Gratitude

By Dewain Belgard

In closing his first letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul wrote: “En panti eucharisteite. (In everything, give thanks.)” He was advising them no matter how negative a situation, to be mindful of the elements of joy and blessing also present.

In the practice of gratitude I have discovered the paradox that my capacity to be aware of suffering increases in direct proportion to my capacity to experience joy and to be mindful of blessings in every situation. Compassion and joy are inseparable. Ifwe harden our hearts and close our eyes to suffering, we also cut off our capacity to experience joy and happiness. And, if we are not continually mindful of the joyful and beautiful elements of life, we cut off our capacity for compassion.

Some years ago, Jim, my dear friend and life companion for many years, lay sick in the New Orleans Veterans Hospital. One day he told me he could no longer get to the toilet. He asked if I would help him with the bedpan. I was overjoyed at the opportunity to help. He asked if I would spend the night with him, because he was embarrassed to ask the nurse or orderly to help him with personal hygiene. I called the physician and asked her permission. With some reluctance, she agreed. It was about one-thirty in the afternoon. I told Jim I would go home to take care of our dogs and cats and return about seven o’clock. He asked me to fix his watch on a nearby shelf so he could tell the time. I arranged his watch. Then I kissed him good-bye and left.

When I returned about six-thirty, Jim appeared to be asleep. He was lying on his side where he could see his watch, but his eyes were closed His facial expression was peaceful. Then I noticed how still he was, and as I drew closer I realized that he was dead. I think he tried to hold on to life until seven o’clock when he knew I would return. But he wasn’t able to hold on long enough.

For several days I could hardly stop crying. I cried myself to sleep at night. I even cried in my dreams. I woke up in the morning crying. But with the help of friends, I began to see how fortunate we were that Jim had been spared a long, agonizing death.

I feel truly blessed to have known Jim and to have shared so many years with him. His life continues in many wonderful ways. For instance, he designed and built the room where our Sangha meets. In the years since Jim’s death, I have come to see, especially with the help of Thay Nhat Hanh’s teachings, that for me the practice of gratitude in all circumstances is a fundamental and indispensable practice.

Nearly everyone can recount similar experiences of pain, grief, and loss. Life is difficult for us all at times. In Pali, the word dukkha-often translated as “suffering”-in its root sense means “difficult.” Life is dukkha. That is the First Noble Truth. Though it may seem paradoxical, that truth is why I find it so necessary to practice St. Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians: “En panti, eucharisteite!” In all circumstances, be grateful!

Dewain Belgard, True Good Source, is a social worker and practices with the Blue Iris Sangha in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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Where Is the Heart of Compassion in the Balkans?

By Fred Eppsteiner

Once again, our country is at war. Once again, violence is the solution nations and peoples choose to settle conflict. Yet, one of the hallmarks of the Buddha’s teaching is nonviolence. The first mindfulness training given by Shakyamuni Buddha was “Do not kill, do no harm, protect life.” As students of the Buddha, we must turn our mindfulness to the violence and incredible suffering occurring in the Balkans today.

As a traditional meditation discipline, mindfulness is an “inner practice.” We learn to be aware of the content of our minds-our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and beliefs. But this distinction between internal and external is false. This mind that is aware of its own suffering and happiness is no different than the mind that is aware of the suffering and happiness of the world. The same mind looks within and without. We must be mindful of what is going on inside ourselves, but we must also turn our mindfulness outward, to the world.

The Buddha said, “Do not be violent in thought, speech
or action.” He knew that mind is the initial mover. Mind, speech, action-that’s how things flow. When we look at what’s going on in Yugoslavia, we can see that the current destruction was preceded by aggressive words, and that these words came from minds clouded by intolerance, fanaticism, and wrong view.

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Today in the Balkans, violent intolerance is creating great suffering, but the world’s violent response to the situation is also creating suffering. The earliest teachings of the Buddha stated that anger can never be stopped by more anger; hatred can never be stopped by more hatred, aggression can never be stopped by more aggression. Only through understanding, tolerance, deep listening, compassion, and lovingkindness can these negative mind states that lead to violence be stopped.

