Dharma Talk: Knowing We Have Enough

A Dharma Talk by Sister Annabel
At Maple Forest Monastery, June 25, 2002
Photography by Jan Mieszczanek

This is enough, I know it well.
This is enough, I don’t need more.
The call of the bird
In the bleak gray sky
Is the bright pink rose in a sea of green.
This is enough.
I thought I needed more
But now I know I am so rich.
My teacher, my Sangha,
Are precious jewels.
Every moment a gem, alive or dead.
Health and sickness are precious gifts,
Doors of the practice for all to learn.
The great living beings are always there
To guard and to guide and bring us home.
You are enough, you know it well.
No need to do more, just come back home!
All that you want is already there,
Breathe and take a step to see your home!

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Dear Sangha, today is the 25th of June in the year 2002, and we are in the Buddha Hall of the Maple Forest Monastery.

This morning I tried to find a new way to walk up to the Buddha Hall from where I was sleeping, and I lost myself in the heart of the forest! I was thinking, that I should not arrive in time for the sitting meditation that morning and maybe not even for the Dharma talk! I would go a certain distance and then I would have to turn back because the path was blocked by many wild rasp-berry brambles. Suddenly, my mind became very still. I did not know why, it just happened like that. I looked  up,  and  I  saw  the  Buddha Hall. I was just below it. That experience showed me that I often think that what is going on in my mind is disconnected from what is happening in the world. I perceive something outside of my mind. But now I see that the Buddha Hall is also in my mind, and the Buddha Hall symbolizes quiet and peace. When my mind is quiet and peaceful, then the Buddha Hall manifests itself. The hall was so beautiful with the white roof against the blue sky and the sun shining on it through the trees.

Dear Sangha, the practice of tri tuc in Vietnamese, means knowing we have enough. This has become a Buddhist practice, but in fact it was taught by Confucius. Confucius said that the important thing is to know that we have enough. The expression used by Confucius has the Chinese word tri meaning to know, to have understanding, or wisdom. Knowing when we have enough is wisdom. As long as we think that we do not have enough, we shall not have enough. When we know that we have enough, we have enough.

As a Buddhist practitioner, whether monk, nun, layman, or laywoman, knowing enough is an important part of the practice. In the Christian tradition when people take what is called the vow of poverty, it also means knowing enough. This practice belongs at least to Confucianism and Christianity as well as to Buddhism. It is a practice that our world needs very much at this moment.

Knowing enough is not just knowing enough materially – which is very important – but knowing enough spiritually and emotionally, too. Knowing that we have enough materially is based on knowing that we have enough emotionally and spiritually. Often it is an emotional need which craves more material things. Our craving comes from the feeling of insecurity rather than from a material need. That is why we have to practice mindfulness of our emotions in order to reach the root of our desire for material things. I wrote a very simple song about knowing enough. (see above)

When I feel discontent I need to look deeply at my discontent in my daily life. To do this I practice sitting still. As I sit still I begin to feel satisfied with the richness of my life. It is a very gray day with no sunshine, and I could think that the gray sky is not enough, and I need to have the sunshine. I hear the bird call through the sky, and I see that the gray sky is quite enough. The gray sky holds the call of the bird. And although the sky is so gray, there’s a pink rose, it’s very bright, and the grass is very green. The gray sky shows up the pink rose and the green grass. So I feel grateful for the gray sky. Looking deeply I see that the blue sky is always behind the gray sky. So I say to myself, “Well, this is quite enough.”

My thinking in the past made me say, “I need more.” But now I understand that I’m a very rich person already. I have an enlightened, awakened person to be my teacher, to show me the way. I have the Buddha, and all the ancestral teachers. I have my Sangha. It’s the most precious thing. One reason why my Sangha, my teacher, and my ancestral teachers are so precious is because they have taught me to be able to dwell in the present moment. The present moment becomes a most wonderful gem. Every moment is a gem.

The Treasures of Sickness and Death

I could think that when someone I love dies, I don’t have enough, because I have lost the person I love. But when I live deeply the present moment, I know that without death I cannot possibly be alive. When you walk through the forest, and see the dead leaves making room for the green leaves, it is so clear. In Australia, in forests of a special kind of eucalyptus, the seeds will only open and the new trees will grow when they are subjected to intense heat. So the forest fire makes the new forest possible. Without death there cannot be life, for death is something very precious. Death is a precious gem.

In my Buddhist meditation I have learned to look deeply into my fear of death, sickness, and old age. When I say that health and sickness are precious gifts, it’s because so many people who have come to me and have been sick have told me that it is the most precious thing that has happened to them. When we stand on the outside and we look in, without the experience of the people who tell us that, we say, “How can they say that ill-health is the most precious thing?” But that is what people have said to me. When I have been sick I have always been happy to be well again. Having been sick is an opportunity for me to appreciate good health and a wonderful opportunity to begin anew my life anew.

In the past people said that children have to be sick with measles, mumps, chicken pox, to develop an immunity to these diseases and not contract them when they were older when it would be much more serious. Today scientists have developed vaccines so that it is not necessary to go through the sickness in order to be immunized. Since scientists have seen the suffering they have compassion and do not want it to continue any longer. Without suffering there cannot be compassion and without compassion there cannot be happiness. When we know how to practice when we’re sick, then sickness can become a very precious gift. Although the experience brings us painful feelings we learn so much about ourselves and the great beings are always there to guard and to guide and to bring us home.

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Faith in the Great Beings

I have faith that there are always great beings, the bodhisattvas, and I have that faith partly because I’ve recognized that in myself and all members of my sangha there’s a bodhisattva.  The doctors in Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, are bodhisattvas. They do not confine themselves to helping people in their own country, but go to the countries where there’s the least medical supply, the least favorable circumstances for curing disease. There are also teachers without frontiers. Somewhere in the world there are always great beings who can show me how to love and understand. In myself there is also that great being, although it has not yet flowered fully.

You Are Enough

You are enough, you know it well! We think that we are not enough yet. We have to be something better. We have to go somewhere, do something in order to be enough. We don’t think we are enough just as we are. Not only do we have to know that this is enough, we have to know that I am enough, or you are enough. That is also a kind of wisdom.

In Buddhism one of the doors of liberation is called wishlessness or aimlessness. It means I know that I’m enough. We have the tendency to think, “If I could do more I would be enough, I would be better. I have to be doing more all the time!” But no, we have to say that I am enough already. You don’t need to do in order to be enough. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do, right now. We’ve been taught, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” But our teacher in Plum Village says, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Our teacher has also told us how to look deeply into what is called our habit energy. My habit energy wants me to do something, to do more. He asks us to look where that habit comes from. It partly comes from what we have been taught and it is also handed down to us from our ancestors in our consciousness.

Transforming Our Habit Energy

In Buddhism we say we do not only receive our body from our ancestors, we also receive our consciousness, because our body and our consciousness interare. Our consciousness is part of our body and our body is part of our consciousness. We inherit so much more than our bodies from our ancestors. We inherit habit energy and consciousness. Maybe our habit energy to do something comes from a time when our ancestors needed to work very hard. If I imagine that I have come from Europe to New England, and I was one of the first settlers, I would probably have to work very hard in order to be able to have enough to survive. I have to plant this, I have to store this, I have to prepare this, in order to have enough for the winter. So taking care of the future in order to survive would become a very important internal formation with me. In times of suffering and stress, we create internal formations, knots in our consciousness, which we can hand on to future generations if we don’t know how to untie those knots.

Here is an example. Plum Village is our practice center in France. Every year there is a retreat that lasts for a month. Many, many families come and practice together, children and parents. We teach the children, “When you’re angry, don’t say anything, don’t do anything. Just breathe deeply, because if you say or do something you may regret it afterwards.” Some of the children, especially those who have come every year, learn how to do that. When they feel anger come up in them they can close their eyes and breathe deeply. Closing the eyes is an important point, because as long as you look at the person who is making you angry, it waters the seed of your anger. So you close your eyes, close your ears, close everything, close your thinking, just breathe.

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In one family, the young boy had many difficulties with his father. This difficulty probably arose because his father came from a different culture than the culture the boy had been brought up in. His father had the tendency to be angry whenever the boy fell down and hurt himself. The son would say, “ I can understand my father being angry if I do something wrong, but I can’t understand my father being angry when I have done nothing wrong.” He thought that a good father would take pity on him and help him when he fell down. So he had a strong internal formation about his father.

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One day at the retreat the boy was with his younger sister. She was playing in the hammock with another little girl and the hammock tipped and they fell out. When his little sister hit the ground she cut her head and it was bleeding. The brother was standing nearby and he saw all this, and he felt very angry. He wanted to shout at her, “How stupid! Aren’t you big enough to know better?” But fortunately, he had learned to shut his eyes when he was angry. He breathed, and he walked away from the scene. He thought the best thing he could do was move away from the scene while other people took care of his little sister.

He walked into the forest slowly, he looked into his situation to realize the truth of what was happening, and he saw that this anger was his father’s anger. He didn’t want to be angry, but he was angry because he had inherited that habit energy. He then realized that the reason his father was angry with him when he fell down was because his grandmother or grandfather used to be angry with his father when his father fell and hurt himself. No one in the family had yet managed to transform this habit energy. The young boy saw that if he was not careful, when he had his own children, he would be the same, and after him his children would continue to be the same. If he could transform this habit energy in himself he would not have to hand it on to his own children. He also wanted to talk to his father about the understanding he had come to that day. When he was able to talk to his father he was able to become his father’s friend.

With mindfulness practice we can undo the knots we receive from our ancestors.   When we undo those knots we do it not only for our self, but we do it for our ancestors, because our ancestors are still alive in us, and we are their continuation. It is a simple, and essential part of our practice.

There’s no need to do any more in order to be enough. We can undo the knots of always having to be doing something. We practice for our ancestors, but we also do it for our descendants, for our children and our grandchildren. Our world needs people who are, more than people who do.

When we can be with nature, we realize how precious it is, and we automatically take good care of our environment, preserving nature. Every morning before breakfast in the Green Mountain Dharma Center Sister Susan sits outside contemplating the mountainous scenery. It does not matter what the weather is like; rain, snow and wind may come but she is still there. For her that is a time of being. She is there for the mountains and the mountains are there for her. Someone who is as close to nature as that will never take thoughtless measures which will harm the environment. Our ancestors, who had more time to be, did not behave thoughtlessly towards the environment. When we are too busy to be with nature we do not recognize how precious it is, and therefore we are not in a position to preserve the ecology of our planet earth.

Where is My Home?

You don’t need to do any more. Just come back home. A Plum Village motto is, “I have arrived, I am home.” You might like to ask, “Where is my home?”

One time the Brahmins in India came to the Buddha and they said, “In our religion we aspire to live with the Brahma, the creator-god. Can you teach us how to do that?”

So the Buddha asked them a question. He said, “What are the qualities of Brahma?”

They answered, “The qualities of Brahma are loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.”

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The Buddha told them, “If Brahma is practicing loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, and you want to live with Brahma, you will have to do the same. When you practice loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity you will already be living with Brahma.” These four qualities are called the Brahmaviharas the abodes of Brahma, and that is the address of Brahma.

The Buddha also has the qualities of compassion, love, joy and equanimity. The address of Brahma is also the address of the Buddha. In a place where these qualities abound we feel completely secure and our true home is where we feel secure. To help us develop love and joy we have to practice mindfulness. To practice mindfulness is to be able to live the present moment with deep awareness.

The Greatest Security

We have a deep insecurity. It makes us feel that we are not at home here and now, that here and now is not safe. We have to invest in the future. We have to safeguard to make sure that the future is okay, and then we’ll be secure. We sacrifice here and now for security in the future. If we look deeply at the world as it is, is there really any security? Can we guarantee our security for the future? Can anyone guarantee that security? If we look deeply we see they can’t. Do you know anybody who doesn’t die? We tell ourselves maybe, “Oh, I won’t ever die!” Do you know anyone who’s never, ever been sick? I think it would be difficult to find that person. Is there anybody who doesn’t day by day get a little bit older? All these things hap-

pen. They are the truth. They are the reality. We have to accept that.

With mindfulness we recognize that, “All that I cherish, everyone I love, is of the nature to change, and we cannot avoid being separated from each other.” That’s true. Nothing is secure. We know we have to be separated from our loved ones, and when we meditate deeply like that, it has a very positive effect. It is not negative at all. The positive effect is that we see that our loved ones will not be always be here, and so we love them even more.  We do our best for them today because we know that tomorrow may be too late.

When we practice the meditation on loving kindness we aspire first of all, “May I be happy, peaceful and light in my body and my spirit. Then we meditate: “May the one I love live in safety and security.” Finally we aspire: “May the one who has made me suffer be happy, peaceful and light in body and in spirit. We wish for all beings that they live in safety and security, because we know that is our deepest desire. We see clearly that if it is my deepest desire to be safe and secure, it must be the desire of other beings. Even of the tiny little ant.

The other day an ant crawled onto my toothbrush. I was not very happy with that ant. I wanted to clean my teeth, but there was an ant caught up in the bristles of my toothbrush! Probably there was something sweet in the toothbrush. So I banged my toothbrush rather hard to knock the ant out, and the ant fell out of the toothbrush and was quite dizzy. The ant went around and around in circles as if it was dizzy. I looked at that ant and I suddenly remembered that that morning when I woke up I had said a little poem to myself, and that poem had gone something like,

Morning, noon, and night,
all you little insects,
Please look out for yourselves.
If by chance
I happen to step on you by mistake
May you be reborn
in a pure land of great happiness.

I suddenly thought, I said that poem this morning and what did I do here? Knocked the ant till it became dizzy! I looked at the ant and I breathed on it, saying the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and the ant said to me, “Did I really deserve to get a knock on the head like that, for crawling onto your toothbrush?” When I heard the ant say that, I had to say, “Of course you didn’t deserve it at all.” It’s very clear that even the little ants want to have safety and security. So I make a deep wish, “May all beings be in safety and security.”

The chant on happiness goes, “Although there is birth, old age and sickness, now that I have a path of practice, I have nothing to be afraid of.” The greatest security is the practice of mindfulness. I am secure because I know what I am doing, so that I’m less likely to have accidents. But accidents can always happen, even if I know what I am doing. That is part of my karma, part of the fruition of my actions, that things will not always go right. But, since I have the practice, even when things go wrong I have a kind of security. That is the security that I wish for all beings to have.

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Enjoying Conscious Breathing

That is my home, the practice of mindfulness, to be in the here and the now. If I can enjoy my breathing, I am in my true home, my Brahmavihara, my Buddhavihara. Why do I practice conscious breathing? Is it because the teacher says I have to? Is it because the Buddha says people have to practice conscious breathing? Is that why I practice it? Or do I practice my conscious breathing because I enjoy it? I feel that conscious breathing is to be enjoyed.

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One time when some of the monks were not practicing correctly, the disciple Ananda said to the Buddha, “They practice the wrong path that has brought them much suffering and brought the Sangha much suffering.” The Buddha said, “Ananda, did no one tell them how to enjoy their breathing?” Because the Buddha had so many disciples, he could not be with them all.  It was up to the eldest students like Ananda to show the younger students how to enjoy their breathing.

When we enjoy our breathing we do not expect a result in the future, because we already have the result right now. It is the same with our mindful steps; stepping into the present moment we have the result right now. We enjoy it right now. All that you want is already there. Breathe, and take a step, to see that you’re home.

This is enough. We see everyone we love, and everything we cherish as very precious, because we know that it will not always be there. As far as relative time and space are concerned they will not always be there. With conscious breathing we look even deeper and we recognize our loved ones in new forms. They just change their appearance, like the water. You may say, “Oh, my dear cloud, you’ve gone,” but in fact the cloud is still there in the rain. You go to the lake in the early morning when the sun begins to rise, you see the mists are evaporating from the surface of the lake, and that is yesterday’s rain going back to be today’s cloud again. No increase and no decrease is the teaching of the Prajnaparamita and that is why what we have is enough.

Sister True Virtue (Sister Annabel) is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Transcribed by Greg Sever. Jan Mieszczanek practices photography in her homeland of Poland. She says, “I met Thay one lazy, warm and sunny day. I was sitting in my garden and I was reading Peace is every step. That was a five years ago. Today I take a lot from Buddhism. I try to help the people around me, including myself, my two daughters, and my grandson to find happiness.”

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Chuc Mung Nam Moi

Happy New Year

January 22, 2004 Year of the Monkey

by Hope Lindsay

I came to the Ocean of Peace mediation hall early today, soon to be filled with monastics and lay retreatants for the Asian New Year celebration.   I am drawn to the beauty of this new hall at Deer Park Monastery. I want to fill my spirit through my eyes before the festival begins.

The altar area is filled with living color. There are mums, tulips, bamboo, and several species of orchids. Large vases contain pussy willows and reeds tied with tiny red ribbons. Bright red gladiolas repeat the color of good fortune. On the central altar, candles and incense are burning. Here are towers of fruits: mangos, apples, oranges, pineapple, and papayas. Sky and earth cakes wrapped in banana leaves remind me of the patient monastic and lay hands which made them the day before.

But perhaps the loveliest arrangement is the “tree.” It is Zen symbolism at its finest. Rocks arranged in classic patterns of heaven and earth support the large oak limb which has clusters of yellow blossoms attached to complete the appearance of spring. Red kites with words of peace and wisdom dangle from the tree.

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Now Thay has arrived and the hall has filled. We are awaiting the Chinese dragons (in lion form) to announce the beginning of the five days of fun and reverence. Here they come turning, and rearing! They are led by a paunchy red-faced figure representing the Earth. No one can resist laughing out loud as the lions blink their large eyelids and open their mouths in pretended ferocity, except Thay, who remains in meditation until the procession reaches him. Then he breaks into a sweet, almost twinkling smile.

Thay was presented with a collage of miniature photos shaped in the form of the single pillar pagoda which replicates the stained glass window in the hall and expresses the theme of Tiep Hien, interbeing. The monastics wished Thay a long life, filled with good health and loving kindness. I also wished  him  long  life,  motivated  by attachment. I need this soft-spoken, wise being awhile longer to help me awaken. Long, long life in this form to you, dear teacher.

Thay’s New Year wish for us is for our health.    For the Asians in residence, he requests remembrance of their ancestors, and to carry their memories into enlightenment. For Westerners, he wishes rest and mindfulness. Also, he wishes us mindful consuming, the single most important mission for the Western world. In consumerism lies the cause of poverty and war. Wise consuming is the key to world peace.

I am aware that I came to this ceremony to “fill up my senses.” My eyes were filled with the sight of the  monastics, dressed  in earth brown under their bright ceremonial robes, looking like mantles of sunshine. My ears were blessed with Vietnamese music sung by Sister Chan Khong, Ha Thanh, a visiting opera singer, and Sister Thi Nghiem. I hear this haunting music in my mind, even now. I can also feel the wonderful rhythmic challenge between the large brass bell and taiko drum speaking from opposite sides of the hall.

Blessings to us all in the year of the monkey. Play more, be joyfully spontaneous, and at the same time calm our monkey minds.

Hope Lindsay, True Flow of the Heart, spent the winter retreat at Deer Park.  She is a founding member of the Umpqua Area Sangha in Roseberg, Oregon, and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing.

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The Practice of Subtracting

Learning to Let Go of Material Possessions

By David Percival

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My mail today brought another pile of catalogs including the latest shiny, slick catalog of expensive Buddhist items. Everything I need is here: huge Buddhist statues, including one for my garden for only $998, the tea sets, the bells and wind chimes, jewelry, lamps, and furniture. I lose myself in the catalog briefly, then breathe and sit silently for a few minutes, and then move on. How easy it is to get caught up in the endless and relentless schemes to consume and acquire things of “value,” being persuaded that some purchases can enhance your practice, make your life better, or take you closer to enlightenment. We are regularly assaulted by an incredible array of catalogs, ads, ploys, and attempts to get us to spend and consume. There is nothing in today’s catalogs I want or need.

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Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the freedom of monastic life, that you don’t own anything, that you don’t need anything. In Stepping Into Freedom, he says, “If you are caught in the net of attachments, you will not have time or energy to practice or to serve others.”

What a contrast to our consumer-oriented acquisitive life where we seem to want and need everything. Our capitalist system is fueled by out-of-control consumerism. Much of our economy is built on greed and on advertising designed to persuade us to buy things and services we don’t need. Entire sectors of our economy provide products or services that are useless, irrelevant, and some­times dangerous: from tobacco, liquor, and fast food, to tanning salons, cosmetics, and gaming. And, of course, all items related to the war industry have great potential for harming.

It seems to me that capitalism as I experience it and Buddhism as I understand it can barely co-exist. The Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa states that, “capitalism depends on greed, delusion, and hatred in order to become entrenched in society and in the individual and is thus, [an] anathema to the goals of Buddhism.” It is obvious to me that the benefits of capitalism are not passed down to the growing millions of the poor, so the poor get poorer and more oppressed. How, as engaged Buddhists, can we help to reverse this tide?

Contemplating Value

What do we value in our life and practice? For me the thing of greatest value is the practice itself, made possible by the Sangha and the four-fold Buddhist community; the Dharma; and the peace and available time that come with leading a simple life. Standing in front of my altar I see many things of inestimable value. I see the

four pebbles that Thay asked us to gather for pebble meditation, which I found on a beach walk in Santa Barbara, California. I see two tiny Buddhas that were given to me when I lived in Laos. I see the photograph of my son in the orange robes of a monk from when he spent some time in the Lao Buddhist Monastery in San Diego. I see the little Buddha figure, made from mud in India, given to me as a new member of the Order of Interbeing. I see my bronze bell. I see my small collection of Buddhist books. I see pictures of my family and my granddaughters. I see a leaf from a bodhi tree in India. I look out the window and see my quiet garden and the resting plants blowing gently in a winter wind. These priceless things define value for me.

