The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic

By Lynette Monteiro

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Understanding the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana evaded me despite thee tomes I read and the lectures I attended. Then in 1998, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and in the subsequent years struggled with fatigue, pain, and frustration. Refusing to be defeated by this illness, I intensified my meditation practice, changed my eating habits, and took on a regimented exercise program. Despite the positive physical changes, emotionally I remained exhausted and I felt no closer to knowing how to apply the practice of Buddhism to my situation.

The way out began over a coffee at Starbucks. A physician friend cornered me with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living (2) and asked if I would start a clinic to treat our mutual patients using mindfulness skills. I laughed. With barely enough energy to get from one day to the next, attempting this was out of the question. However, I knew that my meditative and doctrinal practice in Buddhism was the stabilizing force in coping with my disorder. Studying the sutras and having a disciplined meditation schedule gave me continual insights to the nature of my mind and its role in managing my illness. I could see the potential benefits and that it would be a way of reaching so many who were suffering. But start a clinic, especially when I seemed to struggle with core concepts? I thought it impossible until I attended a retreat with Chan Huy. He watered the seeds of comprehension for me with his presentation of the thirteenth step of the Anapanasati Sutra: On the Full Awareness of Breathing bringing to my attention three primary tenets of practice: Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.

Suddenly the clinic seemed possible. I became aware that what had been effective in managing my illness was not the physical schedules, the intellectual calisthenics, or the chase after experiences. What had helped me gain ease and composure in my suffering was living as best I could the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana. I held no assumptions that any one moment would be the same as another. I was not my illness, I found joy and happiness where I could. Symptoms ebbed and flowed as did mind and its mental formations but I somehow stayed steady.

In May 2003, my partner and I began the Mindfulness Based Symptom Management program, an eight-week course in skilfull living modeled along the lines of the Canadian mindfulness-based program (3) at the Center for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada. The patients who registered were suffering from depression, anxiety, pain from severe physical traumas, and work-related stress. Some were afraid of relapse into depression when they returned to work. Over eight weeks, we planned to teach these patient-practitioners sitting and walking meditation, an understanding of the four foundations of mindfulness, the techniques in the awareness of breathing, and the use of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a guide to symptom management. They would be trained to examine their instincts to wrestle for control over their symptoms. This approach of no-action has been referred to as a paradigm shift from the medical model interventions that emphasize aggressive and often invasive interventions. The course aspirations and curriculum were daunting and ambitious, even more so because the canons of Buddhism had to be rendered into an acceptable secular form. However, we believed that anything less would not be powerful enough to transform their suffering.

We embarked on the program with an understanding that the facilitators and patients were equally practitioners. The tenets of the Five Mindfulness Trainings were listed and became a beacon when the work seemed tedious or not immediately relevant. The core of the course examined the body, emotions, sensations (mind), and thoughts (the most easily accessed and intellectually grasped object of mind) (4). In each class, we practiced the appropriate technique from the Anapanasati sutra (5). In the class dealing with emotions, we used the Theranamo and Bhadekkaratta sutras (Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone/An Auspicious Day (6)), as parables to encourage beneficial engagement with self, other, and the world. The glue that held the whole works together however was the primary tenets of practice– Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.

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Practicing continuously

Without mindfulness skills, we become stuck in the illusion that symptoms are static and permanent, and therefore doom us to eternal suffering. Viewing the situation as singularly determined also results in thinking there is one magical intervention if we could “just do it.” When mindfulness is practiced continuously, we can look deeply into our symptoms and observe as they change in frequency, intensity, and duration. This is the gift of impermanence. It makes us available for many more possibilities and therefore many more opportunities to intervene in a suitable manner. Observing our level of fatigue we can recognize, for example, when jogging is less suitable than walking.

Practicing continuously means bringing awareness to all aspects of the system. We notice not just the segments of behaviors but the dynamic ebb and flow of all behaviors. It permits adjustment of our strategies as we attune ourselves to the impermanent nature of our experiences. When we are engaged fully in this practice, there is no way to “just do it” because there is no “it.” Continuous attention reveals nuances of change that alert us so we can adjust our actions, speech, and thoughts appropriately. It informs us when an intervention is suitable and beneficial; it informs us accurately of the specific signs in our body, which then allows selection of the beneficial and suitable level.