This revolutionary message is at the opposite pole of the political ideologies dealing with the Balkan situation. NATO forces are trying to end violence with more violence

The great American pacifist, A. J. Mustie said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” But the NATO alliance is seeking peace through war. Buddhism teaches that only when we become peaceful and nonviolent in body, speech, and mind can we create a truly peaceful and nonviolent world. There is no other way.

We need to look in mindfulness at this situation and ask, “What’s really going on here? What are the real causes?” The media and politicians urge that time is of the essence, we must act quickly. But, we have to be very careful. In our personal lives, we may feel strongly called upon to act out anger and hurt or to use angry and attacking words at times. If we don’t bring mindfulness to the situation, if we don’t step back to see what’s really going on, we’ll never break the cycle of violence in ourselves or in the world.

Aggression may have immediate effect, but that’s not the issue. For example, one can’t tell parents who physically abuse their children that violence doesn’t work, because they know if they smack their child for doing something they don’t want him to do, he’ ll probably stop. The real issue is the long-term damage violence does to the child. Hitting may stop the behavior, but very likely, it will also breed resentment and anger, and lead to aggressive behavior in the future. In the same way, bombing may stop aggression in the shOJi run, but does it really change anything? Violence only begets more violence. When there are winners and losers, the winners exult in their victories, and the losers, brooding with resentment, wait for their turn to be on top.

The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are relevant to the situation in Yugoslavia. At its core, the violence in this dispute arises from fanaticism and intolerance. Serbs versus Albanians, Christians versus Moslems, Orthodox versus Non-Orthodox. Each group intolerant of the other. The first three Mindfulness Trainings clearly identify causes of suffering: fanaticism and intolerance create suffering, attachment to views and wrong perceptions create suffering, imposing our views on others creates suffering.

The third training also reminds us of our responsibility “to help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through compassionate dialogue.” Is that what we’ve been doing in Yugoslavia for the past ten years? Have we poured our money and energy into Yugoslavia to help people learn to talk with one another or to develop programs to teach them how to understand each other? Now that there’s a crisis, we spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to kill and destroy, which in no way touches the underlying problems. Yet, we never spent a penny to develop compassionate dialogue. We took no interest in teaching nonviolence, or helping people learn to get along with those who are different.

What is compassionate dialogue? It’s what Thay calls deep listening. To walk in someone’s shoes and really understand who they are, their fears and concerns. To be compassionate means to feel the suffering of others and to want to relieve it. If the Serbs were listening to the Albanians compassionately, they would have asked, “What is your problem? What are your concerns? What are your fears? What’s making you angry? Tell me about your history.” And the Albanians would listen to the Serbs and all of their concerns, fears, desires, and frustrations. They would listen to each other with a sense of understanding. With this understanding, I believe people would see their commonality instead of only differences. And out of seeing their shared humanness could come real peace.

We should also learn to practice compassionate dialogue within ourselves, to listen to those parts of ourselves that are angry or wounded, and to accept them. This practice is no different than learning to listen deeply to friends, family members, or work colleagues. When there is conflict and anger, we especially need to listen deeply to each other and enter into compassionate dialogue, so we can peacefully resolve all conflicts.

In the Tiep Hien Precepts, killing is not directly addressed until the Twelfth Mindfulness Training. The first eleven deal primarily with actions of mind and speech, because that’s where killing begins. Intolerance, fanaticism, anger, and hatred are nurtured first by thoughts, then by violent speech, and finally, one acts.

Our Buddha nature is a nature of oneness, interdependence, and love. To get to the point of killing, we first have to dehumanize the enemy, to say they are unlike us and outside the pale of civilization. These thoughts and language do violence to another human being. We have to be very careful about language and thoughts, because only when we’ve dehumanized someone can we do violence to them and want to see them suffer. This is the very opposite of the heart of compassion. How could peace ever come out of this mind state?

The Twelfth Mindfulness Training says, “Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful meditation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our own Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.” This Mindfulness Training gives us a technology of nonviolence, very different from the technology of war. It shows us there are clear, nonviolent ways to settle disputes and resolve conflicts, ways that preserve the integrity and humanity of the person we disagree with. There are ways of resolving conflict in which both sides come out feeling respected.