While we may not be able to realize the monastic freedom of just having three robes and one bowl, we can, as lay Buddhists, encounter true freedom by reducing attachments and desires. Subtraction is not loss. As we subtract, vistas open up, our minds expand and freedom grows.

As Sulak Sivaraksa says, “…one learns from the Buddha to constantly reduce one’s attachments and to envision the good life as the successful overcoming of attachment to personal gains and possessions. Free from these attachments, one is endowed with sufficient time and energy to nurture the seeds of peace within.” To reduce our attachments is to reduce our suffering. How do we do this in our daily lives? What does it mean to practice subtracting? Following are some ways I have explored this practice.

Impermanence and Mindful Consuming

I try to meditate constantly on the impermanent nature of everything. I do this throughout the day as I am assaulted by the media, the signs, the catalogs in the mail, the shops in the malls. I attempt to live in awareness of the festering in the back of my mind to consume, which shoves me around, creating desires for worldly things I have absolutely no need for. I stop and breathe, and become aware of the impermanent nature of all these things. Through meditation and mindfulness practice, I am developing an immunity to consumerism.

I meditate regularly on Exercise Fourteen, “Looking Deeply, Letting Go,” in The Blooming of a Lotus, which helps me deal with my attachment to sensual pleasure and material objects by reveal­ing their impermanent nature. I follow with Exercise Fifteen, on the Five Remembrances, and Exercise Sixteen, on looking deeply into our feelings. I try to walk through the world, observing material objects as if I were in an art museum, passing by many pleasing objects. I acknowledge them and appreciate their beauty and the skill of the artist who created them, without any desire to acquire them. Sulak Sivaraksa states, “Freedom entails the unfettering of the consciousness from its attachments, values, judgments, etc.— of all its contents.” I practice learning to be satisfied, knowing I lack nothing, that it is all here, now, in this moment.

I occasionally do “mall meditation,” where I slowly and mind­fully walk the length of a huge mall and practice smiling while acknowledging everything I see and letting it all fall away behind me. In my travels, I love to walk mindfully in city neighborhoods, smiling at everything I see and letting it all pass by.

Each day I meditate on The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, which reminds me of the impermanence of all things, and that consuming, desiring, and attaching lead to more consuming, desiring, and attaching. The only result is more suffering. Desires can become insatiable and our descent into grief and suffering an endless experience.

Subtracting Every Day

I try to subtract something every day. Over the years I have stopped eating meat and fast food, put the TV in the trash, and have eliminated controlling and dominating tendencies from my life. I regularly recycle our excess books, clean out the garage and dispose of the endless clutter in the house. I practice letting go of attachment to ownership, put alcoholic beverages out of my life, and no longer have a second car. I forgot to buy a cell phone and have no interest in jewelry.

I have found that this practice of subtraction has led to free­dom and joy, an openness and clarity of mind. Thay says, “As you continue practicing, the flower of insight will blossom in you, along with the flowers of compassion, tolerance, happiness, and letting go. You can let go, because you do not need to keep anything for yourself.”

Thay tells us that living a simple life in peace, free from desire and craving, leads to freedom and the time to help others find their freedom. As we move away from material accumulation, we also move away from our infatuation with ourselves, our goals, our success, our views, our individual prosperity. We become more available to help others, from our family and our communities to the world. When we let go of our attachments and our grasping, we enjoy renewed energy, and our world expands. We are strong enough to become one with oppressed people everywhere. And we will know what to do.

1 From chapter forty-eight of Arthur Waley’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.
2 For information on books by Thich Nhat Hanh, see Parallax Press, www.parallax. org/
3 For more information on Sulak Sivaraksa, see www.sulak-sivaraksa.org

mb39-ThePractice3David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the subscription manager of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Book Reviews

mb43-BookReviews1The Energy of Prayer
How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2006
155 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

When Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “You are a cloud,” this sounds very poetic. What he means is that our bodies contain cloud elements,  a fact that science cannot dispute. Taking the same no-nonsense approach to prayer in his new pocket-sized book on the subject, our dhyana master begins with the facts. In the book’s introduction, Larry Dossey, M.D., writes that there are currently 200 controlled experiments “in humans, plants, animals, and even microbes” suggesting that the energy of prayer can affect another individual or object, even at great distances.

But does prayer really work? In the first chapter, Thây offers readers the story of a double healing through prayer—a boy’s skepticism is healed at the same time that a woman’s brain tumor disappears. Reading this book proves what I, too, know, as I once healed completely from fibromyalgia and stomach ulcers through prayer. I have been present in the dharma hall when Thây requests that we “send energy” to someone who is sick or dying. We do not ask for the person to be healed; we simply send our concentrated, loving energy, sometimes long distance. And we know this has its effect, just as the moon has an effect on the earth.

Prayer is not meant to be a wish list; it’s a state of being. The secret is to pray with a mind of no attainment. While our teacher gives us many classic chants and prayers to choose from, as well as an appendix with exercises in meditation, he tells us that prayer can be realized not only in words, but in action. This is important especially for those who think they need “an answer” to prayer. The prayer itself is the answer. Prayer transforms the pray-er.

One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s greatest pedagogical gifts to the world has been tying East to West, Judeo-Christian to Buddhist practice. We need not drop our Judeo-Christian roots; our mindfulness practice makes us more sincere Christians, more deeply reverent Jews. In two of his watershed books, Living Buddha, Living Christ, and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, the author marries Christian and Buddhist practices. For me one of the most exciting chapters is Thây’s discourse on the Lord’s Prayer, which I’ve been praying for six decades.

Love is reflected in love. With “And forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors,” Thây exhorts us to pray in such a way that we “go beyond birth and death.”

What is prayer, then, but a raising of the mind and heart to God? And who is God but our very interbeing, the eternal flame that illumines everything, including the cloud. Our meditation and daily mindfulness practice is prayer. So prayer is a lightening and a lifting up. “We will lift her up [to God],” says the Christian. “We and God are not two separate existences,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. I know this to be true.

mb43-BookReviews2Mindful Politics

Melvin McLeod, editor
Wisdom Publications, 2006
Paperback, 304 pages

Reviewed by Svein Myreng

In the introduction to Mindful Politics, editor Melvin McLeod writes, “This is a handbook, a guide, a practice book, for people who want to draw on Buddhism’s insights and practices to help … make the world a better place.” A long-time Buddhist practitioner with a background in political science, McLeod has gathered 37 prominent Buddhist teachers, writers, and practitioners for this book.

At the core of mindful politics is the importance of stability and calm and how Buddhist practitioners can make this contribution to politics, especially in connection with anger and conflicts. In his essay, Roshi Bernie Glassman states: “I don’t believe in a utopia of non-conflict. Whatever you do is going to create conflict in some ways and peace in other ways.”

Also central to the book is Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice on understanding and compassion in all walks of life—familiar teachings to Thay’s students, but well worth re-reading. These are teachings of an uncompromisingly radical nature; just look with fresh eyes at a statement like “Compassion is our best protection.”

Other contributors bring perspectives from their own traditions, with Vajrayana and Zen perhaps a bit overrepresented. Buddhism is not monolithic. At times, however, the book’s perspective feels a bit too narrow, tipping the scale with people who are popular authors in U.S. Buddhism right now. For instance, I miss the fearless words of an Aung San Suu Kyi, or the old-time political commentary of Gary Snyder.

Especially interesting to me are the articles on racism and economy. Sulak characterises “free market fundamentalism” as “akin to other kinds of fundamentalism.”

Rather than GNP, Gross National Product, Jigmi Y. Thinley, Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs in Bhutan, suggests we use GNH, Gross National Happiness, as an alternative for measuring real weath. Thinley suggests four vital elements to GNH: “(1) sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, (2) conservation of the environment, (3) preservation and promotion of culture, and (4) promotion of good governance.” I would like to read more on these topics.

I write this review as a Dharma teacher, a father, and someone who wishes to make a positive contribution to the world. Though my wife and I try to live a simple, non-harming life and protect our son and ourselves from the greed-and-speed society, it is difficult. We neither wish nor are able to live in a cultural cocoon. We want to influence society, even in a small way. Mindful Politics is definitely helpful in this respect. It makes me think more deeply about aspects of my life and society.

Three Poetry Books

Reviewed by Susan Hadler

Something wonderful happens when we slow down and take the time to wake up to our bodies, our minds, and the world around us. We see things in the light of interbeing. We are able to touch the true nature of reality. The poets whose work is reviewed here devote themselves to noticing and connecting deeply with life in the present moment. They’ve put into words their experiences of delight and transformation and insight. It is a joy to find so many images that bring together the historical and the ultimate dimensions.

Fruits of the Practice

By Emily Whittle
Self-published, 2004
222 E. 5th Ave., Red Springs NC 28377
Soft-cover, hand-bound, 25 pages

The author of this beautiful earth-brown hand-bound book is a gardener of the heart and mind. Trained as a fine artist, primarily in book arts, Emily has taught all aspects of book making, and she brings her skills to the construction of this book. Her poems offer delicious fruit ripened in the sunshine of awareness. Playful images and fresh connections abound, this one from “A Break in the Weather”: “After seven days of rain, dawn serves up a new day, round as an egg, sunny-side up,” and this, the opening line of “Zafu”: “My church is a round cushion.” Still other poems astonish us with reality, as in the last line of the poem entitled “You Asked About My Anger”: “Even with remorse it takes a long time before the birds come back.”

Most of all, the poems live as stories of life on the path of awareness, bright with surprise and clarity of insight and transformation. Here, from the first poem in the book, titled “Origami”:

Watch this!
A square of paper
folded
on itself
becomes a crane. . .
When my spirit lies
flat and limp,
a lost scrap
under my heart’s table,
I must bend
and stretch,
touching all my corners.
Aha!
I see the tiger
emerging already!

mb43-BookReviews3Bird of the Present Moment

By Pamela Overeynder
Plain View Press, 2005
Soft cover, 79 pages

A sense of belonging, “each thing to every other,” infuses the poems in Bird of the Present Moment with the beauty and truth of nature; grasses “flowing nowhere in great waves,” and oaks that “go gladly with the wind,” and this from “Hillside Theater”: “The sun takes its final bow and melts down into the rock. Then like a child who doesn’t want to sleep, it peeks upward just before the chill.”

There are poems that declare the narrator’s delight in simple things like swimming “comfortable as a fish” and in brushing her teeth “to the rhythmic sound of crickets.” Other poems, like “Bird Island,” state in elegant simplicity what the poet knows from connecting deeply with herself and the present, in this case terrifying, moment:

What slowly seeps into both of us during
this longest night. . .
is the irreducible and indestructible truth
that the present moment
is all the life we have.

mb43-BookReviews4Gateways: Poems of Nature, Meditation and Renewal
A Self-Guided Book of Discovery

By Sylvia Levinson
Caernarvon Press, 2005
35 pages

Each of the 15 poems in Gateways is like a dharma sharing that opens mind and heart. The poems come from stopping, Levinsontells us in the introduction, and attending to life around and within. A withered fern offers a “meditation of resting.” During walking meditation a young monk “places a finger below a single droplet [and] waits for it to fall.” Sitting in the quiet of early morning, a finger traces “a sifting of pollen that has settled like powered sugar on the blue bowl”; ordinary experiences brought to life with attentiveness and shared as poems.

The poet is our guide to what may lie unnoticed, yet is alive within us right now. She does this by introducing each poem with a short prose description of the discovery that inspired the poem. Before “What Feeds My Soul,” she writes, “Things all around us can give moments of pleasure and peace.” Here, a fragment:

Yesterday, it was the little redheaded bird
that lit on my balcony and poked its beak
among the sweet alyssum.

Last month, the bowed head of a classical
guitarist
suspended over his instrument,
waiting as the final note disappeared. . .

After each poem, the author poses questions. For this poem, she asks the reader, “What ‘something’ takes you out of the routine and mundane and feeds your soul?” Opposite each written page is a  lined blank page, space for the reader to try writing poems of her own.

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Heart to Heart

 

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on the Second Mindfulness Training (of the Five). For the Autumn 2007 issue, we invite you to write on the Third; please send your submissions, under 500 words, to editor@mindfulnessbell.org by July 1, 2007.

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The Second Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

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Aware of the realities of today’s global economy, I realize that as a U.S. citizen it is impossible for me to live without stealing from and exploiting someone else somewhere in the world. Though I try to live and consume mindfully, I know that my own lifestyle rests on the exploitation of others. It is, for instance, almost impossible to buy clothes not made in sweatshops, where the workers (mostly young women of color) are treated mercilessly — forced to work twelve-to sixteen-hour days, six to seven days a week; paid a pittance that is sometimes not even enough to live on; sometimes forced to work unpaid overtime; subject to sexual harassment by their bosses; and forbidden to form labor unions that might empower them to work for better conditions. Most likely, the computer on which I write this was also made under such conditions, as were many of the other things I use in my daily life. In order to cultivate mindfulness of these grim realities, when I put on my clothes in the morning, I look at the tags on my clothing to see where they were made. Then I try to visualize the workers, while reciting this gatha: “As I get dressed, I remember with gratitude those who made my clothes, and with compassion, the conditions under which they work.”

I do try to consume mindfully and ethically where I can–buying recycled paper goods, ecologically friendly cleaning products, cage-free eggs, leather-free shoes — but there are limits to what I can do as an individual. Understanding interbeing, I see that many of my choices are conditioned by the larger global society of which we are all a part. I cannot buy products that were not made in sweatshops if they are not available to me when I go shopping — unavailable, because our economy is built on the principle of maximizing profits ahead of human and ecological needs. It is a race to the bottom, where corporations compete with each other, scouring the world for ever cheaper labor, and thirdworld governments compete with each other to attract business by providing this ever cheaper labor. Even my ability to buy those ethically sound products that I can rests on my own economic privilege, the fact that I can afford to spend a little extra money and such economic privilege inevitably rests on a system where others lack such privilege, living lives of poverty and exploitation. Understanding interbeing, I see that however mindful my actions, I still participate in a society based on theft and exploitation.

Understanding interbeing, I see that if I wish to live a life where I and others do not steal from and exploit others, it is not enough to look at my own individual choices when I go shopping. We must work together, collectively, to change the shape of our global society — to create an economy where, at the very least, everyone has a job where they are paid a living wage, treated with dignity, and allowed to form unions that can give collective voice to their concerns. The public good must be given greater priority than private profit. Only then will we all be able to live in a way that we do not have to steal from and exploit others.

Matthew S. Williams
Reverent Joy of the Heart
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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Thay often says that if you have never gone hungry, you won’t appreciate the value of food. You take your safety, your freedom to move around, for granted. When you live behind locked doors, and don’t feel safe on the streets or walking in the countryside alone, then you know how valuable is the freedom to move around safely. This is not a freedom that we enjoy in our country, South Africa.

I live in a country where it is not safe to leave your doors open. You normally lock your doors when you go out, but we have to keep them locked even when we are at home, because this is the best time for criminals — they don’t have to break and enter –they just enter. This is not a nice way to live — behind bars in a kind of private prison to keep you safe in your own home.

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We have one of the highest crime rates in the world, and much of it is violent crime. The situation in South Africa has come to be because of the past history and collective karma that we have created. Everybody knows the story of Apartheid. The past is past, but it is still with us in the present moment. We have to work very hard to change it and to create a better future. We have undergone major transformation in our country under the bodhisattva Nelson Mandela, but social change takes much longer than political change.

We live in a hard country, and it can make you a hard person, or it can soften you and make you more compassionate. I used to be hard and uncaring before I encountered the Dharma. Since then I am constantly trying to increase my compassion, open my heart wider, and become a bodhisattva. I think of the bodhisattvas who go to the darkest places in order to help, and sometimes it feels like this path was given to me by default. “Darkest Africa” is my home, and many bodhisattvas are needed on this continent, which is plagued by tribal wars, famine, AIDS, poverty, and crime.

As aspiring bodhisattvas, there are many teachings to help us cultivate our capacity to love:

  • The teaching on Buddha nature: All beings are the same, we all have the same potential, we all want happiness and don’t want suffering.
  • The teaching on cause and effect: We take responsibility for what we are experiencing without blaming others. It is our own karma; we are reaping what we sowed. Even if we personally did nothing in this particular lifetime, we may have contributed through our non-action, our apathy.
  • The teaching on dependent origination: Everything depends on causes and conditions. Nobody is inherently “bad” — people act in certain ways because of causes and conditions that are often beyond their control. This understanding helps us to cultivate compassion, to open the door of our heart so that we can love instead of hate. Thay’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names” about the sea pirate, helped me a lot. Here is an excerpt:

I am the 12 year< old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open
the door of compassion.

These wonderful teachings help us to transform our minds, our emotions, our ways of being. We do this for ourselves and for the world, to relieve ourselves of suffering and to create a better world in the future because happiness and suffering are universal. I know that if you suffer, you will make me suffer. We know that if we exploit people or take unfair advantage of them, oppress them, discriminate against them on grounds of race, culture, religion, gender, we are committing a kind of theft — we are stealing their dignity to be who they are. This will make them suffer and it will make us suffer, because one day their suffering will impact on our lives and become our suffering as well.

We are all creators. We are creating all the time. We are responsible for creating the kind of world that we live in, and this is why the Mindfulness Trainings are so important. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can create a better future based on love not fear, on giving not getting, on helping not harming, on supporting not exploiting, on building up not breaking down, on creating the conditions for happiness not suffering. Then we can all live in the Pure Land. The Buddha said:

If you want to know your past lives,
Look into your present condition.
If you want to know your future,
Look into your present actions.

Carol Leela Verity
True Stream of Light
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

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On the Way Home (part 5)

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Life on the Farm in England

I grew up in a part of England near the West Coast that enjoyed the effects of the Gulf Stream. Although temperatures did fall below freezing sometimes and even snow fell, it was not cold like New England is. My mother gave birth to me in a house that had no electricity. The kitchen had a coal stove that mother tried to keep alight twenty-four hours a day. The living room had a log fire that in winter was lit in the late afternoon. No other room had heating, although the kitchen stove provided hot water for all our needs.

Conservation of heat was something we learned from an early age. As soon as outside temperatures began to fall in the late afternoon all doors and windows were closed. As soon as night fell all curtains were closed. Father was strict about this and supervised it. Even now he continues to be responsible for conserving heat in the small house where he lives with my mother. In this way the precious heat of the sunshine that has accumulated within the four walls of the house is not lost.

Our water came from a spring at least half a mile from the house. It was pumped by an engine driven by a windmill. From an early age we learned not to waste water.

My father had a small motorcar but we did not use it so much. Our house was on a hill above the sea. We walked to the village or took the ferry boat across the estuary to the nearest town. We produced very little refuse. There was the compost pile, an occasional bonfire, and for metal that the scrap iron man did not take, there was an old quarry. In all the Plum Village hamlets there is always to be found a brother or sister who gives much thoughtful and caring energy to the work of recycling.

When I was a child recycling was not a concept that occurred to my family because we had so little to throw away. When I lived in India the same was true. If somehow you came across a plastic bag you would use it until it was falling apart. All plastic and metal containers were reused. If you went to the market and the produce you bought had to be wrapped in paper it would be paper that had already been used.

Since I was born not long after the Second World War, my teachers and parents, as well as the parents of my school friends, were very strict about not wasting food. Children were not allowed to serve their own food. The appropriate amount was put on my plate by an adult or a senior school prefect. The more lenient among these elders would ask for my input about the quantity I received.

I could say small if I wanted a small helping. Whether I had had a say in what was on my plate or not, it all had to be eaten and I could not stand up and leave the table until my plate was empty.

Nearly all of what we ate was produced locally: either in our own garden or by local farmers. We had an apple orchard that had been planted by my great-grandfather. It had many rare and wonderful kinds of apples, varieties that it was never possible to buy. Every tree was a different variety. The earliest fruits ripened in July and the latest in October. Preserving summer fruits and vegetables for use in the winter was a common practice. Tangerines were a once-a-year treat at Christmas time.

The longevity and good health of my parents can be largely attributed to this simple way of life that involved spending a significant amount of time outdoors. My father was a farmer; my mother looked after the vegetable garden, the hens, and the orphaned lambs (sheep often die in childbirth), made butter, and worked in the fields at harvest or planting time.

Paper Napkins, Organic Food

When I was a child paper serviettes were a treat for birthday parties; otherwise cloth napkins were always used. When I first came to Plum Village we used paper napkins for tea meditation. In order to save forests we carefully cut each napkin into four parts and each person had a quarter of a napkin. Then we thought that even a quarter of a napkin was an unnecessary waste so we provided each person with a cloth napkin to bring to tea meditation, to launder and use while in Plum Village. Many people lost their napkins or forgot to bring them to the ceremony, so we changed to leaves. Those preparing the tea ceremony collect, wash, and dry the leaves carefully, and then place a biscuit upon each leaf.

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The monastery cellarer does not provide paper napkins for everyone to take at meal times. When we are on tour with Thay, some brothers and sisters will take one paper napkin and divide it in four or use it successively for several days.

Eating organically is something that as a sangha we can do, but if we are to keep within our budget allowance it would mean a significant simplification of our present diet and the ability to eat a more limited variety of foodstuffs. We would need to make our own bread, tofu and soya milk from organic ingredients. It would mean accepting only one protein, one carbohydrate, and whatever other vegetables and fruits might be available at every meal.

My main reason for eating organically is not so much that I do not want to ingest inorganic food, as I want to support farmers who are doing their best to protect the planet. It would mean restricting ourselves in the main to foods that are in season, which is one thing in California, but another thing in New York.

Simple Living

In Plum Village we always dry our clothes on the line outside or in the laundry room inside. When we first came to Vermont we were visited by a delegation of anti-nuclear protesters from Texas. They told us that the nuclear waste from the nuclear-powered electricity stations in Vermont was buried in the Texan desert. They left behind a number of clothes pegs as a reminder to us that we should not use the clothes dryer, the largest consumer of electricity.

