Poem: Upon Your Death

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There is a pain
which never stops hurting
which cannot be healed;
and dignity will carry it.
There is a wound
which never closes
and cannot be touched
but by the love of a bleeding heart.
There is a fear
which never leaves—
no place to hide—
and cannot be embraced
but by empty hands.
There is a loneliness
beyond abandonment
and it will not vanish
nor be filled,
but the patience
of my solitude
makes me smile.

Nel Houtman, True Marvelous Shining
Zurich, Switzerland

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Thich Nhat Hanh in Israel

 By Marjorie Markus

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When I first heard that Thich Nhat Hanh would be leading retreats in Israel in May 1997, I was excited and knew immediately that I wanted to go. As the time approached to commit to attending the retreat, I had some doubts and concerns, particularly about how we might be received in Israel. It was the period when the peace process had become endangered, and I was concerned about our safety. After acknowledging these fears, my initial enthusiasm returned and I knew that I wanted to be present when Thay offered his peaceful presence and precious teachings to the people of Israel.

As Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and I drove from Ben Gurion Airport to Kibbutz Harel, I noticed a huge sunflower field in which only one flower had rushed to bloom, as if to greet us. In other ways, the land reminded me of Plum Village. The birdsongs surrounded us, and I instantly felt at home. The first person Lyn and I met at the kibbutz was Barry Sheridan, the coordinator for special events. He put us at ease, and throughout our visit was our mindful guardian angel. That evening, Thay, Sister Chan Kh6ng, two monks, and four nuns arrived from Plum Village. For the next day and a half, final arrangements were made to welcome the more than 200 retreatants.

During Thay’s introductory talk for the first retreat, the atmosphere was calm and quiet with people taking in his every word and gesture. They were relaxed and already smiling. The next day during the outdoor walking meditation, Thay continued to share the Dhanna as we gathered under the welcoming shade of a huge Jerusalem pine.

Over the course of his 11-day visit, Thay gave three more Dharma talks and another weekend retreat. I was touched by his commitment to our new Israeli Sangha. The retreatants came from diverse backgrounds. Some were young people who, like many Israelis, had traveled to India and other points east after their army service. Many had experience with vipassana meditation. A group of observant Jews came with their rabbi. They substItuted their morning prayers for the morning meditation, and time was set aside for their Shabbat observance.

The Dharma discussion groups reflected the retreatants’ concerns about tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and divisions within the Jewish communities. Throughout the Dharma talks, Thay addressed these issues in many ways. Early on, he said, “It is through my background of suffering that I can understand your suffering.” In another talk he said, “People have different ideas. Also, nations may be attached to their ideology. What is your idea of happiness? Maybe your idea of happiness is the obstacle to your happiness.” He later said, “All of us have suffered violence. We ask ourselves where violence comes from. If we look deeply, we see that it comes from ourselves, because there is a bomb in each of us. Do we know how to defuse the bomb in us? That is the art. That is the practice.” He suggested that each person sign a peace treaty with themselves and said the solution will come “from our lucidity, our happiness, our peace. When I have peace, it is easy for me to make peace.”

Thay explained, “It is not my intention to uproot people. A person should remain a Jew, but that does not mean you have to accept everything in the tradition. Like a plum tree sometimes needs pruning. Otherwise it will be broken and will not be able to offer fruit.”

In the question-and-answer session, Thay responded to a question about how to bring about peace by saying he is more interested in how individuals conduct their daily lives rather than in big solutions. When people with the same kind of suffering come together, they can exchange experiences and provide their nation with some insight. If they are able to practice deep listening and speak to each other in a calm voice, they may provide hope to others. He suggested inviting groups from different segments of the population to come together as the first step.

Dharma discussion groups had been organized by place of residence. Some made plans to meet again back home as a Sangha. Lyn Fine shared her experience in Sangha building with about 50 people interested in starting Sanghas. It was wonderful to see Sangha seeds being planted in Israeli soil.

Later that evening, enjoying the stillness of the kibbutz, I was delighted to find out that Thay and his Plum Village Sangha took the opportunity to visit Jerusalem. They arrived at the Western Wall in time to witness the fin al observances on the Sabbath. I imagined their joy while viewing the Jerusalem stones bathing in the setting sunlight.

At the Day of Mindfulness for peace and social change activists, Thay talked about “burnout” and said, “As long as love is still alive in us, we will not give up.” He held out the reality that in each group there needs to be a person with presence. “Who is that person? You! You are the bodhisattva that can bring salvation, cultivate non-fear, and be solid.” He added, “The question is not what to do, but knowing what not to do . If you operate on the basis of fear, you are not operating from the ground of peace. In our daily life, we have to live in a way that transforms fear and anger into compassion. With hatred, jealousy, and anger, there is no way to be a real social activist. The main task of a peace and social activist is to cultivate compassion, understanding, and patience. Patience is an indicator of love.”

After a walking meditation through the pines, palms, and cypresses of the kibbutz, and a silent dinner, we gathered in the meditation hall for questions and answers with Sister Chan Khong. She shared her experiences as an activist during the war in Vietnam. The Israeli activists hung on to her every word, engrossed by what she had to say and the gentle strength with which she said it. It was as though they were right there with her in Vietnam, observing her as she used her mindfulness to remain calm, compassionate, and skillful while resolving seemingly impossible situations. She was a model of the quality of presence that Thay had talked about.

The next week, Thay gave three evening talks. At the end of each lecture, Sister Chan Khong captivated the audience with her singing, and no one wanted to leave. At the talk in Jerusalem at Kol Haneshama Synagogue, she spoke directly to the young people present. She shared breathing awareness with one young boy and gave him an opportunity to invite the bell to sound. The children left the room with big smiles. Shortly thereafter, the Englishlanguage Jerusalem Post published an article about mindfulness’ practice with children.

On the last night of the second retreat, Thay invited us to join him for a full moon walking meditation after the Dharma talk. This extra gift was gratefully accepted.

In our spare time between events, Thay and the nuns and monks took every opportunity to familiarize themselves with Israeli life. We visited a marketplace in a small town as well as those in the various quarters in the Old City of Jerusalem. We went to a nearby nursery with the kibbutz gardener, where we were surrounded by hundreds of exotic succulents, many of which displayed their fresh flowers. Everyone bought a plant to take back to Plum Village. We did floating and frolicking meditation in the Dead Sea. Sister Chan Khong was the first one in and the last one out of this saltiest of waters. On the way back through the desert, we saw a donkey get hit by a truck. Our three cars stopped, and we gave the shocked donkey our calm, loving attention. One of the nuns wet her brown scarf and tied it around his injured leg. We waited until a Bedouin boy appeared and walked our new Sangha friend to safety.

After Thay’s last talk in Tel Aviv, we headed back to the kibbutz. We arrived after midnight, and Sister Chan Khong, still full of energy, joyfully told us that Thay had invited us to join him early the next morning on a silent walking meditation in Jerusalem. We would go to the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and then walk in the footsteps of Jesus along the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. After many centuries of divisions, it was an opportunity to plant peaceful steps on the sacred ground of three major religions.

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The next morning, we embarked on our last journey together as a traveling Sangha. Leaving the kibbutz, we passed the fie ld of sunflowers now in full bloom, and I thought of all the wonderful seeds planted during these two weeks. May they bear much fruit and benefit all beings. Shalom!

Marjorie Markus, True Contemplation of Understanding, practices with the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness.


Peace Is Every Step

During the two retreats with Thay and Sister Chan Khong at Kibbutz Harel in Israel, we gained the serenity of dwelling in the preset moment. Hundreds came together, learned to breathe mindfully, and become bodhisattvas for one another. Sanghas will emerge.

That is not to say that everything was sweetness and light. Repeatedly, we were challenged to confront our prejudices, hatreds, and fears, and encouraged to find new places in our hearts from which to deal with them. Through “Touching the Earth,” Sister Chan Khong encouraged reconciliation with all who have dwelled on this disputed land; Christians, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, Israelis. We were asked to learn to loved and understand the rapist sea pirate, in addition to sympathizing with his victims. This challenge resonates here, where terrorists and freedom fighters, bombers and suicide bombers, assassins and rival armies have shed so much innocent blood in both the immediate and historical past.

While peace will not come easily to this region, it was wonderful that so many peaceful steps were taken here.

–Robbie Heffernan, Amman, Jordan

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Coming Out, Returning Home

By Caitriona Reed

Storms roll over the mountains, filling the winter sky. When they have gone, the days are bright and cold, and the sky astonishingly blue. It’s hard to imagine the stillness of summer, the uncompromising midday heat in August. Winter is beginning, but my spring has arrived.

This year I came out of the closet as transsexual. All my life I wanted to express myself as a woman, live as a woman, speak, move, celebrate life, as a woman, but I was born a boy-child. Shame and fear held me in a kind of perpetual hibernation.

If I made any choice last April, it was to let go of fear. My Buddhist practice was always an attempt to discover what is simple, real, and nourishing. As a teacher, I havealways insisted that we be authentic, that we simply be ourselves. My own advice caught up with me! And, to my amazement, my practice has found its fulfillment.. .. My shame, my fear, and pretense which deadened me have dissolved. Miraculously, I inhabit my own body, my own life-as a teacher, a friend, a human being. I feel whole. For years I thought that if I spent more time meditating, if I was sincere, dedicated, and truly selfless, this “problem” would go away. I was certain that if I expressed myself openly as a transgendered person, I would lose my credibility, my friends, everything. As a Dharma teacher I was pretty certain I would also be out of a job. Strangely, none of this has happened.

I live as a woman. My driver’s license says Caitriona Reed, “F.” To my surprise, people do not shun me. Though I am a “big-boned gal,” strangers call me maam. If I have come out as transsexual, I have also come out as someone capable of being whole, free, and open. I am reclaiming my body, and my life. May we all find the means to do the same!

The support of friends in the Ordinary Dharma community, the broader community of the Order of Interbeing, my peers and fellow teachers, and even of my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has been unexpected, generous, and deeply touching. “Thank you. Now I feel free to be just as I am,” was one response. My friend and teacher Joanna Macy, speaking on the telephone, with tears in her voice, exclaimed, “Now we all have to come out!” Thay simply asked, “Shall we call you Caitriona now?”