In the Clinic, patient-practitioners learn to adjust their body, speech, and mind to the ebb and flow of the breath. Using the body scan meditation technique, we set up an internal model of “observation, not indoctrination.” (7) That is, we learn to bring our attention to a part of our body, suspending the need to engage in action. We start with the toes, which always gets a smattering of giggles! The giggles turn to awe when we observe how hard it is to bring attention to the toes without twitching them automatically in response. We observe automatic behaviors and notice when we tune out, turn off, drop out of our daily lives. In the first two classes, we befriend our breathing and allow it to teach us the inevitability of change and the simplicity of adjusting to it. Because we breathe continuously, practicing continuously is no longer as imposing or tedious a task as it might have seemed initially.

Being in the present moment

The gift of non-self is the ability to discern the true nature of our suffering. Symptoms inter-are. They arise, endure, and dissolve from a complex interaction of the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. Arising in any single platform, they are empty containing neither intrinsic meaning nor power. However, when we apply our assumptions about an independent self, separation from others and the world, energy is imparted to our symptoms powering them up to debilitating levels. Muscle pain now becomes a harbinger of days in discomfort, even loss of income from lost wages. A limitation in physical activity now means loss of connection with family and friends.

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Grounding ourselves in the moment, we develop the skills to discern the origins of our pain with clarity and confidence. We develop an awareness of the arising conditions that result in our pain, our depression, and our fears. We can locate physical pain in the body, observe the thinking that escalates the meaning of the pain. Like teasing out the threads of a knotted ball of twine, we begin to separate the true nature of the symptom from the pain generated by the story-telling about the symptom. In the next four classes, we become firmly established in the foundation of mindfulness that is appropriate: in the body if the pain is physical, in the emotions if the pain is psychological, etc.  Discernment among the foundations allows the interconnections with the other foundations to generate information, not escalation. As we learn to identify the energy that causes the pain, we can then take steps to find alternative sources of energy.

As patient-practitioners grasp these concepts, the defensive stance to illness changes. The belief that things have to be different from what they are in this moment dissolves. Each moment is just what it is, an occasion. The ghosts of the past lose their potency to enslave us and render us dysfunctional. The ghosts of the future cannot hold us hostage with anxiety, fear, and the threat of failed dreams. The power in our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world can only be realized in the present. At this point, a critical flaw in the organization of current psychotherapeutic interventions comes to the fore. Relapse is not something that we practice at some future date when our symptoms disappear. Every moment is an occasion to prevent relapse into previously unbeneficial behaviors, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts.

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Living in joy

Joy is the realization that suffering is impermanent. Sometimes joy is retroactive, arising only when the craving and clinging to what is not has abated. While experiencing an attack of vertigo, I tried desperately to convince myself that the spinning room was only a mental formation. I recited: Not real, not real, not real. My mind remained resolutely unimpressed with my rhetoric (an object of mind) and joy was not present until my inner ear (body) calmed itself. Like a symphony, timing is everything. To expect joy in the middle of a flare of symptoms is to lose sight of the moment as it is. It throws us back to the illusions and delusions we created to avoid the reality of our suffering.

When symptoms recur despite our greatest efforts, we are given the opportunity to practice looking deeply into our assumptions. The arising of a symptom we thought was well-managed can touch on feelings of being a failure, activate models of helplessness, or even cause us to give up our practice. Looking deeply, we often find we have derived predictive equations relating our efforts to improvement in some linear fashion. Feeling energetic today becomes a promise that tomorrow will offer the same joy. Thrown into the future, we lose the moment of joy in the here and now.

Observing the breath, staying grounded in the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts, patient-practitioners begin to experience the cessation of the craving to make things okay immediately. We recognize that symptoms dissolve and realize that awareness of impermanence enforces letting go. Symptoms become waves greeted, if not with ease, at least with composure and steadiness. With tools of mindfulness, we do know what to do. We acquire the secure knowledge that the symptoms are generated from the essence of who we are in the moment and dissipate as we alter our stance to them. In a single round of breathing in and out, we become evolving beings, intricately tied to self, others, and the world, and know comfort in that unity.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

Throughout the course, the Five Mindfulness Trainings are used to give the skills a firm grounding in ethics and to provide deeper purpose for the practice. Viewing ourselves as worthy of respect, examining ways in which we generate delusions, setting psychological and physical boundaries, addressing ourselves with gentleness, and nourishing ourselves in a healthy manner become the modus operandi of creating skillful lives. As we become confident and stable in our practice, we find ourselves applying these skills in our interactions with others and our environment. In fact, interaction with all aspects of our environment is where the rubber meets the road. However, because suffering renders us somewhat narcissistic, we begin with applying the five trainings to ourselves.