Simple living was the first way of life I learned. To me it is very natural. I realize that to many people, especially those who have spent a large part of their lives in the United States, simple living is not so natural. For every household to have electricity and running water seems reasonable for our time. Can we be very sparing in their use in order to reverse the trends that are destroying our environment?

In the Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone, the Buddha asks the monks: “How can we live without being carried away by the present moment?” The reply is deep. We are not carried away in the present moment when we are not caught in the idea that this body and consciousness are mine. We live in ignorance of the fact that we are interconnected with the future generations and with the other species of this planet and so unintentionally we destroy our environment. If we are not mindful when we turn on the light we may turn on a light that does not need to be turned on or fail to turn it off. The same is true of turning on the air-conditioning or the heating.

Once we are aware of the long-term effects of simple actions, such as turning on and off a switch, we are much more careful. Even if we only recite the gatha as we turn on the light it already brings enough awareness into the action to help us remember to turn it off later or just to turn on the number of lights that are needed.

mb46-OnTheWay3Thay’s personal life is an example of simple living. When I used to translate from Thay’s manuscripts, I noticed that Thay wrote in the margins. I learnt to do the same. I keep letters and other sheets of paper that have not been covered in writing for scrap. In the United States the amount of scrap paper I collect is enormous. Finally it takes up too much space and I have to put it into the recycling bin.

I do not regret technological advance when it reduces real suffering, but I regret an unnecessarily wasteful way of life. I ask myself why I cannot live as simply as I did fifty or more years ago, when I was quite happy and comfortable enough.

A Necessity for the Future

The fourfold sangha can help to lead the way in ecological living rather than being pulled along by the collective consciousness. We have the practices of mindful breathing, walking, and the little gathas that help us be aware of our everyday actions. We also have the wonderful teachings of the Vajracchedika Sutra that help us to look deeply into the fact that the human species is not separate from all other species whether we call them animate or inanimate.

Deer Park has a project to introduce solar energy that has begun to be realized. It was suggested by Thay many years ago. Already in Blue Cliff Monastery we have had the offer of an environmental architect to give us his services to make it possible to use alternative energy sources in the future. Brother Patience with great patience every day takes care of the trash that can be recycled. One of the sisters is planning the area for drying clothes.

It is wonderful to know that simple living is not a thing of the past but a necessity for the future. In the past, as now in many parts of the world, we lived simply because the material resources were not available for us to live any differently. Now we have the material resources and it is our conscious choice to use them wisely. We do not have to turn the electricity off one day a week but we can make the conscious choice to do so for the sake of our environment now and for the generations that are to come. From being Homo Sapiens (the clever human) we become Homo Conscius (the aware human).

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is abbess of Blue Cliff Monastery in New York State. Sister Annabel was one of Thay’s first students in the West; the Mindfulness Bell is serializing her story.

Smb46-OnTheWay4uggestions for Ecological Living

  1. Global warming is a fact that makes us feel very sad but we do not fall into despair because we know that there is something we can do as a sangha or an individual to reduce it. Examples include a no-electricity day, a no-car day, and a no-water-from-the-faucet day once a week. When we practice in this way, not only can we reduce global warming, but we also feel closer to those who live in underdeveloped and developing countries. Until I find the skillful means to encourage the sangha to which I belong to live in a more environmentally friendly way, I have to practice a mind of non-blaming, non-condemning, and non-criticizing. I have to be aware of these mental formations as and when they arise and embrace them so that I do not suffer and make others suffer.
  2. It is not safe to protect the material environment without protecting the spiritual environment. Environmentalists are in real danger of falling into this trap.
  3. I can look deeply to see the individual and collective karma that have put me into an environment that is not protecting the planet to the degree that I should wish.
  4. I can be satisfied with being an example of ecological living, using the occasions I can to help others protect the environment more.
  5. I do not allow myself to be a victim. This means I do not passively accept what is happening, saying ‘so much the worse for all of us’ and waiting for someone else to come along and rescue me. Instead I am always ready to contribute my understanding.
  6. Sangha harmony, brotherhood, and sisterhood are essential for the future of our planet. It is not true that protection of the material environment comes first and brotherhood second. The two should go along together, hand in hand. To halt the environmental destruction we need a collective awareness that is only possible because of brotherhood. I continue to take refuge in the sangha, being an element that can hold the environmental awareness along with others, although it may only be a minority. Once I cease to take refuge in the sangha there is almost nothing I can do to save the environment, be it material or spiritual.
  7. I am aware that there are wasteful ways of living that do not look wasteful on the surface. For example, even though I eat every grain of rice on my plate I eat unmindfully without nourishing the spiritual dimension of my life. In this way I waste the food because it does not contribute anything to my spiritual path. I must always be humble about my own shortcomings.
  8. The practices of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha are essential for diminishing the destruction of the environment. It is only by being aware of my daily actions and habit energies that I can truly protect my environment. Once I go on automatic pilot1 I am a victim of the collective consciousness and its ignorance.—Sister Annabel, True Virtue

1 This word is used by Thay to say that we use the habit energies stored in the store consciousness to perform repetitive daily actions such as driving, brushing our teeth, turning on the tap, walking, etc.; we are not aware with the mind consciousness of what we are doing.

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Letter from Thich Nhat Hanh

Before the retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in October, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) wrote a letter to the sangha. He describes an interview with a reporter from Time Magazine, in which he talked about the situation in Burma, the Iraq war, and the environment. Here is an excerpt about global warming. For the full letter, go to www.orderofinterbeing.org/docs/TNH_Letter_October_2007.pdf or the Plum Village website.

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About global warming, Thay recounted to Time Magazine the story about the couple who ate their son’s flesh — the story told by the Buddha in the Son’s Flesh Sutra. This couple, with their little child, on their way seeking asylum had to cross the desert. Due to a lack of geographical knowledge, they ran out of food when they were only half-way through the desert. They realized that all three of them would die in the desert, and they had no hope to get to the country on the other end of the desert to seek asylum. Finally, they made the decision to kill their little son. Each day they ate a small morsel of his flesh, in order to have enough energy to move on, and they carried the rest of their son’s flesh on their shoulders, so that it could continue to dry in the sun. Each time when they finished eating a morsel of their son’s flesh, the couple looked at each other and asked: “Where is our beloved child now?”

Having told this tragic story, the Buddha looked at the monks and asked: “Do you think that this couple was happy to eat their son’s flesh?” “No, World Honored One. The couple suffered when they had to eat their son’s flesh,” the monks answered. The Buddha taught: “Dear friends, we have to practice eating in such a way that we can retain compassion in our hearts. We have to eat in mindfulness. If not, we may be eating the flesh of our own children.”

UNESCO reports that each day approximately 40,000 children die because of hunger or lack of nutrition. Meanwhile, corn and wheat are largely grown to feed livestock (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) or to produce alcohol. Over 80 percent of corn and over 95 percent of oats produced in the United States are for feeding livestock. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on earth.

Eating meat and drinking alcohol with mindfulness, we will realize that we are eating the flesh of our own children.

Report from the United Nations

In 2005, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began an in-depth assessment of the various significant impacts of the world’s livestock sector on the environment. Its report, titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, was released on November 29, 2006. In the executive summary, Henning Steinfeld, chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch, asserts that: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.”

Land Degradation

Presently, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet. Forests are cleared to create new pastures, and it is a major driver of deforestation. For example, in Latin America some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. From these figures, we can see that the livestock business has destroyed hundreds of millions of acres of forest all over the world to grow crops and to create pasture land for farm animals. Moreover, when the forests are destroyed, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide stored in trees are released into the atmosphere.

Climate Change

The livestock sector has major impacts on the atmosphere and climate. It is responsible for “18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, which is a higher share than transport.” This means that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. The livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. It also emits 37 percent of anthropogenic methane, most of that from enteric fermentation by ruminants. This is an enormous amount, because every pound of methane is twenty-three times as effective as carbon dioxide is at trapping heat in our atmosphere. The meat, egg, and dairy industries are also responsible for the emission of 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, most of that from manure. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide (296 times the GWP of carbon dioxide). It is also responsible for about two-thirds (64 percent) of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute largely to acid rain and acidification of the ecosystem.

Water Scarcity and Water Pollution

More than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food. It requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. Meanwhile, it takes only 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of grain. Livestock in the United States produce an enormous amount of animal excrement, 130 times more than human excrement; each second the animals release 97,000 pounds of feces. “Most of the water used for livestock drinking and servicing returns to the environment in the form of manure and wastewater. Livestock excreta contain a considerable amount of nutrients [nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium], drug residues, heavy metals and pathogens.” These waste products enter streams and rivers, polluting water sources and causing disease outbreaks that affect all species.

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The Solution Is Simple

Just as the Buddha cautioned us, we are eating the flesh of our children and grandchildren. We are eating the flesh of our mothers and our fathers. We are eating our own planet earth. The Son’s Flesh Sutra needs to be available for the whole human race to learn and practice. The U.N.’s recommendation is clear: “The environment impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level.” We need to reduce at least 50 percent of the meat industry products, and to do that we must consume 50 percent less meat. The U.N. also reports that even if cattle-rearing is reduced by 50 percent, we still need to use new technology to help the rest of cattle-rearing create less pollution, such as choosing animal diets that can reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, etc. Urgent action must be taken at the individual and collective levels. As a spiritual family and a human family, we can all help avert global warming with the practice of mindful eating.

Going vegetarian may be the most effective way to fight global warming.

With love and trust,
Thay

Sources
Steinfeld, et al., “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” (available at www.fao.org/docrep/010/ a0701e/a0701e00.htm)

“Rearing Cattle Produces More Greenhouse Gases than Driving Cars, UN Report Warns,” UN News Centre, 29 Nov. 2006.

“Fight Global Warming by Going Vegetarian,” article from www.goveg.com.

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Poem: Midwinter 2006

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Though the seasons have gone awry
And we are out of sync with nature

Though glaciers and ice fields melt
And drought cuts swaths across Africa
Though waters rise in Bangla Desh

And obliterate Pacific islands
We lucky ones can still live on our sweet earth
And celebrate midwinter

Though we should buy less
And we are buying more

Though we should drive less
And the roads grow ever longer
We have begun to realize

The limits of our planet home
We have begun the huge turning

Back to a sustainable life

We have begun to find pleasure
Back in the simple things

The rosiness of dawn
The preciousness of bird song
The need for fertile soil

And seas teeming with diversity
The need to touch earth

And be around growing things

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And so this winter
As humanity hovers at decision point As we, ourselves,
Pause between the old year and the new
We can make it a turning point
To commit to our sweet Mother Earth
Our time, energy and love

In actions that will give us
and our children’s children
a future.

—Kate Evans

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Another Crazy Cyclist for Clean Air

By Gary Richardson

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Looking inward, I see that my grasping for speed and convenience fuels a part of the oil industry, which does its best to meet my needs as efficiently — and profitably — as possible. I try to control my appetite for convenient transport. For a dozen years I rode my bicycle in town and did not own a car. I would borrow my wife’s car for heavy hauling and occasionally rent a car for long trips. Yet I still buy food that travels thousands of miles to my table, and fly or drive to retreats and vacations.

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Recently I succumbed to an atavistic urge and bought an ‘87 Vanagon — mainly for overnight trips away from home, for instance, to Deer Park in September. I still ride my bike in town but notice that with the van sitting there — insured, fueled, maintained — it’s much easier when the air is bad or the weather cold and wet to take the van and leave the bike.

Targeting oil companies is rather like going after Peruvian or Afghan farmers and their cartels to interdict the cocaine or heroin trade. It is users who drive both the petroleum and drug markets. Of course, it would be political suicide for our government to be too open with voters about the dire straits we have entered. Indications are that worldwide oil production peaked sometime in the past two years. Far too little attention has been placed on the tremendous change that this portends. There may not be enough fossil energy and time left to fuel the awesome technological and social transformations required to sustain current levels of convenience.

For instance, the liquid petroleum-based fuels consumed in the U.S. for transportation make up a bit more than a third of our consumption. To replace this with electrical or hydrogen-fueled power would require production of a new, one-gigawatt nuclear plant every month –or if you prefer, 105 one-megawatt wind turbines every day — for the rest of the century, beginning now. We do not even have a national notion about what direction to pursue.

Our appetite for fossil energy is partly responsible for the global climate changes we are beginning to see. At the same time, we are becoming aware that the supply of oil is running down. The concluding paragraphs in Thay’s October 12 encyclical [see page 13 for another excerpt] are a sobering call for reflection on all of this:

mb47-Another3The Buddha taught that all phenomena are impermanent; there is birth, then there is death. Our civilization is also like that. In the history of the earth, many civilizations have ended. If our modern civilization is destroyed, it also follows the law of impermanence. If our human race continues to live in ignorance and in the bottomless pit of greed as at present, then the destruction of this civilization is not very far away. We have to accept this truth, just like we accept our own death. Once we can accept it, we will not react with anger, denial, and despair anymore. We will have peace. Once we have peace, we will know how to live so that the earth has a future; so that we can come together in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood and apply the modern technology available to us, in order to save our beloved green planet. If not, we will die from mental anguish, before our civilization actually terminates.

Our mother, the Earth, the green planet has suffered from her children’s violent and ignorant ways of consuming. We have destroyed our Mother Earth like a type of bacterium or virus destroying the human body, because Mother Earth is also a body. Of course, there are bacteria that are beneficial to the human body. Trillions of these bacteria are present in us, especially in our digestive systems (known as intestinal normal flora). They protect the body and help generate enzymes necessary to us.

Similarly, the human species can also be a living organism that has the capacity to protect the body of Mother Earth, if the human species wakes up and knows how to live with responsibility, compassion and loving kindness. Buddhism came to life so that we can learn to live with responsibility and compassion and loving-kindness. We have to see that we inter-are with our Mother Earth, that we live with her and die with her.

Mother Earth has gone through re-birth many times. After the great flood caused by global warming takes place, perhaps only a very small portion of the human race will survive. The earth will need over a million years to recuperate and put on a whole new, beautiful green coat, and another human civilization will begin. That civilization will be the continuation of our civilization. To the human species, one million years is a very long time, but to the earth and in geological time, one million years is nothing at all; it is only a short period of time. Ultimately, all birth and death are only superficial phenomena. No-birth and no-death are the true nature of all things. This is the teaching of the Middle Way in Buddhism.

Commitment in Action

Last night, I faced the energy challenge again. The Boise City Council was holding an air quality summit at City Hall, a couple of miles from my home. The weather was cold and messy, but I could not in good conscience drive my van to a meeting on air quality.

As I hopped on my bike and rode down the drive, I noticed a few snowflakes in the air. As I cautiously descended the hill about a half-mile to the valley floor, the flakes got bigger and wetter. I arrived snow-covered and sopping wet at City Hall at the same time as a TV news crew. Astounded that someone would ride a bike to a meeting in such weather, and always eager for a strange visual photo opportunity, they interviewed me as I locked up my bike — another crazy cyclist for clean air!

Gary Richardson, True Wonderful Action, practices with Beginner’s Mind Sangha in Boise, Idaho.

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Musings on the Retreat at Deer Park From a Complete Novice

By Jim Dudley

I have been a Police Officer for over twenty-seven years with the San Francisco Police Department. It is a fulfilling, challenging, rewarding, but sometimes difficult job. I have seen more than my share of violence and human tragedies. I worked two decades of patrol work with time spent in investigations and at our special operations division. I enjoy my off-duty time by playing softball and golf, kayaking, and cycling. I work hard when I am at work, but I take time to enjoy my time off. Sometimes my neck or shoulder would ache, maybe from tension, perhaps just from old age. Sometimes work would pile up faster than I could get to it. Maybe, I thought, my off time was not as relaxing as it should have been.

When my partner, Susan, suggested that I accompany her to the Awakening Together to Restore our Future retreat in September, I readily agreed. Susan is a physician in San Francisco, with a lifestyle similar to mine — work is important, valuable and rewarding but also very stressful. She has been a follower of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and owns and reads several of his books.

We made our way through registration, set up our tent, and took a walk on the grounds. Initially I was a bit apprehensive about the coming days, but I loosened up as we strolled up the mountain and looked out onto the canyon below. The view is calming. Over the next four days, we ended up hiking around the canyon during the day and once in the evening. We climbed to the deck that overlooks the canyon and just above to the pagoda. The trees circle the complex like silent sentries. The smell of the pepper trees is still with me. The sweet smell of the tree leaves belies the aroma you get when you rub the dry peppercorns between your palms.

Susan and I are both about a chicken wing away from being vegetarians already, so the change in diet was not difficult for either of us. The meals were great and it was obvious that a lot of care and thought went into each meal that was prepared for us. Our Dharma discussion group, “True Names,” had clean-up duty, making the pots and pans clean again. It was good, clean, mindful work that we enjoyed as a team.

When the Dharma group first convened, on our second day, my first impressions got the best of me. I was too quick to judge people, annoyed when some asked to move the group from one location to another or when some of them spoke much more often than the others. We did introductions around our circle but that was all too brief. It was apparent that we were all from the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay Area. We discussed Thay’s Dharma talk, and what it meant to us. At least, some of us spoke. It seemed to me that those already in their own sanghas back home had the most to say. I was not sure of the protocol and kept quiet, choosing to listen and learn instead. I left the group feeling a little frustrated, thinking I may be in for a long week of experiencing the retreat as an outsider. I felt like I was sitting in a club meeting that I was not a member of.

It didn’t help that at dinner and afterwards we maintained our silence. I couldn’t express some of my frustration and ignorance to Susan until after lunch the next day. Of course, that next afternoon, Susan disarmed me with her usual, calming reason. Her soothing voice was a warm welcome after the unfamiliar extended silence. She encouraged me to remain an open book, to experience the teachings and to listen and learn from our Dharma Sister and others in the group. I followed her advice with renewed determination. I was mindful of my breathing. I slowed my pace during walking meditation. I felt my usually tight neck begin to loosen a little.

I was skeptical at fi regarding the Dharma talks. That changed as I listened to Thay’s teachings and realized that it was not rhetoric, but reason. He spoke of sharing and sacrifice, of hope and inspiration. When he answered questions from both children and adults, he spoke in easily understandable terms. There was no ambiguity. He responded to the questions directly. He did not say what people wanted to hear. Sometimes he asked the questioner to look within. Best of all, he did not judge others.

At omb47-Musings1ne point Thay seemed to be speaking to me when he spoke of how important law enforcement officers are in our community and how he has held retreats just for them. At times I have been torn, attempting to reconcile being mindful in a job that requires us to be vigilant, assessing others and reacting quickly with instinct in some situations. Sometimes my job requires us to use force, sometimes deadly force. He mentioned his book, Keeping the Peace: Mindfulness and Public Service [Parallax Press]. I thought it would be good to read about how to be more mindful in my profession.

When I read the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I wondered if I could abide by them. Susan had already indicated that she would take the vow on our last day of the retreat. I truly struggled with the thought. I could have easily said that I would try, that as some had said in our Dharma group, they were really “only guidelines.” Some of the others in our True Names group struggled with the thought, as I had. Some spoke of taking the Trainings and strictly abiding, while others gave their versions of true commitment, with some failure mixed in.

As we talked, the group transformed before my eyes. Individuals who had previously annoyed me and that I saw as caricatures, spoke with compassion and insight. One couple spoke of personal tragedies that drove them to a deeper commitment to the Trainings. Others spoke of their past religious upbringing and the conflict that it caused within them. Still others spoke of moral and ethical conflicts with what they had previously known. It occurred to me that the choice is indeed a personal commitment that one can only make for oneself. In the end, I found new respect for everyone in my group and wished that we had had this talk earlier in the week. I wanted to get to know them better and to tell more about myself.

That next morning, I sat and watched as Susan and several others in our Dharma group committed to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The Meditation Hall was brimming full of people despite the early hour. I listened to the descriptions of each of the Five Trainings and the responses from the men, women, and children who participated. A part of me wanted to be there as well. At the conclusion of the ceremony, I witnessed just how much it meant to Susan, as she hugged her friends and openly wept. Tears of joy flowed freely in the hall, including some from my Dharma discussion group who held reservations about taking the Trainings the night before. I was glad that we talked about meeting together again, back in the Bay Area.

Susan and I gathered our things and packed up for the return trip home. We enjoyed our last lunch with some of our friends and said our good-byes. What had seemed like potentially too long a stay when we arrived, changed to too brief a visit as we prepared to leave. Since coming home, I still try to live in the present, to chew slowly and enjoy my food, to be mindful of things I do. I know that I physically feel better and much more relaxed. I have taken a few meditation walks and always enjoy restful meditation, my favorite kind. I stop when I hear a bell and remember to breathe. I try to be mindful of others and not too quick to judge. I am beginning to understand the philosophy of community and support and I will try to teach it and practice it with others.

This retreat will not be my last.

Jim Dudley lives in San Francisco and is a Captain with the San Francisco Police Department.

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Book Reivews

mb47-BookReviews1Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go
Waking Up to Who You Are

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2007
Softcover, 204 Pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

In this book we receive two gifts tied up in one package: twenty-three teachings of Master Linji and twenty-three commentaries on those teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh, with a bonus of five practices offered by Thich Nhat Hanh based on Linji’s teachings.

In Teaching 14, Master Linji outlines for us the Holy Grail of mindfulness practice — the promise that we can indeed realize our clear original nature. That each of us can roam freely through the world and reach all the Dharma realms. That if we meet the Buddha, we can speak to the Buddha; if we meet a hungry ghost, we speak to the hungry ghost. Wherever we go, we are at home. “Everywhere is pure, the light of clarity illumines the ten directions, and you see the oneness of all that is.”

