encourage each other not to despair and to listen to the birds singing or notice the flowers blooming even when we read of injustice or of the great damage of war.

But only recently did I understand the value of listening deeply to myself. At the winter retreat in Deer Park, I was able to notice when voices arose in my consciousness. The voices were critical, fearful, anxious, doubting. They are with me all the time and have been probably since I was a child, but I have been in the habit of pushing them away. They are uncomfortable––not how I want to feel and not how I want to think of myself. They get in the way of my goals.

Reminding me of voices of children who aren’t getting the attention they need, they repeat themselves again and again and again, getting louder and louder and finally doing something destructive, or becoming silent and withdrawn. With the loving support of the Deer Park Sangha, I began to listen to the voices rather than push them away. I began to ask, “What is it?”

What I heard were stories tucked away in my consciousness from years ago, accompanied by fear, doubt, and anger. Most of these stories were so simple I found that I could just listen. For example, I discovered that when I am in a group, I am sometimes afraid of being left out. I learned that my petty criticisms of people

I don’t know often come from a fear that I am not good, smart, pretty, or likeable enough.

I have also learned to listen when I don’t feel comfortable with a plan and when I just need to stay still and quiet. Sometimes I have recognized a fear and just allowed it time to be. I have been able to be patient and let conditions for a particular course of action arise naturally without forcing them because I listened to my need to move slowly. And I have heard anger arise in me and have been able to take care of it rather than take it out on someone. (Not every time, mind you.)

These discoveries have been very rich, not frightening as I supposed they would be. The inner voices are not those of boogey men or monsters—they are more like uncertain children with something interesting to say. I have gotten to the point that, when I feel an upsetting emotion start to arise, I look forward to the journey of listening and discovering.

Thay says that in order to create peace we must listen to the suffering in the other person. He also teaches that peace begins with each of us. I am finding that deep listening is the key to creating peace within myself and that inner peace and respect create the ground for moving toward peace in the world. As I learn to listen to myself as Kwan Yin does, with an open heart of compassion, I hope I will be able to listen to the suffering of others and take part in their transformation.

If you are interested in joining our discussion, go to and register for the deeplistening group.

Peggy Lindquist, Gentle Forgiveness of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing and practices with the Joyful Refuge Sangha in Portland, Oregon.

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Now is The Time for Engaged Buddhist Practice

By Larry Ward

mb38-Now1At this very moment, American society is full of anger, fear, confusion, and reactivity. The recent loss of our perceived psychological safety and physical security has removed the veil of material success as our great protector. With this curtain of affluence and influence torn away the depth of our suffering is fully revealed.

In these disturbing times full of apathy, fear, dispersion, and hope we find ourselves in a state of spiritual emergency. Some of our people of every race and class find themselves seduced by radical extremes of material, religious, and ideological fundamentalism in an attempt to respond to this emergency. In such a time nothing is more important than cultivating our capacities for mindfulness, understanding, and compassion.

As our teacher has said on many occasions, “Meditation is to be aware of what is going on––in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and in our world.” True meditation is not running away from ourselves and our world but rather the courageous act of coming home. This is not a grim process, however sobering it might be. Acknowledging and embracing our suffering and the suffering around us is really challenging. But coming home to ourselves and our world is also touching and being touched by the wonders and mystery of life.

I know that many of us feel powerless and overwhelmed by the situation and behaviors of American society today, and we wonder how our meditation practice can help. It can help a great deal because as we personally heal and transform, our society heals and transforms also. If we dare risk deepening our practice of stopping and calming ourselves and deepening our practice of looking and seeing, we can witness miracles in ourselves and our world.

America’s Karma

I invite all of us as individuals and Sanghas to meditate on America’s karma. There are many notions of karma that have been handed down to us through centuries of spiritual practice. We often refer to karma as historical or divine retribution that we will receive by some power at the end of our life.

Thay’s description has been most helpful to my mindfulness practice. Karma is the living reality of our actions of body, speech, and mind that flows through time and space, having our unmistakable signature. Through my daily practice of the five remembrances I try my best to stay aware that “I inherit the results of my actions of body, speech, and mind. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”

This living reality continually shapes my being and my becoming, and as it does so it shapes the being and becoming of my family, my community, and my society. The living reality of karma is my continuation and the continuation of my ancestors at every moment. No activity is more important right now to the well-being of our world than our capacity to inquire deeply into the true nature of our actions, individually and collectively.

The Process of Deep Inquiry

Inquiring into America’s karma is not easy. It must be done with stability and compassion. It is easy to get caught in judgment, assigning blame to others and regret to oneself. It is easy to be tempted by despair, for America is so big and we are so small.

During this depth inquiry it is important to remember to breathe and smile. This inquiry is not an intellectual or philosophical exercise. It is a real invitation to practice, to touch life right here, right now.

To look into America’s actions at this moment of history is to encounter many emotions, pleasant, unpleasant, and mixed. In order not to be overwhelmed we must use the tools we have received from Thay. I have found it important to enjoy a mindful walk or cup of tea in Noble Silence, and not to try to take in too much at once. I have learned that if I make such an inquiry without practicing concentration and awareness of emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness, it is very easy to get trapped by wrong views. I have discovered that the best place to begin a meditation on America’s karma is with me. Since America is the place of my most recent blood ancestors, I have been deepening my awareness of America’s karma inside of myself. What seeds of thinking, speech, and action are resident in the storehouse of my consciousness? What perceptions of America reside in my mind? What individual and collective nutriments water these seeds?


We have come through another Presidential election season. I find that seeds of fear, confusion, power, and divisiveness have been profoundly watered in us all. Engaged Buddhism is not zendo-only Buddhism. It is the continuous act of coming home to ourselves and coming home to America. Regardless of the outcome of the recent elections, if our individual and collective actions remain without enquiry, the path of our destiny will not be altered.

In an effort to participate in American society, many of us simply substitute the most familiar or latest politically correct ideology. Sometimes we protest the warlike behavior of America with a sense of our own rightness while we remain at war with ourselves, our families, our Sanghas, our communities, and our country.

Bringing Home the Flag

Four days after our national independence day my father passed away. As is a custom for veterans, an American flag was placed on his coffin during the funeral. I have never been comfortable with the flag, especially as an African American, based on how it has often been used and abused.

But I had an insight during the funeral services that this is my flag, the flag of the land of my birth. I brought the flag home and placed it on an altar in my office to remind me of my connectedness to America. While America has negative qualities, she also has positive ones. It is my responsibility to manifest her hope and promise in my own life and the life around me. It is my opportunity to look into her suffering and the causes of her suffering in order to find relief.

Shortly before he passed away, my father shared with me his reflections on war as a WWII veteran. He said, “Please remember that nobody really wins.” So we must go deeper than mere politics in order to heal and transform America’s karma. We must not leave out the political realm but bring deep practice to it. We must bring our Buddha mind, our Dharma mind, and our Sangha mind to our collective life and destiny.

The trees outside my window are turning brilliant colors as they let go of their summer’s disguise. We too must let go of outdated disguises of opinions, positions, judgments, and habits in order to free ourselves to give America true understanding, true peace, and true love.

Larry Ward, True Great Sound, is a Dharma teacher living in North Carolina. This article is from notes on a book he is writing called America’s Karma. He and his wife, Dharma teacher Peggy Rowe are also developing a curriculum for the Bodhisavatta Mystery School of the Lotus Institute, which will include retreats and an on-line learning community, beginning in 2005.

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Airplane Dharma: No Birth , No Death

By Christian Bergmann


We flew one night with the Sangha from Hue to Hanoi. Half the airplane was filled with monastics and lay Sangha. Over an hour into the flight we were told that bad weather conditions were preventing us from landing in Hanoi. Now we were heading for Haiphong, a town by the sea two hours’ drive from Hanoi, and would take a bus from there back to Hanoi. As we approached Haiphong, we could see that the weather there was not much better. It was so foggy we could barely see our own wings, much less any city lights below.

As we got close to the ground the pilot switched off all the cabin lights. We sat in the blackness, flying slower and slower, expecting to touch down any minute but with no idea how close to the ground we actually were. Time seemed to stretch forever sitting in the dark plane.

Suddenly the airplane was thundering, the engines going full blast, as the pilot pulled the plane sharply up. It was very loud in the cabin. I wondered if this would be my last minute in this life. I expected we might hit a building or the trees at any second.

My wife, Angela, and I held hands, saying that we loved each another, just in case these were to be our last words. I trembled.

My legs were shaking, my heart was beating fast and hard, my breath was choppy. Fear of death captured my mind.

It was a powerful teaching. Being a hospice nurse, I had fooled myself into believing I had accepted the impermanence of life. But when that reality got personal and real, I saw that I have a long way to go in my understanding! I was not willing to let go of this life.

So we sang some spiritual songs as I tried to focus on my breath. What brought me the most calm was chanting Avalokiteshvara’s name and visualizing the Buddha’s and Thay’s smiling faces.