I am happy in ways I never knew before, not because my desires have been fulfilled, but because, mysteriously, I seem better able to embrace both my own suffering and yours without a rigid distinction between the two. The drama that oppresses us has become a little less solid and the beauty that nourishes us a little more palpable.

After the winter rain, the spring promises abundant wildflowers. Larkspur and wiid lupines are vivid in my mind’s eye. The towering yucca; the clamor of birdsongs in the morning. In the evening, those same songs, slightly different, echo in the canyon. The songs help me feel safe, part of the world, part of this landscape. Last summer’s dried grasses will disappear under new growth, yet without them there would be no new growth. Just as the seasons come and go, the person I was, am, and will be are not different nor entirely the same. In the end, my notions of gender and identity di sappear like mist and I am left standing, simply as I am.

Caitriona is pronounced Katrina. It is the Celtic/Irish name my mother was to have given me.

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Dharma teacher Caitriona Reed, True Jewel, lived the first part of her life as Christopher Reed. With Michele Benzamin-Masuda, she founded Manzanita Village retreat center and leads the Ordinary Dharma Sangha in Santa Monica, California.

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The Death Penalty

By Lorena Monda

mb22-TheDeathTwo years ago, my dear friend Darcie Silver was murdered. She was twenty-seven years old. Darcie was very close to my family, especially my daughter Lisa, who was twelve when Darcie was killed. She was a beautiful, gentle, vibrant woman-the kind of woman I want Lisa to become.

Darcie was found strangled in her apartment. She had been raped and her body mutilated. Imagine how hard this was to explain to a twelve-year-old.

More than a year later, a 27-year-old man was arrested for Darcie’s murder. He was her co-worker, wanted also for the murder of another woman the month before Darcie’s death.

Words cannot convey the depth of my feelings. I grieved for Darcie, and for my daughter who experienced such horror at a young age. I felt rage at the person who could murder in cold blood, and at the world that could create such a person. I feared for my daughter’s safety growing up in such a world, and felt frantic for ways to prevent this from happening to her. In my most anguished moments, I wondered how I could go on living in a world that contained such violence.

Lisa wrote these words, which were read at Darcie’s memorial service:

I love Darcie because she was very nice and kind and gentle. We always hadfun together. I miss her. If I could change one thing about the world I would bring her back. If I could change another thing in the world I would make it that there was no violence and that no one would ever die like Darcie did. 

We ‘re going to make a special flower garden in our yard for her.

Every night we have been praying for Darcie. We have a candle burning for her. I pray she is safe and happy wherever she is, and 1 tell her that we all miss her and 1 tell her some of the things that have been going on, and that there are a lot of people who are very sad. We imagine that her spirit turns into light. On the second night, my mom drew an angel card for her. The card she drew was “LIGHT.”

At night we have been looking at the comet in the Northern sky that came when Darcie died. We decided that was Darcie’s comet, and that she could ride it whenever she wants.

Needless to way, the issue of the death penalty came very close to home. Ironically, before Darcie’s death, I had mixed feelings about it. Philosophically, I felt it was wrong- because killing was wrong-but I also felt if anyone could murder someone else in cold blood, perhaps they deserved to die. As a parent, I have felt I could kill someone who hurt my child. But after Darcie died, despite my anguish, I began to see that the death penalty, revenge on this 27-year-old man who brutally murdered at least two women, would not bring Darcie back. Even more, it would be a dishonor to all that Darcie was when she was alive. And even more, I recognized that I am patt of the society that created this, by patticipation or by neglect.

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Now, I grieve also for a 27-year-old man so lost that he murdered our beautiful friend. And my despair has become a commitment to help create a world where no one would be murdered- by an individual or by the State.

Lorena Monda, True Perfect Way, and Lisa Monda, now 14, live and practice in Placitas, New Mexico.

Drawing at top of page courtesy of Beth Redwood.

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Opening Our Hearts

By Joan Halifax

The breath practice of Giving and Receiving develops our compassion and our ability to be present for our own suffering and the suffering of others. It is a practice of lovingkindness that opens up our whole being to the overwhelming presence of suffering and to our strength and willingness to transform suffering into peace and well-being. It is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do with people who are dying.

We begin the practice with a heart committed to helping others, to being with suffering and dying. When we look deeply, we see that to help others, we must relate with kindness toward our own suffering. To deny our suffering is to close off our hearts to what we and others experience. If we touch our suffering with awareness and love, Giving and Receiving becomes a practice of transformation. To see the possibility that we and others can be free from suffering is to see our own vast, good, and tender heart.

When I sit with a dying person, I must see beyond individual suffering. I must look from a place in myself that includes suffering but is bigger than suffering. I must look from a heart so big it holds everything. Can I see her suffering and her great heart as well? Can I see his true nature, who he really is, deeper than the story?

The practice of Giving and Receiving asks us to invite in all of our suffering and the suffering of others, and let them break open our untrusting and protected heart. When my heart breaks open by being deeply touched by suffering, its tender spaciousness becomes the ground for the awakening of selfless mercy. With an open heart, we cannot help but send all of our love and kindness to one who is suffering.

To begin the practice, you want to feel relaxed and open. You can sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want your mind to be clear, calm, and spacious. If you feel agitated, angry, or afraid, breathe in whatever you are feeling, accepting it. On your exhalation, breathe out peacefulness and well-being. Clear your mind by bringing your awareness to what is agitating you and accepting it with kindness. Do this breath practice until you are calm and alert.

When you are calm and clear, you can begin the second stage of the practice. For some people who have never done this before, it will seem counter-intuitive, because it involves working with the breath in an unusual way.

You begin by breathing in hot, dark, heavy, polluted smoke-suffering. On your exhalation, you breathe out a breath that is light, cool, and fresh. Breathe not only through your nose, but through your whole body. On your in-breath, dark smoke enters every pore of your body. On your outbreath, coolness flows from every pore of your body. Stay in this rhythmic pattern of inhaling dark smoke and exhaling cool, light breath.

Next, visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This sheath is your self-importance, your selfishness, your self-cherishing, your self-pity, all the fearful contradictions that are difficult for you to accept. It is the fear that hardens to protect your heart. The practice invites you to break apart the metal sheath around your heart, to open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness. Visualize the metal sheath breaking apart when the in-breath of suffering touches it. When the heart opens, the smoke dissolves immediately, vanishing into the great spaciousness of your true and vast heart, and natural mercy arises. The quality of mercy in your vast heart allows you to be with suffering and at the same time, to see beneath the suffering. This is your awakened heart.

You have now touched the initial elements of the practice: calming and opening the mind, accomplishing the rhythm and texture of the breath practice, visualizing the metal sheath around your heart and the sheath breaking open, the spontaneous appearance of the vast heart of mercy, the disappearance of the smoke into space, and the out-breath of healing. Remember that you are doing this practice because you and others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings may be free from suffering.

You want to care, genuinely care. This wish cannot be general; it needs to be very specific, personal, and authentic. When the Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche practiced Giving and Receiving, he remembered a puppy he had seen when he was eight years old. The puppy was being stoned to death, and the people killing it were laughing. He would have done anything to relieve the dog of its suffering. Whenever he thought of the puppy, his heart broke open. The memory of this helpless little creature was a key that helped him practice with commitment, resolve, and love.

Bring to mind someone to whom you feel a deep connection, whether this being is dead or alive, someone who is suffering, not a being whose life is all grace, but someone who really has suffered and whom you wish to help be free from suffering. Let your whole being tum toward this one’s suffering and wish that he or she may be healed. If this is difficult for you, tum toward your own situation. You are also suffering.

I ask you to breathe through your whole body your own suffering, your own alienation, or the suffering of your beloved as heavy, polluted, hot smoke. The instant that the in-breath of suffering touches the metal sheath of selfcenteredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke of suffering instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space arises an out-breath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, healing breath to this other being or to yourself. Let the out-breath flow through every pore in your body. From the vastness of your open heart, breathe out mercy and love.

If you feel resistant, call yourself back to the practice. Remember that this practice can be done on every breath you take, every breath you give. Cultivate the details, the craft of this practice.

After you have practiced Giving and Receiving with yourself or one you love, let go of the image of that person. As you do, keep breathing in the dark smoke of universal suffering and breathing out healing. Then, let the visualization become particular again. Take your attention to the parent with whom you had the most difficulty-whether dead or alive, foster parent, or whoever raised you with whom you had the greatest difficulty. See them sitting before you.

Maintaining the rhythm of the hot, smoky in-breath and cool, light out-breath, consider how this one and you have suffered. For a minute, internally raise your eyes to this one and look at him or her. Let yourself slowly and mindfully examine the face and hair. Then, very simply gaze internally into the eyes of this parent with whom you have a problem. If this is difficult it may help to look at a mental photograph. See the wear on his face. See how her life has been full of disappointment and frustration. Maybe she was afraid. Maybe he was numb. See if you can allow yourself to be in touch with the difficulties of this parent. Perhaps you experience anger, disappointment, or heartbreak while looking at this parent. Let yourself feel whatever comes up. Imagine your parent as a five-year-old child. See his or her face fresh and open, full of anticipation. If it is difficult for you to see your parent this way, please notice the resistance that may be there. Resistance is all right. Breathe in the resistance, breathe out acceptance, spaciousness, warmth, and relief. If your parent is still alive, remember that he or she will die one day.

Remember your sincere wish at the beginning of this practice that the friend on whom you focused would be free of suffering. Breathe in blanleless suffering as dark smoke. Remember your parent as you last saw him or her. Let the dark smoke of suffering break open the sheath of hardness around your heart. On your out-breath, send all of your strength, understanding, caring, and love to your parent. Give it away with an open heart so that this one may be healed, so that suffering will be transformed.