Master Linji is famous for saying that when we meet the ghost Buddha, we should cut off his head. Thay always tells us, whether we’re looking inside or outside ourselves, we need to cut off the head of our views and ideas, including our notions of Buddhist teachings.

This book finds me at a time in my life when I am physically exhausted because of all my Dharma activity and my involvement in our sangha. How ironic — and, gulp — unskillful for a teacher of mindfulness! Perhaps I need to cut off the head of the notion that I must launch and do so many worthy projects.

Master Linji might well have hit me with his stick! That was the effect of reading this book. I am stunned into noticing the present moment. I am stunned into realizing that I am so busy teaching others to stop that I do not stop myself! In a recent article by the president of Shakyadita, the International Buddhist Women’s Association, Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo warns of this paradox in monastic life as well as lay life: “[We]… cannot become genuine models of simplicity and contentment unless we live simple and contented lives.” St. Francis of Assisi said, “Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”

What does this mean to one who is worn out from over-activity? Again and again, Master Linji, as well as Thay, warns us about the “busy” trap, suggesting we should become “busynessless”— a term coined by Linji. So we can conclude that even in the ninth century during the Tang Dynasty, in Jiangxi province, just south of the Yangzi River, folks were caught in too much to do! In 2000, when I visited Plum Village, then too, I felt struck by the stick when Thay said to several hundred people, “You do not have to be the director of anything.” I felt as if he were speaking directly to me.

After mastering the teachings, our ancestor Linji threw away his books to live the Dharma! In his commentary on Linji’s Teaching 14, Thay tells us, “A sutra is only a supporting condition to manifest our own wisdom.” The same could be said of the Buddha and the Sangha.

Linji states very clearly that learning a sutra or even practicing seated meditation in a spirit of attachment only creates more karma. What indeed, keeps us busy if not ego and attachment? What an inner revolution! The spirit of Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go can free us from samsara, the vicious cycle of birth and death and suffering, and lead us to the Pure Land, which is none other than right here, right now.

mb47-BookReviews2The Buddha’s Diamonds

By Carolyn Marsden and Thay Phap Niem
Candlewick Press, 2008
Softcover

Reviewed by David Flint

As The Buddha’s Diamonds begins, ten-year-old Tinh sits in the village temple and “sighs, the knots inside him relaxing” as the monks and nuns begin to chant. The Abbot offers a teaching about how “The Buddha’s Diamonds” — the sunshine, the ocean, our loved ones — are always available to us, even in a poor fishing village. And yet a few minutes later Tinh encounters his first remote-controlled toy car —sent to his cousin by a rich uncle in America:

“Tinh reached for the remote control…. He tapped the button on the left and the car drove toward a palm tree. He maneuvered the car around the base of a tree…. He loved the feeling of power in his hands…. This car was a diamond the monk didn’t know about.” Tinh spends much of his time daydreaming about having a life-sized car like this.

And so it goes in this lovely and evocative children’s book, set in a Vietnamese fishing village not long after the war has ended. Through Tinh’s eyes we experience the effect of consumer goods and consumerism on one fishing village. We see the subtle and unspoken shifts in the relationship of a father and son, in the warmth of a child’s life lived within an extended family. This story takes us into a huge, exciting, frightening and dangerous ocean storm. And it shows us the possibility of dwelling in happiness in the present moment.

We see Tinh learning lessons in wise attention as he accompanies his fisherman father: “You’re daydreaming again, Ba said. When the boat is moving, pay attention.”

Later, after the storm has damaged many homes and boats, including his own, Tinh sees the statue of the Buddha. “He even felt the beginnings of a glow around his own heart.” And then Tinh “refused  to look at the Buddha’s face. He turned away from happiness and started home,” feeling it is wrong to be happy at such a time.

This is not a book of good advice all dressed up as a children’s story. Life itself teaches Tinh about wise attention and how the mind can be happy in difficult situations. One eleven-year-old said of The Buddha’s Diamonds: “I liked it. It has lots of descriptive words so you can really get into it.”

This book can be enjoyed by children and adults, and is good for reading out loud. It can also be used as the basis for discussion in a children’s group in a Sangha.

mb47-BookReviews3The Dragon Prince
Stories and Legends from Vietnam

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2007

Reviewed by Emily Whittle

“Long ago, when earth and sky were still covered in darkness, a great bird with wings like curtains of night….”

Before the end of the first sentence in The Dragon Prince, the wide-eyed child in me is awakened and I am hanging on every word, enchanted by a rich story that unfolds like a compelling dream.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking these stories are mainly for children. These are stories that resonate on deep levels, weaving myth, legend, and Vietnamese history into an intricate tapestry to delight and inform all ages. Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple, straightforward prose refreshes my literary palate like a piece of fresh fruit after a meal.

In keeping with the author’s lifelong dedication to mindfulness, these stories emphasize interconnection, cooperation, and the resolution of conflict through understanding. Without being saccharine or scolding, they water good seeds in us. At the same time, we are educated about Vietnamese culture, with details such as the origin of traditional earth and sky cakes and the practice of chewing betel nuts.

The third story begins, “It had not rained in over six months.” Again, I am hooked. It has not rained in my town in North Carolina in five months. Maybe this story will give me a clue to the meaning of this terrible drought that signals the growing imbalances of nature.

Perhaps we need to dive down into the store consciousness to awaken the Dragon Emperor that resides in us all. He’s been napping, waiting for us to make the inner journey. We only need to ask his help to slay the monsters of greed, jealousy, discrimination, and hate. It will take courage, cooperation, and concentration but we can do it. Then the rains can come and the parched fields will turn green again.

Maybe this is not the meaning intended by Thich Nhat Hanh, but that’s the power of myth and legend. Although Vietnamese, these stories are timeless and placeless. They rise up from the collective unconscious like deeply rooted trees. I read them hungrily. They feel like good medicine.

The last story, “A Bouquet of Flowers,” goes right to the heart of my own suffering and the suffering of my friends. A dying father leaves his son and daughter a poem from the ancestors that will help them find a buried treasure. On his deathbed he instructs them, “…Don’t be as busy as I have been. Work just enough to live, and take the time to find the deep meaning of the poem and uncover the treasure.”

The son, who ponders the poem in a literal way, fails to understand, despite three years of contemplation in a monastery. It is the daughter who penetrates the meaning of the poem, simply by tending the rice fields with concentrated mindfulness. Without looking for the treasure, she finds it in the details of her daily life.

There is treasure embedded in the stories in The Dragon Prince. Read them and it can be yours!

Books of Note

Compiled by Judith Toy

New Edition of World As Lover World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, by Joanna Macy, Parallax Press, 2007, 206 pages, paper. A visionary ahead of her time, in this modern classic the author sounds a call for us to wake up to a deeper relationship with the Earth or risk its destruction. Includes spiritual practices for activists.

First Snow, by Helen Coutant, with pictures by Vo-Dinh, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1974. A picture book for children age five to nine. A charming story about a little girl whose grandmother is dying, a story that grew out of the shared belief of Coutant and her husband, Vo-Dinh, that many of the ancient ideas and traditions of Buddhism can have meaning for all people. Available through out-of-print book searches online.

Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam, edited by Philip Taylor, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2007, 491 pages. Part of the publisher’s Vietnam Update Series of annual conferences that focus on recent economic, political, and social conditions in Vietnam. An academic textbook, with a fortytwo-page chapter by sangha member John Chapman on Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam in 2005, as well as some details of Thay’s early life.

Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others, by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, Las Olas Press, 2007, 263 pages. Helps us recognize how we interact with others’ suffering, pain, crisis, and trauma, and the effects of trauma exposure everywhere: in ourselves, our organizations, and our society. “Reading this book is like looking into a mirror,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in his endorsement. “We will see ourselves much moreclearly, will understand ourselves much better…” For information go to www.traumastewardship.com.

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Heart to Heart

In each issue of the Mindfulness Bell readers take on a different topic, writing in short essays about their personal experience and their practice.

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We have covered the Five Mindfulness Trainings; now we ask for your thoughts on the role that art plays in your practice and your life. Keep it concrete, personal, and short — under 500 words. Send your submission to editor@mindfulnessbell.org by July 15, 2008 (or so). The next topic, due October 15, 2008, will be the role of music in your practice and your life.

The Fifth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

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Two years after I discovered Thay and his teachings, I decided to stop drinking alcohol. There were many reasons. I had just spent six months in India without drinking any alcohol and I was inspired to continue this practice. I had also witnessed the terrible effects of alcohol addiction on someone very dear to me. And I was deeply inspired by Thay’s teaching — it is better to be mindful of what is going on inside of ourselves rather than losing ourselves in a glass of wine.

At first, when socializing with friends, I had a lot of explaining to do. Apparently, not drinking is more unusual than being a vegetarian. The most difficult part was, by far, how to explain my decision to my friends without making them feel that I was, in some way, judging them. After they recognized my preferences, even if they didn’t completely understand, many of them made a special effort to serve lovely soft drinks or juices, instead of a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, alcohol completely faded away from my system and my thoughts. I bypassed the alcoholic beverages in the supermarket and enjoyed a variety of soft drinks. I never really drank much, but by quitting completely I became more aware of how I had used alcohol; it was the way that I coped with stress in my life. After work, just one glass of wine would induce a warm, relaxed feeling that allowed me to let go of everything. “So, what’s wrong with that?” I used to say to myself, especially if one glass of wine would do the trick. However, the wine smoothly masked a problem without contributing anything to a solution. Why did I let myself get so stressed out by things that were happening at work?

Going completely “tee-total” also helped me recognize the role that alcohol is playing in our society. I discovered how socially unacceptable it is to not drink. There is a stigma attached to it and an assumption made that the only people who completely quit drinking alcoholic beverages are alcoholics!

After six years of not drinking alcohol, I gradually became less strict with my practice. On occasion, when I socialized with friends or colleagues, I would have a glass of wine or beer. I enjoyed the taste and the sense of gezelligheid (cozy togetherness), something that is very important to us in The Netherlands. But this also meant that alcohol started creeping back into my life. In the supermarket, I began once again to look at the wine. Or when cycling home from work, I felt a craving for a glass of instant relaxation. I resisted but realized that for many years there had been nothing for me to resist — because when I was not drinking alcohol the cravings were gone. I guess that is one of the considerable benefits of quitting completely — you just don’t have to think about it. Ever!

So, I have chosen to quit again, but this time with a deeper understanding of the reasons why. Reasons that will give me the confidence to believe that I will avoid the fate of the famous smoker who said “giving up is easy, I’ve done it lots of times.”

Evelyn van de Veen
Shining Strength of the Heart
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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I have suffered a lot from what I have ingested in the past. Growing up, my family was very unhappy, and we weren’t able to be close and supportive. As a result, all of us developed addictions to eating and TV, among other unhealthy habits. Joining the sangha and hearing this training, I knew I had to change the fundamental way I was relating to myself. I no longer wanted to neglect my body and be terrorized by my disturbing thoughts and feelings. I had taken refuge in eating, intellectual snobbery, unwholesome creative expression and a judgmental attitude; now I wanted to let go of these. But how could I make such a massive change?

This training brings me in touch with the many elements I am made of. Cultivating awareness, I can choose what elements to allow in me to become the future me. I accept that I am vulnerable, affected by everything in my environment, and also that I am powerful, able to direct my future by knowing what environments will allow me to grow healthy and which not. When I identify suffering, I can examine what I have been consuming — eating, paying attention to, thinking about, saying, or participating in. By doing this I have the confidence that I have taken a good step toward well-being.

Now when I eat, I think, do I want to eat this food because my body wants the nourishment, or because I feel agitated and want to ignore the agitation? If it is that my body wants to be nourished by the food, I am being compassionate and loving to myself by eating it. If it is that I feel agitated, I need to give myself compassion, to take care of myself by returning to my breath and calming my agitation.

When I buy things, bringing awareness I can ask, do these bring the joy I’m after? I invite my motivations to reveal themselves, and also my needs. And then I ask, what does bring me joy and peace? This way I can know my real self, and pay attention to all the wonderful things around me that do bring me joy, solidity, clarity. I need to be compassionate and use these opportunities to nourish myself now so I will be strong in the future.

This training leads me to the refuge of the sangha, to the wholesome environment that it provides. In the sangha I consume stability, sanity, love. I participate joyfully in the stream of life horizontally in my peers by allowing my heart to open. Being present I nourish them and am nourished by them, and my life has meaning. From this training I recognize that my practice is food for myself and everyone I meet. I practice this training for my family in order to love them better, for my ancestors whose environments filled them with disparagement and craving, and so lost them the opportunity to develop the capacity to love and be loved.

Scott Morris
Realizing Vision of the Heart
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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In my studies I learned that insight was one of the doors to liberation and that non-self, impermanence, and non-suffering were the keys to insight. These were interesting ideas, but I couldn’t really find out how to practice them. It turned out that my practice with alcohol gave me my first glimpse into non-self.

When I first practiced the Fifth Mindfulness Training, it was often a forced affair, almost a physical effort to refrain from drinking. Sometimes this technique didn’t work and I ended up drinking anyway. In these cases I often tried to bring mindfulness to my drinking, taking notice of how it made me feel. I brought awareness to the reasons I wanted to drink and I discovered the desire to connect more deeply with others, to escape from negative emotions, and to feel more confident. Sometimes taking notice of these desires caused my beer to remain unfinished.

Over time, I saw how my life was improving due to reduced alcohol consumption. Still I occasionally felt like I was missing out on the fun. Other times it was the opposite, a feeling of guilt for drinking and going against my vow. And other times I got on my high horse and told my friends how bad they were for drinking.

Mindfulness made it easier and easier not to drink. I started to feel more free. Then something changed — I noticed how my drinking would encourage my friends to drink. It’s easier to drink when others are doing it. I saw that by buying a beer, I was paying for alcohol advertisements. I was partly responsible for the alcohol problem we have in our society. My point of view had shifted — it wasn’t just about me anymore. When I saw this for the first time, and understood it in my heart, then in that moment all desire to drink was removed. There was no guilty feeling, no sense of missing out, no wanting to escape. Replacing the desire was a feeling of love and care for my friends. I realized I could connect with them in a way that was true without needing alcohol. I could be with them without judging them for their drinking. I felt so free. I felt that for the first time in my life, my intentions were finally in line with my aspirations.

The insight of non-self and the mind of love are there with their clear voice: it’s not just about me.

Paul Baranowski
Solid Awakening of the Heart
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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The Helping Hand

By Brother Phap Dung

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Brother Phap Dung (pronounced FAP YUNG) gave the children’s Dharma talk before Sister Annabel spoke during the Colorado retreat, 24 August 2007.

I enjoy my life very much as a monk. I live with my brothers and sisters at Deer Park Monastery in California. We live together as a family. The nuns live in a place called Clarity Hamlet, in the oak grove, and the monks live in a place called Solidity Hamlet. It’s all rocky up there, and the sisters live by the stream where the oak trees are. We come together each day to do sitting meditation in the big meditation hall, and we watch the sun come up.

Have you ever seen the light change in the morning? It’s very beautiful. This is what we experience every morning. Because when we come out of our room going to the meditation hall, there are stars. We sit in there and we watch. We wake up with the sun. Afterwards we come out and do exercises while we watch the sun. It’s very nourishing to wake up like that, very quiet. I get to sit with all my brothers and sisters and it’s very nourishing.

Every year we have retreats like in Plum Village where families come with their kids, many little ones like you, and sometimes I take care of them. We also have a teen retreat just for teenagers. At the beginning when we first had the teen camp the parents said they would go somewhere else, stay away from the program, but they would find a way to sneak in. So the teens wrote us a letter and said please don’t allow any parents, any adults, they keep coming and trying to tell us what to do [laughs]. So we wrote them back and said, okay, we respect you. This year we had a hundred teens and we practiced yoga in the morning before sitting; the teens love yoga! Some of them are new to it so they do these moves and they fall — it’s a lot of fun. That’s how we start the day.

It’s wonderful to see so many young people learn to practice to sit still, to be okay not to run around and play computer all day. There we don’t have any computers and television for them, and some of them, like the new kids that come, they’re very afraid that they will not survive five days without television!

This last retreat we had with the teenagers, guess what we took away from them? We took their cell phones, can you believe that? We took their iPods, all their gadgets and video games. I remember the first meeting we had. They were like, “No, you can’t do this! No, but I need them! I need to talk to my mom.” You could see they were really afraid to be away from their cell phones. “But my friends! I have to check my messages!” You could see in their bodies, when they’re sitting around in the dining hall talking to us, they have physical reactions as if they’re addicted. So we thought that was quite interesting. [laughter from audience]

But after maybe three days, they made new friends and they were able to not even think about their cell phones and things. You’re very lucky right now — you don’t have cell phones, right? Once you get cell phones, you spend most of your time doing that, and you’re not really in front of your friends. The teens found out they’re in front of their friends and they play with sticks, with pine cones and stuff, and they really enjoy it.

And they go hiking. We take them hiking deep into the mountain where the coyotes live. Ohh! [laughter] And we go low and look in the bushes and we try to find the tracks of the coyotes, — you never see the coyotes — they disappear because they have these secret passages under the bush. So we take the children up the mountain, we go look for these paths.

Sometimes in the family retreat, we take the children all the way up into the mountain with their families, and we have sitting meditation up there. Then we enjoy breakfast or dinner. We watch the sun rise up in the mountain or the sun set out over the ocean. It’s an area where there are a lot of flat rocks. There are no railings re, so the monks and nuns, before we have the family retreat, do a little prayer,: “Please land ancestors, help us to — ,” cause you can imagine a hundred children going up there, and rocks are like cliffs, but there are no railings. But the children ays enjoy sitting and eating in silence up in the mountain. It’s y wonderful. They don’t need television, video games, and text messaging with their friends. They enjoy nature with us.

A Family of Fingers

I want to share with you today about our hands. I remember I was growing up, my mom taught me that a family, it’s like our hands [holds hand up and wiggles fingers]. Can you imagine u have five fingers and you always ignore this finger, and you everything with these fingers? [holds one finger down and ves the other four]

There’s a saying in Vietnamese, but I don’t really know it ughs] because I wasn’t really good with Vietnamese when I was owing up. I grew up in America. Anyways, I remember my mom ays reminding me that a family’s like a hand, and you always knowledge each other and see each other in the family. It could your father, your mother, your brother, your sister — you always things together, and you help each other, right? Your family is like the fingers on your hand, so if you have brothers and sisters, you help each other out.

Once in a while, this finger will be not so happy with this finger, right? Does that ever happen to you in your family? Sometimes it’s like this. You’re too close to each other, it’s like, “Get away from me! Get away from me!” [laughter] “I want to go in the closet! Mom!” Right? But look — how far can you go? [he wiggles his fingers; laughter] You still have to be in the family, right? So, remember that. Okay?

Once in a while we need space, and that’s very important. You kinda get very mad at your brother or sister, right? When I was young and I got mad at my mom or at my dad, I used to run in the closet. I’d go, rrrh! and I tried to pretend to my parents that I ran away. [laughter] You know, I’d run in the closet and I’d sneak in there and put all the blankets on, and I tried to stay there a long time, so that they’d think I ran away. And nobody looks for me! [laughs] So I stay there for a long time, and I come out, and nobody thinks I ran away!

So you cannot really run away far, because your mother and your father, sometimes they get angry at you, but they always love you, because you’re still part of one hand, you’re still part of the family.

But once in a while, we need space, and that’s okay. So we ask you to go home with your mom and dad, and tell them that we need a place for us to go when we feel angry, when we feel sad. “You know, Mom, Dad? I think we need a space. Our teacher called it the breathing space, a breathing room, or we can call it a flower room.” Go home and ask your mom and dad to set up a space in our home. It could be a corner or even a little area of the house where you have a cushion, a little flower, and if you feel angry, you go there. If you feel sad, you go there.

You see this finger here? When it feels a little sad or needing some space, you go to mommy and daddy, or you go to your brother, “I am going to the flower room.” Okay? “Please, everyone, you know, I need time to breathe.” So we go in there and we can sit on the cushion. Everyone try it, okay? Everyone sit in that space. Sit beautifully. No one can bother you in that space. Everyone in the family has to agree to that, even the young ones. The parents, you have to respect the young ones. So you sit there and you follow your breath. Everyone try it.

Pretend we’re sitting in that room. Sit beautifully. We can use our hands to help us. You put your left hand on your belly, and then you put your right hand on the belly on top of your other hand. We close our eyes. And we breathe in. Right now, I’m taking care of myself. I need space, I need to be still. So we sit there, and we close our eyes for a few minutes like that. And we become more calm.

Can everyone remember that? When I was young, your age, I didn’t have anybody to teach me that. All I knew was how to run into the closet and hide under the blanket. But now, you have a way, you don’t need to run. You can be with your feelings. So next time when your brother and sister, you rub against each other too much and you need some break time, instead of going to tell your mom, “Yah!” and yell, you go to that space. And you take care of yourself.

And now, please, for all the mommies and daddies, if you can help establish a space where our children can find some place for them to practice. We hear many stories from families that the kids remind their parents to breathe. Your mom, sometimes, and your dad, they take care of you and they get tired. You ever see your mom get tired? Because she gives everything to you. Yeah, she gets grumpy. Your mom is like a flower, like this [points to flower] and you need to take care of her. And your dad, too, you know. Because sometimes they take care of you too much and they get tired.

So I’m going to teach you with the hands again, with both of your hands. You go like this, it’s like a budding flower [holds hands together in lotus bud, then opens palms with wrists together, creating a blooming flower]. “Mom, here’s a flower for you.” You don’t have to go to the store to buy a flower. When you see your mom or your dad feeling grumpy — it’s not nice to feel grumpy, but you have to help your mom, because she takes care of you the whole day and sometimes at night, too — she’s like a flower and you have to take care of her. “Hi, Mommy, here’s a flower for you.” She’ll know that you’re there for her and then I think she will freshen up. Sometimes when she is grumpy, please try to help her — staying out of the way, giving her space, just like you when you need space.