This experience was a great mirror in which I saw that my practice has yielded only partial success. And it was a great inspiration to practice wholeheartedly, and to live each day as if it may be the last. As we gained altitude, we flew back to Hue. After refueling, we reboarded the plane for another try.

Christian Bergmann, Joyful Gratitude of the Heart, lives in Berlin, Germany and practices with the Source of Compassion Sangha.

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Buddha, Ananda, & Katrina

By Sid Kemp


In early September my wife, Kris, spent six days in the Superdome in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina passed overhead. From early Monday through early Saturday, I had no news from her.

I have been a Buddhist practitioner for twenty-five years, and a member of the Order of Interbeing since 1989. I would like to share how our tradition and my practice flowed through my life in those days. Perhaps in a later article, Kris and I will share her story and how our lives are being changed by our encounter with this deep suffering.

Two thousand six hundred years before Katrina, the Venerable Shariputra died. Shariputra was an enlightened disciple of the Buddha and one of the Sangha’s greatest teachers. A monk brought his ashes to Ananda, lifetime friend and longtime attendant to the Buddha. When Ananda heard of Shariputra’s death, he felt sad, and he also felt weak and had trouble standing. When he brought the news to the Buddha, Buddha was sad, but he did not grow weak.

Over eighty generations have passed since the lives of Buddha, Ananda, and Shariputra. But people are much the same. Some of us are like Buddha, some like Ananda. In fact, some days each of us is like Buddha; some days each of us is like Ananda. It is in our nature to be Buddha. It is in our practice to be like Ananda; striving to be Buddha, but not all the way there yet. In the week that I could not reach Kris, I was sometimes like Ananda, sometimes like Buddha.

For the first two days, I was like Ananda. My body was weakened by the blow. I had difficulty sleeping, eating, and taking care of myself. I am grateful to my practice that I was able to be like Ananda. Without it I would have been angry instead of grieving. I can understand the craziness that made men in similar situations shoot at helicopters, yelling at the pilots to come rescue their mothers. I understand that kind of anger. It is part of me.

But being Ananda is not enough. It is good to be Buddha, as well. After two days, I realized that I had work to do, service to perform, decisions to make. I could not remain in grief and weakness. So—although I didn’t feel like it at all—I took long walks for exercise and renewed my formal meditation practice.

The transformation was swift. For the next three days, I was like Buddha. I was clear and strong. I did work, and even won a professional award for it. I cared for my wife’s family, my family, and our friends as we struggled with the fear and pain that arises when a loved one is missing and at risk. All the while we were hearing terrible and confusing stories about New Orleans. Some of us were locked in fear, others fantasized of rescuing her. My mind did all of that, but it was familiar ground. That is what the mind does. This is why it is important to develop inner strength, so when difficulties come we can respond with clarity and stability. We can be Buddha. We can be strong, balanced, and clear, capable of allowing love and wisdom to flow through us, even when faced with uncertainty.

I had a busy week. Fortunately, my professional work, at its core, is about digesting confusing news, figuring out what is really going on, and communicating with people. So I had the skills to handle the situation, and, by the grace of my teachers I also had the presence of mind and the strength to do what needed to be done.

What I have learned is that the fruits of the practice are good no matter what—whether we are, in one moment, clear but weak like Ananda or, in another moment, clear and strong like the Buddha. And if we feel and act out of fear or anger and hatred, that is okay, too. The full range, from suffering human being through practicing human being to awakened human being, is available to us in each moment.

Kris did make it home safely. I first heard from her on Saturday morning, at three-thirty. By the grace of the Dharma, I was able to get a friend to meet her and offer her a shower and a bed, saving her five hours on a bus. And I drove across Texas through the dawn to meet her.

Sid Kemp, True Full Taste of Enlightenment, is an author and project management consultant. His wife, Kris, is a visiting professor of religion at Tulane University.

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Hurricane Gathas

By Ruth Kaplan

Breathing in, I see my fear.
Breathing out, I return to the present moment.

Breathing in, I see my attachment to my life and possessions.
Breathing out, I see the truth of impermanence.

Breathing in, I do what I can to protect myself and my property.
Breathing out, I remember that my most valuable possession is peace of mind.

Breathing in, I am grateful for time and resources to prepare for the storm.
Breathing out, I feel compassion for those who are not able to prepare.


This exercise can be adapted for use with any fearful situation, especially natural disasters. So often, by remaining in our fear of the future, we forget that we are okay in the present moment. Our fear then expands to fear of loss of possessions, and we calm ourselves remembering that all possessions, including this precious body, are impermanent. This can then give us the equanimity to do what is reasonable and possible to protect ourselves and our possessions, without fear. But even as we go about making preparations, we can return to our true selves, and maintain peace of mind in the present moment. Finally, it helps to remember that many others are in similar situations, but without the ability to prepare, or the trainings to help them maintain peace of mind. If we cultivate loving kindness and compassion for them, it helps us as well to be less fearful. After all, just as with hurricanes, so often we are fearful and prepare for something that never actually occurs. So if we use it as an opportunity for practice, our actions are not wasted.

mb41-Hurriane2Ruth Kaplan, Subtle Lake of the Heart, lived on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and wrote these gathas while preparing for Hurricane Cindy, which missed her area. She has since moved to Austin, Texas, and practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha.

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Healing All Moments

A Retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh

By Jill Siler


The Vietnamese monk seemed to float onto the stage. He put his palms together and bowed his head. Then smiling, he folded his legs, effortlessly sank to the floor, and settled on a small round cushion.

“Dear friends,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, “this moment heals all moments.” I didn’t understand that at all, but I loved listening to the gentle, earnest way in which he spoke. The dharma talks, or teachings, were being given in a huge tent where hundreds of people sat on the floor in front of him; some sat on little cushions called zafus, some sat wrapped in blankets, and some sat on chairs further towards the back. We’d gathered here for a five-day, silent retreat to study with this world-renowned Zen teacher.

“The Buddha often taught about the importance of slowing down,” he continued in his beautifully accented voice, “of stopping all thoughts so that we might enjoy present moment awareness.”

Whatever. I have things to do and places to go. I have a staggering list of things that must get accomplished for me to even keep afloat, let alone make progress.

“This wonderful present moment,” he said again, smiling like he was really happy about it.

Present moment, my foot. That’s not going to solve my problems.

My husband was pouring our retirement savings into his boat and in denial about it. I was taking radioactive medication and my hair was falling out. I felt like throwing up all the time, my knees hurt, and my teenage daughters were careening through the hellrealm years of their adolescence. These were the elements creating my present moment.

But then he said that by practicing this simple idea, this sutra—and a sutra is a sacred teaching—suffering could be relieved and we could experience a greater capacity for joy. Well, I’m all for less suffering and greater joy, so my interest was sparked. He said that it takes practice to bring ourselves into the here and now, but that we should try it when we find that anguish or discomfort has risen in us. He said if we become mindful of our thinking and look deeply at the nature of what caused our personal sorrow we can begin to heal or unravel it.

Whatever. I could not unravel ill health or my husband’s boat.

Thich Nhat Hanh put his palms together and closed his eyes. He took a breath: slow, slow, in and out, and the room got quiet as a night sky. He asked us again to remember this simple teaching, from the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone”: Do not pursue the past, for the past no longer is. Do not chase the future, for the future is yet to come. By looking deeply at life as it is in the here and now, happiness is attainable.

Well that was it. I had personally hoped for something with a little more kick to it.

At the end of his two-hour talk, he asked us to take our cushions and blankets back to our rooms because it might rain and the tent leaked. I really liked where my zafu was placed. I was very close to Thay and knew chances were slim that I’d get this close tomorrow. The retreat was being held on the side of a mountain in Vermont and it seemed senseless to drag my cushion back down the mountain and haul it up again in the morning. I peeked out at the cloudless evening sky and decided to just push my cushion against the tent pole behind me and leave it there. When almost everyone was gone, I furtively arranged my cushion and slipped out of the tent.

People were scattered over the mountain, moving with mindful attention; walking with slow deliberate steps. The whole scene was so reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead that it struck me as ridiculous. I felt no reverence for any of it and I thought I might leave early.


Giving It a Try

That night, back in my room, it was time for me to take more medicine. I dreaded it because I knew it kept me feeling sick. As I stood at the sink, filling my glass with water, I began to notice that I felt really uncomfortable. This is what happens to me when there’s no TV, no one talking, and no distractions. I become more aware of what’s going on inside. I considered what Thay had said about looking deeply at our suffering instead of running away from it. The discomfort, I found, was fear. I got so sad, that I believed I could feel my heart aching. I was really scared the medicine wouldn’t work and I might die. I wanted to see my daughters find happiness. I wanted to be an old woman. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends or be brave. I wanted to be alive and figure it all out.

This is suffering, I decided, so maybe I should try that present moment thing.

I considered the sutra; look at life as it is in the here and now. Don’t chase the future.

I took a breath and tried.

The present moment sucks, I thought. I’m really depressed. I took another breath and tried again.