This practice can also be applied to your own life. Turn your heart and mind toward your own situation. Breathe in your suffering and let it break open the sheath around your heart. Let your own vast heart open to who you really are. Breathing out, send clarity and space to your whole being. Heal yourself. You have the power in you to come home to the vast and true nature of who you really are. If you are a Christian or Jew, you might say, “I want to come home to God.” What separates you from God is the hardness around your heart, the fear in your heart. Breathe in the hot smoke of suffering from separation from God. Let it dissolve the hardness around your heart and disappear. What is left is love. All suffering disappears into the vastness. Breathing out, send a cool breath of radiant healing to yourself and come home to God. In your exhalation is the breath of spirit, the goodness of God bringing you home.

The practice of Giving and Receiving helps us get in touch with the obstacles that prevent us from understanding and caring. Through our own experience with suffering and the development of an atmosphere of openness toward it, we can begin to accept and be with the suffering of others in a more open, kind, and understanding way. Our difficult personal experiences are the bridge that leads us to compassion. We do not reject difficulties. Rather, we meet them exactly where they are. We cannot prevent suffering or death. We simply try to meet it, accept it, and find mercy in it.

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Dharma teacher Joan Halifax, True Continuation, leads the Sangha at Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is an anthropologist, leads retreats on death and dying and other issues, and has written a number of books. This article is excerpted from herforthcoming book, Being with Dying, to be published by Shambhala Publications in late 1999.

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Salt in Clear Water

By Jennifer Shumaker

Driving from Arkansas through Taos and the Carson National Forest, I had plenty of time to fantasize about the next six days. I was on my way to a mindfulness retreat with Therese Fitzgerald, Wendy Johnson, and a group of practitioners from activist professions at the Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in northern New Mexico. We have been told to expect no electricity- no phones or E-mail to lure us away from the wilderness. The extraordinary blue of the Western sky with the pure white puffs of cloud promised a sense of clarity. Yes, this would be a break from everyday stresses, and a chance to clarify and strengthen my commitments among a safe and supportive group of strangers in a healing, untouched wilderness environment.

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Our retreat fantasies of balm and beauty seldom include the pain and exhaustion it takes to transform our unhealthy mental formations, nor the joy and exhilaration at insights gained as a result of this work. Therese knows some of my mental formations, and, like the caring teacher she is, refuses to let me hide behind them. The inevitable test comes on the first evening. Would I be bellmaster, as part of my Order aspirant training? What? Didn’t she remember my complete bungling of the job in Arkansas two years ago, . when we had a new bell with no ringer, and I had to use a piece of wood stripped from a log by the fireplace? With each strangled ring that was an insult to the beautiful new bell, my shame felt stronger until I had asked if I could resign my job. Of course, she said that it would be better for me to stay with it-that the bells were fine if I could just accept them, along with perhaps myself?

The second test for me was the short self-introductions we gave. Of all the things I could say in five minutes, I always end up saying something that leaves me feeling slightly vulnerable. Yes, I surely misrepresented who I am, and everyone else sounded so much more interesting. How much easier it would be if we all just kept silent with our small, private vulnerabilities. But the strangers felt less like strangers by the second day, and relationships were budding. We have made friends with the 650-year-old Ponderosa Pine-the oldest in Carson National Forest, with one of its few remaining groves of the old growth forest, and the Vallecito “river” (a stream in any other state except perhaps Arizona) that bubbles and gurgles through meadows of wild flowers. Surely this is one of the few remaining pieces of untouched heaven on earth.

The third day is the true test. The place and the people are no longer strangers, and some risky reaching-out in friendship is starting. During the walking meditation, I follow Wendy’s suggestion and offer my hand to someone. Wrong move! The gesture brings tears to the eyes of the new friend, and tears turn to sobbing that prevent her from finishing the walk with us. Besides, with two days of sitting and mindfulness under my belt, it is harder for me as well to ignore the feelings of unworthiness that constantly linger at the edges of my consciousness. My bells have not been uniformly perfect. Nothing like the beautiful sound that comes when Therese or Wendy rings it. I have become so nervous when ringing it that my hands are too sweaty to control the ringer, and it keeps slipping. This interrupts my counting of three breaths between rings, and Therese is having to help count. I wonder if she would accept my resignation this time?

During Dharma discussion that afternoon, all our smooth veneers are peeling away, and feelings start to break loose. Therese’s morning Dharma talk had been about feelings, with anger an obvious focus. One brave person in the group told of the fear that was arising in her and keeping her awake at night. She had heard of a man in the other discussion group who realized he was holding the chronic anger that is common among activists facing injustice every day. This woman was recovering from an abusive experience with an angry man, and the raw fears that resurfaced were disrupting her retreat experience. This seemed unfair-surely at a retreat like this people shouldn’t have to be afraid. Another man offered that irritation belongs in the category of anger, and that his irritation had been fierce at the lack of silence during certain periods of the day, like morning work-time and a couple of hours in the afternoon. Therese had told us we could wear a sign that indicated we would prefer to remain silent. This man didn’t want to appear aloof so he didn’t wear one, but when people spoke to him or near him he felt very annoyed with them.

For reasons I couldn’t understand, this statement started me shaking and sweating. Therese looked at me (to urge me to ring the mindfulness bell) and 1 thought she was encouraging me to speak. I mumbled something about feeling terribly sad suddenly-that I couldn’t explain it, except to say as children we had never been allowed to feel anything except happy. Something snapped in me, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. At the end of the session (I can’t even remember ringing the bell), Therese came and hugged me and told me not to hold back, to let the heaving sobs that threatened to take me over just come. She suggested I go to the grandmother Ponderosa Pine and I took her advice. While everyone else went to meditate, I stumbled to the tree and flung my arms around it. The sobs were so dramatic that I was hyperventilating, and I couldn’t even tell whether I was sad or angry, let alone what was behind all this. After lying exhausted in the field of white daisies that seemed to be trying to rock me in the breeze, I joined the others for dinner. Somehow I managed to ring the bell for the evening meditation, although my body was so exhausted that I couldn’t keep my balance during the walking meditation.

That night I had nightmares. In one particularly vivid dream, some colleagues from work were upset about my imperfect bell-ringing. I kept telling them that I am fine and feel great joy when I work with low-income community groups, but that I can’t perform among peers without feeling shameful and bungling it. During the morning walking meditation, I happened to look over at the man who was irritated by the lack of complete silence, and felt the sobs coming back. But this time, while sitting again, I followed Thay’s advice. I named the feeling-it wasn’t anger, sadness, or hurt, it was shame. Yes, hello shame, my old companion. I imagined embracing it like a small child in my arms, and tried to look deeply at it. Where did it come from?

Suddenly, in the space of my breathing, I had a great burst of insight. The irritated man and my colleagues from my dream were acting like my father and other family members in my home as I grew up in South Africa. I have always known that as the youngest child I was too noisy and excitable-singing too loudly, moving too fast, and talking too much, especially in the evenings when my father wanted silence. The new part of my insight was the realization that I was not intrinsically an irritating person. My father had his first heart attack the day I was born, and died of his fifth heart attack when I was 15 years old. This means that during my whole childhood, he was on heart medication that gave him a constant headache. My infant cries, toddler energy, and high spirits were like a constant piece of sand in his shell. Perhaps the irritated man at the retreat was not annoyed with me because I was intrinsically an irritating person, though I was certainly one of the people who talked to him when he secretly wanted silence. This toxic, chronic shame that I have worn all my life is based on an incorrect premise.

I remembered Therese telling me two years ago that maybe I just need to accept myself and whatever sound came out of the bell. My bell-ringing had actually been fine. I allowed myself to remember that a couple of people had actually told me that they had appreciated my fine bell-ringing. I hadn’t even heard them because I knew that, being noisy and imperfect, it must be irritating everyone.

That morning in outdoor walking meditation, the sky was especially clear and blue, the white daisies glistened, and the Ponderosa Pine stretched its gnarled, loving arms out to me. I wanted to run through the meadow singing about the hills being alive like the nun in The Sound of Music. Especially I wanted to throw my arms around Therese and the irritated man for bringing me to a point of understanding that would make my whole world look different from now on. I remembered Thiiy’s urging us to thank the garbage in our lives. Garbage transforms into compost when the light of mindfulness is shined on it, to fertilize all the healthy seeds in ourselves and in those around us.

As if to echo this sentiment, the woman who had struggled with sobs when I had held her hand early in the retreat came to me and offered to lend me a baby quilt her mother had given her as an infant, to keep me warm during the anticipated chill of the planned outdoor meditation that evening. I knew what she was feeling. And in Dharma discussion, the woman who was afraid of anger told us how she had realized during the retreat that she also carried around constant anger without even knowing it. Now she could work on it and perhaps finally come to grips with her past abuse. And the irritated man was amazed when I told him what he had done for me. He hadn’t felt irritated with me at all. And in spite of the lack of silence, he had decided he wants to be trained to join the Order of Interbeing.

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This was a true Sangha experience. The best Sanghas and retreats cast our mental formations into a mirror we must look into, in a safe and supportive environment that is a gem most of us don’t find anywhere else in our frantic and busy lives. Another image from Thay’s teachings became clearer. Thiiy talked about the way that meditating, being mindful, and following the Trainings help our hearts grow large and spacious so we become like huge lakes of clear water. If some hurt person throws salt into our lives, the spacious, clear water can absorb the salt without turning sour. That same amount of salt thrown into the cup of water of a constricted heart would be poisonous. So retreats and Sanghas should not try to avoid salt. That person who is angry or irritated or too affectionate might be exactly what we need to expand our hearts and transform our personal garbage into blossoms of joy. Thank you, Dharma teachers. And thank you, Vallecitos Refuge. Indeed, your hills came alive for me.

Jennifer Shumaker, Radiant Jewel of the Source, is a community development resource person and practices with the Ecumenical Buddhist Society in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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Acceptance

By Patrecia Lenore

I have fibromyalgia, a close relative of chronic fatigue syndrome. I am always in pain, all over my body, sometimes low-grade, sometimes acute. When the pain is acute, it feels like my body is on fire and my bones are being scraped. I also have fatigue. Again, sometimes it is low-grade, sometimes so acute that it is difficult to breathe or eat. Although I cannot always prevent or predict acute attacks of pain or fatigue, I have learned a lot about how to manage my life so it is less likely that I will reach the acute stage. Meditation is one of my most valuable tools.