So remember the hand — family [holds hand up]. You can’t run away from your family. Once in a while you rub against them, but you go to the space, breathing, and remember to give space to your mom and dad. Remember your hands can help you.

Brother Phap Dung is abbot of Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

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The Question of Overpopulation

By Brother Phap Lai

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Question to PV Listening Website — 15 December 2007

Teacher, One of the five precepts asks us not to kill. I am concerned about the effects of overpopulation and historical outcomes such as war. Global warming proponents indicate that the human population is to blame. Some suggest that to achieve a sustainable earth our population must be reduced by as much as four-fifths. The entire earth may be in the balance. If the scientific evidence is accurate what guidance can you give us in avoiding the unthinkable? — Steve

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Dear Steve,

Thank you for your stimulating question and for having the courage to ask it. Many of us keep “unthinkable” thoughts hidden away, or we immediately believe in them without questioning their validity. History provides evidence that these thoughts — whether kept in a vault of shame or expressed philosophically to others — will one day be acted out at the collective level.

Overpopulation is indeed one factor that can build pressure for this to happen. The genocide in Rwanda was fueled by tensions that had built up due to pressure on common land and water resources caused by a combination of increasing population and environmental effects of global warming. The situation in Darfur is similar. Sadly there are people willing to exploit tensions to create division, hatred and fear in the desire for personal power and wealth or to impose an ideology. What can be done?

The environmental pressures our planet faces, of which overpopulation is an integral part, are tearing at the very fabric of the complex and diverse life that makes our experience so rich and beautiful today. Life on Earth is in trouble not in the future but now. It seems we are setting up conditions for a sixth mass extinction event on this planet. In Heat by environmentalist George Monbiot we read that foreseeable rises in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are comparable with those that helped trigger the biggest-ever extinction event, at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago — a period as ecologically diverse as today’s. Computer modeling tells us that with a ninety percent reduction of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2030 we have a two-out-of-three chance to prevent runaway global warming and avert this destiny.

Monbiot then sets about demonstrating, by picking on some key areas such as transportation, household energy use, electricity supply, and some example industries that these cuts could realistically be made while maintaining a good standard of living. Of course the affluent minority would have to change their ways. For example we would need to severely restrain our long distance travel habits but this is surely more palatable than an eighty percent reduction in population. Are we willing to change?

Call for a Collective Awakening

Like you I am deeply concerned about the tendency of humankind to resort to war as a solution to our problems. War is the deepest expression of human suffering and represents a failure to face our difficulties and seek healing in us and between us. What is needed is compassion and brotherhood — a “war-like” effort in which we pull together as one people. Al Gore recently said what is most crucial is a change in the collective consciousness to see the interdependence of all things. Similarly Thay says: “We need a collective awakening; enlightenment can no longer be considered an individual matter.”

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It seems clear that we are already suffering the unstoppable consequences of global warming and many of us will perish. Remaining in denial is not an option. Thay encourages us to accept our situation in such a way that we make peace with it in our hearts. Action taken from this place of peace will then be effective — right action — and is our best hope. But in taking on board the reality of what is happening we need to be careful. There is a tendency to fall into despair and become paralyzed. Unable to hold the situation mentally we try to forget what we know and take refuge in our own busy lives again. Once again we simply hand over responsibility to politicians and experts. However, without an informed and active public, politicians of selfish interest will take advantage. Eventually they will force upon us desperate schemes (backed up by “experts”) that will have more to do with seizing power and will undoubtedly make the situation far worse.

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Dying a Spiritual Death

In your question you refer to a perceived need among some experts to reduce the world’s population by four-fifths in order for humanity to have a chance to survive. Your reference to the “unthinkable” suggests that war and genocide may actually form part of the solution. This thought if not unthinkable should be unconscionable.

At the intellectual level we can get lost in a maze of complex moral questions and believe we have to do the unthinkable for the greater good. More frequently I hear people, sometimes timidly, sometimes boldly, voice opinions that wars and pandemics such as HIV and TB are necessary because we need to reduce the population of people. If we are to think like this then we must be prepared to die and see our children die in the same manner. We all are brothers and sisters sharing this planet. Perhaps we see disease as mother Earth’s mechanism to balance things. It is true, we cannot predict or necessarily control the course of nature but how sad if we think letting or making it all happen over there will help our plight. Disease, famine, and war cause misery and chaos and that will affect us all. Their stability and happiness is our stability and happiness. We inter-are. As soon as there is an “us and them,” an “over there,” in our minds we have lost touch with this truth — the truth of interbeing.

No one would deny that overpopulation is a major issue we face as a global community. However, the idea that reducing the population by four-fifths will necessarily solve anything needs to be examined.

Suppose that we achieved that goal, either by actively killing people or passively turning a blind eye to genocides, the ravages of civil wars, or disease and famine in other countries. Thinking that this would favor the physical survival of the remaining one-fifth is to forget something of fundamental importance — namely that in the process we will all have died spiritually. In Buddhism it is clear that the means cannot be separated from the ends. The so-called ends are defined by the means. Thay makes this clear when he says, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

Staying Connected

The First Mindfulness Training, as well as asking us not to kill, also asks us to “cultivate compassion.” Compassion here is not simply an emotion but is rooted in the Sanskrit word karuna. Thay teaches us that karuna, to be translated properly, needs to convey the meaning of “the capacity to relieve suffering.” Compassion in this sense implies an understanding of the situation, knowing what to do and what not to do to help, along with the willingness and ability to act. Understanding is more than intellectual or practical knowledge.

Ravi Ravindra, Prof. Emeritus of Canada’s Dalhousie University warns us on this point:

The search for truth — when it becomes more and more mental and divorced from deeper and higher feelings such as compassion, a sense of the oneness and the like — leads to feelings of isolation and accompanying anxiety … Then one wants to control others and conquer nature. Much of our predicament arises from this very dedication to truth in an exclusively mental manner.

True insight is always in line with compassion and the truth of the interdependence of all things. This perspective can only be found when one is stable, peaceful, and connected with the heart.

When ideas to control population come up that at first seem abhorrent I suggest taking a long walk and sitting in nature. After calming the mind and enjoying the connection to life, then we are qualified to look into the situation. First we can see the real consequences of our idea if put into action. And in time insight into the situation will allow solutions not seen before to arise. There are always more creative less violent ways of helping.

Collapse of the American Dream

Looking more closely into the problem of overpopulation we might start by reminding ourselves that the U.S.A. population, although only four percent of the world’s, consumes twenty-five percent of the world’s oil supply. Its per-capita consumption of the rest of the Earth’s material resources similarly outstrips that of other countries. It is clear from this fact alone that how we consume is just as important as how many people there are. China’s and India’s consumption is growing fast, a growth that will soon require more than one planet Earth to sustain us. And yet in the vast majority of countries people are poor and not responsible for these phenomena. Ironically when we think of overpopulation we think of the poor in the so-called third world and yet these people’s ecological footprint is virtually zero. If one’s goal is to create a sustainable planet, then one must address consumption as well as population  stabilization.

As a global society we need to turn in a different direction. We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community — sharing resources as opposed to the individual suburban utopia. In our small monastic community in New York, for instance, the cost of food per person is $2 a day. We eat vegan and try to eat local produce. Trips out to shop are also reduced because of communal living.

Collective awakening can gain momentum only with individual actions. To this end, Thay, in his public talks, often takes time to encourage us to reduce our consumption of meat. Thay quotes figures that point out the environmental cost of meat consumption. (See Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindfulness in the Marketplace, page 72, and the Mindfulness Bell, WInter/Spring 2008). ) If everyone in the U.S. were to reduce their meat consumption by half that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than if everyone were to drive hybrid cars. Seeing vegetarianism as a way out is not new. Albert Einstein said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

Collectively of course we can do a lot more — for instance,

By morally supporting, inspiring and educating each other; making collective commitments (see the environmental initiative sign-up sheet on the Deer Park website), pooling ideas and resources; and speaking as one voice to industry, the media, and politicians. Ultimately we need the political will to implement national and international legislation that will meaningfully reduce our impact and move us into sustainable living. This requires the people’s deep understanding of the situation; politicians of integrity must have a support base.

Sustainable Compassion

Stabilizing human population is one aspect, albeit an important aspect, of the challenge to restore our ecosystem’s stability. In his book Plan B 2.0, Lester Brown presents a comprehensive and budgeted plan to literally “rescue the planet” under five main categories: (1) eradicating poverty and stabilizing population, (2) restoring the Earth, (3) feeding seven billion people well, (4) stabilizing climate, and (5) designing sustainable cities. He argues that to achieve a stabilized population of a well-fed seven billion is possible; his overall budget for 0lan ” implementation is $161 billion. Compare this to the money spent on the Iraq war, estimated to surpass $2 trillion (Harvard Magazine).

Linking the stabilization of population to the eradication of poverty as Lester Brown does is important. Adequate nutrition, good health care, and parental support especially for women, access to family planning services, readily available contraception along with education, these are all affordable and essential to creating the necessary conditions to empower people to make choices about the size of their family. Interestingly much research (e.g., UNICEF) shows that the most effective way to reduce the number of children born is to educate girls and keep them in school. This is a goal we can all help to achieve.

Draconian methods may achieve short-term results but also have unforeseen adverse consequences. For instance, I do not advocate enforcing fertility control measures as in China. It has caused a huge suffering which will be passed on for generations and has arguably not achieved a reduced impact on the Earth (see Collapse by Jared Diamond).

Lasting solutions respond compassionately to the real needs of the people. They come from those who are involved in the actual situation and grounded in love, which cannot be said of either Communist party policy implemented by a police state or IMF capitalist ideology enforced by economic leverage. Lasting solutions usually come from grassroots organizations — from the people themselves. They often require modest funding and only need to be supported by understanding authorities and not be obstructed by them.

Offering Our Gifts

Getting involved in our local community is therefore key. In this way we do not fall once again into forgetfulness or despair but can help inspire hope, especially in the younger generation who inherit our legacy. Finding and building a community of likeminded individuals to work towards this can alleviate our feelings of isolation and fear. In community we find a way to contribute our own special gifts to this cause.

Some reading is helpful. I can recommend the work of environmentalists and social activists Lester Brown, George Monbiot, and Jared Diamond (books cited above), Joanna Macy (World as Lover, World as Self), John Seed, and Paul Hawkens (Blessed Unrest). They help us understand the situation in all its complexity and offer us practical and humane ways to respond to the crisis. Thich Nhat Hanh himself has a wonderful new book on the subject, The World We Have.

Ultimately, the crisis we face is a spiritual one. Developing our own practice of meditation and mindfulness, finding and building Sangha — a community practicing the path of understanding and love. These are the important things to do. Personal practice gives us an inner refuge, a place of stability to go back to. The Sangha becomes a boat on which we can navigate the storm together. Practicing together we cultivate the much-needed insight, inner strength, and spirit of non-fear that we need to respond compassionately to our situation.

Thank you again for bringing up this topic for all of us to reflect on and please know that your practice and deepening insight is important to us all.

Brother Phap Lai currently resides in Blue Cliff Monastery, New York.

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Loving Our Planet

Spirituality and Global Warming

By Brother True Dharma Sound, Phap Thanh

A Reflection and a Mindfulness Training: “Aware of our responsibility and love for ourselves and for our environment, we want to practice living in harmony with humans, animals, plants, and minerals. Aware of our interrelatedness with all beings, we know that harming others is harming ourselves.”

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Our planet is under stress and our civilization is in trouble, according to L. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and a highly honored scientist. The majority of scientists agrees that our planetary climate is heating up and that there is an urgency to prevent further damage. Increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, expanding deserts, shrinking forests, disappearing plants and animals, eroding soils, and falling water tables are just a few signs. These imbalances have the potential to lead to an immense amount of suffering through droughts, drinking water shortages, famines, increased occurrences of storms, floods and other climate-related disasters.

Our environmental support system is rapidly changing and it seems that our civilization is moving toward self-destruction. We seem to be confronted with the challenge of accepting the death of our civilization. This includes accepting our own death. On the spiritual level, we are challenged to practice with confronting our death, to arrive at a point of “no death, no fear.”

Global warming is not only a biological crisis; it is also an emotional crisis, a psychological crisis, and a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of me as a person, of us as a society, of us as the human species, of all beings inhabiting planet Earth (including humans, animals, plants, minerals). But this crisis is an opportunity for fundamental changes in our own lives, in our situation as humans, and in the way we relate to the planet. It is an opportunity to practice interbeing.

As spiritual practitioners we can practice awareness of the rising and falling of all civilizations and acceptance of the coming death of our civilization. We can practice with non-fear when facing global warming. Looking at the scientific proof of the need for urgent action, we can practice non-despair to keep our freshness for the needed action. It is time to face and digest what is going on around us and act accordingly.

What We Eat

I would like to take a closer look at the topic of eating a vegetarian diet and the impact on our environment and global warming. Consuming less meat and dairy is an action many people all over the globe can commit to, without having to invest large amounts of money, and it has a relatively significant impact on global warming. Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation.(1) “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems,” senior U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official Henning Steinfeld says. “Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.” (1)

The methods of raising animals for food are especially alarming in the USA. But according to a recent UN report, it is the case worldwide that with increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tons. (2) So the current situation in the USA will be mirrored in a growing number of countries.

An estimated 40,000 children die each day—fourteen million or so a year—from diseases such as measles and diarrhea that are commonly associated with poverty, overcrowding, and malnutrition. About sixty percent of deaths in children under the age of five in developing countries are thought to be related to malnutrition. Millions more children survive on the edge of starvation. (3)

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Meanwhile, corn and wheat are largely grown to feed livestock (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) or to produce alcohol. Over 95 percent of oats, 90 percent of the soy crop, 80 percent of corn and 70 percent of all grains produced in the United States are for feeding livestock. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on Earth. Eating meat and drinking alcohol with mindfulness, we will realize that we are eating the flesh of our own children. (5,6)

U.N. Recommendation

The U.N. recommendation is clear: “The environment impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level”.1 We need to reduce at least 50 percent of meat industry products, and we must consume 50 percent less meat. The U.N. also reports that even if cattle-rearing is reduced by 50 percent, we still need to use new technology to help the cattle-rearing industry create less pollution, such as choosing animal diets that can reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions. Urgent action must be taken at the individual and collective levels. As a spiritual family and a human family, we can all help avert global warming with the practice of mindful eating. Going vegetarian may be the most effective way to fight global warming.

From Vegetarian to Vegan

Over the last two thousand years, many Buddhist practitioners have practiced vegetarianism. The community at Deer Park Monastery is vegetarian with the intention to nourish our compassion towards the animals. We also eat vegetarian in order to protect the earth, preventing the greenhouse effect from causing irreversible damage. (5)

According to researchers at the University of Chicago, being a vegan is more effective in the fight against global warming than buying an eco-friendly car. The typical U.S. diet, about 28 percent of which comes from animal sources, generates the equivalent of nearly 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan diet with the same number of calories. By comparison, the difference in annual emissions between driving a typical car and a hybrid car, which runs off a rechargeable battery and gasoline, is just over one ton. If you don’t want to go vegan, choosing less-processed animal products and poultry instead of red meat can help reduce the greenhouse load. (4)

Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is possible for most people on our planet. We simply need to pay attention to creating a balanced diet, perhaps supplementing certain nutrients like vitamin B12. A completely vegan diet might not be possible for everyone, but reducing our consumption of meat is possible. This will reduce greenhouse gases and help to create less suffering for all beings on our planet.

Brother True Dharma Sound, Thich Chan Phap Thanh, was formerly known as Bernd Ziegler. He resides at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

Sources

1     H. Steinfeld, P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales, and C. de Haan, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options,” Livestock, Environment and Development (2006).

2     “Rearing Cattle Produces More Greenhouse Gases than Driving Cars, U.N. Report Warns,” U.N. News Center, 29 Nov. 2006.

3     Read, C., “Behind the Face of Malnutrition: What Causes Malnutrition?”, New Scientist magazine, Issue 1704, 17 Feb. 1990.

4     G. Eshel and P. Martin, “It’s Better to Green Your Diet Than Your Car,” New Scientist magazine, Issue 2530, 17 Dec. 2005.

5     Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness in the Marketplace – Compassionate Responses to Consumerism,” Parallax Press, Berkeley, California (2002).

6     M. Vesterby, K. Krupa. “Major Uses of Land in the United States, 1997,” Statistical Bulletin No. 973. Resource Economics Division, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture (1997).

Vitamin B12 in a Vegan Diet

I feel very happy that, under the guidance of Thay, our Sangha has made a successful transition to a diet free from animal products, in all of the main practice centers and during retreats of mindfulness. Our Sangha is making a significant contribution to reducing the production of greenhouses gases which contribute to global warming, and is setting a powerful example for others in the world to follow. Furthermore, we contribute less to the suffering of animals in the egg and dairy industry that often live in inhumane  conditions.

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While I wholeheartedly support this way of consumption in our community, I hope that the Sangha will consider the nutritional aspects of a diet free from animal products. A well-rounded vegan diet can be very healthy in many respects; however, it lacks

some vitamins and minerals that are essential for our body’s health. A vegan diet completely lacks Vitamin B12, and contains less calcium than a diet with dairy foods. B12 is one of several essential elements needed for the production of hemoglobin, a molecule in red blood cells. One cannot obtain B12 from vegetal sources, only through animal products, nutritional supplements, or select fortified foods. The body can store reserves of B12 from two to four years without needing any new supplies. Once the reserves of B12 begin to run out, and without any new intake, the body begins lacking healthy red blood cells, a condition known as vitamin deficiency anemia.*

Red blood cells carry oxygen and other nutrients throughout the body; the symptoms of anemia range from mild to severe. The most common physical symptoms are pale skin, weakness, fatigue and lack of energy, numbness or poor circulation in extremities, loss of appetite and weight loss. Symptoms can also include cognitive changes such as memory loss or forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating, thinking and planning, general malaise, and depression.

Having suffered from a severe case of anemia after living at Plum Village as a novice monk, I would like to help the community be aware of this important nutritional aspect. In the past couple of years, I have spoken with several people in the Sangha, both lay and monastic, who shared that they had experienced mild cases of anemia, as diagnosed by a medical doctor.

Many people in the Sangha are aware of the need for B12 in a vegan diet, but it may not yet be common knowledge throughout the community. Hopefully we can help everyone to be aware of the nutritional supplements needed in order to prevent individuals from experiencing anemia and its health related consequences. For the vast majority of people, a daily multivitamin with B12, or a B-complex vitamin will do the job.

Taking care of our bodies in this way may help us to cultivate better health, which gives us more energy and stamina for our practice of mindfulness and for serving others.

— David Viafora, Courageous Faith of the Heart

*  Asian and African people produce their own B12; Caucasian intestines no longer produce much it because they have been on a meat and dairy diet for so long. So most Caucasian people on a vegan diet need extra B12. — Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Ending the War with Weight

Mindfully Transforming Body Image

By Peter Kuhn

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One morning, feeling serene and well-grounded after meditating, I took a mindful shower. Awash with gratitude I stepped out with a smile and looked in the mirror. All I saw was my big belly and love handles. Contented joy vaporized into distress. I berated myself, obliterating peace and the morning’s merit. Breathing in, I realized the thoughts and feelings I was consuming were toxic. Breathing out, I released and attended to them. My suffering had something to tell me. How do I cultivate peace and compassion for all sentient beings when I find parts of myself unacceptable?

The body scan from the Satipatthana Sutra* has been a fantastic tool:

“Further, the practitioner meditates on his own body from the soles of his feet upwards and then from the hair on top of his head downwards, a body contained inside the skin and full of all the impurities which belong to the body: Here is the hair on the head, the hair on the body, the nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.”

The mindful penetration of each body part cultivates understanding and gratitude. I appreciate their miraculous design, their unique and interdependent natures. Each part serves and supports all others; each part serving and supporting my life and transformation. In time I penetrated my fat with the same equanimity as my heart or lungs. When judgment and aversion were overcome an old knot was untied.

With right concentration, I see that fat is storing energy for future use and is an evolutionary survival tool. My eye of understanding can now see fat as battery packs instead of a cloak of shame or nemesis. My heart softens and I suddenly appreciate my fat as a precious gift and see that it is here to serve and support me, too. “Oh, my poor misunderstood fat, I am here for you.” I think of loved ones and others who are unable to gain weight due to illness, of the millions who are starving, malnourished, or lacking enough to eat. For the first time, I am able to thank my fat and express real gratitude that it is here for me. I appreciate that it is working well and caring for me by storing energy for future use in times of famine, drought, or hardship. With an open heart, I let my fat know that I’m grateful it’s here for me but I do not need this amount of energy stored presently. With deep sincerity and a smile I let my fat know that I am working for its liberation as well as my own. Looking deeper, I see that liberating stored energy from my body makes it available elsewhere, in another form, where a need may exist. Nothing is wasted in nature.

Energy transforms,
Neither produced nor destroyed.
Weight is not the enemy,
I bow deeply to my fat.

When I embrace my pain, distorted perceptions are revealed. I gain understanding and insight; in this case, a new perspective on the way I view my body and weight. Looking deeply I touch the reality of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. Accepting my fat, new peace and happiness are born.

Mindfulness practice led me to exercise. There were times when I wanted to quit a workout early. I learned to exercise for those who cannot do it themselves instead of just ‘toughing it out’ for myself. I think of my hospice patients at the VA Hospital, the wounded, ill, lame, and incarcerated. I can work for them and my ancestors, for my dead son, David, and the uncountable masses who would give anything for the good health and freedom I enjoy. Interbeing supports and sustains me on all levels.

Thinking of others helps me practice mindful consumption as well. I can transform hunger pangs from a self-centered panic button to a mindfulness bell. My hunger becomes “the hunger,” shared by millions, most of whom lack the choice of when and what to eat. Small self becomes the large self.