In this moment, I discovered, I’m okay. Actually, I’m good. I’m not nauseous. I’m not dead. I’m okay. Actually, as I thought about it some more, just right now in this moment, I’m getting well. I’m good.

It worked! This little monk might be onto something. Reality was still reality, but the suffering part, the mental anguish had passed. Very cool, I decided. Maybe I’ll stay.

All Is Lost

Two o’clock in the morning: thunder is cracking over the mountains so loudly that the window shakes. The rain pours down with such shocking intensity that as I stand by my window weeping, I can’t see five inches into the lightning-illumined night.

All is lost.

The retreat is ruined for me. My blanket and my zafu are in the tent getting soaked. What is wrong with me? Why am I such a mess? I came a thousand miles to listen to this guy and when he tells me to take my cushion, I think I know better. It’s too cold to sit in the tent with no blanket and I don’t want to sit with the tourists on chairs in the back. I hate myself. I hate this retreat. I want my zafu and blanket dry: I want to do this night over.

I get back in my bed and listen to the rain pound against the roof. I kick the blankets, moan, and blow my nose. I roll over, kick the blankets, and roll over again. I think of Thay’s words… life as it is in the here and now. Right now my zafu and blankets are getting soaked, I wail to myself, the soul of misery. Tomorrow will be ruined and the next day. I bet it takes a month to dry out a zafu.

Practice not chasing the future, I remind myself. I take a breath and try again.

In this exact moment, I am here in this bed; nothing hurts. I am not hot or cold or dirty or hungry. Though the heavens are crashing over me and rain is pouring down on everything, I am dry and warm and safely inside. Tomorrow will bring what tomorrow will bring. Right now there is absolutely nothing I can do about that.

I did this for a while and began noticing that I felt downright cozy. I slept peacefully till the br-r-ron-n-nng of the morning bell called us to meditation.

In the tent again, my zafu and blanket were waiting for me, dry and warm. I wondered how much of my life I’d spent worrying about things that wouldn’t even happen. I wondered how many times I’d traded a moment of peace for a moment of suffering.

Vacuum Meditation

A few months later, I was vacuuming my house. A huge mirror hangs on one of the walls. As I worked, I whined and grumbled to no one. “Geez! Look at this. Gross! Stupid dog. Why do I even bother? Sheez!” I was bent over, sucking up some dog hair, and I happened to glance at myself in the mirror. I saw how I’d aged and as I looked at my face, I saw my mother looking back at me. I saw how like her I’d become, not just physically, but the same style of complaining and negativity. In that instant, I saw how I carried my mother and my grandmother’s habits into my daughters’ lives. I saw how I could change that and suddenly, I knew that in that specific moment, I was healing all moments. I was healing the past of my ancestors and the future of my daughters and granddaughters.

I turned off the vacuum cleaner and set it down.

With palms pressed together, following my breath, I touched the present moment and thanked my teacher.

Jill Siler, Calm Calling of the Heart, founded the Miami Beach Sangha after this retreat with Thay as a direct result of Thay’s request that she either find a sangha or center to practice in, or start one.

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Letter to a Suicide Bomber

Excerpts from June 8 and 9 Dharma Talks

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

—Albert Einstein

How can we apply these teachings [on compassion]?

You may like to write a letter to a young man who is about to commit suicide in your country, or in Iraq. In France, many young men and women commit suicide every day. In the United Kingdom, in America, also. In every country. As a practitioner, as a dharma teacher, as a poet, you can write that young man a letter, the way Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a letter to a young poet. We can write a letter to the young terrorist, because he entertains ideas that make him suffer and make others suffer.

I learned that the young terrorists, they don’t like to be called terrorists. They prefer the term “suicide bombers.” You can, as a British citizen, as an American citizen, write him a letter—from your own practice, your own liberation. People in your countries still entertain ideas concerning peace, safety, and terrorism. Because we continue to entertain these ideas, we support violence and terror. The practice is to recognize the notions that have led to fear, to terror—to remove all these notions in order for us to be understanding, to be compassionate, and to help other people to be understanding, to be compassionate at the same time.

You may begin like this: “Dear Friend, I know you don’t want to be called a terrorist, although many people are calling you a terrorist. You prefer to be called a suicide bomber. You may think that you are acting in the name of justice, in the name of God, of Allah. You think that you are doing the right thing.

“You believe that there are people who want to destroy your religion, your nation, your way of life. That is why you believe that your act is an act in the good direction. You punish the evil people, the enemies of Allah, of God. And you are certain that as a reward you’ll be welcomed right away to the Kingdom of God, into paradise.

“In my country there are people who believe that way, too. They believe they have to go to your country and find young people like you to kill—to kill for the sake of safety and peace, to kill in service to God.

“We all are caught in our wrong views. In the past I have entertained wrong views like that. But I have practiced, and that is why I’ve been able to get rid of these wrong views. I’m able to understand myself better. I feel that I understand you and the people in my country, including the ones who commit suicide every day.”

Maybe there are a few dozen of us who would like to write a letter from our own insight, from our own liberation. We may combine all these letters into a collective letter that could be read not only by the young people who are going to die and to make people die in the Middle East, but also in our own country. Many young people entertain ideas and notions that are at the foundation of their despair, their anger, their craving. They suffer and they continue to make other people suffer, including their parents and their society.

No matter where we live, in England, in America, in Egypt, in Asia, we all have our wrong perceptions. We have wrong perceptions of ourselves, and we have wrong perceptions of other people, our friends, our enemies. Suffering is the outcome of wrong perceptions. So the letter is first of all an attempt to remove wrong perceptions—not only in the young person who is going to kill himself but in those who are going to read the letter.

The letter is a form of dialogue; the aim is to help each other remove wrong perceptions that have been there a long time. So this is a very deep practice.

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Towering Rock at Deer Park Monastery


It is morning. By myself I walk up the steep trail to “the towering rock.” The usually snake infested path is now clear for me to walk  up. I do. Every little while I check where I am walking, just in case. There is none the whole way. I put my foot on the grassy flat plane that ends the steepness. I walk about ½ yard. Then I stop. I turn to the left. I am in the presence of a five foot buddha statue. I am not afraid.

—Lucas Masch, age 8
Richmond, California

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Caring for My Anxious Mind

By Sandra S. Murray


A few years ago, anxiety was beginning to dominate my waking, and sleeping, world. I have a personality that pays great attention to detail, checks everything at least twice, tries to anticipate problems and solve them before they occur, organizes everything for efficiency, works to deadlines. These are great skills for an editor and proofreader, which is how I have earned a living for many years, or for anyone working in a business environment in our Western culture. However, when these methods of approaching the world began to rule my personal life also, when they applied themselves to me rather than me applying them skillfully to the task at hand, I could see I had a problem. Eventually, even I knew I was acting crazy, and not just irritating my friends and husband. But how to stop?

I would wake up at night from a bad dream or just wake up anxious. I would get up, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, read. During the day I would check my workstation three or four times when I left, sometimes re-climbing the stairs from the entry. I was especially concerned about fire—stoves, candles, matches, hot light bulbs. Sometimes during the day a thought would start that something bad was going to happen, and that it would be my fault. These feelings compounded as I tried to hide them from others, fearing people would become impatient with me or mock me. Not only was I afraid, I felt wrong in being afraid. And I feared that no one would understand.

I sought professional help, and my naturopathic physician was most concerned about the sleep deprivation, which was part of my menopause process. We were able to improve the amount and quality of my sleep. The symptoms diminished. But they did not disappear, and on occasion would surface dramatically.

Time to Really Wake Up

One night this past year, I woke from sleep about 3:00 a.m., my heart pounding and racing. I remembered a gatha from Robert Aitken-roshi’s book, The Dragon Who Never Sleeps:

When wakeful at two in the morning
I vow with all beings
to light incense and sit upon my cushion—
it’s time that I really wake up.

So this time, instead of turning on a light and reading, I practiced walking meditation for almost a half hour. Walking with my anxiety reminded me of Thây’s advice to care for our strong emotions like a precious baby—and when I was an infant, my mother walked me for hours to get me to sleep! When I felt stable enough, I stood behind my cushion and practiced touching the earth. Standing, I felt the strength of my body as a tree trunk, solid; bowing down, I released my anxiousness to the earth for care. Standing, I breathed in deeply the peace and quiet of the night; bowing down, I rested against the ground in surrender.

When at last I felt some calmness in my body and knew I could sit with my fears, I took to my cushion. Breathing in and out, I could feel my heart and belly still slightly trembling. For the first time, rather than pushing these feelings away and disowning them (“What do you have to be anxious about? Quit acting so fearful!”), I turned my gaze inward in compassion and just said to myself, “It’s very hard to feel so scared. I have lived this way for a long time. I won’t leave you alone feeling so bad.”

After a little while of sitting and being present with the feeling of fear, I looked closely at how the fear actually felt in my body: the faster heart, the tight stomach, the longing to cry in my throat. With focused attention I breathed more deeply and slowly into my belly, and consciously relaxed my stomach and throat. As my body calmed, my mind calmed also. Finally, I could just rest quietly in meditation, at ease with my body and mind. When I returned to bed, I slept well.