Each foundational lesson is framed in the context of the five trainings. Behaving with respect to our body allows physical self-abusive cycles to be examined and broken. For the patient-practitioners suffering physical trauma this becomes a key to enter the realm of joy and acceptance. Rather than pushing past limits, they begin to accept and respect the body as it is.

Being generous to our body results in resting when needed, treating ourselves to days of silence and enjoyment of treasured activities. Depression and physical degenerative disorders respond well to this training. Rejuvenation becomes the form of continuous practice and symptoms no longer need to flare for attention.

Not exploiting our bodies psychologically or physically permits the building of safety in interactions with others. The target of this training is the anxiety generated from abusive relationships or lack of trust because of abuse. Recognizing and reducing exposure to toxic situations or relationships increases a sense that we are reliable in our assessments and consistent in our responses.

Speaking with kindness when referring to our body changes the sometimes hate-filled inner dialogue that in turn maintains our suffering. Lack of confidence, feelings of helplessness or low self-worth can be transformed through this training.

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Altering the language alters the meaning we give to ourselves of who we are. As self-talk becomes supportive and honestly reflective of our situation, we develop trust and confidence that we can adjust to change.

Nourishing our bodies with beneficial foods and activities allows a sense of well-being. Being with persons who generate joy, feeling encouraged by others practicing healthy lifestyles, and exposing ourselves to a variety of perspectives break up the fixed patterns that signify most physical and psychological suffering. As we limit the input of common myths about being human, we begin to develop a stronger understanding of the reality of being just who we are.

The suffering arising from weak practice of mindfulness in the foundations of emotions, sensations, and objects of mind (in this case, thinking) respond equally well to this application. In fact, the remaining foundations are deeply contained in the foundation of the body and are interconnected profoundly with the body.

At the end of the eight weeks, we have all been irrevocably changed by our contact with each other. At the beginning of the course, the patient-practitioners were asked to list the things they wanted to change in themselves. Usually, the expectations revolved around “cure” or total cessation of physical and emotional symptoms. They want their suffering taken away when they enter7 treatment. Their perceptions of themselves as ones who suffer imply that the suffering means they are flawed and damaged by and because of their symptoms. So, at the start of the course, the craving is to be “normal” by which they mean “without suffering”. When asked if they have changed in ways they had listed eight weeks before, most patient-practitioners say it doesn’t matter anymore. Those expectations written fifty-six days ago are examined and deemed unrealistic, irrelevant, or—best of all—where there was no change, acceptable just as they are. Expectations transform into aspirations. Symptoms are now moments of education in developing skillful means. Self is now a product of an interaction of the four platforms with the moving moment and mindfulness is the mechanism to steady the interaction.

Continuity

Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana reveal themselves in each moment. By practicing continuously, we are able to stay grounded in each moment. Observing the breath, we move through the four foundations of body, emotions, mind, and objects of mind. Skillful means grow as we develop clear comprehension of what is beneficial and suitable action. Understanding the true nature of our illness grows further as we experience being firmly in our physical and psychological domain, cutting through the illusions of what it is not. All symptoms are nothing more than the waves in our ocean of being. In the moments that our practice is strong and stable, we can allow the symptoms of our illnesses to penetrate us as great teachers do and ultimately let them dissipate as waves in the ocean.

Lynette Monteiro, True Wonderful Fulfillment, practices with Sanghas in Ottawa and Montreal, Canada. She is a psychologist in private practice, and Director of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. She bows to teachers Chan Huy and True Body of Wisdom for inspiring the Clinic and assisting in the preparation of this article. Photography by Lynette Monteiro.

1 Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana are called the “Three Dharma Seals.” A teaching offered by the Buddha is considered to be authentic if it has these three characteristics. The awareness of impermanence helps us to see that all things are subject to change. Nothing in the universe is a fixed, unchanging entity. Secondly, the awareness of non-self shows us that all things are without a separate self; everything inter-is with everything else. Thirdly, all things have their ultimate nature, their nature of nirvana, meaning the extinction of all notions, ideas, and concepts concerning reality. For a more thorough explanation of the Three Dharma Seals see Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998).

2 Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living (Dell Publishing, 1990)

3 Segal, Z., M. Williams, & J. Teasdale, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Guilford Press, 2002)

4 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Berkeley: Parallax Press 1990) and the following texts were used by the facilitators to organize the course content

5 Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You are Alive: the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)

6 Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: The Buddha’s Teaching on Living in the Present (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)

7 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing, p 134

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Writing Your Autobiography:

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By Janice Rubin

I am in my twelfth year of teaching adults to write their autobiographies—a new career begun after I had retired from a career in journalism—and in my fifth year of practice with my Sangha. Without knowing anything about Buddhism or the existence of a blueprint for decency known as the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I had created an atmosphere in my classes and a code of behavior that I later found mirrored in the practice community I visited in 2001. No wonder I felt I had truly come home!