Meditation helps me notice the subtle signs of a possible flare-up. As Thay says about strong feelings in Peace Is Every Step, the first step is to be aware. If I’m aware of my body’s signals, I can see, hear, or feel the signs of weakness and pain. After the initial awareness, I usually have to work on accepting what my body is telling me. This is not always easy. In fact, it usually isn’t. Like most people, I want to finish what I’m doing, whether it is work or pleasure. It’s difficult to stop. But if I can concentrate on the fact that stopping and resting is being loving to myself, rather than focusing on the feelings of disappointment and deprivation, then I can allow myself to rest. Sometimes this means simply observing my breath with my eyes closed. Sometimes I am able to listen to quiet music. If I catch the signals soon enough, I might have the strength to talk to a friend or read a book. Often the most difficult part is watching my mind being scared and projecting that I will always feel this way. I try to remember that everything changes, even pain. And when I can’t remember that very well, I call a friend to remind me.

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I need to work on accepting my limitations within this illness and asking for help. Recently, I was caring for my grandchildren while my daughter and her husband moved into their new house. I wanted to help pack and carry things, but after a few minutes, was not able to continue because of the pain and fatigue. Immediately, thoughts about my deceased mother arose. She was almost always ill, and, I am sorry to say, my brothers and sisters and I felt very critical of her a lot of the time. Now I have a lot more compassion for her. I also had a lot of self-pitying thoughts. When that happens, I’m learning to gently turn my mind to what I can do. In this case, I reminded myself that perhaps my quiet presence was calming to those who were packing and moving, and that helping keep my grandchildren happy was enough. Without my meditation practice of looking deeply, I would not have known how sad I felt about my limitations or that I needed to gently change my focus to what I was able to do.

At the wonderful retreat in Santa Barbara this fall, I noticed it was easy to assist the staff in finding help for the differently-abled, but difficult to put myself in that category. An amusing thing happened. I helped find an alternate space for morning meditation for those unable to walk on the beach, never dreaming I would be one of those people. But on Monday morning, I found myself in that very space, because the ocean air was too cold for me. There were only a few of us, but each morning I had the pleasure of Sister Jina’s gentle and “solid like a mountain” presence, leading us in meditation and mindful movements. Her presence brought me and the others joy and peace. What a treat!

Here is a meditation verse I composed to help remind me that it’s okay to ask for help.

Breathing in, I scan my body;
Breathing out, I smile gently to my body.
Breathing in, I scan my mind;
Breathing out, I smile gently to my mind.
Breathing in, I feel tiredness (or pain);
Breathing out, I open to my tiredness.
Breathing in, I see I need assistance;
Breathing out, I ask for help, knowing it helps others too.
Breathing in, I accept others’ assistance;
Breathing out, I feel gratitude.

I offer this verse in loving gratitude to Thay and all the wonderful teachers that I have encountered in myriad forms—people, animals, plants and minerals.

Patrecia Lenore, Flower of True Virtue, practices with the Community of Mindfulness/New York Metro.

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Balancing

By Peggy Denial

For about a year, my husband and I were involved with our son’s biological family in a major legal battle over adoption, custody, and other aspects of Matthew’s daily life. After living in six different homes, Matthew moved in with us almost five years ago. His maternal grandparents, who rarely visited him, had most of the legal control over his life.

In these circumstances, I’ve been more dependent on practice, while at the same time, it has been more difficult for me to practice. I had to return to the most elementary practices, especially when my fear of Matthew’s being taken away was highest. While meditating, I could follow my breathing using the words “in” and “out,” but not a more complex gatha. Some days all I could do was recite the three refuges, and I needed to recite them almost all day long to keep a minimum of calm in my life. I did almost no work. I wasn’t able to write. I had difficulty seeing other people.

Almost every day, it seemed as if the practice was not working. The pain did not go away. I stayed calm as long as I kept my focus on practice, but once I let my mind wander, I immediately lost my calm. I thought about Sister Chan Khong’s recommendation in her book, Learning True Love, to stay mindful of each task. I tried to be aware of what I was doing. “I am chopping vegetables.” “I am washing dishes.” “I am putting my son to bed.” I was deeply aware that Matthew was with us now, and I tried to stay mindful of that fact in the present moment. But the moment also included the court battle, and I was deeply afraid. Each day I’d alternate between feeling that this practice does not work and feeling that I don’t do it right. Yet each day I returned to mindfulness. I had nothing else to lean on. My husband encouraged me, and I reminded myself that practice has always worked in the past.

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I see now that the practice was working all along
It was keeping me calm and present. A lot of the time, the present moment was very difficult. It wasn’t that I wasn’t present; I just didn’t like it. However, by staying calm and present those many months, I was able to practice Right Speech and Right Action so as not to make a bad situation worse. I was also able to seize an opportunity to change the situation.

After one court session, I saw an opportunity to meet Matthew’s birthmother, Linda. I had to make a split-second decision. Because of my daily practice, I saw the opportunity and knew how to use it. We had been kept away from Linda by her parents, and I was unaware of how much she wanted to talk to me. When he was three, Matthew was taken from her because of criminal abuse and neglect. She had not taken advantage of her right to visit him in seven years. For about forty minutes, I was able to listen deeply to Linda. And I held her for a long time after that. I was able to let her know that I did not judge her for what she did to Matthew. 1 was able to assure her that we would take care of him, and to let her know how deeply grateful we are to her for bringing him into the world. Without the practices of deep listening, deep looking, and deep holding, I could not have been there with her. And I could not have helped her turn this situation around.

Two weeks later we met in court again. Linda told the judge that she no longer wanted to fight the situation. She said that she had been very angry, thinking that we were taking Matthew from her, but now she understood that this was in Matthew’s best interest. She talked about her love for him and the deep pain in her life. She said she understands that Matthew wants to be adopted and that she wants to be able to give this to him. Later, I told Matthew what she had said. Now he feels differently about her. In time, when they meet again, it will be possible for them to heal their wounds.

Peggy Denial, True Spiritual Wonder, practices with her family and the Sonoma County Sangha in northern California.

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Cultivating Mindfulness on a Radioactive Path

By Michael Winnell

For years, I have worked to slow, if not end, the long-term threat of radioactive waste products created by nuclear weapons and power plants. Radioactive waste is likely to threaten life as long as humans inhabit this world, so it is important for me to speak clearly and firmly. Those who support the nuclear cycle are also very determined. In this atmosphere, it is paramount to know one’s grounding. I am learning to respond to this very difficult issue from my Buddhist understandings, largely revealed through the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh and the concept of interbeing.

Bringing mindfulness to an issue this large and difficult is challenging. It is very easy to take sides, point fingers, become a talking head of facts and statistics, forgetting that “This is like this, because that is like that.” Having read Thay’s talk, “Man is not our Enemy,” I am struck by the depth with which he, and each of us, can hold the whole of the reality without choosing sides. It is not helpful to view producers of radioactive waste as wrong or the enemy. Their motivation springs from the same place as my own. In fact, I benefit by being able to turn on the lights at night. But their actions, as well as my own, are creating very difficult problems. I must bring to their attention my understanding of the future we are creating, but I must also realize they may not respond. My attachment to their response, and my desire for a specific response, is a negative seed to hold in mindfulness. At the same time, I must continue to firmly state facts about these dangers, truthfully and without exaggeration.

The Buddha taught that reality is both historical and ultimate. The suffering generated by fear—particularly the fear of death or nonbeing—is enormous. Being and nonbeing are elements of suffering in the historical dimension, but in the ultimate dimension, understanding can transform fear, relieve suffering, and bring joy by opening the door of loving kindness. Remembering these teachings, I can better relate to the people directly involved in the decision-making and production process of the nuclear cycle, and to myself. It is a demanding practice. Many people involved in nuclear waste production and storage do not see the connection between what they are doing and all life. They do not seem to recognize that nuclear waste could sicken or end many life-forms, or that it brings suffering even to the elements split by nuclear fission. All atoms split by fission emit energy in an attempt to regain a stable state. The energy they emit in their quest for stability, however, threatens all life. My determination not to harm people, animals, plants, and minerals is directly challenged by the production of this energy, and by my benefiting from the energy when I turn on the lights, the washing machine, or the computer.

With mindfulness, it is easier to be aware of my tendency to move into fear and duality, to choose sides and create more suffering for myself and others. It is easier to understand those whose perspective differs from mine, and not to vilify them. As Thay taught, “they” are not our enemies, nor is fear, hatred, or even duality; all can be held and transformed by understanding. It is important for me to remember that behind each environmental concern or dispute, are people with varying degrees of suffering. Mahatma Gandhi used to say that if his adversary did not respond positively to his proposal, it was not the adversary’s fault, but his own, for not stating the truth clearly or simply enough. Each person contains seeds of goodness, truth, and beauty. When suffering is relieved through understanding, these seeds respond, joy is born, and there is no ability to continue to do things that harm others.

Leaping into the debate surrounding radioactive waste requires mindfulness and careful attention to motives. It is important to gather information, research the facts, and engage. The Buddha taught his followers to engage the Dharma in daily life, and in our engaged practice, the Buddha still lives. In the spirit of the teachings, I must engage first in my own heart, and then move into the communal arena with my concerns about nuclear waste, in order to help relieve suffering of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

As I breathe into my fear,
I breathe out hope that this life has made a difference
to at least one atom of radioactive waste and
perhaps one mind.
Reminded that nirvana is in this moment,
may I understand,
so as to relieve the suffering brought to matter and to
living beings alike,
actions are all we take with us.
May we know the joy of interbeing,
not grasping or judging,
just walking on the path with mindful breathing and
attention.

Michael Winnell, practices with Dancing Rabbit Sangha, in Elk Rapids, Michigan. If you would like more information about the radioactive waste issue in relationship to nuclear disarmament and the burning of MOX fuel in commercial reactors, please email him: mwinnell@onramp.freeway.net

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The Smile or Freedom

By Shalom

About seven years ago, I was caught up in some frustration with my then seven-year-old daughter. She was sitting on the bed, and I was standing in the doorway of her room. I was very cross about something she had done and pouring forth a great torrent of words. My view of the world at this moment was probably as wide as a pinhead! As I went to take a breath to pour forth more of my parental wisdom, the seed of mindfulness that I had been cultivating for some years on my cushion suddenly sprouted a wonderful new green shoot! Instead of a further outpouring of words, there was the realisation that I had just breathed in. Awareness bloomed—I was suddenly and absolutely in the present moment. I simply breathed out… and in and out… no more words, just breathing and looking deeply.