This experience demonstrated to me the power of our mindfulness practice, and it showed me once again how Thây’s teachings can help me with these foggy fears that are shapeless and pervading. In other meditation sessions, I looked deeply at how I fed these fears: with stimulants like coffee and TV crime shows; with contributing emotions like suppressed anger and self-induced pressure to be perfect; with my own self-judgment.

The process is not over—is it ever? I still have anxious times, although fewer than before. One big difference is that I know how to help myself when I feel these feelings. I am more open with my sangha about my imperfections, and my sangha’s patience, humor, and acceptance support me. I can even ask, “Am I worrying too much?” and my dharma sister will say, “Yes,” or “No,” and that helps me.

Tips for Overcoming Anxiety

Anxiety seems to pervade our society, from vague free-floating fears to a concerned reaction to current events. If you know someone with a lot of anxiety, or if you sometimes feel this way, maybe my experience will help. These are guidelines that I’m working with now:

  • I do not try to work with these fears rationally, because they are not rational in For someone to say, “Well, did you unplug the toaster?” and for me to say, “Yes, I did,” does not make the anxiety go away.
  • Make sure I rest Go to bed at a good hour. If I can’t sleep at night, then I try to take a nap during the day or use deep relaxation to care for myself.
  • I focus on the physical level first, practicing walking meditation, touching the earth, tai chi, chi gong, yoga, or mindful Activity performed with focus and coordinated breathing helps calm my body, and my mind follows.
  • I look into the nutriments that are feeding the I make better choices.
  • I do not malign or reject myself for feeling I accept myself as a sensitive person who detects imbalance in my life through this mental formation as well as others.
  • I water the good seeds by regular practice at home and with

Sandra S. Murray, True Mountain of Light, is a founding member of Flowing Mountains Sangha in Helena, Montana. She is happily writing a novel, short pieces of nonfiction, and poetry.

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Confined in Anger, Freed in Love

By Jacob Bowley

I was confined in the summer of 1999, twenty years old and more a prisoner of my own deep inner fears than the walls around me. Wrapped up in the great speed of the world, I had been able — with the help of drugs and alcohol — to maintain in my mind an impressive illusion of control. Here in prison the reins were clearly not in my hands; I knew no way to keep up my speed. Forced to stop, or at least slow down, I had to face the bitter truth: my will did not rule the world. This disappointment was too much for me to contend with day after day so I closed my eyes in anger. I would rage against the whole world until it consented to the perpetual gratification of my senses.


By the beginning of 2001 the institution was not pleased with my method of seeking fulfillment. They expressed this sentiment by giving me an extended stay in segregation. I knew the stay would be for only five or six months, so I saw no reason to change and quickly got into more trouble. At this point they told me I would stay in the hole for three years. My party stopped. This was no game. I could feel the anger oozing out of me, reverberating in my little cell and gaining strength. We looked at each other, my anger and me, and I knew it would destroy me.

While in the depth of this personal hell I came across a few pages about Buddhism. Strangely, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find any ground on which to cut Buddhism down. What I read seemed to be simple common sense.

Truth Cuts to the Heart

I read that life contains suffering. I found this to be an insultingly obvious statement, and yet there it was, in black ink; I had no way to deny it. This was not metaphysical speculation or theological proofs, here was something which cut right to my heart. I could clearly experience this in my own life and see it in the lives of those around me.

I read that suffering has a cause. That cause is not the outside world but is within; it is ignorance and clinging. Not the outside world? This had my full attention. I was putting so much energy into the delusion that with enough effort I could bend the world to my will — could it be possible to just change myself? The prospect of putting this burden down gave me, for the first time, the courage to acknowledge how large the burden was.

I read that the burden could be put down: if the causes of suffering are not, the suffering is not.

Finally I read that there is a path leading out of suffering. I needed to learn more about this path.

That summer and fall I immersed myself in new and exciting Eastern philosophy, ideals of compassion, and graded paths to enlightenment. Amazed by the deep and lucid wisdom I found in these teachings I nurtured a whole-hearted intention to realize their virtue. Slowly I began to experience the strength, healing, and freedom found in kindness and love.

Gradual changes were noticed by the institution and they responded by allowing me to return to the general population early. It was November 2001, and despite the excitement of moving out of segregation I was scared. I knew that the true test of my resolve to change would come when I returned to my friends. I came out of the box strong in intention, but weak in appreciation of the importance of practice. I held on to my new ideas but did not continue to meditate or study. Compared with the solitude of the past year, all the new ways to spend time provided a rich and stimulating life.


The sponsor of our Narcotics Anonymous group, Tyrone, says “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” The opposite is also true. I was acting my wholesome thinking and intentions into the back of my mind. My way of living systematically hardened my heart, but I didn’t notice the gradual loss of my freedom until I got into a fight over being called a name. How bitter it was to find myself bound once again in anger and rage! The anguish of this prison cut deeper now that I knew a small taste of peace.

Taking Refuge in the Practice

I turned for refuge to the practice, this time not in the isolation of the hole but right in the midst of my crazy world. I faced my habit of trying to maintain a certain image in front of my peers; I faced the deep fears at the root of this habit, and I chose instead to heal. The progress was slow and cautious, but there was peace in every step.

I met a wonderful spiritual friend early in 2004. Matthew Tenney is a living Dharma talk and he shared an infectious happiness with all of us here. He didn’t spend a lot of time engaging in the intellectual speculation and analysis regarding the practice that I wrapped myself in; rather, he introduced me to Thay’s teaching and to the true miracle of mindfulness in daily life. I had read about the importance of cultivating this obscure quality of mindfulness, and I was trying. But until now the methods appeared vague and overwhelming. Thay offered very concrete and simple ways that allowed practice to become a reality of my life.

One day, not long after meeting Matthew, I shared with him a yearning that had been percolating in my heart: I would like to be a monk after I was released. He asked “Why wait? Why not live that ideal right here, right now?” The aspiration to do just that has been the center of my life ever since, a center from which peace, stability, and freedom increase every day.

Witnessing the impact these qualities have on the emotional tone of this environment, and on the hearts of people who live here, gives me the strength to continue. It seems a long time ago that someone said of me, “Man, you can feel the hate radiate off that guy.” Today it is a quiet comfort for my heart to know that I no longer radiate pain and suffering to others, and that there is freedom in love.

Jacob Bowley received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, along with Matthew, long-distance from Brother Phap Bi on January 12, 2006, “a kindness,” writes Jacob, “ which brought tears to my eyes.”

Jacob is incarcerated in the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; this essay was written for the Mindfulness Bell and submitted by his father, Freeman Bowley.

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Poem: Meditation

mb47-Meditation1It doesn’t matter if
there are no fish,
in streams or rivers
that I pass.
I often stop,
and stare awhile,
where they might lie,
behind which rock,
or run or riffle.
Sometimes I think
I almost see them,
even though
they don’t exist.

It doesn’t matter if
there’s only this
one breath breathing
in and out.
With each breath,
I often stop,
what lies ahead,
or else behind,
not fish, but fears,
tails flashing.
Sometimes I almost
think I see them,
even though
they don’t exist.

—Sarah Rossiter

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Applied Buddhism & the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

By Bar Zecharya


It’s humbling to stand here in the presence of so many whose compassion and dedication have touched the hearts and lives of so many people. In comparison to your kindness, your practice, and the fruits of your efforts, I am a very small fish indeed. But it is so much better to be a small fish swimming in the stream of compassion than a small fish frying in the pan of anger.

I speak to you as an Israeli, American, adopted citizen of the city of Rome, Jew, Buddhist, poet. As a musician, student of politics and of religion, teacher, friend, partner, ex-husband, enthusiastic motorcyclist; as a former infantry soldier who to this day still feels his automatic assault rifle like some amputees feel their missing limb, pressed against my shoulder and with the smell of sweat and grease. I speak to you as a brother, a son and some day perhaps a father. I would like to offer you the following reflection on my limited understanding of Applied Buddhism in the context of the Middle East.

You may think that in the Holy Land there is a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This is not the truth. There is great suffering, yes. Fear is all pervasive: not just the fear of army incursions, assassination, terrorist attacks, the call to report to reserve duty, or of nuclear annihilation, but fear of exploitation, fear of economic insecurity, fear of loss, of not producing enough, not being strong enough. Conflict is rife in every sector of society, from the schools to the government, the murderous traffic, the family, the army; public and private spheres, religious and secular. there is tremendous violence against women and against children, abuse of power in the workplace, corruption, wholesale neglect and destruction of the natural and human environment.


All of this violence is the result of confusion, misperception and wrong views. The suffering is great, but if we misinterpret that suffering as the result of a conflict between two nations we are ignoring its real roots and will only perpetuate them. Using the Buddhist tool of looking deeply into the emptiness of an independent self, we can see a different reality. We Israelis and Palestinians may not be the same, but we are not different either. We are united in our fear, bound by our anger, intimately connected by our inability to listen with an open heart, and identical in holding the mistaken notion that our suffering is the result of a national conflict.