The ability to understand that people are products of their conditions does not mean that one doesn’t act, perhaps even forcibly, against violence and evil in the world. But, the key to nonviolence is that one always acts out of love and understanding, not out of hatred. It doesn’t mean we allow those who do violence and aggression to have their way. It means that when we act, we act out of understanding.

The lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. showed us how to act with understanding. They wisely taught us that hate deforms us and that nonviolent action is possible. The dualistic mind wants to say there are good people and there are bad, but in truth there is no good and bad, because those who are good today may be bad tomorrow. Today’s victims are tomorrow’s perpetrators. So it’s often said that we must hate the crime, not the criminal, hate the deed, not the doer.

Only when we look deeply at the Balkan situation and identify with everybody, do we have the power to act wisely. When we act without seeing both sides, we get into trouble by seeking quick solutions. The ancient teaching of Buddhism calls us to the path of nonviolence, understanding, love, and peace. Our practice is not just about crossing our legs and turning within. We need to use our compassion to touch the suffering in the world.

This article was excerpted from a talk given by Dharma teacher Fred Eppsteiner, True Energy, at a Day of Mindfulness  in Naples, Florida.

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Reverence for Life

By Bill Menza

Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful meditation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.
– The Twelfth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing 

Violence begets violence. When we practice the Twelfth Mindfulness Training, or the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we undertake to cultivate reverence for life and to seek ways to end violence. But we often overlook official violence against criminal offenders. After studying the death penalty for over 18 years, I have reached some very sad conclusions about our treatment of prisoners, particularly those on death row.

Many prisons are violent places not so much because of the prisoners, but because of politicians, judges, and prison officials. In the name of being tough on crime and exacting vengeance, politicians and judges punish and kill offenders without mercy, and often without regard for the damage their actions inflict on individuals and society. Prison officials’ duty to care for plisoners has been replaced by a falsely-perceived duty to punish. That a prison sentence itself was the punishment directed by the court is not
considered sufficient. In many prisons, inmates are routinely threatened, beaten, shot, chained, hog-tied, electrically shocked, and denied food, mail, and medical treatment. Many are fed foul-smelling nutraloafs, a baked mixture of various foods. Instead of receiving psychiatric care, agitated prisoners are held for hours or days in the “devil’s chair” that prevents all movement. A bucket under the chair collects their excrement.

Supermaxs and control unit prisons are now common. Supermaxs are usually reserved for violent offenders or troublemakers. In them, prisoners may endure solitary confinement for years or a lifetime. Control units are like supermaxs, but worse. They are sensory deprivation prisons constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, based on studies of the Nazi prison system and North Korea POW brainwashing techniques. In these units there is strict solitary confinement, and all out-of-cell contact is restricted. Prisoners are monitored by video cameras 24 hours a day. These prisons are designed to punish prisoners and make them compliant. They are reserved for violent or unrepentant criminal-political prisoners. Complete mental breakdown from being in a supermax or control unit prison is not unusual.

In these units, offenders are also denied contact with the sky, the trees, and Mother Earth- all in the name of “prison security.” In Virginia, when prison officials for a supermax under construction realized prisoners would be able to see the forest and birds through their windows, they had the windows frosted. When Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for New York-based Human Rights Watch, asked Virginia Director of Prisons Ron Angelone about rehabilitation services at the Virginia Red Onion Supermax, he replied: “What are they going to be rehabilitated for? To die gracefully in prison? Let’s face it; they’re here to die.”

The public, too, has constructed a wall of silent disinterest against criminals. Some people support the brutality and cruelty of prison in their delusion of vengeful self-protection. Because we are afraid of the violence in our society, we fail to see that the damage we do to these people damages all of society for generations to come. Our own neighbors accused and convicted of crimes have become our common enemy. We seem to think prisoners must be punished as severely as possible, or disposed of. Too often, they are treated as vermin to be exterminated or buried alive in concrete boxes.

In the end, we all suffer from this abuse. Violence and killing teach violence and killing, and the pain and suffering of this violence has no boundaries in space or time. A criminal offense affects crime victims and perpetrators, their families, and our communities; so does this official violence and killing. Aware of the nature of interbeing, we may see clearly the costs to all of us of this official violence. To maintain a prisoner killing program and to keep offenders who are no threat to others in prison for long periods has financial, emotional, moral, and spiritual costs. The current tough-on-crime mentality creates communities devoid of mercy and compassion, where we practice mindlessness and heartlessness.