In that moment the blindness of my habitual responding simply fell away. I was at home in myself, no longer lost in some story I was creating. As I stood there, simply breathing with awareness, I began to also really see this other small person in front of me—no longer the image daughter of my mind but a vibrant full colour live other human being! It was very quiet for a few moments, quiet in the room and quiet inside me. Can you understand it when I say that in that moment there was a new me looking at a new daughter? In the spacious and quiet mind there was an awareness of this fragile young girl sitting with head lowered, not speaking, not looking, not being seen and not being heard.

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A new and softer voice arose from within me as I told my daughter that I could see now that something was wrong for her and that she didn’t seem able to look at me. I said that I wished I had been calm enough to notice that earlier and I was sorry that I had not. Gently, I invited her to take her time and when she felt ready and able, to lift her eyes and take a peek at me … to just see that I am her mother and that I loved her. In such a space, the truth can reveal itself safely.

My daughter raised her eyes, and without blame or anger she simply said, “Mummy, I am afraid of you.” This, my friends, was a most painful and shocking revelation to me—and yet I also recognised it as a liberating truth. Breathing in and embracing my grief I heard this truth—without self-hatred or blame—simply breathing with compassion and gratitude. My daughter was finally safe enough to let me in to her world, and I was awake enough to accept that it was a different world than the one I had been living in.

I had always been so proud of the fact that I didn’t hit my child, and I worked very hard at being a good mother, which of course I had been. However in the busyness and in the conceptualising of “good mother” I had quite lost the ability to simply be and see her and myself as we really were. In the following moments there were no more words. My daughter saw my tears and felt recognised. She came into my arms, and as I looked down into her shining and miraculous, tear-stained face, I remembered the baby I had held to my breast seven years earlier. A baby who had looked up into my eyes with this same tender and trusting love. How long it had been since I had seen her! The space had opened for the healing of a habitual way of responding that had been the mark of many generations of women in my family. A seed of mindfulness had set us, and future generations, free.

My daughter is now a teenager. We have our challenges, but the seed of mindfulness has grown steadily. It stands now as a strong and stable tree, blossoming and yielding much sweet and nourishing fruit.

The cultivation of mindfulness and learning to look deeply into ourselves and into the hearts of others can bring a lot of relief within us and in the world around us. Let us practice conscious breathing together and nourish the seeds of awareness in each other. When we see with clarity and spaciousness, we have the experience of waking up, a smile is born in the garden of our hearts, and manifests in our speech and in our actions. It is a true smile from a mind clear and spacious. It is the smile of freedom.

Shalom, True Auspicious Land, is a parent, therapist, and teacher. She leads Mindfulness Retreats in New Zealand, and has taught in Europe and the United States.

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The Path: To Sink or Swim

By Lily Pond

At our Sangha meeting one Tuesday night, the Dharma teacher spoke of loving kindness. I nodded and nodded as she spoke. I had spent years reaching the same conclusions: that loving kindness, gentle friendship, and the way of the heart are all that bring joy and rest to our spirits. And on that sunlit spring evening, when even the leafy limbs of trees clung to the late daylight, and the faces of all who gathered radiated its presence, I believed I could live in that light forever, my heart open, in that place of essential joy.

As part of her talk, the teacher led us in meditations, “I will be safe from danger,” “There will be peace in my heart,” “I will radiate peace to all.” Even something that had been difficult for me to assimilate, “radiating peace” to those who did not radiate peace back, suddenly came clearer. I understood that they were radiating all the peace that they could, they were loving to the extent that they could love, and that whatever encased them need not encase me. I glowed from the evening for nearly twenty-four whole hours. Then I went swimming.

I swim three times a week in the Albany High School pool. In the mornings, the shallow end is roped off for various swimming lessons, and the deeper half is open and unmarked for those swimming laps the width of the pool. People measure off their own lanes, and swim without submerging or bumping anyone else. Wednesday morning was like many others. I lay on my back doing a backstroke, blissful behind my pale-blue tinted goggles, humming a song just loudly enough to hear myself under the water.

I was going along happily for about twenty minutes when suddenly I got a face full of water; someone had inserted herself in the far too narrow space between me and the next swimmer, ignoring the entire rest of the pool with plenty of available lanes. She was splashing right where I’d been swimming all morning. Boy, did my blissful loving kindness disappear fast! How dare she?! Doesn’t she know the rules?! Can’t she see?! Then I began to analyze this total stranger. “She must be a selfcentered little brat. She doesn’t care whose place she takes as long as she gets exactly what she wants!” All this in the space of an instant. With as much mindfulness as I could gather, I did the only reasonable thing. I moved to another lane. But I didn’t think I should have to!

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I thought about this encounter the rest of the week. It’s one thing to grasp the concept of loving kindness and its importance; that’s a lot and I don’t mean to diminish it. Nor can I disregard the goal of loving my enemies as well as my friends, to wish them peace and revel in their joys. But in actuality, to be able to keep my heart fully open in the face of someone stealing my lane, or cutting in front of me in a checkout line, or turning on their electric hedge trimmer the moment I sit down in the yard for a quiet session of deep meditation—these tests will take me a while to pass.

My reaction was about me, and mine—territory, property, identification of boundaries, or perhaps lack of them. This is what wars are fought over. I wanted to look at my response more closely; it was so immediate it seemed instinctual.

One thing I came up with is the identification with the self, the ego, the body. This, as they say, is the root of all suffering, the body clings and it pushes away. The ego, built of layers of fear, seeks to sacrifice everything to protect itself. Because make no mistake: if loving kindness is the route to perfect joy, my wish, on one level, to annihilate this woman for taking my swimming lane, is saying, “This lane is more important to me than perfect happiness.” That’s pretty heavy.

Another thing I notice is that the very things I thought about her are the things I think about myself when I’m being most self-critical. Perhaps these are the same things my self-centered mother became the most angry with me for—my own self-centeredness, which I learned from her, which she learned from her mother, which she learned, presumably from hers, and, probably, my swimmer did from hers. And what is “self-centeredness” if not fear? So much sadness and fear for mindfulness and loving kindness to heal. When I interrupt or don’t listen well enough, when I put my own needs before those of someone else, I don’t always know I’m doing it, and neither did the splashing swimmer. Sometimes I come home from the simplest of evenings and rake myself over the coals for the same kind of behavior that angered me about her. In following my body’s call, in perfect unmindfulness, I behave from such ever-present and simple fears that it’s not till I reflect that I see those fears at all.

If I can feel compassionate toward all of my own fears, can I also feel compassionate toward all of hers, my small thoughtless pool-mate? Sometimes. Can I remember that her thoughtlessness is born of the same things as mine? Sometimes. Can I open up my heart with love to her as one of all sentient beings in such a way that her doing this or that is absolutely unnoticeable? Well, not this week anyway. Will I do it perfectly every time? No, never.

Yes, there’s the interim step: communication, communication from the heart, “Hey, girl, check this  out: see these lanes …,” etc. When do I simply accept the situation and move on, when do I try to change things? I’m not sure. And in any case, I have to know and recognize from the start that she may not hear. I have to make that decision, that one choice from minute to minute to minute: will I hold my heart open now? And now? And now? Can I really wish to trade perfect happiness for “my lane” at the pool? Can joy really be that simple?

Yes, I think it can. If my whole happiness depends on this woman’s stroke, I guess the best thing I can do

Postscript: When I later learned that this swimmer was terrified of deeper water, I realized that there was even more I could learn from this situation. Lily Pond is a member of the Fragrant Earth Sangha in Albany, California.

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Accidental Insights

By Joanne Friday

The Five Remembrances
I am of the nature to grow old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
My actions are my only true belongings.

Eight years ago, I was seriously injured in a car accident. I lost my short-term memory, and I hurt. For two years, I tried to be the person I had been, but my brain and my body did not work the way they had. I was attached to my idea of who I was, and to the incorrect view that the way I was before the accident was the best I could be. I was attached to my view of how I was supposed to function. I experienced a lot of pain and suffering because of fear, lack of acceptance of impermanence, and attachment to wrong views. I developed a stress disorder, and my immunity dropped to almost nothing. I am of the nature to have ill health.

I had to give up a job I was good at, and as a result, faced financial problems. This created more fear. To add insult to injury, my insurance company refused to pay my medical bills, and instead, hired an attorney to avoid paying. The lawyer dealt with insurance fraud and  believed everyone was trying to defraud insurance companies. To see him interpret everything through that belief was a deep teaching for me on how our beliefs color our perceptions. I could see how much pain and suffering he was causing—to himself, as well as to me. He was paid by the hour, and dragged the process out as long as possible. Eight years later, with a settlement just big enough to pay the lawyers, the legal wrangling is over. It was of no financial value to
me—merely an exercise and an opportunity to practice. Everything that is dear to me is of the nature to change.

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I am still in constant pain, so I have lots of opportunities to be angry, frustrated, sad, doubting, and fearful. Initially, I was almost immobilized by fear. Fortunately, about a year into this process, I went to my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The practice of mindfulness has helped me look honestly at my feelings, and with time, transform them. It has helped me be aware of my reactions and my habit energy. I have learned to take good care of my feelings, and to look at the part of me that needs love and compassion, but reacts with fear or anger. Frequently, an old hurt makes me vulnerable, so the practice has taken me on a journey of healing the past in the present moment.

Mindfulness has helped me look at setbacks as opportunities to learn, instead of as negative events. It has helped me see how much pain and suffering is caused by attachment to my views of “the way things should be.” I spend more time being aware that I don’t know. I am still trying to develop loving kindness for myself when I am not able to perform at my previous level. I have learned about the small deaths that come with every loss. I am of the nature to die.