Please Don’t Join Us

This is not to say that there are no machines of war, no suicide attacks, checkpoints or existential threats. But by looking deeply into the reality we can see that the physical war is a reflection of the one in our hearts, an attempt to control our suffering by projecting it onto a clearly identifiable external enemy. To cover up the deeper reality of our suffering and its causes, to mask it with a narrative of two characters, is to do a great injustice and to render impossible any real transformation.

In my opinion, understanding the deeper dimension of suffering in the Holy Land is already a form of applied Buddhism. What practical steps can we take to alleviate suffering?

The first step, as always, is to protect ourselves and cultivate compassion. You may live in Southeast Asia, Europe or anywhere else on this planet that so generously provides for us, and often on the television you see images of political conflict. If we respond to those images out of judgment, collapsing the infinite web of social, political institutional, familial and psychological causes and conditions into a simplistic schema of two sides, one victim and the other aggressor, we are watering the seeds of judgment in ourselves. Anger and hate need no permit or passport to pass through a checkpoint or concrete wall, and just as easily they can pass through our hearts. If we strengthen the seeds of judgment, anger and hate, their fruits will find their way to all aspects of our lives and will damage the relationships with all those around us. Your partners, your children, your parents and all of your loved ones are precious to you. If would be such a shame if our confusion and ill-being led to even a moment of discord or disharmony in your family and community.

The same television images can be embraced with compassion and deep under-standing. Think of  someone who launches a Qassam rocket into Israel. Being a militant is not the entire truth. No one is only a militant. He may be a militant, son, brother, friend, artist, student, and so on, including being a victim of numerous causes on many levels and from many directions — leading to his belief that killing can solve his suffering or the suffering of his loved ones. No one is only a soldier either. The truth of a soldier is just as complex, just as human, whose confusion and whose actions can be seen as the result of many causes, deep and wide, to which he, his commander and general are all victims. Were they able to see deeper they would act differently.

Please, friends, for your own sake, and your own happiness, take this as a meditation on non-duality, signlessness and interbeing, to develop your compassion for those of us who have not yet learned to do so. You will be setting a beautiful example of non-judgment for your children, who will then be able to enrich their lives and those of their loved ones with compassion and understanding. Thus you can turn a rocket attack or a military incursion into love, transforming ignorance into a teaching of the Dharma. I believe that this practice will bring you more joy into your own life, and that is reason enough to practice it.

Removing the obstacle of a dualistic view also presents many opportunities for Applied Buddhism on a wider scale. Just as fear is found in every sector of our society, opportunities can be found as well. We Middle Easterners would do well to learn to appreciate the many conditions of joy and happiness already present in the here and now. This includes our existing friendships, our children, the spectacular natural beauty that surrounds us, and the joy we can find by returning to the miracle of our breath.

Some of these conditions are also the countless projects of peace and development thanks to the dedication and generosity of individuals the world over. Whatever your expertise — be it social work, health care, agriculture, the environment, art and culture, or sport and so on — I believe that any contribution can relieve suffering and slowly water the seeds of joy, if given after having personally deepened the practice of compassion, non-judgment, and non-duality. Without this practice, I fear that any effort will unfortunately only contribute to further suffering. Coexistence projects are useful and welcome, but focusing solely on coexistence in my opinion risks emphasizing only one result of the underlying causes. Compassion, deep listening, and loving speech can be practiced at any level of society and in any language.

Question from the Audience

How can engaged Buddhism resolve the conflict in West Asia (the Middle East)?

That’s a difficult one! My first response is that preferring one political solution over another, from our standpoint outside the Middle East, is to practice the attachment to views, and our practice as Buddhists is to practice non-attachment to views. If we choose one particular political solution, believe that it is the correct view and attempt to enforce it on the rest of the world, we will only be practicing judgment and the inability to listen and will water those seeds in ourselves and in others. What we really need to do to have any positive effect, is the exact opposite. We need to practice the ability to listen without judgment so the seeds of love, even though they may be small, will be watered. First of all we must do this practice in our own hearts and in our own day-to-day lives. Second, we can support projects in Israel and in Palestine at any level of society: the family, government, education, etc, that involve listening deeply and using loving speech. Finally, we could bring Israelis, Palestinians or both, decision-makers and humble citizens, together to simply listen to each other and transform their own suffering. This is the only effort that will have any positive effect.

Bar Zecharya is a PhD student in Political Science at La Sapienza University. He holds an M.A. in Comparative Religious Studies and a B.A. in International / Middle East Studies from Ohio State University. Citizen of Israel and the United States, Bar currently lives in Rome, Italy; he can be reached at

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War, Conflict, and Healing in Belfast

By Bridgeen Rea

This talk was presented at the Vesak Conference in Hanoi in May 2008.


I first went to Plum Village for a week of the summer retreat in July 2005. Sitting with Thay and the Sangha around the lotus pond in Upper Hamlet — following my first-ever walking meditation— had a massive impact on me. Maybe it was the strong French sunshine or the beautiful pink lotuses, which I’d never seen before in my life, but I was deeply touched by the peace and the happiness all around me in Plum Village. I had a joyful, wonderful time and I felt lots of love. I decided to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings that week.

Back in Northern Ireland I went to meditation once a week in the Belfast Zen Centre, which follows the Soto Zen tradition. I feel like the Mindfulness Trainings worked on me, rather than me working on them. I was training to be a yoga teacher and tried to be as mindful as I could — when I remembered!

In August 2006 I went to the Neuroscience Retreat at Plum Village, where I met a psychologist from Dublin who told me I should go to Vietnam. I thought it was impossible, but I went! Many friends supported me to go and even my family were happy for me.

For the whole three weeks of segment two, I shared a room with Gladys from Hong Kong, who has now been ordained as Sister Si. I felt so happy to have met such a beautiful person. In Vietnam many of the lay friends encouraged me to start a Sangha in Belfast. In Belfast it’s not really possible to be Buddhist — if I say I practice Buddhism, people say ‘but are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?’ and it’s only half a joke!

Growing Up During “the Troubles”

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1974, five years into what is known as “the Troubles.” Growing up in a divided society rife with sectarianism, hatred, and fear was the norm, but I had a happy childhood and enjoyed school.

The Troubles did penetrate my life though. I was born on July 8, which is right in the middle of the ‘marching season’ — the guaranteed time for trouble in Belfast. Belfast used to shut down and become a ghost town. I have memories of people protesting out on the streets when a hunger striker died around my eighth birthday and I didn’t get to go on a planned outing. When I was much older and wanted to have a party or an evening out in a local place, often my friends couldn’t come because of trouble in parts of the city.


As a teenager I had to be aware of going to places wearing my school uniform because it identified me as Catholic. I had to be careful about going out with Protestant boys. Also I was very aware that my name, Bridgeen, labels me as a Catholic, unlike my sister’s neutral name Jenny, which can be either Catholic or Protestant.

My family doesn’t understand the practice. They ask, “What is it you do, worship Buddha?” My parents and friends understand that Buddhism is a peaceful thing, but they worry that I’m too into it. They say, “Why don’t you just go on a ‘normal’ holiday?”

In April 2007 I told my friend Sinead about the idea of Sangha — she is a poet and very open to new ideas. She thought it was wonderful! She had just had a baby and thought that Sangha would be the perfect thing to help her balance her life. So with her encouragement I called a couple of friends who were interested or at least open-minded towards Buddhism and meditation. The Tall Trees Sangha started in my apartment. After a year five of us are still practicing once a week. It is very wonderful and brings all of us many blessings.

How to Be at Peace?

By coincidence when the Sangha started in May 2007, Northern Ireland installed its first power-sharing executive. Ten years after the historic Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland finally has a locally elected government. This is something that my Granddad didn’t live to see and would never have believed could happen. Belfast has been transformed. In some ways the peace is still tenuous and people are now having to learn how to live in a new situation after forty years of conflict.

How to be at peace? My friend Sinead says: “I think there is a psychosis in the society here — there has to be, given our history — and it will take a long time for this to be resolved, even though we are witnessing miracles. They say for every year of conflict you need another year of reconciliation. And I think this affects people who live here on all sorts of levels.”

I work in the new government administration as a Press Officer — for a Minister who belongs to a party that my community once saw as the enemy. But in spite of the many positive events, sectarianism and fear are still rampant. The society is still very much divided in terms of where people live and the schools they go to. There are many social problems of deprivation, depression, and suicide.

My mindfulness practice and Sangha can’t do much on a large scale but on a micro scale five us are learning a lot from Thay and trying to nourish our good seeds. Every week we practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, listen to Thay speak on CD and we have a Dharma discussion. Two of us come from a Catholic background, one was brought up Protestant, one was brought up with no religion; there’s also a German guy whose religious background doesn’t really count in the Northern Ireland context!

Forgiving and Moving On

We don’t discuss politics or the state of society, rather our personal problems and challenges. I really believe in Thay’s saying “peace in oneself, peace in the world.” I aspire to follow the Five Mindfulness Trainings, though sometimes I don’t find it easy to live up to them.