We must look deeply with our Sanghas to discover ways to protect life and cultivate compassion. To help practice not killing, you might want to learn more about the death penalty and prisons, or write to political leaders and newspaper editors with the kind of letters that help them wake up from the delusion of violence, from the delusion that “might makes right.” You might want to write plisoners who are waiting to be killed about the teachings on no-birth, no-death. Or consider working with groups that are trying to prevent and curb official violence. As written in The Dhammapada, “Animosity does not eradicate animosity. Only by lovingkindness is animosity dissolved. This law is ancient and eternal.”

Bill Menza, True Shore of Understanding, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community, Amnesty International, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Virginia CURE, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He writes to prisoners,  particularly those about to be executed by Virginia officials.

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Heart to Heart

“Heart to Heart” is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell, where we will publish short pieces on a given topic.

Keep your writing personal and concrete, focusing on the fruits of your mindfulness practice. Preference will be given to shorter pieces, under 500 words. All submissions will be edited. Submit via email to mindfulness.bell@yahoo.com.

The topic for the Winter/Spring 2007 issue will be: what you would like to write to a suicide bomber (see Thây’s words about this on page 12). We would prefer to receive submissions by October 15, 2006.

Here is a list of future topics and tentative deadlines, set in advance with the hope that things won’t change too much between now and then… Happy writing!

Issue Topic Deadline
Winter/Spring 2007 Letter to a suicide bomber October 15, 2006
Summer 2007 Second Mindfulness Training February 15, 2007
Autumn 2007 Third Mindfulness Training June 15, 2007
Winter/Spring 2008 Fourth Mindfulness Training October 15, 2007
Summer 2008 Fifth Mindfulness Training February 15, 2008

To launch this section, we present some heartfelt (and even humorous) writings on the First Mindfulness Training.

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Committed to compassion and learning ways to protect lives of people, animals, plants and minerals…

Our delightful Tibetan Terrier, Dharma, is under quarantine by the county animal control officials for a severe, unprovoked biting attack on an innocent hiker here in our mountain paradise. It is our custom to daily amble over these magical trails among some of the world’s oldest peaks and valleys. Dharma, a feral Humane Society rescue animal, had been captured as a pup in the wild almost two years ago after rampaging through the highland wilderness during two great hurricanes. She is particularly fearful and unpredictably aggressive with small humans. We have five such small-bodied grandchildren. Visits are always fraught with peril and anxiety and constant vigilance. Four previous bites to adults had not yet resulted in serious harm, nor has this current bite done permanent damage, but we fear the operative phrase is “not yet.” Dharma is ever on guard, is anxiety-ridden during these visits, and in the year-and-a-half we have loved her into the darling companion she is, she is still only to be trusted with my wife, myself, and our amazing dog sitter. All of the experts we have consulted, including Tibetan Terrier Rescue, agree: Dharma should be euthanized.

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Earnest practitioners that we fancy ourselves to be ought not to be killing, ought not to let others kill–yet we definitely also ought to cultivate compassion and protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. Unfortunately, especially for Dharma, our world is not only the beautiful, peaceful, controlled environment of our little cottage and dharma hall, it is also the wider world of strangers and children, constant visitors, and uncontrollable circumstances. I have always felt that the precepts, the Mindfulness Trainings, have a certain edge of impossiblity to them. And I have also come to feel that it may be precisely because of this “impossibility” that I practice them.

Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.
–Shantideva, Indian Buddhist Teacher, 8th Century, A.D.

Philip Toy
Black Mountain,
North Carolina

Surrounded by her loving family, Dharma was gently euthanized on July 31, 2006.

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The colours of my childhood shimmer green and yellow. Dandelions and grasses in a hot July sun. Cold, crisp white sheets warming to the gentleness of the night. Lilac, intoxicatingly sweet, drifting indoors. The colours of my childhood belong to a time long gone, and a person now dead. They belong to my Nanna and the neat council house on a tatty neglected street she inhabited. From her I learned the tenacity of a heart enveloped in kindness and equanimity. Patience and high moral standards held equal sway. Rosaries at dawn, evening contrition, and masses her comfort and strength.