With the help of the practice throughout this difficult period, I have been able to come into the present moment and experience pure joy, even when I am in pain. This is a true gift. Last year, I received the transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and joined the Order of Interbeing. I was given the Dharma name True Gift of Joy. Because of the miracle of mindfulness, I am of the nature to experience true joy.

Joanne Friday, True Gift of Joy, practices with the the Clear Heart Sangha in Rhode Island.

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Inclusiveness and Acceptance

By Svein Myreng

I had mixed feelings when Thay introduced a new translation of the third paramita as “inclusiveness.” This paramita had previously been translated as “patience” or “forebearance.” I could relate to patience. I could meet a difficult experience in my life, such as illness or painful feelings, and then I could stay with the feelings without trying to push them away. My patient waiting was rewarded when the feelings – sooner or later – would change into something else. With this practice I often was rewarded by learning something about myself. I knew the value of patience as I had frequent practice through illness.

Thay’s way of seeing the third paramita is more radical. I think he’s saying: “Live your life fully even when it’s not pleasant.” I remember a practitioner at Plum Village saying to Thay, “You say present moment, wonderful moment, but sometimes the present moment isn’t wonderful at all. It’s very painful.” Thay replied something like this: “It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it is still wonderful.” This is a deeply non-dualistic attitude. Thay often reminds us that the pleasant experiences depend on the unpleasant ones. If we don’t know hunger, we can’t really enjoy eating. If we don’t know illness, we can’t appreciate our health. By including the difficulties, we open our hearts. There is no separation between what is and what we would wish to be. In contrast, patience implies that I accept the difficulties but hope things will change. This creates separation between our present experience and our desired experience. We are still not at peace.

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After having major heart surgery in 1997, I had a period with intense pain and frequent moments of depression and fear. I cried frequently when I was depressed. When fear was in my mind, I was really afraid. I was almost like a child, physically helpless and direct and in the moment with my emotions. Only to the smallest degree was I burdened with thoughts of how I, as an experienced practitioner ought to react. Looking back, I realize this is the practice of inclusiveness. I experienced life vividly, and in the moments when I was not depressed or afraid, I experienced fully the joy of being alive. I savored each small accomplishment. It was a rich time.

The contrast is clear between this situation and experiences where I search for ways to blame myself or others. Ironically, I find myself falling into blame more frequently with smaller difficulties. When I judge a situation as unpleasant or difficult, I start looking for ways to change it, or make sure it will never happen again. Judging a situation in this way, and then finding someone to lay the blame on, I harden myself and remove myself from a direct experience of life.

Married life has provided me with insights about this pattern in myself. I have seen how  mixed ideas of how something “should be done” easily leads to blaming. When two people come together with different ways of looking at what it means to live as a family, how to do household work, and raise children, there are ample opportunities for blaming. It can be very hard even to see that my way of doing something isn’t the only one, let alone actually letting go of my preference. When something goes wrong – the toddler throws a temper tantrum, dinner is delayed or burned – it’s so easy to think that it must be because my partner handled the situation in a different, less skillful way than I would have done.

People who are married within our tradition receive “The Five Awarenesses” to read together at every full moon. The Fifth Awareness is a strong reminder that blaming and arguing are destructive: “We are aware that blaming and arguing can never help us and only create a wider gap between us.” The point about the wider gap is important. Judging and blaming creates separation, preventing us from seeing both the situation and the other person(s) involved with clear, compassionate eyes. Reading the Awarenesses makes me more aware of the patterns which lead to this way of being. I can observe myself more clearly, apologize when I see that I am unfair, and rejoice in the times when I act responsibly without blaming.

Inclusiveness is easy when life is pleasant. It is including the things we don ~ like that is the challenge. When we don’t accept a trying situation, again we create separation and conflict. Acceptance doesn’t mean being passive or condoning injustice. Acceptance is to calm down inside, and see the situation clearly. Sometimes, this leads to change quite naturally. At other times, we see that we have to just be with the situation as it is. We may find we can have space in our hearts for difficult situations or people, or we may find this just too difficult. Our limits vary according to our well-being at a given moment. Sometimes, we have to accept the fact that we aren’t accepting of the present moment.

We often judge a difficult situation by making a fixed image of it and comparing this image to an ideal. This is too simple. Even a difficult situation contains elements that are joyful, but the fixed image makes it impossible for us to see them. Thay’s poem about the tree that’s dying in his garden is about this. Even if one tree is dying, there are other trees that are alive and beautiful. By looking only at the dying tree, we make the situation much worse than it needs to be. By changing our perspective a little, it is easier to have an open, inclusive attitude. We can develop our ability to change perspectives through practice.

We also blame ourselves. When something goes wrong, it must be because someone made a mistake – perhaps it was me? Often, we are quick to blame ourselves before others blame us. Blaming can be a very intricate business. Behind the tendency to blame, there are fixed opinions of what is the “Right Way” and behind the fixed opinions, we often can find fear. The little child within us who was afraid of being blamed, the self-image that we keep on gluing together, these are the fearful ones. Can we meet them – in ourselves and in others – with acceptance and tenderness?

When we don’t accept ourselves, we create a separation between the way we are right now and the way we think we ought to be. I’ve been surprised to see how harshly I can judge myself. However, when I am able to embrace my humanness fully, I experience real peace, because the conflict between reality and ideal disappears. I can also be the garden with many beautiful trees even if one of them is dying.

Many spiritual teachings, including teachings of Buddhism, are focused on helping people change themselves, which support our tendencies to not accept ourselves as we are. Thay’s teaching is revolutionary as it deals with living in a good way right now and not trying to change into someone else. Instead of striving to reach a future promise of self-improvement or even enlightenment, Thay’s teaching deals with no striving at all. The beautiful paradox is that precisely when we don’t strive, a real change can come about quite naturally.

Svein Myreng, True Door, is a Dharma Teacher who lives in Oslo, Norway, with his wife, Eevi Beck, and their two-year-old son, Kyrre.

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“Strike against Terror” is a Misleading Expression

Terror is in the human heart. We must remove this terror from the heart. Destroying the
human heart, both physically and psychologically, is what we should avoid. The root of terrorism should be identified so that it can be removed. The root of terrorism is misunderstanding, hatred and violence. This root cannot be located by the military. Bombs and missiles cannot reach it, let alone destroy it. Only with the practice of calming and looking deeply can our insight reveal and identify this root. Only with the practice of deep listening, restoring communication and compassion can it be transformed and removed.

Darkness cannot be dissipated with more darkness. More darkness will make darkness
thicker. Only light can dissipate darkness. Violence and hatred cannot be removed with violence and hatred. Rather, this will make violence and hatred grow a thousandfold. Only understanding and compassion can dissolve violence and hatred. “Strike against terror” is a misleading expression. What we are striking against is not the real cause or the root of terror. The object of our strike is still human life. We are sowing seeds of violence as we strike. Striking in this way we will only bring more hatred and violence into the world. This is exactly what we do not want to do.

Hatred and violence are in the hearts of human beings. A terrorist is a human being with
hatred, violence and misunderstanding in his or her heart. Acting without understanding, acting out of hatred, violence and fear, we help sow more terror, bringing terror to the homes of others and bringing terror back to our own homes. Whole societies are living constantly in fear with our nerves being attacked day and night. This is the greatest casualty we may suffer from as a result of our wrong thinking and action. Such a state of confusion, fear and anxiety is extremely dangerous. It can bring about another world war, this time extremely destructive.

We must learn to speak out so that the voice of the Buddha can be heard in this dangerous and pivotal moment of history. Those of us who have the light should display the light and offer it so that the world will not sink into total darkness. Everyone has the seed of awakening and insight within his or her heart. Let us help each other touch these seeds in ourselves so that everyone could have the courage to speak out. We must ensure that the way we live our daily lives (with or without mindful consumption, with or without discrimination, with or without participating in injustice) does not create more terrorism in the world. We need a collective awakening to stop this course of self-destruction.

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Smiling Is a Powerful Tool

By Steve Black

I work in a small community college and several years ago I decided to smile and say hello to everyone I met in the hallways at the beginning of the term. I wanted to welcome our new students and to see how long it would take for them to relax and return my smile. Typically, after a month most students began to make eye contact with me, and smile.

Recently, I discovered that smiling has greater power than I realized. Last winter a student walked into a tutoring lab on campus with a package that he said contained a bomb. Fortunately, an off-duty police officer was taking classes in the same building. He quickly subdued the student, removing a pistol (empty) from him. Someone pulled a fire alarm. Eventually the entire campus was evacuated and a bomb unit was brought in.

I was in my office across campus at the time, but when I heard the news I rushed to the scene. I had heard about this student before and some of my friends, both students and faculty members, had felt threatened by him. When I saw the student in the back of the police car, looking unrepentant, my first reaction was intense anger. How could this person cause so much trouble for people I cared about, put their lives in jeopardy, make them live in fear? A wave of anger overcame me. I wanted to grab him out of the police car and punish him right then and there. I wanted to teach him a lesson.

Classes resumed that night. By then my anger had subsided, but not my sense of frustration at the situation. I decided to walk into the building where the bomb scare had occurred to make sure that everything was all right. I came to see that the real reason I needed to go inside was to overcome my fear.

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I had prided myself on being clear-headed during the incident, but as I stepped into the building that evening, a feeling of irrational terror came over me. I had to tell myself to return to my breathing and observe what was arising. I knew, intellectually, that the building had been inspected, that the bomb turned out to be a fake, that the gun was empty, that the student was in jail. But there was no way I could talk myself out of my fears. I could only watch them arise and trust them to vanish.

When students began arriving for class, I was stunned by the expressions on their faces. They looked as scared as I was, maybe even more frightened. I noticed as I walked in the hallway that night that the sense of trust I had felt after the first month of classes was gone. No one said hello, no one would even look at me. They were filled with fear and anger,just as I had been. This anger surfaced at a meeting held a few days later, when police officers answered questions from students. The students were ripe for vengeance. They were not concerned that this student was not known to have committed any crimes on campus or in the community prior to the bomb scare – they thought he should have been under police surveillance.