Another Sangha member in his fifties with five children says gratefully that the Sangha nourishes the spiritual aspect inside him and that it makes a space in his week. He remembers being angry and depressed during the Troubles and shouting at the TV. I think every family experienced that.

He says: “Sangha is a space where people can express themselves without upsetting anyone. It is open-minded, far from my dogmatic Christian upbringing. I always feel uplifted after it. It also helps me to relax as I am often an anxious frightened person. As I lived through the Troubles the fear in the community was palpable and people were steeped in it, and they weren’t allowed to question it. The atmosphere was full of tension, hatred and anger — sectarianism and bigotry everywhere. You were constantly waiting on something bad to happen.”

When I am out socialising and people find out I practice meditation they ask me all sorts of questions. There is a lot ignorance, confusion, and misunderstanding about anything that comes from the East. There is fear that it’s some kind of cult or it’s against Christianity. Yet Belfast people are the salt of the earth; they are warm and friendly and funny! If you ever visit Belfast you will find people go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome.

Because of our history we may have a dark sense of humour, but there is also awareness of the importance of forgiveness. People understand about changing and moving on for the sake of future generations.

Bridgeen Rea, Peaceful Gift of the Heart, hosts Tall Trees Sangha in her apartment in Whiteabbey Village, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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The Last Walking Meditation

By a Young Monastic Sister from Bat Nha Monastery

In September 2009, over 350 monastic disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh were violently expelled from Bat Nha (Prajna) Monastery in Vietnam’s central highlands. They took emergency refuge at Phuoc Hue temple in the nearby town of Bao Loc. Following is an eyewitness account from a young monastic sister from Bat Nha. Further stories, photos, press coverage, petitions, and opportunities to help can be found at



On Sunday, September 27, we had the opportunity to do sitting meditation together, and then to do walking meditation around the Garuda Wing Meditation Hall. It was raining heavily that day. My brothers’ and sisters’ robes were soaking wet, but we continued to walk next to each other in peace, love, and understanding. In me, the mind of love and faith reignited brightly.

We never thought that this would be our last walking meditation on this lovely piece of land that was full of life. The atmosphere was still peaceful, and everyone was ready for the next activity, a Day of Mindfulness. For our class, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings,” the topic of the four nutriments was going to be presented, but it had to be cancelled. Perhaps that presentation became the non-verbal Dharma talk, manifesting its insights through our love and profound brotherhood and sisterhood.

At 8:00 a.m., all of us returned to our rooms and sat on our own beds, waiting. I did not know what I was waiting for; I only thought of it as a routine Sunday schedule. Over the last few months, there had been no Sunday when we were not shouted and cursed at. We only knew to sit still and keep our minds calm and receptive.

At 9:00 a.m., we—the sisters in the Mountain Cloud Hamlet— received the news that the brothers’ hamlet, Fragrant Palm Leaf Hamlet, was being attacked. Everything was being destroyed and thrown into the rain. A number of elder and younger brothers were dragged outside and driven away. We were shocked by the news, and we did not believe that it could be true. Soon after that, I saw one elder brother and one young novice running toward Mountain Cloud Hamlet in soaking wet robes. They only had enough time to bring their Sanghatis [monastic ceremonial robes] wrapped on their shoulders.

Victims of Ignorance

At 10:30 a.m., we were allowed to take our food. I was on the cleaning team, so I stayed back to clean up and put things away before I went to eat. As soon as I sat down on the straw mat and picked up my alms bowl, I was told to get my things immediately. All of us put down our alms bowls and went to pack our belongings. We only thought about bringing our Sanghatis, alms bowls, monastic certificates, and identification cards. It would be all right if people came and took the rest of our belongings for their own use. We understood that they were only victims of poverty and constant struggle. They were unfortunate to grow up and live in negative environments, so they were easily “brainwashed” and incited by distorted information.


In fact, these people deserve love as much as we do. We are victims of violence. But they are victims of ignorance and lack of reflection. Only 70,000 to 100,000 dong [Vietnamese currency] was enough to hire them to do something unwholesome. How pitiful that is! Is that the value of a human being? What about the days and months to follow, when they would suffer from the gnawing of their own conscience? Who would pay them a salary?

At 11:30 a.m., six men walked around our hamlet and knocked on the sisters’ doors, shouting, “The nuns have to leave this place. Do not make us get angry and hurt you. If you don’t leave this place, you will have to suffer the consequences.” All of us sat next to each other quietly. We listened to the sounds of glass windows being broken. People came into every room and herded us outside. They held long iron bars, which were used to hit us if we resisted. One by one, we walked out of our rooms and went out in the front yard. It was raining heavily. Perhaps the sky gods also cried for us.

Not Someone to Love or Hate

When everyone was down in the front yard, we discovered that young sister Cong Nghiem was not with us. She had recently had an accident, so she could not move. We begged the uncles [the attacking men] to allow us to go back and carry her down. All of us were so moved looking at our elder sister carrying our young sister on her back.

The more we looked, the more we also felt sorry for the uncles. There was one uncle about fifty years old, who wore a helmet and walked with a limp. While he was smashing the windows his hand got cut, and it was bleeding severely. We ran to the first aid cabinet, which was completely destroyed. We were lucky to find some cotton balls, gauze, and alcohol to clean and dress his wound. Looking into his eyes, I saw that he was deeply moved; he realized we did not hate him, but instead we took care of him wholeheartedly. During that time, for me, there was not someone to love or someone to hate. I did not think about what they had done to us. There was only this person who needed our help.

After we dressed his wound, he lowered his head to thank us and situated himself quietly in the corner, watching us standing next to each other in the rainstorm. He was not violent anymore. Then I saw him leaving quietly. At that point, all of us were together and safe. No one was stuck inside. We felt so happy to realize that we loved each other, and that we could sacrifice our lives for each other, for our ideals, and for this path of understanding and love.

We Love Vietnam

That morning, about 100 women and men came down to the sisters’ hamlet. Whenever they saw a monk, they would jump in to tear at his clothes and beat him. When we tried to protect our brothers and sisters, we suffered the same fate—they pushed us down; the women used umbrellas and rocks to hit and kick us on our hands and backs. Some of them even slapped our faces. We only knew to endure it or duck. We did not do anything else.

When all of that happened to us, we did not shed one tear or complain. We only felt that our society was full of violence, hatred, and fear. We felt that we needed to protect and guard our ideals, bringing understanding and love to humankind. It pains me to see that the Vietnamese nation was loving, gentle, and ethical, and that the four thousand years of history for which Vietnam has been praised is now lost at the hands of Vietnamese people. We love Vietnam. We love the gentle and kind people. We love the humanist culture that our ancestors cultivated. That is why we have chosen this path, to protect and guard the beauty in the Vietnamese people.


The pain, the shame, is too great. The beating and eviction are all right, because as monks and nuns, we have no property to be attached to. It only pains us that the dignity and humanity of our society have been brought to such a low level. I thought to myself: How happy I had felt, reading the history of those before me in the Ly and Tran dynasties! We have the right to raise our heads and feel our national pride. However, our children and future generations, when they recall the events at Bat Nha, will have to lower their heads in shame. Time will erase all the physical traces, but the wounds in the heart, the shame, the hatred, the fear, and the violence will be transmitted. With such a transmission, the ethics of our society cannot help but seriously decline. How sad that would be!

We brothers and sisters speak our own hearts; we cannot plant and spread more of those negative seeds. We have to water this arid, thorny land of the human mind with drops of wholesome nectar, so that we can revive the flowers of understanding, love, inclusiveness, and non-harming. Only because of that, we—who are carrying in our hearts the great love, the great vow—are determined not to allow those unwholesome seeds to develop further in the hearts of our people.

We love the sound of the phrase “my motherland.” We love the Vietnamese people. Even if they accuse us of being traitors, even if they beat us down, we never want “chicks of the same hen” to attack or hurt one another. So, from the moment when we were forced out on the street to stand in the rain, accepting the heckling and the beatings, enduring the dirty water tossed into our faces, we continued to stand next to each other and protect each other. Even though we were cornered, beaten, pushed and pulled, we would not leave each other.

“We Will Never Lose You”

At 5:00 p.m. that day, we were forced outside the gate of Mountain Cloud Hamlet. It was painful for us to see that we could not protect our elder Brothers Phap Hoi and Phap Sy from the violence of the uncles. We watched with deep pain as they were taken away. They tried to shoo us, but we all stood silently in the rain. We were cold and hungry.

Only when it was dark outside did we quietly walk to our sisters’ Warm Hearth Hamlet. We were moved by the way our sisters greeted us and received us. They were able to start two fires so that we could warm ourselves. Then they cooked ramen noodles for us to eat. We all felt a burning in our eyes. Was it from the smoke or from the love for each other?