Retiring after twenty-one years, I decided to review my life, beginning with my earliest memories. I found the process to be painful at times, but was determined to finally face my demons. Writing my memoirs was therapeutic, and I wondered whether others might find it helpful. When I shared my writing with my therapist, she suggested that I teach so that others might benefit from the process.

I teach three semesters a year, each one eight weeks long. Classes are two hours long and limited to ten persons. I tell new students that writing their autobiography is like taking a magical mystery tour—they don’t know where they’ll end up when they start out, they don’t know what means they will use to get there, and when they arrive, they won’t be the same person who started the journey. In the process they will develop compassion for those they feel have wronged them, discover they have accomplished much more than they have given themselves credit for, and find they like themselves a lot more than they did when they began.

I suggest that beginners start out by following the syllabus, which has questions related to each period of life and can be used to jog the writer’s memory. They write at home and come to class prepared to share their writing. Each person is allotted time to read and to receive feedback from the others. Those who say they don’t have any childhood memories are inspired by the material I provide and by hearing others’ stories. As we write, the pathways between memories are lubricated so that memories return, sometimes faster than we can write about them.

Most of my students are between fifty and eighty-five years of age. Most come with the intention of writing their life stories to pass on to their children and grandchildren; many return to continue examining their lives in an effort to rid themselves of feelings of anger, guilt, and anxiety that are preventing them from enjoying their days. Some come because they have reached a significant stage in their lives; they want to understand where they’ve been so they may chart a path for their future.

Among the writers, some have been childhood victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In the supportive atmosphere that prevails in our workshops, many feel safe exploring events that need to be examined in order to rid them of suffering. Some are recovering from alcoholism or other addictions; some are grieving the loss of dear ones. Some are closeted homosexuals or abused spouses who are not yet able to share their plight.

Cultivating Compassion

The first mindfulness training talks about cultivating compassion and protecting life. It has been said that one may kill with words; it is also true that a kind word, appropriately offered, can be life enhancing. New students are asked to listen to each other with an open mind, without judgment. In commenting on another’s writing, they are asked to be mindful of the reader’s feelings. I watch with increasing love for my students as I see heads nod and tissues wipe away a tear while someone writes about the disappearance of her father when she was four years old. If empathy and compassion were blossoming plants, our classroom would be ringed with flowers.

One time, during introductions on the first day of class, a new student mentioned that she was twenty-five years old. A man in his seventies said, “You’re so young. You haven’t lived yet. What do you have to write about?” I told the group about the twenty-one-year-old in a previous class who had taught us what life had been like in East Germany and had participated in pulling down the Berlin Wall. I told them about children in elementary school who had written about their memories of accidents, birthday parties, the death of a parent. Unfortunately, my illustrations were not sufficient to counteract the damage done by a thoughtless remark; the young woman dropped out of the class and did not respond to messages I left her.

Generosity

The second mindfulness training reminds us of the importance of not taking what belongs to others and encourages generosity. In my classes this training is symbolized by a timer and a set of wind-up clacking teeth. The two-hour session is barely long enough for ten people to read and receive feedback so when participants don’t respect their time limits it can become a problem. In order to prevent hurt feelings, I set a timer when each person begins to read. When the bell goes off, that person’s time is up. The conversations that sometimes develop in response to a particular reading can wreak havoc with a schedule. So I wind up my two-legged chattering teeth and, as they dance across the table, we laugh and remind ourselves why we’ve come to class.

Protection

The third mindfulness training makes us aware of the nature of our ties with family and the importance of protecting children from harm. In our writing we deal with destructive as well as healing ties. We come to understand not only how our parents raised us, but how their upbringing influenced the way they behaved as adults. When we write about our parents as little children we begin to understand their suffering and we realize they did the best they could. At the same time, we develop compassion for ourselves as children who suffered at their hands. We also develop understanding and compassion for other family members, and it is not unusual for my students to reach out to family members from whom they have been estranged, and to reconnect with childhood friends.