Witnessing this anger and suspicion, I found myself unwittingly drawn out of my own fears and became concerned about the well-being of the students. I saw immediately that, while I could not give them any kind of professional psychological assistance, I could practice smiling. It was clear that what I and my students needed now was smiles. Smiling for the benefit of others was no longer an abstract idea for me. Instead I came to see it as a powerful tool – the only one I had available – to reassure the people I met that there was no need to dwell on their irrational suspicions of strangers on campus.

The smile worked for some of the students I met. In the days that followed, as I continued to smile, I noticed that some of them began to acknowledge my presence, to return my smile. The change in their posture was instantaneous. Over time things on campus began to change, fears and. anger gradually subsided. I hope that by smiling I was able to help in some small way with this change.

I am grateful that Thay has shown us that we have this tool, the smile, available twenty-four hours a day. Before, I understood smiling as simply a way to change my own attitude and to practice mindfulness by bringing the light of awareness to the expression on my face. It was only in the wake of this situation that I realized that smiling can deeply benefit others as well. I practice smiling on campus all year now, not just at the beginning of the semester. Smiling works to relieve the pressures generated by both extreme situations and everyday hassles. I have come to see that smiling is a means to spread the seeds of peace and happiness, not only in myself, but in others as well.

Steve Black, Compassionate Continuation of the Heart, practices with his Sangha in West Tennessee, where he teaches English.

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We All Belong Together

Sister Thuc Nghiem (Sister Susan)

Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Insight Gatha

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

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

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha given to Sister Thuc Nghiem

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

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

Thay’s Words of encouragement

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

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

Excerpt from Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Dharma Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Entering the Stream of the Practice

Brother Phap Hien (Brother Michael)

Brother Phap Hien’s insight gatha

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

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Br. Phap Hien

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

Excerpt from Brother Phap Hien’s Dharma Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buddba Body

Larry Ward

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Larry Ward’s Insight Gatha

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

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha

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

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

Thay’s words of encouragement

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

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

Larry’s Dharma Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Tear FeU Into My Hand

By Lisi Ha Vinh

Lisi’s Insight Gatha

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

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Lisi

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

Excerpt from Lisi’s Dharma Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Living Dharma is Contagious!

Practicing at Deer Park Monastery

By Carl, Aubyn, and Sage Stahmer

Deer Park is where you meditate and are mindful. You meet monks and nuns. They always smile. It makes me happy. At Deer Park everyone is a vegetarian like me.
Everyone at Deer Park protects the earth.
– Sage Stahmer, Age 7, April 2002

Sage had been coming to Deer Park for one year when I asked him to write a few words about the monastery and our practice there. I remember his first visit to Deer Park well, because it was also the first for me and my wife. We shared similar emotional reactions to our introduction to the Day of Mindfulness of fear, disorientation, and a sense of alienation.

My wife and I had been reading Thay’s books at home and attempting a self-guided practice for nearly a year prior to our first Day of Mindfulness. But everything at Deer Park was so different from the world that we lived in – new languages, new rituals, new faces – that all of our seeds of fear and alienation moved quickly to mind consciousness, bringing with them all of their associated habit energies. We were afraid to speak to anyone, afraid that Sage would not be properly cared for at the children’s program, afraid that we were making too much noise during the silent meal, and generally, just afraid. As we talked about the experience in the car on the way home, we all echoed the same sentiment. It was radically unfamiliar and, as a result, radically uncomfortable.

But the Dharma works in subtle ways. Happily, one important lesson that we learned from reading Thay’s teaching was the need to look deeply into our suffering; and that night, as we prepared and ate our meal, we made a conscious determination to do just that. After much thought and discussion we came to realize that not a single unwelcoming word or gesture had been made by the other practitioners at Deer Park, lay or monastic. To the contrary, everyone had actually acted very skillfully to try to alleviate our suffering and make us feel welcome. Why then, if we had been openly welcomed into the Sangha, did we feel so un-welcome? It was at this moment that I saw clearly, for the first time in my life, that the source of my suffering was me. We made a family commitment to return to Deer Park for the next Day of Mindfulness, and we have been doing so ever since.

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I have often reflected on the events of that evening and wondered what it was that allowed us in that particular moment to free ourselves from the cycle of habit energies that had, until then, prevented us from truly touching our suffering. Certainly, our reading ofThay’s teachings and the light, informal practice that we had developed on our own were important contributing factors, providing the foundations for a process of deep looking. But I have come to believe that it was something more than this, something that we had taken home with us from the Day of Mindfulness, even while consciously rejecting it, that watered our seeds of mindfulness. It was a simple something that is reflected in Sage’s words about Deer Park: “They always smile.”

As we sat that night discussing our Day of Mindfulness, we returned frequently to this simple point. They did always smile; and their smiles were genuine, reflecting both joy and stability. Try as our habit energies might to reject this gift, they could not. The living Dharma is contagious!

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As an extension of the spiritual community at Plum Village, of Thay’s teaching, and of our many spiritual ancestors in the practice, the fourfold community at Deer Park provides support and stability for our family as we practice everyday life. Days of Mindfulness offer the opportunity to regularly touch the living Dharma, which helps us to deepen our relationship with ourselves, with each other, with the Sangha, and with the world. For my wife and myself, the organized forms of practice such as sitting, chanting, and Dharma talks have helped us learn to be more diligent in our daily practice. And the true sense of community that is present in the Sangha brings us joy and support, even when we are not physically gathered. For Sage, the Sangha provides an opportunity to develop his mindfulness naturally while he spends his days exploring and playing with the other children, the brothers, and the sisters in the loving and mindful environment provided by the stability of the practice. We have made friends , and we have learned to be friends as well. We have arrived. We are home.

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Turning Towards the Light

Israeli and Palestinian Meetings in Plum Village
Members of the Palestinian-Israeli Sangha

One soul has been changed

Dear Thay, I am a young Palestinian woman, who was part of the Palestinian-Israeli group in Plum Village last week. I lived in Paradise for a week. I felt that Plum Village is paradise for two reasons: the location and the atmosphere and the fact that our enemies were our friends. All the people around me were my family. I could sense the warmth of love radiating from every soul and penetrating my dark heart. The darkness has been living there since my childhood, the darkness that was caused by “our cousins,” the cousins that took away my childhood, and are now aiming at my youth. In your Paradise, my voice was heard even during the noble silence. My heart was touched and the darkness was replaced by light.

I am back home now. I am ready to accept my enemies as family. I will try to synchronize my breath with their breath. I will let my voice free and I will listen twice before I talk.

Thank you for hosting us in your paradise, and exposing us to the Buddha’s teachings.

One soul in Palestine has been changed. I am looking towards the light now.

Sincerely,
a participant from Jerusalem, Palestine
November 2001

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The Seeds of a Dream

Over the past few years, Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested more than once that Palestinians and Jews sit together in meditation to practice deep listening and to share each other’s suffering. Thay’s suggestion planted the seeds of a dream.

In the summer of 2001 a group of fifteen Palestinians and Israelis came together in Plum Village to practice being peace and to learn about the healing power of deep listening and loving speech. Out of their experience, emerged another group that went to Plum Village in November 2001. A third group is planning to come for two weeks during the Summer Retreat in 2002.

The first two groups participated in sitting, walking, and working meditation with the entire community, and separately as a group. In meetings with Brother Doji, Sister Jina and Sister Annabel we learned how to practice deep listening. We tried to listen with   compassion to our own suffering and to the suffering of others. We also practiced going back to our bodies through “deep relaxation,” as well as stopping and breathing at the sound of the bell. We shared a session of “beginning anew” in which we had the chance to “water each other’s flowers,” sharing our appreciation for each other and to express our regrets and difficulties. Sister Chan Khong shared with us her experiences during the war in Vietnam. We also shared social activities; such as, singing Arabic and Hebrew songs, playing music and reciting poems. Before departing, we practiced hugging meditation.

Blue Flowers of Peace

During the first walking meditation session in Upper Hamlet after the arrival of the Israeli-Palestinian group I found myself walking a few meters behind two Palestinian women. I had not previously met them, and had not had the chance to talk to them before the walk. I was very curious to know them, to find out I how they came to join the group and what brought them to Plum Village. I wanted to know what they had experienced during the EI-Aktza Intifada and during previous years, how much they and their relatives had  suffered. I thought, how will it be possible to contact them, to create communication with them? Will it be possible to do anything together, and how?

When the line of walkers passed the Meditation Hall we made a left turn into an open area, where many blue flowers were blooming. In Hebrew the name of these flowers is “olesh. ” What was the Arabic name? Suddenly, I saw that the elder Palestinian woman had also discovered the blue flowers and was communicating silently with the young Palestinian woman about them. They both smiled happily. This was a big discovery for me, and I thought, ahh! The olesh flowers also bloom in Palestinian fields, and the Palestinian people like them too. They enjoy the same things as we do and have love in their hearts.

Then I smiled to myself knowing that there is a way to create communication between the Israeli and the Palestinian people.

– Jonathan Arazy, True Path of Peace, July 2001

Expressing Pain and Fear

A lot of pain was expressed in our meetings. Palestinians spoke about their difficulties as Israeli-Arabs, the discrimination in Israel, and their inferior status in relation to Jews, the
Israeli government, and the police. They spoke about not being able to develop their land and the land that had been expropriated and given to Jews. Palestinians talked about time spent in Israeli prisons, about being beaten up, about humiliation and confusion, being jailed in their own towns, the difficulties of educating children for peace in times of war, and
about learning to see that the one you think is your enemy is a human being.

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Jewish members shared about the holocaust and genocide of their people in Europe by the Nazis, a trauma that is imprinted on every Jewish soul and affects their behavior. They shared their difficulties in struggling to protect a state surrounded by enemies, about difficulties in differentiating between the Palestinian citizens in Israel and the neighboring
Arabs who are considered to be enemies, and about life in the shadow of constant fear; fear of terrorist attacks in the streets or on the buses, and the fear of further wars. As a result of this fear, there is a lot of violence and aggressive communication. Jewish members shared that Israeli society is suffering from disconnection from itself and from apathy and a lack of understanding for the other side. They shared that many Israelis want
peace, not war, but distrust the intentions of the Palestinians.