That night, the Warm Hearth Hamlet was left temporarily in peace. We sat next to each other and looked at each other carefully for a long time. We knew that it would be difficult for us to be united like this again. Even though I was tired, I could not sleep. As soon as I lay down, the image of Thay Phap Hoi and the other brothers being taken away arose in my mind. I was afraid that it would be the last image, and the last time that I was able to see him. If this were true, then we would cherish even more deeply his silent sacrifice. It would further affirm our confidence in our path of practice. “Rest assured, dear elder brother. You are present in us. You have transmitted to us your quietness, your calm, and your solidity in those moments. We will never lose you.”

That night, the rainstorm continued strong. I sat up to look around our room in the “Phuong Vy 2” dormitory. Seeing my sisters sleeping, my heart surged with love. If my sacrifice would bring them peace so that they could live and practice, I would do it. Fear in my heart yielded to a powerful love. Two streams of tears ran down, and down. These were the first tears shed since what happened in Bat Nha. The teardrops came from an unlimited source of love.

At five o’clock the next morning, one by one, we got on the bus to Phuoc Hue temple. I was on the second trip. Looking at my sisters’ faces—so young, innocent, and pure—my heart jolted with a sharp pain. We began to sing Here is Our Beloved Bat Nha. Everyone’s eyes became red and teary. When we got to “Here is our beloved Bat Nha, with those who carry in our hearts the Great Vow, to live together and to build the Pure Land right here…,” we could not sing anymore. We just cried. The driver saw us, and he was also moved to tears.

Never before had we cherished so much every moment we were together. To be able to stay together, we were willing to endure any amount of poverty, pain, and suffering. Only five minutes were spent in deep sadness; then we continued to sing our practice songs. We sang and sang until the bus stopped in front of Phuoc Hue temple. From that moment on, our life has moved on to a new page, not any less beautiful or majestic.

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The Ultimate Dimension

A Practice with Dying and Death

By Haven Tobias

Some friends and I joined in a practice to write about death and dying.* When we shared what we had written, we learned that the following drama was everybody’s worst-case scenario.

I am in a nursing home where, even if someone cared enough to prop me up so that I could look out the window, I would see only a parking lot. The nursing home is so institutionally gray and dull, and my room is so gray and dull, that I cannot tell what time of day it is, much less what season. There are no flowers or plants in my room. Whatever it is I am dying of, it is taking a while, and I have been lying in this bed a long time, becoming a drooling, pants-wetting, shriveled-up old lady. I am being warehoused, away from contact with human beings, other than a nurse’s aide, whose sole expression seems to be annoyance. I can no longer see to read, or watch movies, or do jigsaw puzzles. There is no one to read to me, or play Cyrano to my Roxanne, bringing me the news of the day. There is no one to spread lotion on my dry and cracked back and feet. There is no discernible end to this nightmare—no death, just a drawn-out dying by increments.

There was an end to the nightmare—it was a writing exercise, not immediate reality. My friends and I could conceive of more horrific circumstances, such as being kidnapped and tortured to death. But all of us agreed that the worst-case scenario, lingering on without loving care in an institutional setting, was worst precisely because it was common and probable.

While I kept trying, as I wrote, to turn my attention to compassion for all those who languish in nursing homes, honesty compels me to admit I was wallowing in self-pity for that lonely little old lady that was me.

Fortunately, the exercise did not finish with the worst-case scenario. It was with some relief that I moved on to the second part of the exercise, writing about my ideal scenario.

Ideally, I know in advance that I am dying. I can take a gentle leave of my friends and family and remove myself to the sea, to a cottage along the coast in Massachusetts or Maine. I have my wits about me. The pain comes and goes, and when it comes I am able to breathe and say, hello, I know you are just pain. Perhaps my daughter is with me. I know she understands I am at peace about my death. She knows I am at peace about my dying, too.

It is late spring or early autumn. It is warm, and I am still physically able to walk to the shore when the day becomes night and sit on the beach, listening to the waves and watching the stars. As first light comes and I watch the sky over the water turn to pearl, I have enough acuity to remember the closing gatha of the Diamond Sutra: “Thus should one view all of the fleeting world; a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom and a dream.” I lie down in the sand and die.

Sharing our ideal death made all of us more emotional than sharing the worst-case scenario. There was fear that the ideal was so much less likely than the worst case. Almost all of us wanted to die on a shore or mountaintop or under a tree, and not in a hospital or nursing home, but we feared the odds.

We were ready for the third part of the exercise: what can we do, here and now, to make a life worth dying for? Most of us, perhaps to calm our emotions, became very practical. We made promises to work on wills and to speak with family members about worries and fears and wishes and feelings. But we also understood that preparation for death is not limited to practicalities.

As for myself, in preparation, I have read and reread Thay’s book No Death, No Fear. Thay teaches that when the fear of dying is exacerbated by the fear of death, it is like receiving a second arrow in a wound. Thay also teaches about recognizing choices. Choice permeates every aspect of our life, the way we live it, and the way we die.

There is no element of choice in death. The self that I call “I” will die. But I can choose to overcome fear of death.

There is an element of choice in dying. Whatever the causes and conditions of my dying may be, I can choose to participate in the process with equanimity. I have two daily practices to help me understand the process and to water the seeds of equanimity.

The Five Remembrances

I practice every day with the Five Remembrances, a meditation taught by the Buddha:

This body is of the nature to grow old. This body cannot escape old age.

This body is of the nature to decline in health. This body cannot escape ill health.

This body is of the nature to die. This body cannot escape death.

Everyone I love, and everything I have, I will one day have to let go. I cannot escape this.

I am the heir of my karma; my karma is my heir.

This teaching of the Buddha about the impermanence of life in the historical dimension, in the “mundane world,” is a core practice in Buddhism. I am also mindful, as I practice the Five Remembrances, of Thay’s teachings about the ultimate dimension, or what some would call nirvana. Awareness of the ultimate dimension informs both my understanding of the mundane world and my grasp of the reality of no-death.

This body is of the nature to grow old. This body cannot escape old age. But I am not this body, and this body is not me.

This body is of the nature to decline in health. This body cannot escape ill health. But mindfulness practice guides me to protect my health as best I can, in my choices of what to eat or not eat, and what to drink or not drink, and in the choices I make about my activities and my attitudes. The reality of interbeing, which is the truth that no self is a separate self but rather “inter-is” with every other being, teaches me that every choice I make has consequences for myself, for my family, and for society. I cannot choose to eat a steak every day, I cannot choose to drink a bottle of wine every day, I cannot opt to watch a violent program on TV instead of taking a walk outdoors, and pretend there are no personal and societal consequences.

This body is of the nature to die. This body cannot escape death. But I was never born, and I will never die. When causes and conditions were sufficient, I manifested in this body. When causes and conditions cease to be sufficient, I will no longer manifest in this body. But just as surely as the morning star is still “there” even after the sun rises, so shall I be. There is a famous Zen koan: what did you look like before your grandparents were born; what will you look like in one hundred years?

Everyone I love, and everything I have, I will one day have to let go. I cannot escape this. We all have to leave our stuff behind. That house we put so much of ourselves into, that car we thought was so important to own, the jewelry, the gadgets—all of it will turn to junk, before or after we’ve left. The important thing is love, and because the ultimate reality is the reality of interbeing—that we all contain one another—love does not die. Love continues in every kind word I have ever spoken and every smile I have ever smiled. Kind words and loving smiles get passed around the world and back again.

I am the heir of my karma; my karma is my heir. Where I am now, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is the sum total of all that I have done before now. Karma is the consequence of every action I’ve taken. But karma is not my fate. If I have had a tendency in the past to act in a certain situation with anger or anxiety, I can choose, now, not to act in that situation with anger or anxiety. In every moment, I can choose to nourish my seeds of peace and compassion rather than feeding my seeds of anger or fear.


Never the Same Path

My second daily practice is a walking meditation. I always walk with Thay, and breathe with the Buddha. Here, now. Walking, breathing. Walking with Thay. Happy feet, peaceful steps. Breathing with the Buddha. Releasing, letting go.

I walk the same path every day at the same time. But of course, it is never the same path and it is never the same time. I know, because the whole cosmos has told me on these walks that I am not walking the same path at the same time. The whole cosmos tells me that nothing lasts forever as it is now. And that is a blessing.

If everything lasted forever as it is now, five-year-olds could never become teachers or nurses or mothers or fathers. New friendships could not begin. Relationships could not deepen. Everything is in the process of change. Sometimes if we are fearful or grieving, it feels like loss. But it is not loss; it is transformation.

When I start my walk, I count the stars. I count a couple of dozen without even moving my head. After twenty minutes, I look again and count maybe fifteen stars. I walk a little longer, and it is dawn, and there is only the morning star. Are all the stars gone? They are here. It’s just that you can’t see them. They are not gone. Night has become morning in the natural process of change. But maybe indeed one of those stars has transformed. I could have been seeing the light of a star that exploded zillions of years ago. Is it gone? Or are we all stardust, interchanging our energies?

I close my walk, as I hope to close my life, with the Diamond Sutra: “Thus should one view all of the fleeting world; a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom and a dream.”