I vow to liberate stored energy
To benefit all beings.
Eating mindfully for nutrition,
Transcending indulgence.

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Even as a vegetarian my relationship to food can be unwholesome. I’ve used food as a drug, but thought of it as a comfort as I eat to escape my feelings, fill a void or find pleasure. When I eat sweets I’m compelled to keep eating them. I tell myself, “This is a treat,” and “I deserve this pleasure.” When finished, I’ve consumed thousands of nutritionally void calories without satisfaction. I’ve watered seeds of indulgence and gluttony, not well-being and happiness. If I am mindful of my feelings I know that I am suffering. Buddha taught that there is a cause and end to suffering. My suffering has something very important to tell me. Piercing the cloud of denial and illusion, I see that eating for taste alone is a root cause of my suffering. The end of this suffering is eating for nutrition. I no longer mistake sweets for something wonderful. Not eating sweets is the real treat.

When appetite calls I know I’m alive.
The fire of transformation ignites
A calming smile.
All is well.

I’ve dropped three pants sizes in the last year and am in better shape than I’ve been in a long time. Even so, one look in the mirror at my remaining pot belly and that old tape, “What’s the use?” can pop up, shadowed by doubt and futility. Breathing in, I recognize my old friends. Breathing out, I know these are just thoughts and feelings. Embracing them I smile. Breathing in, I know I want to lose more weight. Breathing out, I know the pounds are dropping. Slow and steady. Breathing in, I know I am doing well. Breathing out, I smile as my practice grows stronger and supports me.

I question my thoughts, feelings and perceptions as they arise. Dining at a friend’s house I was offered homemade chocolate mousse and politely declined, feeling quite good about myself. The hostess had worked hard on her creation and my wife explained, “Pete doesn’t eat sugar any more.” Craving arose immediately. Breathing in, I observed a small voice whispering, “See what you are missing? You can’t have that.” For that instant, mousse seemed like the key to my happiness. Suddenly, eating it seemed a greater act of independent volition than declining. An expression of freedom! Other thoughts started to dog-pile on the first: it would make the hostess very happy if I broke my diet for her creation, I don’t want to hurt her feelings, I adore chocolate, it does look great! Breathing out, I recalled the pain I’ve experienced firsthand from unmindful consumption. I reaffirmed my well-being, knowing I could eat whatever I wanted right here and right now. I was not “missing out,” but gaining solidity in freedom from suffering. I politely explained to them, as well as to myself, that I had not “stopped” eating sugar or dessert, but was choosing not to, just for today.

There is no diet to stick to,
I am not stuck.
There is no renunciation.
I eat for nutrition.

Am I feeding my liberation or my suffering? Thay explains, “True love cannot exist without understanding.” Sometimes, what I perceive as love is a mislabeled distortion, a romantic guise for obsession. I’ve loved food all my life, but the nature of that love was self-centered gratification. As I practice mindful eating and the Five Contemplations, my love of food is no longer based solely on gluttonous self-centeredness.

Hunger pangs ring
A mindfulness bell.
In a moment’s pause I taste the fullness
Of my great essential nature.

As I cultivate true love, it radiates, inside and out. When I’m awake in the present moment and I know what I am eating, in the mundane and greater sense, the nutritional value of my meal increases. I am enriched on all levels and dine on the miraculous, feeding my awakened nature and physical form. Abstaining from meats I’m cognizant of the great harm caused directly and indirectly by the consumption of animals, engaging compassion for all creatures and our mother Earth, and truly generating the “peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness and in the collective consciousness” that the Fifth Mindfulness Training describes. The taste of love is sweeter than chocolate mousse.

My fork rests between bites
Inviting full awareness
Of habit energy and what I chew.

When I focus on weight loss there is no satisfaction. I can’t lose it fast enough and fear gaining it back. I want to lose weight but it isn’t my goal. The practice is my process and the process is my goal. There can be no failure, only an aspiration.

The spoon and I inter-are.
She breathes.
We release between bites.

I am deeply grateful to my teacher, Thay, who helps me turn walls to doors while cultivating true love.

*See Exercise 7 in Healing and Transformation: The Four Establishments of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Peter Kuhn, Deep Transformation of the Heart, lives in San Diego, CA with his wife Jackie. He is a recovering addict, clean and sober 23 years, and practices at the World Beat Center Sangha, the Still Ripening Sangha and Sweetwater Zen Center.

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The Courage to Change Becoming a Conscious Consumer

By Jonathan Borella

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My spirituality has become the main guiding force in my life. It plays a role in almost every decision I make, in my relationships with family and friends, and in my perspective of the world. Indeed, as the days go by, I am noticing my life and my spirituality are becoming one.

My so-called spiritual journey set off when I started becoming aware of the immense suffering in the world. I saw people unable to maintain relationships, destroying their lives with drugs, and pillaging the environment in pursuit of pleasure. So I started to look at myself, and how I interacted with the world. I didn’t like what I saw. I decided to change.

I don’t think I ever decided to become a “spiritual” person but when one dedicates one’s life to a path, it becomes a spirituality. One of the fi ways I saw this manifesting was in my diet. So much of the suffering in the world is caused by how people consume. I decided to become a conscious consumer. I was a self-described barbeque lover until I transitioned to vegetarian and finally vegan. Now, any time I decide what to eat, my spirituality is present. And my conscious consuming didn’t just stop with my diet. From there, I cut animal products out of nearly all my daily necessities. I began driving less and cutting my water consumption in half. This may seem like a drag to some people, but I wouldn’t call it spirituality if I didn’t enjoy it.

I used to be very cynical. I used to think that if other people didn’t care about me, why should I care about other people? But, as I became a more conscious consumer, I realized that all my previous consuming habits were rooted in that selfish attitude. That realization exposed the flaw in my cynical logic and I asked myself the flip side of the same question. “If I don’t care about other people, why should other people care about me?” If no one is caring about anyone else, nothing will change. The question then became: “Do I have the initiative and courage to change myself?” It became clear to me that this would be the ground of my spiritual path and the only way I could effect any real change in the world.

I started to train myself in empathy: seeing myself in the other person and seeing the other person in me. This aspect of my spiritual path has proven to require the most attention. When I see someone making mistakes, or causing harm, it is so easy to fall into judging and condemning. But that attitude has never helped me before. Now when I catch myself in this view, I have to remind myself that I am not seeing things clearly. I am only seeing the tip of the iceberg and there is still so much more to this person I don’t understand. Trying to understand someone means caring about him. Now I try to see her situation in life, her difficulties. Sometimes I may offer advice. Most of the time, though, I know my words are not needed. I used to preach a lot about what people should and shouldn’t do. Now I try to make the way I live my life an example to follow.

My spiritual path began with a sense of compassion, wanting to do something about the suffering in the world. I don’t know what ignited this initial sense of compassion but the more and more I practice, the more I keep coming back to it. Compassion has to be both the means and the end.

Jonathan Borella is a student at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, where he practices with the Cedar Sangha.

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Practicing in Uncertain Times

By Bethany Klug

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Uncertain economic times can bring up difficult emotions and challenge our practice. Mindfulness practice can decrease our stress and help us see opportunities that we might otherwise miss. Here are a few tips to keep our practice on track.

Dwell in the present moment. Certainty is a notion that causes suffering, as all things—even human-made things like companies, stock markets, and jobs—are born, change form, and die. This is impermanence. Dwelling in the present moment increases our awareness of how things change, and lessens our surprise or shock when they do.

Let go of external definitions. We suffer when we define ourselves by our job or possessions. If we lose them, we feel worthless. Identifying with our job or possessions prevents us from being happy and free. Letting go of external definitions of ourselves and enjoying the fullness of the present moment, we can lose our job, possessions, and even everything we cherish, and still be happy and free.

Nourish peace and joy. Often, letting go means confronting difficult feelings and perceptions. We must be sure to nourish our peace and joy to avoid feeling overwhelmed. This could be as simple as appreciating birdsong in the morning or fireflies at night. How is it possible to enjoy anything in difficult times? The Buddha taught that the mind is a field of seeds where wholesome and unwholesome states exist side by side. We make unwholesome seeds stronger by giving them the wrong kind of attention, such as obsessing or worrying over them. Tough emotions invade our consciousness like a pop-up window on a website. By returning our attention to our breath and a more neutral feeling—such as the freshness of the morning—we can close the pop-up window and shift to a more wholesome mind state. Once we feel stronger, we may consciously re-open the pop-up and look more deeply into the feelings that arise from it.

Empower yourself. We may feel powerless amidst the news of plants closing, the Gulf oil spill, and home foreclosures, unless we recognize that the economy is a manifestation of our collective mind. Since our thoughts and actions create our economy, they can change it for the better. This is empowering. Each of us can pick an area of the economy we’d like to improve and change our relationship to it. For instance, I don’t like the impact of industrial agriculture on our health or the planet’s, so I buy my food from local organic farmers and grow a garden. Last year I built a root cellar, stocked it with squash and root vegetables, fermented vegetables, and canned using low temperature methods. I didn’t need to shop for vegetables until March.

Looking deeply into the Fifth Mindfulness Training, mindful consumption, helps us see ways to create a more equitable and sustainable economy. We have the power and the responsibility to change our situation. If we don’t, who will?

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Be sure to practice! When life gets stressful, it’s easy to resonate with that stress and do things that make it worse. Instead of taking a mindful walk after dinner or attending a Sangha gathering, we might watch bad economic news on TV, becoming so consumed in fear and anxiety that we miss that fact that we’ve eaten a bag of chips or cookies—leaving us more depressed and five pounds heavier! With deep intention and awareness we can turn off the TV or other source of bad news, and do what nourishes our happiness, peace, and joy.

Many years ago, my teacher, Brother Chan Huy, suggested the profoundly beneficial practice of reciting the wake-up gatha each morning upon rising and the gatha on impermanence before going to sleep. The wake-up gatha helps us touch joy and affirms our aspiration to live in an awakened way before our feet even touch the ground. The gatha on impermanence reminds us that another day has passed, and encourages us to reflect on our practice “so that life does not drift away without meaning.”

Wake-up Gatha
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

Gatha on Impermanence
The day is now ended.
Our lives are shorter.
Let us look carefully,
What have we done?
Noble Sangha, with all of our heart,
Let us be diligent,
Engaging in the practice.
Let us live deeply,
Free from our afflictions,
Aware of impermanence,
So that life does not drift away without meaning.

mb55-Practicing3Bethany Klug, The Practice of True Emptiness, convenes the Heartland Community of Mindful Living along with her husband David, True Wonderful Lamp (pictured). They reside in Kansas City with their spiritual director, Shanti the Cat.

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For a Happy and Abundant Life

By Charlie Turner

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The evidence from various empirical happiness studies, from psychologists, and from wisdom and religious traditions tells us that consumption beyond a basic level does not lead to much extra happiness. It is not that consumption is bad, but we should not expect much of an impact on our happiness from having more. Yet, most people continue to pursue the acquisition of more money and status.

My book, Mindful Consumption: The Economics of Happiness and Abundance (in manuscript), offers guidelines for a happy and abundant life. A few of the principles are: develop a sense of gratitude and generosity; live simply and in a socially conscious way; and appreciate and nurture your loved ones.

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Develop Generosity

Generosity is a trait that I observed in my Japanese friend, Ikeda-san. He has been very generous to my wife and me when we have been in Japan. He extended his generosity to our family and friends when they visited us there. I also observed his generosity to others, such as foreign students and his own friends and acquaintances. His wife is very gracious, kind, and generous. For a number of years now, my wife, Libby, and I have tried to promote generosity in ourselves in emulation of the Ikeda-sans. We are still nowhere near being as generous as they are, but we have benefited from the attempt.

Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, reported that his students experienced a long-term sense of happiness when they performed good deeds for others. The happiness that comes from helping others and being generous is different from directly acting to benefit yourself. Yet, it ends up being one of the best things you can do for your own happiness. But, as one of my students said, it is important that you actually do it for others and not for the happiness that tends to flow to you from the good deed. The difference is one of intention and focus.

One way to be generous is to perform good deeds that are anonymous. I remember a story about a Zen master who made a practice of cleaning the toilets during the night when others were asleep. One small practice that I have developed is to make adjustments to toilet seats when I notice they are loose. I don’t know how many times I have sat on a public toilet seat and needed to be careful because the seat was loose and tended to slide. I used to moan and feel put upon whenever this happened. Now, I try to find the time to kneel down, reach under the commode, and tighten the seat screws. Sometimes I have to use a quarter to turn the screw; sometimes I can just use my fingers; and sometimes I am unable to make the necessary adjustment. Now, instead of feeling irritated when I find a loose seat, I feel like I have been granted an opportunity to do a small good deed.

Live Simply

Living simply gives you the greatest freedom and sense of abundance. We have probably all seen children over-stimulated at Christmas time as they open package after package. Often the presents that end up being most meaningful to them are the ones that require them to practice and develop their own skills. It is often in the quiet of having time together that the richest parts of our life occur. It is not the fancy house or car that enriches our lives. It is the tapestry of our loving interactions with our fellow human beings, animals, plants, and the natural world that brings the most happiness.

Three of the greatest sources of pleasure in my life have been walks, bike rides, and watching sunsets and moonrises. Admittedly, these have all been enhanced by my location in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area. My wife and I take long walks along the beach during the spring, summer, and fall. Walking along, looking at the seagulls, pelicans, breaking waves, and an occasional dolphin is truly wonderful as well as being excellent exercise. We have seen many marvels of nature in the park including two snakes trying to swallow the same frog (poor frog). We have developed a wonderful tradition of watching the full moon rise over the ocean. For over twenty-two years, we have managed to see almost every full moonrise from the sea when the weather permitted. We have been awed many times by the beauty. It is also amazing to us how often we have seen people eating with their backs to the window, missing out on this fantastic sight.

Nurture Love

It is important to nurture love in your life. Let your nurturing begin with yourself. As Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you don’t love yourself, you will have difficulty loving anyone else. Thich Nhat Hanh’s message, “You are already home,” has helped me a great deal. I strived most of my life to do something really good in order to justify myself. Thay said that I was already acceptable. This has been very comforting to me.

How do we nurture love? We can begin with the intention to be loving to ourselves and others. Then, when we notice that we have acted or spoken in a way that is contrary to the intention of love, we can act to rectify the situation. With awareness, we can eventually come to intercept such action or speech before it occurs. We will not always act in the most judicious way or speak to others or ourselves with kindness. Nevertheless, as we nurture love and consider being loving as one of our most significant goals, we will strengthen our loving nature. To paraphrase Thay, we should plant seeds of love and water them regularly and they will grow into beautiful flowers.

mb55-ForAHappy4Charlie Turner received his PhD in economics from Harvard University in 1981, and has been teaching economics ever since. When he taught The Economics of Happiness, the student response was overwhelmingly favorable. For the last sixteen years, he has been a member of the Mindfulness Community of Hampton Roads, Virginia, led by Allen Sandler.

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A Monk: To Be or Not to Be?

By Brother Phap Kinh (Dharma Meridian) 

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I stepped onto the monastic path relatively late, although the seeds were present at an early age. At age fifteen, a group of friends and I meditated together. When that group disbanded, I continued (for the next thirty-five years) meditating twice daily. At age twenty, in 1978, I studied in Benares Hindu University, Varanasi, India. During my stay, I visited many holy Buddhist sites, though I found mostly ruins. I was looking for my Sangha all along, but I could not define it then.

I discovered mindfulness in 2006 at a psychiatric hospital in Paris where I worked. My introduction was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Total Catastrophe Living, which inspired me to practice some mindfulness techniques. Upon finishing the book, I received an email from a friend in the U.S. informing me that an eighty-yearold Vietnamese monk was coming to Paris to lead a peace walk. I wasn’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s name, but later discovered that Thay had written the preface to Kabat-Zinn’s book!

The Paris peace walk changed my life. As Thay and the Sangha began walking, I knew I had found my teacher and community of practice. I began attending the Paris lay Sangha and, two months later, attended my first weeklong retreat in Plum Village.

No grass grew under my feet. In 2007, I joined the historic tour of Vietnam with Thay. At Bat Nha monastery, I received transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Everything I did with the Sangha seemed inexplicably familiar, and I began to wonder whether monkhood was somehow in my future—but soon found obstacles.

I learned that the maximum age for monastic ordination was twenty at Bat Nha and fifty at Plum Village—and I had just turned fifty. Regretfully, I accepted that I would probably not become a monk in this tradition. I took consolation as an active member of the lay Sangha in France, and clearly saw the applicability of engaged Buddhism in my work at the hospital.

On my way home from Vietnam, I met a venerable Vietnamese monk who asked me why I had come. I told him that I had been traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh. He then predicted I would be wearing brown within two years. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but before I had a chance to inquire, he disappeared. Did he believe that I would become a monk? At Bat Nha Monastery? It all seemed like a dream, and impossible.

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Back in Paris, a group in my Sangha started studying the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I found these precepts extremely inspiring. Half of us in the group decided to become aspirants for the Order of Interbeing (OI). Things were moving quickly, but I felt ready. In 2008, I asked for a sabbatical leave to attend a number of trips and retreats.

It still wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would follow the monastic path. At the Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, India, I heard Thay say, “It is now or never.” His words resonated with me, and I was ordained as an OI member on that trip. I did not necessarily see monastic life as the next logical step. The venerable monk’s prophecy that I would be “wearing brown in two years” was fulfilled with my OI jacket. During the 2008-2009 winter retreat, I often asked myself what more I could do for myself and for the world as a monk. The answer was not clear.

I sat with this question. It was my koan. It wasn’t something I could think my way through. Thinking about it seemed to drive me crazy. It was a matter of the heart. During this period nothing I initiated came about, yet conditions for things that seemed impossible, such as getting so much time off work and getting ordained so soon as a lay OI member, came together. This was a wonderful apprenticeship in non-pursuit and letting go.

The Bodhisattva Path 

Clarity finally came during a retreat in June 2009. I confided in a number of brothers, both monastic and lay, who served as mirrors for me and helped me recognize my fear. I took refuge in the Sangha, and practiced looking deeply and following my heart. By the end, I realized that there was no going back to my old life. I had already moved on, and my past now belonged to a former life. I spoke to a number of monastics about my intention, and found the courage to make the decision that would free me from all worldly obligations.

That decision took tremendous courage. I had never felt so afraid in my life, beyond all reason. But what was I so afraid of? Making a monumental error? Letting go? Inadvertently abandoning my right livelihood and personal bodhisattva path?

Giving up everything even at the great risk of not being accepted into the monastic Sangha? I loved my job, my Sangha, and my life in Paris. I had nothing to run away from, so why would I uproot myself in such a way? Most of the people I knew outside of my Sangha (and even some inside the Sangha) found the idea puzzling, if not mad.

Making the decision was the hard part. Once I did, there was lightness and ease as everything fell into place. Since ordaining, I have never doubted or regretted my decision and do not miss my former life. The great fear vanished. Fear is, after all, only a mental formation. It can be paralyzing, but mental formations that are not fed shrink.

Why did I choose to become a monk? This is my aspiration: I hope and intend to continue on the bodhisattva path of relieving suffering in the world, but I have much to learn in order to go beyond the horizons that I knew before, in my work and in my life. I also have to learn from my own experience of transformation at the base, for myself, my family, and for my ancestors. I have observed that the most credible and inspiring monastics are those who speak from personal experience and live their path. I probably could have studied the Dharma and transformed many of my afflictions as a lay practitioner, but now I am free to dedicate my whole life to it. I am confident that in time, my vocation of relieving suffering will take other forms, and I will be more effective, being solidly grounded both in the Dharma and my personal monastic experience. To my delight, I am feeling younger and younger since ordination, as if the fifteenand twenty-year-olds in me who wanted to embrace the Dharma have finally found what they were looking for, despite all obstacles.

I don’t know where the Dharma will take me and what the Sangha will call me to do. I don’t think much in those terms. I have faith in the Triple Gem, and know that I am on the right path.

Brother Phap Kinh/Dharma Meridian/Christopher currently lives in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village. He is French and American, was born and grew up in Juneau, Alaska, and spent most of his adult life in Paris. He loves hiking, singing, cooking, poetry, and the Dharma.

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Heartsong

By Brother Phap Sieu

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The most common question we are asked as young monastics is, “Why did you become a monk?” I find that I often answer differently. The responses are all true but vary depending on my experiences that day, or who is asking. This process gently reflects that there is no clear stream of events, or even one particular moment, that opens the way to monastic life. The more I recall, the broader my scope of memory becomes. I must conclude that it is a continual process, which may have begun with a mother’s compassion for her son, extending into the present and onwards. However, there are a few particular memories that shine.

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Once during a camping trip organized by the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association, two group leaders got into a very heated argument. Just when it seemed they were about to come to blows, the older one announced, “I’m going to breathe,” and promptly vanished into the trees. At thirteen, I waited as long as I could (about five minutes) and then followed. The smiling man, now sitting calmly under a tree, was unrecognizable as the one who had been yelling just moments before. Later he explained that he had learned how to take care of his anger while living in a monastery in Southern France. But the first time I met the Plum Village monks and nuns was completely against my will.

Miraculous  Brotherhood

There was no way I was going without a fight. A meditation retreat? At the beginning of summer! But kick and scream as I might, it was fruitless. The agreement was made: if my brother and I were to go for just the week, we would get a whole month of summer to ourselves—no extra-curricular activities, no youth camp, no book reports!

The orientation was boring. How could it not be? One thousand people sitting, watching some monk speak in Vietnamese. I understood about one word in twenty and was too cool (or proud, though I never would have admitted it then) to ask for translation. But the chanting was neat. The bell was pretty cool, too. There was something about how an entire room completely stilled—and if you’ve ever been in a room filled with Vietnamese friends, you know what a feat that is.