Humility

It often seemed during the course of our meetings that the Plum Village community felt we were doing something huge, and people would come to offer us encouragement, at times
with a sense of euphoria. Some of us in the group felt overwhelmed by this attention. We were not capable of shifting the whole Middle East, we were very simple people having an
encounter. So there was a sense of humility with regards to the impact of our small efforts in the face of a giant problem.

The pace was also humbling. When we first arrived, we wanted to plunge right into the intense issues and get right to the core of the conflict. But we were told to focus on the practice, to walk mindfully, to eat mindfully. People in the group were frustrated. “Do they understand? ” someone asked. “There is all emergency situation in the Middle East and we only have two weeks here. I know the practice is important but we don’t have much time. ”

When we asked Sister Chan Khong and others how to mobilize ourselves, we were told to practice, to deepen our relationship as a Sangha. We wanted to be guided in terms of
strategies or social action and all we were told was to walk mindfully and practice. Over and over we were told to slow down. I began to sense that they were giving us a very important key, born out of tremendous depth of wisdom. We were being told that if we were not centered ourselves, if we did not have peace in ourselves, then there was no
way we could bring stability and peace to the world around us.

– Azriel Cohen, July 2001

The Olive Tree

The olive tree symbolizes peace. Planting the olive tree together is an expression of our confidence that Peace Begins in oneself, and that through the path of understanding and
love a future is possible for the Israelis and the Palestinian people. Indeed, the olive tree that we planted died. We took from this a good lesson, that is relevant to our activities with
the Palestinians – a baby tree needs extra protection.
– Jonathan Arazy, Jerusalem Israel

Brother Pbap Minh, True Light of the Dharma, kept another baby olive tree, also brought from Israel, in the Upper Hamlet. It was kept in a pot indoors by a window with warm sunshine during the cold and wet winter months. This baby tree is now sending out many fresh new leaves.

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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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding is the Basic Work for Peace 

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing Fear 

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

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

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

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

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A Proposal for Peace and Reunification 

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

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

Questions and Answers 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restoring Communication, Restoring Harmony

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

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

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

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

Can There Be Peace Without War? 

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

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

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

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

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

The Light of Compassion 

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A one-hour documentary of the Peace Song Circle is available, please contact: kburton@cyberus.ca.

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

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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!

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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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Fierce Bodhisattvas

By Daryne Rockett

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If you ask my ninety-six-year-old grandfather about his participation in World War II, he might tell you that he was disqualified from service because of his flat feet. His wife, Laura Blackwood, is another story. Fit enough for the typing pool, my grandmother served as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the United States Navy during the war. She died two summers ago. My grandfather will tell you that he gave the Navy the “best years of my wife.”

If you ask my dad about his participation in the Vietnam War, he might tell you that he would rather not discuss it. It was thirty-five years after his service when I learned he had been awarded a Purple Heart, because he does not believe that he should be in the same company as those who lost a limb or lost their life in that war. He served in the “brown water” Navy (a term used for a Naval force carrying out military operations in a river) in Vietnam. The very little information that I have about my dad’s service I learned from my mother. I am respectful of his preference for privacy. His is not my story to tell.

If you ask my first husband about his service in several modern wars, there will be very little that he is able to say. He was a pilot of the U-2 Reconnaissance Aircraft, and most of what he did prior to his retirement, and in the years since as a contractor, is highly classified. He and I met in South Korea during my service in the Air Force. The nation was still legally at war with its neighbor to the north, functioning under a cease-fire since 1953. We were there together in 1994, on the first of many occasions that North Korea announced it would no longer abide by the armistice agreement. I was a Korean linguist, and there is very little that I am permitted to say about my service in the Air Intelligence Agency or the Air Force Information Warfare Center. We both might say that we have lost a number of close friends in U-2 crashes.

If you ask my clients about their service in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iraq, or Afghanistan, they may tell you painful stories of loss. They may describe horrible memories from their service––memories of suffering, shame, or death. They might tell you about the losses of relationships, connection, and peace of mind that result from fighting. The losses that bring them to our Vet Center are the ones that hurt the deepest. What many of them will say is that they wish that the military, which taught them so effectively how to fight, had also trained them how not to fight. I had been longing for something similar when I first became familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching.

I had learned from my father how to fight to win, because he loved me and wanted me to be safe and successful. There was much arguing in my home as I was growing up, and the seeds of aggression were watered. During my military service I learned many wonderful skills, including how to speak Korean, but I was also taught with fear and intimidation, and I was encouraged to see a separation between “us” and “them.” The seeds of disconnection and enmity were watered. By the time I began my studies as a clinical social worker at the age of thirty-four, there was a wake of angry tirades and broken relationships behind me. A beginning meditation class introduced me to the practice of mindfulness, and my studies told me to find a teacher and a community of practice.

It Is Not in Our Nature to Fight

Without being trained, our first impulse is to freeze when we perceive ourselves to be in danger. Something in the most primitive part of our brain knows that predators see their prey as movement against a background. This is very likely the reason that a deer will freeze in the road as a car speeds toward it. Believing the car to be a predator, the deer stays still to avoid being seen, sometimes until it is too late. The second option that we will choose when in peril is to flee. That same ancient part of our brain understands that when we are no longer invisible to the predator, we should hurry away in order to avoid harm. Our last choice is to fight, and without training we will naturally avoid aggression because it is very risky. Our survival instincts tell us that if we stay to fight and sustain even a minor injury, there exists a very real possibility of infection, sepsis, and death.

So, in order to overcome our nonviolent nature and survival instincts, the military has developed very specific training techniques for fighting and surviving in a war. For instance, because weapons have been developed to kill, sicken, or incapacitate people with airborne chemicals, military members are trained to be able to retrieve a gas mask from its carrying pouch, place it over the head, clear it, and seal it completely to the edge of the face within nine seconds. This is not a process that we innately know how to do. It must be practiced repeatedly and under duress in order to be learned in such a way that the gas mask will be properly used even if the soldier is waking from a deep sleep, or disoriented by an explosion, or otherwise in a situation where clear reasoning is less likely to occur.

One of the methods used to teach these military skills is called an “Immediate Action Drill.” In the case of the gas mask, soldiers are taught how to use the equipment, and then the process is repeated a number of times in the classroom. Once it has been practiced formally in this way, trainees are warned to be ready for unexpected tests of their skill with the gas mask. At random times, a drill instructor will enter a room and yell, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” If the trainee does not don the mask within nine seconds, he or she is punished. Fear becomes a very compelling motivator to learn. These Immediate Action Drills are used to teach soldiers how to throw a grenade, fire guns, launch mortars, and bayonet an enemy.

In my own life and in my social work practice with war veterans, I sought a way to undo my conditioning to fight. I found guidance from Thich Nhat Hanh on retreats, in his books, and through my home Sangha, Stillwater Sangha in Maine. I found other teachers who were integrating mindfulness practice with psychotherapy, and I attended workshops and seminars and read more books. I received training in Non-Violent Communication from Peggy Smith, a member of the Order of Interbeing. And I practiced. I discovered that the best of my social work practice occurred when it was also a mindfulness practice.

A mindfulness bell is a kind of immediate action drill. First, in our formal sitting meditation, we learn to return to the present moment and bring awareness to what we are experiencing right now. Then, we have the informal practice of stopping and spending time with the breath in the present moment whenever a bell rings. In the treatment groups that I facilitate for post-traumatic stress disorder, we practice mindfulness of the breath formally in periods of sitting meditation. Then, I set a timer with random bells that sound during the ninety-minute group session. Regardless of where the discussion is going, when the bell sounds, we all stop for two mindful breaths. Only now, instead of being motivated by fear of punishment, we are guided by a desire to live freely in the present moment.

Only This Breath Now

Post-traumatic stress disorder is driven by experiences from the past imposing on the here and now, often triggering anxiety about how things might go badly in the future. In our groups, we practice mindfulness of the breath as a way to return from painful,

unplanned trips into the past or future and resume present moment awareness. I cannot breathe a breath in the future or re-breathe a breath from the past. I may only breathe this breath now.

In my practice with my clients, if a veteran comes in feeling angry and argumentative, I may be reminded of my father’s anger and get caught up in my habit of debating. And when this happens, I am no longer able to be compassionate with my client because I am no longer present. I am anticipating what my client will say next and how to counter the argument. After a decade of practice, I am usually able to notice when this habit energy is rising and stop to take a breath. I remind myself that this veteran is in pain and trusts me enough to let me see that she or he is hurting. When I am once again aware, I am able to be compassionate again, and deeply listen in a way that helps to relieve that veteran’s suffering. Because I am no longer fighting an old battle with my father, over and over again, I am also able to heal old hurts and hold both myself and my father with care and gentleness. When this happens, I think of Thay’s teaching about holding your anger like a baby and taking care of it.

My clients are happy to have a new kind of boot camp, where they learn skills to reverse the military’s programming to fight. We practice sitting, eating, breathing, and walking mindfully. We practice mindful speaking and deep listening. We practice empathy and courageous communication (another term for Non-Violent Communication). Over the past decade, as my mindfulness practice has deepened, my therapy practice has also deepened.

“I am aware that I owe so much to my parents, teachers, friends, and all beings. I vow to be worthy of their trust, to practice wholeheartedly, so that understanding and compassion will flower, helping living beings be free from their suffering.” These words from the Refuge Chant are a loving map, reminding me to recognize the fierce bodhisattvas who courageously put down their weapons and remove their armor in my presence. Though we never call it the Dharma in our sessions, it is undoubtedly the way of joy and freedom from suffering, and I am grateful for my many beautiful teachers.

mb66-Fierce2Daryne Rockett, Blossoming Music of the Heart, plays the harp and practices with Stillwater Sangha in Orono, Maine. She is a clinical social worker at the Bangor Vet Center, where she has enjoyed working with veterans and their families for nearly ten years.

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“Mitakuye Oyasin”

Monks’ Experiences of the Ancient Stone People Lodge Ceremony

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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 yahoogroups.com 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?

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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,
imagining
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,
imagining
what lies ahead,
or else behind,
not fish, but fears,
quick-silver
darting,
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

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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.

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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 bar@zecharya.com.

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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.

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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.

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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 www.helpbatnha.org.

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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.

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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.

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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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