Did I learn to be a better person because of her? Do I teach my children what she taught me? Or do I take the easy, lazy path of modern parenting, beset and submerged by demons? Modern parenting differs so vastly from the austerity of a Yorkshire childhood in the early 70s! Sometimes I long for simpler, less morally perplexing times. How does the Bodhisattva ideal sit comfortably with Barbie and Gameboys? consumerism and killing games?

Ask any parent or caregiver what is the greatest challenge they face, and they’ll answer unhesitantly: “nits” (head lice). Not tests, not bullying, not the rising cost of uniforms. This tiny, almost insignificant insect raises enormously complex, soul-wrenching problems. With the central moral principle of non-harming and compassion as one’s life’s principles, how exactly is one supposed to react when one’s cherished offspring is sent home from school, menagerie riding aloft, and not allowed back without a clean head?

No other insect or animal raises this issue for me. Ants, silverfish and spiders merrily waltz around the house as if they own it. The mouse in the attic over-winters as content as a maiden aunt soaking in the warm Mediterranean. Worms are rescued, spider nests painted around, birds fed, plants grown for butterflies.

Head lice are an itchy curse to any school-age child, and schools take the position that no child can return until they are louse free. What to do? Options are limited, traditional shorn heads not sitting well with six-year-old divas. Kill them quickly and humanely, snapping their little bodies with a deft flick of a fingernail, and a heart filled with contrition and atonement? Silent prayers for the dead and dying in a scented bathroom. Comb them out? Each released to its own destiny, karmic fine teeth refusing to take responsibility for their eventual demise. Or, most drastic of all, pungent chemicals shrivelling and desiccating innards and limbs? Modern chemicals absolved of ancient worries and intransigencies.

I doubt a satisfactory answer to the dilemma exists. My Nanna, template of compassion, never faced the issue with us, bereft as we were of “friends.” Probably she would have tutted and placed human health paramount; chided me for being “soft”; and sent me outside to play, dandelions yellow and grasses green swaying in the breeze. Simpler times, poor preparation for complex modern conundrums.

Kathryn C.
Hallas Wakefield, West Yorkshire, U.K.

After reading the book Seeds from a Birch Tree by Clark Strand, I discovered that writing haiku poetry is a very lovely way to practice mindfulness. I attempted to distill the First Mindfulness Training to only 17 syllables and humbly offer my effort as encouragement to others to try writing haiku. At the very least, you will have a little gatha to remind you of the mindfulness training.

vowing not to kill —
I carry an ant outside
on a newspaper

Beth Howard
Cheyenne, Wyoming

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Earlier this year, a group of practitioners came together as the Ripening Sangha under the guidance and support of Dharma Teacher Brother Phap Tri at Deer Park Monastery. The group includes Order of Interbeing members and aspirants, and we are studying and practicing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Once a month, we visit Deer Park for a Day of Mindfulness, the Fourteen Mindfulness Recitation Ceremony, and a class that focuses on one Mindfulness Training per month. We have also begun enjoying quarterly Weekends of Mindfulness together.

Each month, we write about our study and practice of the Mindfulness Training of the month. We write journal entries and gathas, rewrite the Mindfulness Training from our own experience, and use other methods to deepen our practice.

In April, I wrote a guided meditation to practice with the Twelfth Mindfulness Training (equivalent to the First of the Five) during my morning sitting meditation time. This guided meditation integrates my practice of yogic breathing, in which one inhales the qualities and aspirations one most wants to embody and exhales the qualities one most wants to release or, in Thây’s most recent terminology, “throw away.”

Breathing in, I bring looking deeply in
Breathing out, I release narrow-mindedness and my need for premature closure (my need to make quick decisions and premature judgments)
Breathing in, I bring compassion in
Breathing out, I release judgment (of myself and others)
Breathing in, I bring understanding in
Breathing out, I release disappointment (that things aren’t the way I want them to be or think they should be)
Breathing in, I bring acceptance in
Breathing out, I release attachment to outcome (especially the outcome I want)
Breathing in, I bring peace in
Breathing out, I release blame and violence (toward myself and others)

Karen Hilsberg
Culver City, California

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