It was with the slumped shoulders and defiant eyes classic to many teenage boys that I approached the room marked “Teen Program.” Double-checking my bag to see if my CD player and headphones were on hand, I stepped through the door.

A few days later, one would not have recognized the irrepressibly smiling, glowing young man I’d become. The Teen Program was  awesome! Who knew monks and nuns could be so… cool! They even took us to the beach—even rolled up their pants and played in the waves, splashing! But most miraculous was my sense of brotherhood with the other teens. Who could believe that in just five days I could be so open, feel so embraced by these kids whom I’d just met earlier that week? Certainly not me—nor the other teens. It was with continuing wonderment that we shared, laughed, and learned together.

The drive back to San Francisco from San Diego was about eight hours. As we neared our house I woke up briefly. “Mom…I have a question.” She seemed a bit startled; I’d been so quiet most of the trip. “Why did we wait so long before coming to these retreats?”

The Pursuit of Consumption

So tired. That was the thought that followed me to bed every evening, then waited, crouching by the headboard, to greet me every morning. College was everything I had expected it to be, for the first year. That was before having to worry about rent, essays, job applications, clothes, parties, friends, what I would do with the rest of my life. All I wanted was to find a meaningful direction that truly resonated with me. Instead I was taught how to be “successful”: how to make money and keep it. I ignored the happiness of my heart in favor of the calculating logic of my mind. I began to lose touch with the verve of life. Friends began to tell me I seemed down, needed to get out more. Teachers asked about late assignments, and roommates wondered if I wanted to go out Thursday night.

The absence of a spiritual practice and community support was really beginning to show. The Plum Village Retreats seemed ages ago; I was too “cool” now, too mature for singing circles and handholding. There was no way that stuff would work in the real world.

So instead of returning to my body and my breathing, and taking care of my emotions, I partied. At first the partying was filled with real enthusiasm, excitement, and perhaps even happiness. Then the partying became mandatory. Upon meeting friends on campus, instead of “How are you doing?” or “How’s your day?” the common greeting was, “How was your night?” Without enough courage or mindfulness to face the suffering within myself, to stop I was flung headlong into the whirlpool of consumption.

Suddenly I could not wait for the latest movie, book, or CD, could not wait for the next restaurant to open. Life dwindled to nothing but seeking the means to fulfill my need to consume. Later, in my aspiration letter to the monastic community, I likened the pursuit of consumption to a day in an amusement park. Stand in line for roller coaster: three hours; experience twenty-five-second adrenaline rush; get out of roller coaster; get back in line.

Magical Antidote

One day I received a letter in the mail. It was from Mom. Frustrated by my evasiveness on the phone, she finally put everything she felt to paper: all eighteen pages of it. The first three pages expressed concern for my well-being; the following three pages were full of comfort and encouragement. The next six contained detailed charts and graphs depicting just how much my college education cost. The final five revealed a candid account of Mom’s own experience upon first arriving in the U.S.: the humiliating struggle through high school as a complete alien, being responsible for six younger brothers and sisters, acclimating to a completely new continent—all without even the benefit of a common language.

It was a magical antidote for me. Hand-written and drawn, it was a mother’s true love for her child given form. Reading and receiving the contents accomplished what years of consumption, partying, and even counseling tried to hide: I recognized my suffering. I was no longer victim to my own self-pity, helplessness, and apathy. Reading the letter was the beginning of a re-opening of the heart. It also removed any assumptions about the practice being “kiddie stuff.”

Soon afterwards, I found myself driving south to Deer Park Monastery. I continued to visit Deer Park regularly every few months, commuting up and down the California coast, choosing to spend the weekend or spring break there. It was during one of these trips, windows down, speakers blasting the classic Plum Village CD, Rivers, when something clicked. I must have driven up and down the same highway over fifty times at that point, and never had I once recognized the beauty of the setting sun on my left, the soaring mountains on the right. Was there ever anything so beautiful? How could I have driven right by all these years without ever seeing? My heart was filled with a vast and immense joy. In that moment I made an oath to myself to do whatever it took to continue to live fully in the moment, to no longer be blind or deaf to the wonders around me, to life! It was but a small step from there to Plum Village, where the arms of the Sangha enfolded me.

mb60-Heartsong3Phap Sieu (Dharma Transcendence) is an energetic monk who loves sharing the Dharma with young people. He especially enjoys drinking tea and playing with the brothers. He resides in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

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Deep Ecology

The World We Are

By Felipe Viveros, Miranda van Schadewijk, and Bas Bruggeman

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Look at the flower. Could it possibly exist without the rain, the sun, the soil, the gardener, the minerals or even without your consciousness? It could not exist if only one of the above is not there. If one is missing, the whole flower is missing, too.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power

It is a beautiful autumn day in Waldbröl. The tranquility of the German countryside contrasts sharply with the constant speed and movement in our city lives. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB), with its emphasis on promoting social work initiatives, is the perfect setting for the first Deep Ecology and Permaculture retreat in our tradition.

As participants, we’ve come from many different countries, and from as far away as North America. For one week, we’re here to experience the unusual mix of applied Buddhism and ecology in action. Although we’re a group of diverse young people, there’s a shared longing to connect with Mother Earth. Yet we know that we must first connect with ourselves. After all, the world is nothing less than an extension of ourselves: the world we are. Coming together like this is an expression of our deep concern for Mother Earth, and an opportunity to share our deep wish to improve life on spiritual, social, and environmental levels.

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Permaculture: Cultivating External Soil

Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple;
– Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual

We sat in sunlit woods while our wise Native American teacher, Ishi, taught us how every element in nature has a purpose, if not several, for its existence. From the weeds to the insects, from big trees to small bushes—they all exist for a reason. Everybody and everything can contribute in a positive way. This led us away from the discriminative views of traditional agriculture. Ishi transmitted his passion about caring for Mother Earth and understanding her cycles and rhythms. We understood that moving in flow with these rhythms makes things easier, more natural.

Under Ishi’s guidance, we built an herb spiral and arranged the vegetable garden of the EIAB. He made us aware of real possibilities of feeding the whole world, and our role in making this happen: growing our own food, living more simply and consciously, and reducing our impact upon the Earth. For Ishi, mindfulness is a natural part of this process. While gardening, he takes one step at a time and follows the rhythms of nature. Slowly and harmoniously, he transforms compost into roses and bare gardens into diverse and fruitful jungles.

After absorbing Ishi’s teachings and putting our hands and our hearts in direct contact with the soil, we were now prepared for further opening and deep transformation. We had no idea what an intense spiritual and emotional experience we were about to undergo.

Deep Ecology: Cultivating Inner Soil

The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world—we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.
– Joanna Macy, Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings

The time had come to look inside and to study our inner nature. We went indoors, sat in a circle, and listened to the bell. Two special teachers, Claudia and Friedemann, guided us through an intense workshop on Deep Ecology. We were encouraged to connect with our innermost selves and to share our relationship with the Earth and how we felt in that moment. Because this wasn’t something we were used to doing, it was a bit of a struggle. But it was our first glimpse of what Deep Ecology is really about: honoring our feelings.

We discovered how rarely we have the opportunity to share how we feel about our relationship with the Earth. Often we tend to ignore our feelings and just carry on, but sharing helped us understand each other’s pains and struggles. When struck by appalling news of an oil spill or the sight of starving children in Africa, we experience a wave of sadness—we suffer. By acknowledging this reaction, we see that our pain comes from our deep connection to everything else: we inter-are. This genuine care and love for other species and for all of nature is something very instinctual.

We dived into the heart of problems facing our world: the destruction of the Amazon, extinction of species, genetically modified crops, animal exploitation, endless war, extermination of indigenous peoples, famine, erosion, etc. This felt very dark and scary, even overwhelming. We walked very slowly around a small globe representing the planet, realizing how much harm we are doing to our Mother Earth, how much pain and suffering we are inflicting upon other innocent beings, and how we are at the brink of self-destruction.

After a much-needed break, Claudia used a powerful technique to help us express our store consciousness. She assembled a pile of leaves to represent our sorrows, a stone to represent our fear, a wooden stick to represent our anger, an empty glass bowl to represent our uncertainty, and a cloth to represent our neutral feelings. These were the perfect vehicles to release our emotions. As she introduced the leaves, she immediately began to cry as she connected with her sadness: sadness for not being able to change things as much as hoped for, despair from helplessness in the face of big corporate interests and for the world we are leaving to our children.

As she moved to the stone, we realized how fear is connected with pain. She shared how terrifying it is not to know what is going to happen in our future or what kind of world we will leave to our kids, when evil seems to reign and destruction and division increase. We use anger like a stick to protect ourselves, to survive, to fight for the right to live. Our uncertainty and disorientation in the face of corporations and governments was perfectly represented by the emptiness of the glass bowl. Funnily enough, the cloth representing neutral feelings was hardly used!

We touched the objects and shared our feelings, realizing they’d been stored up for a long time. We wailed as we released our feelings of impotence, sadness, and loneliness. After our crying, we felt a huge relief in our hearts from knowing that we were not alone, that there were others who knew how we felt and who shared and honored these feelings.

Reaping the Harvest

The “council of all beings” on the following day was not only beautiful, but it was the perfect medicine following the tears. We walked into the forest at our own pace and chose a sunny spot. We’d each come to find a spirit, to hear the beings living there, the birds, the wind. A drum called us back to the circle, where we made masks of the entities that we found—or that found us—in the forest.

The week had been very full of inspiration, difficulties and solutions, tears, joy, and sunshine. We needed time to digest everything. On the last day, we talked about how to move forward and make a difference. How can we combine our dreams to shape a better future for ourselves and all upcoming generations? How can we honor the earth and ourselves? Many answers were given; many dreams were shared.

To end, there was a tree planting ceremony. We planted two trees to bear fruits for the EIAB community to enjoy. Ishi guided the ceremony by telling the story of a Native American peacemaker who brought peace to warring tribes. As a symbol of that peace, they buried their weapons and planted a tree on top of them. In our ceremony, we buried all of the worries and pains of that week, our compost. We hope the trees will grow strong and happy from all the mud and joy we fed them.

We each take home a bigger heart, grateful for new friends who share a big dream. In the future, we hope to organize more retreats that combine our mindfulness practice with education about growing our own food, learning about natural medicine, and building ecologically. Through our love for nature, we hope to find answers on how we can live in a more ecologically sustainable and self-reliant way. For more information about our efforts and retreats, keep your eye on www.theworldweare.org.

mb60-DeepEcology3Felipe Viveros, True Flowering of the Practice, was born in Chile and lives in the UK. He is an artist and peace activist. He practices with both Touching the Earth Sangha in Glastonbury and Wake Up. He is an Order of Interbeing member.

Miranda van Schadewijk, Inspiring Presence of the Heart, lives in Amsterdam, where she studies cultural anthropology. She helps with Wake Up and has joined tours in the UK and Vietnam. Wake Up has shown her that being in touch with nature is most precious, enriching, and healing in our lives.

Bas Bruggeman made it to a Plum Village youth retreat for the first time in 2008, and has since been enchanted. This immeasurable love has resulted in spending several months in Plum Village and organizing Wake Up retreats. He is working on his Master’s thesis in cultural anthropology on
the Plum Village practice.

Photos courtesy of Filipe Viveros

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The Hands of the Bodhisattvas

By Sister Hy Nghiem 

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Dear Thay, dear Brothers, dear Sisters, and dear Sangha,

Today is February 19, 2012, and we are in our final week of the winter retreat here at Magnolia Grove Monastery. Today we continue our investigation of the Fifth and Sixth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing.

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THE FIFTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING: COMPASSIONATE, HEALTHY LIVING

Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, we are determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying, nor to take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair. We will practice looking deeply into how we nourish our body and mind with edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. We are committed not to gamble or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness, such as certain websites, electronic games, music, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. We will consume in a way that preserves compassion, well-being, and joy in our body and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of our families, our society, and the earth.

This mindfulness training wants us to know that true happiness is not something that we can find outside of us. If we want to have true happiness, then we need to know how to create the conditions for happiness to manifest. The Buddha taught that we must know how to take care of our body and our mind. He showed us how to do that through the practice of mindful breathing.

We depend on our breathing to live. If we breathe in and we cannot breathe out, then our life ends. Sometimes when we are busy in our daily lives, we don’t have the capacity to get in touch with our breathing. That is why in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha taught us a very simple and concrete practice: “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Awareness of breathing helps us to cultivate and establish wisdom, and that wisdom gives us the capacity to recognize what really brings us happiness. Do money, fame, or praise bring us happiness?

Recently, the famous singer Whitney Houston died. She had a special voice and she could sing many styles of music. She was very famous and very wealthy. But let us ask ourselves, did these conditions bring her happiness? Even though she used her money to help organizations that alleviate hunger in Africa, she was not able to find peace and happiness. The loneliness in her was too immense. She used drugs to cover that loneliness and one day she overdosed and died.

We may have looked at her talent, wealth, and fame, and wanted to be like her. But the truth is that all those things didn’t alleviate her loneliness and sadness; they were not able to give her true happiness and peace. If we want true happiness, then we must live with mindfulness. And if we want to be mindful, we must use many methods to help ourselves, to develop peace in our body and in our mind. The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing teaches us to become aware of our in-breath and our out-breath, and in this way, to calm our whole body and mind. Our mind’s tendency is to think about the past and the future instead of staying in the present moment. We only need to be dwelling in the present moment and we find happiness here. We see that happiness is very simple.

Offering Dharma to Ourselves 

In 1999 there was a flood in Vietnam and many people died. When I first entered the monastery I really wanted to do charity work, so I helped with the Love and Understanding program. In this program, we send letters to our friends who have participated in our retreats, inviting them to give us a helping hand to alleviate the suffering in Vietnam. I worked with so much love and inspiration. And in one day I received hundreds of letters from friends. When we receive a donation, we send out a thank you letter. But one day I received so many letters, and I began to feel, “How come no one is helping me?” And suddenly I began to blame others, and sadness and anger arose.

So I lost my peace for a few minutes. Fortunately, I did not let that energy carry me for long. A few minutes were enough to destroy me. I could see that I was making myself suffer because of blaming. As practitioners, we bring our compassion to many places, but if we lose our peace, then the work we do only becomes an outer form. No real helping can happen.

And that is the lesson I learned. From then on, each time I worked I became more aware of bringing my practice into the work that I did. When we want to offer compassion to other people, the first thing we must do is to learn to love ourselves. We come back to our breathing to calm down the negative thoughts, the negative mental formations. That is why the Buddha taught us to use mindful breathing to calm our body.

This precept also says that we do not take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Our practice is to know how to live satisfied with what fulfills simple needs. In the Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, the third realization says that the human mind is always searching outside itself and never feels fulfilled. This searching brings about unwholesome activity. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, know the value of having few desires. They regard the realization of perfect understanding to be their only career. For example, sometimes we need electronic devices to keep in touch with the news, but we should not waste too much time with them. We should not think that in order to have happiness we need them. We should not run after them.

So first we must offer the Dharma to ourselves, transform our suffering, transform our pain, transform what has become stuck in our heart. When we are able to practice like this, then the spirit of this precept will give us happiness in the present moment and we won’t need to seek material goods, wealth, or fame.

THE SIXTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING: TAKING CARE OF ANGER

Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are committed to taking care of the energy of anger when it arises, and to recognizing and transforming the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger manifests, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking to acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We know that the roots of anger are not outside of ourselves but can be found in our wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in ourselves and others. By contemplating impermanence, we will be able to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger, and to recognize the preciousness of our relationships. We will practice Right Diligence in order to nourish our capacity of understanding, love, joy, and inclusive- ness, gradually transforming our anger, violence, and fear, and helping others do the same.
When our anger arises, we must use our eyes of compassion to look at the situation. For example, when a person does or says something that makes us suffer, if we can look with compassion at that situation, then we are able to understand the reasons why this person acted that way. And if we know how to practice, to nourish that peace inside of us, then this becomes a source of energy that can help us to deal with our strong emotions. If we do not practice, then suffering will always be there. The Buddha taught us in the Four Noble Truths that there is suffering, and that we have a path to overcome that suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the path of practice.

There is a story about a couple who didn’t know how to speak lovingly or nourish each other’s happiness, so, day by day a distance grew between them. They lost their ability to communicate, and irritation, loneliness, and fear manifested. The husband began to go out and get drunk, then came home and hit his wife and reprimanded her for being the cause of his misery.

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The wife suffered so much she decided to go to the temple. She told the abbot her family situation. The wise abbot told her, “Let me give you the nectar of compassion and if you use it right you will suffer less. Each time your husband comes home and yells at you, you must drink it but don’t swallow; just let it stay in your mouth. If you swallow it, the sacredness will not be there to protect you.”

When her husband came home, she took a sip of the nectar of compassion and kept it in her mouth. No matter what her husband said, she could not say anything in return. For many days he came home and yelled at her, and when she didn’t respond, he fell asleep. And then one day the husband thought to himself: Why is my wife being so kind? Before, whenever I came home and said something to her, she would say something back. And if I threw a small bowl, then she would throw a pot. He told her, “My darling, recently you seem kinder, you are not angry like before. And thanks to your kindness, today I am able to transform.”

The wife told her husband about the nectar of compassion given to her by the abbot. So the husband went to the temple and told the abbot the nectar of compassion given to his wife was wonderful. The abbot responded, “It is not the nectar of compassion; it’s just water! When you are both angry, you can create a fire that will burn the whole house. But when you hold the water in your mouth, you cannot say anything, and your anger dies.”

This method helped the family to reestablish harmony, but they still didn’t know how to transform their anger. To do this we must know how to look deeply to find the roots of suffering. When we see someone act in anger, we bring our mind of compassion to look deeply into it. Then we do not blame or punish the person, but we want to find the best ways to help them transform their suffering and find happiness. This is the practice called Right View that leads to Right Thinking and Right Speech, through which communication can be established.

Refuge in the Practice

If our anger is triggered, we must take refuge in the practice; we must come back to our breathing so that we can control our body and our mind. Then we can bring the energy of love so that we can understand the situation. To do that we must know how to stop. We stop our bodily movements and our speech, and then we stop what is not so beautiful in our mind. And then we are able to see the roots of the suffering in this person: their family history and the long process that has created this person. And we are able to let go of that anger.

This precept tells us that each time we have anger we should not do or say anything. We take refuge in our breathing; we practice walking meditation. When we are calm, we are able to reconcile what is in ourselves and we learn to look at other people with eyes of compassion.

Once there was a young gentleman who got angry very easily.  And each time he got angry, he would hit things. His mother could not stand it. One day he went into the forest, where he found a cave. Into the cave, he yelled, “I hate you.” The echo from the cave came back to him, saying, “I hate you.” When he heard this, he was so disappointed and so sad. He went back home and asked his mom, “Why does everybody hate me?” When his mother asked what had happened, he told her about the message from the cave, and that it meant that in the whole world, nobody loved him. The mother told him to go back to the cave, and this time to say, “I love you.” When he did this, of course the cave answered back with love. When your mind has love, your eyes shine, and when you shine with love, the world responds with love.

These two precepts show us how to live the simple and healthy life of a practitioner. When we know how to take care of our body and our mind, our understanding and love grow. When we are able to make one step in peace, when we sit with our minds peaceful, the person next to us can feel that energy.  As practitioners we must know how to love ourselves, to establish peace in our body and our mind. Then we have the capacity to share our practice with the world. We can be the hands of the bodhisattvas.

Translated by Sister Boi Nghiem Edited by Barbara Casey

mb61-Hands4Sister Hy Nghiem (Sister True Joy) is from the U.S. and ordained as a nun in 1996. Sister Joy enjoys coming back to herself to be present for her body and mind. Reading sutras from the Buddha is also a source of nourishment for her daily practice.

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Dharma Talk: The Art of Living

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Many years ago, a young man named Jim Forest asked me to teach him about the practice of mindfulness. But when I offered him some tangerines, he continued telling me about the many projects he was involved in — his work for peace, social justice, and so on. He was eating, but, at the same time, he was thinking and talking. I was really there, and that is why I was aware of what was going on. He peeled a tangerine, tossed the sections of it into his mouth, and quickly chewed and swallowed.

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I said, “Jim, stop! Eat your tangerine.” He looked at me and understood. So he stopped talking and began to eat much more slowly and mindfully. He separated each of the remaining sections, smelled their beautiful fragrance, put one section at a time into his mouth, and felt all the juices surrounding his tongue. Tasting and eating his tangerines in this way took a few minutes, but he knew we had the time for that. When he finished, I said, “Good.” I knew that the tangerine had become real, the eater of the tangerines had become real, and life had become real at that moment. What is the purpose of eating a tangerine? It is to eat the tanger­ine. During the time you eat a tangerine, eating that tanger­ine is the most important thing in your life.

The word apranihita means wishlessness, or aimless­ness. We do not put anything ahead of ourselves and run after it. When we practice sitting meditation, we sit just to enjoy the sitting. We do not sit to become enlightened, a buddha, or anything else. Each moment of sitting brings us back to life, and so we sit in a way to enjoy sitting the entire time. Walking meditation is the same. We do not try to arrive anywhere. We take peaceful, happy steps, and we enjoy them. If we think of the future — of what we want to realize — or of the past — our many regrets — we will lose our steps, and that would be a pity.

The next time you have a tangerine, please put it in the palm of your hand and look at it in a way that makes the tangerine real. You do not need a lot of time, just two or three seconds is enough. Looking at it, you will see the beautiful tangerine blossom with sunshine and rain, and the tiny tangerine fruit forming. You can see the baby fruit transform into a fully developed tangerine and watch the color change from green to orange. Looking at a tangerine this way, you see everything in the cosmos in it — sunshine, rain, clouds, trees, leaves, everything. Peeling the tangerine, smelling and tasting it, you can be very happy.