These two daily practices, sitting with the Buddha’s Five Remembrances, and walking with Thay’s interbeing, help me to develop equanimity about death and dying. And, oh, about life and living too, and the gift of the present moment.

* This practice was adapted from one recommended by Joan Halifax Roshi in her book Being with Dying. She advises that the exercise be done in community, so each writer has support. On two separate occasions, I facilitated different members of my meditation group sharing this practice. We found that intimacy is one consequence of this exercise and that therefore trust and respect are essential.

Hmb53-TheUltimate2aven Tobias, Embracing Freshness of the Heart, facilitates the Norman Meditation Group, which includes practitioners from many traditions. She is a semi-retired lawyer.

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Migrating into Happiness

By Robin Lee Schiff and Joost van Rens

Robin: Yesterday evening we were lying on the smooth sunwarmed road that winds its way down the mountain at Deer Park Monastery, watching the moon rise over the crest of the ridge, enjoying the coolness of the evening after a hot sunny day. As we listened to the coyotes calling to each other, we both felt a deep sense of happiness, marveling at the way our life has been unfolding. Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

Joost: We have been visiting Plum Village since 1997 and Deer Park Monastery since 2002. Over the years it has become clear that we are happiest when we are spending time at the monastery with the monks and nuns, being part of the fourfold Sangha. We began to notice after each retreat that our priorities shifted effortlessly into deeper harmony with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and that making conscious decisions and choices to create positive change became much easier. In 2004, toward the end of the nine-week winter retreat at Deer Park, Robin looked deeply in meditation and resolved to change our lifestyle in such a way that we would spend at least three months each year at Deer Park. She called it a ten-year plan, and said, “I don’t know how it will happen; I only know that within ten years we will be doing this.” I readily agreed. In the end it took us only three years to accomplish this goal.



At Home in the Netherlands

Joost: I worked for almost twenty years as a medical doctor in a non-profit center in a poor neighborhood in The Hague, where I saw thirty to forty patients a day, most of them immigrants. I was also politically active in the health-care field because most of the health problems of my patients were poverty-related. I used all the tools I had learned in Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery to deal with the high levels of stress at my work: mindful walking in my office, conscious breathing during and between consultations, loving speech and deep listening with patients and colleagues. I hung pictures of Thay on the wall as mindfulness bells, and I tried to treat each patient as if he or she were my mother, father, sister, or brother. But I was also in the habit of drinking one to two Belgian beers after work to be able to relax because I would come home tense and exhausted. During the 2004 winter retreat I engaged in several weeks of deep self-inquiry, well supported by Sangha friends, as to why I liked to drink. At the end of the retreat, Robin and I undertook the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided afterward to give up alcohol completely. Within a year after I stopped drinking, it became very clear to me how high and unsustainable the stress levels were at work. This realization catalyzed me to change my life.

mb55-Migrating3Robin: I teach tai chi as a form of mindfulness meditation. In our studio at home in The Hague, employees of UN agencies participated in classes, as did lots of other people who read the brochures I left in public libraries, bookshops, and natural food stores. Joost and I hosted weekly Sangha mindfulness mornings as well.

I have had a daily practice of sitting meditation since I was sixteen years old, but Thay’s book Old Path White Clouds inspired me greatly and led me to change to a Plum Village style of practice, particularly after our first visit to Plum Village in 1997. The advice given to me then by Sister Gina was to spend less time sitting and to try to take meditation off the cushion and into every aspect of my daily life. This has been enormously healing and transformative for me, closing the disturbing gap that had widened over the years between my “spiritual” life on the cushion and the rest of my experiences. Each time we came back from Deer Park we noticed that we were less attached to our worldly possessions. It was becoming clear that our true happiness was not dependent upon these things. In 2005, our son Seth graduated university and landed a contract teaching English in Japan. Knowing that Seth could now earn his own living catapulted me into a phase change, which I describe as the end of the nesting instinct. I saw myself as a bird flying out of the nest and into the immense blue sky.

Joost and Robin: After a year of research, planning, number crunching, and deep looking, we were ready to commence the process of selling our house and other possessions, quitting our jobs, and leaving the Netherlands. Our plan was to live six or seven months per year in Australia or New Zealand, where Joost could work as a roving medical doctor. (This is possible because there is a great shortage of doctors in rural areas in both countries.) We would have no fixed base but would move from location to location, wherever doctors were needed.

Joost: Both of us come from families that play it safe in making life choices. We noticed fears arising, triggered by the unconventional choices we were making. We both had to recognize, embrace, and find ways to transform these fears, step by step, as we developed and implemented our plans.

In August 2006, Robin began fixing up our house to put it up for sale the following spring. We started giving away our furniture, library, music CDs, clothing, beds, kitchenware, bicycles—everything—to our families and to friends who were planning to start a Buddhist retreat in England. It took a year to mindfully divest ourselves of all the possessions we had previously cherished. We each left the Netherlands with forty kilograms of possessions. Leaving my family behind, especially my 85-year-old father, was especially poignant because my mother had died just three months before. I taught my father to use Skype, and we now speak on the phone or Skype every two days. We keep in close contact—via Skype—with our son, who is now twenty-six years old and studying law. The other emotional hurdle was fi   a new home for our twenty-two-year-old black cat, Zumbro. As of this writing, Zumbro is still alive and thriving with a couple of our friends in Amsterdam.

At Home Wherever We Are

Robin: Each work assignment in Australia and New Zealand comes with a temporary house and the use of a car. We never know what kind of house it will be until we arrive. People ask us if it is difficult to have no home of our own, but the practices of mindful walking and breathing have helped us to be at home wherever we are. We have stayed in many remote rural locations all over Western Australia and New Zealand, and usually by the time we have unpacked our bags we feel at home. The amount of time we remain in each location averages about five weeks.



Joost: While I was working in the Netherlands, it felt as though my work never stopped. Now I know that each year I will spend at least three months at Deer Park Monastery. Even though working in rural areas can be very challenging, I have much more joyful energy for my work. We also have considerably more free time to appreciate the beauty of nature and to feel gratitude for our relationship.

Robin: Every day during our first year in Australia, I would imagine, before I started eating breakfast, that one of the trees I could see from the table was Brother Phap Ho, one was Brother Phap Dung, and one was Sister Faith or Sister Tue Nghiem, or whichever monastic arose in my thoughts. Now, two years later, the trees themselves seem to have so much presence, I no longer need to attach images of monastic friends to them to feel as though Sangha is all around me!

Joost: The frequent changes in our work and living environments help us to stay fresh and to practice “beginner’s mind;” they also encourage us to reduce our possessions even more, since we have to carry everything wherever we go. I have worked as a GP in many different types of practices, this year mostly in impoverished Maori towns. Robin works as our part-time manager to organize work assignments, contracts, tickets, housing, insurance, visas, etc. She also swims daily and teaches tai chi and meditation.

Robin: People often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult for you when Joost goes off to work and you are in a new place?” My natural attitude is that in each new place, some special opportunity will arise for me to learn something new, and/or to teach somebody who really wants to learn what I can offer. I only have to be present and aware to see the opportunity, to enjoy it, to give and receive. Of course, our new lifestyle has brought up new and different challenges. Visa immigration rules and medical board regulations change without warning, so we have to adjust our plans often. Fear comes up for us in these situations; but as we gain more experience by solving each predicament, we gain more confidence in being able to find workable solutions.

Joost: We are usually able to keep in contact with friends and family. Sometimes one of us experiences feelings of loss and loneliness when we are in a very remote place without internet or a good telephone connection. We sit with these feelings, let them come up, and hold them gently as if they were crying babies. Because we are a Sangha of two people, we are able to support each other well.

Life has become a journey. Deer Park has become our home base. Since we changed our life in 2007 and are now coming to Deer Park every year for three months, our practice has deepened and our happiness and understanding have been nourished. Each year we make new friends in the constantly changing Sangha at Deer Park, and our capacity to live happily in the present moment grows.

Robin: Friends ask us, “How long do you think you will keep doing this? When will you settle down somewhere, and where?” I tell them, “We’ll wait and see! Life is full of so many surprises; I figure we’ll just know these things when the time comes.”

Joost and Robin: This year when we came back to Deer Park, it felt as if we had been away for a couple of weeks instead of nine months. We just stepped back into the river of the Sangha.

mb55-Migrating6Robin Lee Schiff, Full Awakening of the Heart, was born in 1955 in Brooklyn, NY. Joost van Rens, Compassionate Action of the Heart, was born in 1958 in the Netherlands. They practice three months of the year with the Deer Park The rest of the year, they travel and practice together as the No Coming No Going Sangha.

July Moon

We lie in silence on the warm road
As the full moon slips above
The great hidden mountain
Its light penetrating and spreading
Like the Dharma in the Western world
And dear brothers and sisters
Our communication is perfect
–David Percival, True Wonderful Roots

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Ancestral Insights

By Sister An Nghiem


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Ordination by Scorpion

By Harriet Kimble Wrye


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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

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There Is a Purpose

By Melissa Addison-Webster


“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.


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.


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.


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


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,


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


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.



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.

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

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