Everything we do can be like this. Whether planting lettuce, washing dishes, writing a poem, or adding columns of numbers, it is not different from eating a tangerine. All of these things are on equal footing. We can enjoy each task in the same way. One American woman told me, “You shouldn’t waste your time growing lettuce. You should write more poems instead. Not many people write poems the way you do, but anyone can grow lettuce.” That is not my way of thinking. I know very well that if I do not grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems. Eating a tangerine, washing dishes, and growing lettuce in mindfulness are essential for writing poetry. The way we wash the dishes reveals the quality of our art.

After a retreat in Los Angeles, a painter asked me, “What is the best way to look at the moon and the flowers in order to use them in my art?” I replied, “If you think that way, you will not be in touch with the flower or the moon. Please give up your notions and just be with the flower with no intention of getting anything from it.” He said, “When I am with a friend, I want to benefit from our friendship. Isn’t it the same with a flower?” Of course, you can benefit from a friend, but a friend is more than a source of profit. Just to be with him or her is enough. We always want to do things in order to get something.

The practice of mindfulness is the opposite. We practice just to be. When we stop, we begin to see, and when we see, we understand. Peace and happiness are the fruit of that. In order to be with a friend or a flower, we need to learn the art of stopping.

How can we bring peace to a society that wants each activity to be a source of profit? How can a smile bring deep joy and not just be a diplomatic maneuver? When you smile to yourself, that smile is entirely different from a diplomatic smile. Smiling to yourself is proof that you are deeply at peace. We need to live in a way that demonstrates this, so that each moment of our life is a work of art, and we are pregnant with peace and joy for ourselves and others.

When we know how to be peace, the way we earn our living can be a wonderful means for us to express our deepest self. Our work will take place one way or another, but the being is essential. We must go back to ourselves and make peace with our anger, fear, jealousy, and mistrust. When we do this, we are able to realize real peace and joy, and the work we do will be of great help to ourselves and the world.

Each endeavor has techniques, but techniques are not enough. A young man in Vietnam wanted to learn how to draw lotus flowers, so he went to a master. The master just took him to a lotus pond and invited him to sit there. The young man watched one flower bloom when the sun was high, and he watched the flower return into a bud when night fell. The next morning, he practiced in the same way. When one flower wilted and its petals fell into the water, he looked at the rest of the flower and then moved on to another lotus.

After doing that for ten days, he went back to the master. The master asked, “Are you ready?” and he answered, “I will try.” Then the master gave him a brush, and the lotus he drew was very beautiful. He had become a lotus, and the painting just came forth. You could see his naivete concern­ing technique, but real beauty was there.

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The way we live our daily lives, whether we are mindful or not, has everything to do with peace. We try our best to have a job that is beneficial to humans, animals, plants, and the Earth, or at least minimally harmful. Jobs are hard to find, but if our work entails harming life, we should try to find another job. Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion or erode them. So many industries are harmful to humans and nature, even food production. The chemical poisons used by most modern farms do a lot of harm to the environment. Practicing right livelihood is difficult for farmers. If they do not use chemical pesticides, it may be difficult for them to compete commercially, so not many farmers practice organic farming. This is just one example.

Right livelihood has ceased to be a purely personal matter. It is our collective karma. Suppose I am a school­teacher and I believe that nurturing love and understanding in children is a beautiful occupation. I would object if someone were to ask me to stop teaching and become, for example, a butcher. But when I meditate on the interrelatedness of all things, I can see that the butcher is not the only person responsible for killing animals. All of us who eat meat are co-responsible for his killing. We may think the butcher’s livelihood is wrong and ours is right, but if we didn’t eat meat, he wouldn’t have to kill, or he would kill less. Right livelihood is a collective matter. The livelihood of each person affects us all, and vice versa. The butcher’s children may benefit from my teaching, while my children, because they eat meat, share some responsibility for the butcher’s livelihood.

Any look at right livelihood entails more than just examining the situation in which we earn our paycheck. Our whole life and our whole society are intimately involved. Everything we do contributes to our effort to practice right livelihood, and we can never succeed one hundred percent. But we can resolve to go in the direction of compassion, in the direction of reducing the suffering. And we can resolve to work for a society in which there is more right livelihood and less wrong livelihood.

Millions of people make their living in the arms industry, helping directly or indirectly to manufacture “conventional” and nuclear weapons. The U.S., Russia, France, Britain, China, and Germany are the primary suppliers of these weapons. So-called conventional weapons are then sold to Third World countries, where the people need food — not guns, tanks, or bombs. To manufacture or sell weapons is not right livelihood, but the responsibility for this situation lies with all of us — politicians, economists, and consumers. We all share responsibility for the death and destruction these weapons cause. We do not speak out. We have not organized a national debate on this problem. We have to examine and discuss this issue more, and we have to help create new jobs so that no one has to live on profits from weapons’ manufacture. If you are able to work in a profes­sion that helps realize your ideal of compassion, please be grateful. And please try to help create proper jobs for others by living mindfully — simply and sanely. Please use all your energy to try to improve the situation.

Photos:
First photo by Gert-Ulrich Rump.
Second photo by James Eggert.

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Dharma Talk: Immediate Protection

By Thich Nhat Hanh

In the 1960s, American young people marched in the streets, shouting “Make love, not war.” I reflected deeply on this. What kind of love were they speaking of? Was it true love? If it were true love, it would be the opposite of war. If it were only craving, one could not call it “true love.” Making love out of craving is making war at the same time. In 1971, during the war for Bangladesh indepen­dence, soldiers raped 250,000 women; ten percent of these women became pregnant. These soldiers made love and war simultaneously. That kind of love is not true love.

True love contains the elements of mindfulness, protection, and responsibility. It carries the energy of enlightenment, understanding, and compassion. A church has to dispense the teaching on true love to all members of the church and to the children. In the Buddhist teaching, detailed in the third Mindfulness Training, a sexual relationship should not take place without true love and a long-term commitment. We must be aware of the suffering we bring upon ourselves and others when we engage in unmindful sexual activities. We destroy ourselves. We destroy our beloved. We destroy our society.

Mindfulness in the act of loving is true love. This practice of mindfulness can take place today and serve as our immediate protection. All church members should begin today the practice of mindful sexual behaviors. This is what I call immediate protection for ourselves, our community, and our society. The role of church leaders, in my belief, is to first protect themselves and their own community. If not, they cannot help protect others. When we are on an airplane, the attendant reminds us that if there is not enough oxygen, we must put on our own oxygen mask before we help another person. Similarly, our self, our own family, and religious community should be the first target of our practice and action. The elements of awakening and enlightenment need to take place immediately in our own religious commu­nity.

Children and adults should be well-informed about the problems of HIV infection and AIDS. They should be aware of the suffering that can be brought upon the individual, as well as the family, commu­nity, and society, through unmindful sexual activities. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on. What is going on now is a tremendous amount of suffering. In the year 2000, more than five million people died of AIDS; many still weep over this loss. Members of the church must wake the church up to the reality of suffering.

The awareness of suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths emphasized by the Buddha. Next, every member of the church and of the temple has to be aware of the roots of the suffering. This is the second Noble Truth. During the forty-five years of his teaching, the Buddha continued to repeat his state­ment: “I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.” Only when we recognize and acknowl­edge our suffering, can we look deeply into it and discover what has brought it about. It may take one week, two weeks, or three weeks of intense activities before the whole community, the whole church, or the Sangha will wake up to the tragedies of HIV and AIDS in its own community, as well as in the world at large. When the church and all its mem­bers are aware of the reality of suffering and its root causes, we will know what to do and what not to do for protection to be possible. The appropriate course of action can transform our suffering into peace, joy, and libera­tion.

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Daily unmindful con­sumption in our society has contributed greatly to the present suffering. The Buddha said, “Nothing can survive without food.” Love cannot survive without food; neither can suffering. Consequently, if we know to look deeply into the nature of our suffering and to recognize the kind of nutriments that have fed and perpetuated it, we are already on the path of emanci­pation. Entertainment in the media is a deep source of suffering. Movies, television programs, advertise­ments, books, and magazines expose us and our children to a kind of unwholesome nutriment, which we ingest every day via our sense organs, namely eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All of us are subject to invasions of these images, sounds, smells, tastes, and ideas. Unfortunately, these sorts of sounds, sights, and ideas in the media often water the seeds of craving, despair, and violence in our children and in us. There are so many items in the realms of entertainment that have destroyed us and our children. Many are drowned in alcohol, drugs, and sex. Therefore, to be mindful of what we consume—both edible foods and cultural items—is vital. The Fifth Mindfulness Training guides us to look at each nutriment we are about to ingest. If we see that something is toxic, we can refuse to look at it, listen to it, taste it, touch it, or allow it to penetrate into our body and our consciousness. We must practice to ingest only what is nourishing to our bodies and minds. The church has to offer this teaching and practice to all its members. The practice of protecting ourselves and our family is difficult, because the seeds of craving, violence, and anger are so powerful within us. We need the support of the Sangha. With the support of the Sangha, we can practice mindful consumption much more easily. Mindful consumption can bring us joy, peace, understanding, and compassion. We become what we consume.

Mindfulness also plays a critical role in relation­ships and communication. Relationships in the family are only possible if we know how to listen to each other with calm and loving kindness, if we know how to address each other with loving speech. Without the practice of loving speech and mindful listening, the communication between members of the family becomes tenuous. Suffering may result from this lack of communication. Many lose themselves in forget­fulness, and take refuge in sex, alcohol, violence, and tobacco. The problems of HIV infection and AIDS are intricately linked to these issues of poor relation­ship in the family and reckless consumption of sex and drugs. The layman Vimalakirti said, “Because the world is sick, I am sick. Because people suffer, I have to suffer.” The Buddha also made this state­ment. We live in this world not as separated, indi­vidual cells, but as an organism. When the whole world is devastated by the pandemics of HIV infection and AIDS, and many fellow humans are in desperate situations, our sense of responsibility and compassion should be heightened. We should not only call for help from the government and other organizations. Religious leaders need to take active roles in rebuilding our communities and reorganizing our churches by the embodiment of their own practice. The practice should aim to restore the communication between church members, between family members, and between ethnic groups. Com­munication will bring harmony and understanding. Once understanding is there in the church and the community, compassion will be born.

We know that with diseases, medical therapy alone is inadequate. We know that many people with HIV and AIDS are alienated from their own families and society. The church can offer understanding and compassion to people who suffer. They will no longer be lonely and cut off, because they will see that understanding is there, awakening is there, and compassion is there, not as abstract terms or ideas, but as realities. To me, that is the basic practice of the Sangha; that is the basic practice of the church. Without understanding and compassion, we will not be able to help anyone, no matter how talented and well-intentioned we are. Without understanding and compassion, it is difficult for healing to take place.

Thus, the practice of mindfulness should take place in the context of a Sangha—a community of people who strive to live in harmony and awareness. There are many things that we cannot do alone. However, with the presence and support of members of the community, these things can become easier for us to achieve. For example, when we have the Sangha to support us and shine light on us, we can have more success in the practices of sitting medita­tion, walking mediation, mindful eating, and mindful consumption. To me, Sangha building is the most noble task of our time.

In the Buddhist tradition, after we have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we come together every fortnight and recite them. After the recitation, we gather in a circle to have a Dharma discussion, learning more about these Five Trainings. We also discuss and share our personal experiences, in order to find better ways to apply the teaching and the practice of these trainings into our daily life. The Dharma teacher, the priest, or the monk attends the entire discussion session, contributes and guides the Sangha with his or her experiences and insights. If an individual in the Sangha has difficulties, the whole Sangha is available to support that person.

A true Sangha is a community that carries within herself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Dharma. The living Sangha always embodies the living Buddha and the living Dharma. The same must be true with other traditions. The Sangha, with her Sangha eyes, through the practice of mindfulness and deep looking, will be able to understand our situations and prescribe the appropriate course ofpractice for the protection of ourselves, our families, and society.

Today, many young people are leaving the church because the church does not offer them the appropri­ate teaching and the appropriate practice. The church does not respond to their real needs. Renewing the church by dispensing the appropriate teachings and practices is the only way to bring young people back to the church. We need to renew our church, rebuild our communities, and build Sanghas. This is the most basic and important practice. Again, in order to carry out this task, church leaders, whether clergy or laity, should embody the teaching and the practice. Young people do not only listen to our verbal messages. They observe our actions. Thus, we teach not with our sermons or our Dharma talks alone, but we teach through our behavior and our way of life.

Some people contract HIV or AIDS from blood transfusions, but often, the issue of HIV infection and AIDS is an issue of behavior. If mindfulness practice is there, and each person has the Sangha to help him or her be mindful, then we should be able to avoid bringing suffering upon ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society.

I often tell my students and others that the energy of mindfulness, generated by the practice in daily life, is equivalent to the Holy Spirit. The seed of mindfulness is there in each one of us. Once we know how to touch the seed of mindfulness in us through the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful thinking and consuming, then it will become a living source of energy in us. Mindfulness always brings about concentration, insight, understanding, and compassion. The practice brings back the energy of awakening and generates the energy of God in our daily life. I have trained people with terminal illness to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. If you know how to dwell in the here and the now, and invest 100% of yourself into your in-breath and out-breath, you become free of the past and of the future. You can touch the wonders of life right in the present moment. The Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, if you are a free person. This is not political freedom that I am talking about. This is freedom from worries and fear, freedom from the past and the future. If you can establish yourself in the here and the now, you have the basic condition for touching the Kingdom of God. There is not one day that I do not walk in the Kingdom of God. Even when I walk in the railway station, along the Great Wall, or at the airport, I always allow myself the opportunity to walk in the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is where stability is, mindfulness is, understanding is, and compassion is.

Each person has the energy of mindfulness within. Each person has the capacity of dwelling in the here and the now. Once you are fully in the present moment, you touch all the wonders of life that are available within you and around you. Your eyes are wonders of life. Your heart is a wonder of life. The blue sky is a wonder of life. The songs of the birds are wonders of life. If you are available to life, then life will be available to you. All the wonders of the Kingdom of God are available to you today, at this very moment. The Kingdom of God is now or never. Thus the question becomes, are you available to the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God can be touched in every cell of your body. Infinite time and space are available in it, and if you train yourself, it will be possible for you to walk in the Kingdom of God in every cell of your body.

When we are able to touch the Holy Spirit through the energy of mindfulness, we will also be able to have a deeper understanding of our true nature. The Buddha taught that there are two dimen­sions to reality. The first is the Historical Dimension, which we perceive and experience chronologically from birth to death. The second is the Ultimate Dimension, where our true nature is revealed. In Buddhism, we may call the ultimate reality “Nir­vana,” or “Suchness.” In Christianity, we may call it “God.” If you are a Christian, you know that the birth of Jesus does not mean the beginning of Jesus. You cannot say that Jesus only begins to be on that day. If we look deeply into the nature of Jesus Christ, we find that his nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. Birth and death cannot affect him. He is free from birth and death. In Buddhism, we often talk in terms of manifestations rather than creation.

If you look deeply into the notion of creation in terms of manifestation, you may discover many interesting things. I have a box of matches here with me, and I would like to invite you to practice looking deeply into this box of matches, to see whether or not the flame is there. You cannot characterize the flame as nonbeing or nonexistent. The flame is always there. The conditions for the manifestation of the flame are already there. It needs only one more condition. By looking deeply, I can already see the presence of the flame in the box, and I can call on it and make it manifest. “Dear flame, manifest your­self!” I strike the match on the box, and there, the flame manifests herself. It is not a creation. It is only a manifestation.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a manifestation, and the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is also a manifestation. If we know this, we will be able to touch the Living Christ. In the Buddhist teaching, not only the Buddha has the nature of no-birth and no-death, but every one of us, every leaf, every pebble, and every cloud has this nature. Our true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death.

I have learned from my practice that only by touching the Ultimate Reality in us can we transcend fear. I have offered this teaching and practice to numerous people with terminal illness. Many of them have been able to enjoy the time that is left for them to live with joy and peace, and their lives have been prolonged. In certain cases, the doctors told them that they had just three months or so to live, but they took up the practice and they lived fifteen to twenty more years. My wish is that the church will dispense teaching and practice on how to touch our Ultimate Reality to people who have been struck with the HIV/ AIDS, and also to those who have not. We should be able to help members of our community live in such a way that we can all touch Nirvana, that we can all touch the Ultimate Dimension within us in our daily lives. With the learning and the practice, we will be able to touch our true nature of no-birth and no-death. That is the only way to remove fear. Once the wave realizes that her nature—her ground of being—is water, she will transcend all fear of birth and death, being and nonbeing. We can help the people who do not have much time to live, so that they are able to live deeply with joy and solidity for the rest of their lives.

Once we can establish ourselves in the here and the now, and the fear of death is removed, we become the instruments of peace, of God, of Nirvana. We become bodhisattvas—enlightened beings working to free others from their suffering. Those of us who have been struck with HIV/AIDS can become bodhisattvas, helping ourselves and other people, and acquire that energy of healing called bodhicitta, or the mind of love.

During the Vietnam War, numerous Vietnamese and American soldiers and civilians died, and many who survived were deeply affected. Twenty-five years later, the survivors continue to be devastated by this war. I have offered a number of retreats to American war veterans. I tell them that they can become bodhisattvas because they already know what the suffering of war is about. I advise them that they should play the role of the flame on the tip of the candle. It is hot, but it will help create the awareness, the realization, that war is what we do not want. We want the opposite. We want true love. Each person can transform into a bodhisattva, creating the awareness in his or her own people, so that we will never have a war like this one again. Your life will have a new meaning and the energy of true love will guide you.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to end suffering and attain well-being. This path you have chosen to end suffering—your own and others’— is the bodhisattva path. Not only can you transcend the suffering of the past, but you bring joy and peace to yourself and your beloved ones, because you are helping to awaken people in your own community and society. The war veterans can practice creating awareness and waking people up, and the people who have been struck by HIV and AIDS can do likewise. Once motivated by the desire to work for true love, we can engage our daily lives in the activities that awaken and embrace others as well as ourselves. The work of a bodhisattva will help our healing process to take place very quickly. Our lives may become longer and of deeper quality than the lives of many who do not have HIV or AIDS.

Everything I have said comes from the experience of my own practice. I do not tell you things that I have read in books. It is possible for us to install immediate protection today, for ourselves, our families, and our communities. It is possible to provide understanding and compassion to those who suffer, so that everyone has the appropriate opportu­nities and conditions to heal. It is possible to experi­ence the Kingdom of God in the here and the now. It is possible to help the world heal as we are healing ourselves. Whatever our religious background, we must practice in such a way that we bring forth understanding, compassion, true love, and non-fear, so that possibilities become actualities. If our practice does not yield these flowers and fruits, it is not true practice. We must have the courage to ask ourselves: “Is our practice correct? Do we generate understand­ing, awakening, and compassion every day?” If we do not, we have to change our way of teaching and our way of practicing.

To me, the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, representing the energy of mindfulness, of awakening to the reality of suffering. We have to bring the Holy Spirit back to our religious communities in order for people to have true faith and direction. I sincerely believe that Sangha building is the way. It is the most noble task of the twenty-first century. Not only church leaders, but health professionals, gays and lesbians, schoolteachers, and members of different ethnicity should build Sanghas. Please reflect on this. The practice of Sangha building is the practice of giving humanity a refuge, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. When the Holy Spirit manifests in our church, God is with us.

Enjoy your breath, enjoy your steps, while we are still together as a Sangha. 

This article is from a talk given at the White House Summit on AIDS on December 1, 2000.

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Give the Priceless Gift this Season: A Holiday Letter From Br. Pháp Dung

Dear Beloved Thầy,
Dear Sanghas throughout the World,
Dear Dharma Brothers and Sisters,

Our loving Mother Earth is still there for us, right beneath our two feet. She is a miracle, a jewel in the cosmos, refreshing and healing. She has shown unlimited patience throughout human history and an uncanny ability to transform just about anything with equanimity and acceptance. She is now calling us for help. She is suffering from our human activities based on our craving, discrimination, fear, and despair.

The Gift of Practice – This holiday season, we have a chance to express our love and care for Mother Earth by the way we care for our self, our family and our environment. We can practice mindfulness to care for our inner environment, our feelings and our emotions so that we do not lose our self in worries about the future or regrets about the past, or lose our self with our feelings and thinking in the present moment. We practice in such a way that we are peaceful, free and happy right in the here and now. We can practice to be more relaxed in our body and mind as we drive our car to work, or cook for our family, or play with our friends, or even rest when we return home. We can look deeply into our relationships with our loved ones, with our environment, our neighborhood, and our workplace and find skillful ways to care, to renew and to improve them. Care is a priceless gift.

You have enough

Having Enough – Concretely this Holiday Season, we invite you to make an effort to find ways that you can give a gift that does not require you to spend a lot of money or even any at all. The greatest gift is, of course, our practice, our true presence, our understanding and love. The giving of this gift will require more effort, more creativity, and deeper looking into your beloved. You can make something. You can surprise him or her with a message that has been waiting for so long. “Dear Father, I know you are there and I am happy.” “My son, I am here for you completely.” “My dear, I am sorry; let us begin a new chapter.” “Dear Mother Earth, I take refuge in you and bow down deeply.” A reminder, a memory, a simple attention with skillfulness in expression can touch and transform. Understanding and compassion cannot be bought.

This is an invitation to all practitioners throughout the world to join us this Season for a silent resistance – to the mass pressure to consume, to the forces that cause us to run away from our self in forgetfulness. Let us change the way we spend our Holiday Season this winter. Let us show our care for the planet in concrete ways. Let us say to Mother Earth that She can have trust in us. And please share this with the larger community by writing about your priceless gift: your gift of practice; your gift of transformation.

Please post your insights below.

With trust and confidence in your own practice,

Brother Pháp Dung for the Plum Village Community