A recovering alcoholic, writing about the abusive, alcoholic father of his childhood, gradually began to soften toward him when he wrote about his father’s boyhood in Ireland, where his mother died when he was very young and his father indentured him to a farmer because he could not care for all the children in the family. One woman came feeling angry and bitter toward her mother who had died thirty years before. The mother had had seven children, some by the seven men to whom she had been married, and some by others. My student was the middle child who had assumed responsibility for raising the three youngest ones. She had been physically and emotionally abused by her mother and an older sibling and had been sexually abused by one of her stepfathers. In four years of writing, she developed a tolerant respect for the mother who had lost her own mother as a child, was raised by an unloving aunt who threw her out when she became pregnant at fifteen, and managed to keep her seven children together and enjoy life by using her wits. She also developed a healthy respect for her own strong character that had enabled her to create a stable, loving marriage and a good life with her husband and children as she continued to help her siblings.

Deep Listening, Loving Speech

Without offering the gift of deep listening and mindful speech to one another, our writing Sangha could not thrive. I tell my students to follow their writing wherever it goes and to censor nothing, but to share only what is comfortable for them. We offer a safe haven in which there is virtual freedom of expression.

A woman who had been the victim of incest by her older brother during her childhood, blamed him for her failed marriages. When she tried to talk to him about it, he either denied anything had occurred or blamed her for seducing him. She read us a letter she had written to him, describing how she had felt as a little girl who had lost the right to her own body. As she stifled a sob, the person next to her put an arm around her shoulder. Asked whether she would mail the letter, she said she would not; it was enough for her to have been able to talk about it to friends who could understand.

Mindful Consumption

My students are well aware of the need for mindful consumption and good health practices for themselves and the planet. The ailments of an aging population are not far from their consciousness and many are involved in regular exercise programs. The recovering substance abusers write about the effect of their addictions on their self-image, careers, and families, and take pride in their years of sobriety. Since most are parents and grandparents, they usually share a commitment to protect the environment, promote peace, and encourage intelligent radio and television programs for all ages.

I love the folks who take my classes; they are my writing family. It gives me great joy to watch shy individuals blossom, and to see a group of strangers become friends. What better basis is there for friendship and love than sharing one’s life story with others in a loving, nonjudgmental atmosphere?

When I wrote my former therapist to tell her that I had finally found my spiritual family, she informed me that she too sits with a Sangha affiliated with Thich Nhat Hanh’s community. I was delighted, but not surprised.

mb40-Writing2Janice Rubin, of Oakland, New Jersey, sits with the Practice Community at Franklin Lakes. She is a teacher, writer, and author.

Writing Your Autobiography

Monks & Nuns:

Behind the Projections onto the Robe

Part Two

By Lori Zimring De Mori

The author questions two young monastics on their journey from lay life to ordination. Part One of this article was published in the autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Phap Tue

Phap Tue, whose given name means wisdom, ordained as a monk in December of 1999. Growing up in Northern California, his passions were nature, soccer, reading, and the Grateful Dead band. During the summer of 2003 he helped run the children’s program at Upper Hamlet in Plum Village and with great intelligence and sensitivity facilitated the adults’ discussion about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He is twenty-nine years old.

Thay often asks us to remember our fi experience on the path. What was yours?

Lots of the Vietnamese monks remember a feeling they had when visiting a temple. My family went to church on Sundays, and there I saw the seed of silence and something beyond the ordinary, but I was much more moved by the natural world, especially when I went down to the creek behind our house by myself. I was about five or six years old. Even as a child I had a propensity to be happy alone. The creek brought me into a silent space and seemed to open up my mind.

When I was in fifth grade I read a book called The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was about a group of friends on a spiritual journey to find themselves as individuals, and as friends, though the tale was clothed in mythological adventure. There were a few characters whose personalities influenced me deeply, particularly a mage, or wizard. The wizards lived virtually alone, deep in the woods, in towers, in mountains or in other hidden, mysterious places. They wore robes, had no girlfriends, and were entirely devoted to their practice. I see this character in me now. I think a Buddhist monk is quite possibly as close as you can get to a modern-day wizard.

So were you a quiet, solitary child?

Not at all. I was also a real talker and loved being in community, on teams. My dad was determined for me to play out that feeling in the athletic realm. He’d been a great soccer player when he was young but denied that first love in favor of more socially acceptable choices. Our relationship centered around competition and approval. I liked soccer, I liked learning, and I wanted approval, so in school I was a teacher’s pet and out of school my primary focus was being in nature and playing soccer.

How did those two sides of you—the solitary and the social—play themselves out as you got older?

My best friend growing up was a wild, free-spirited kid named Shane. He wasn’t a good student and he didn’t really care about people’s approval. I learned from him to be a bit more bold. By high school we’d grown apart. I was playing soccer on state teams. That made me popular and girls liked me but I was also becoming more of a loner. I started eating lunch with my English teacher who was a devout Christian. We’d talk about religion, politics, and literature. In my senior year I started reading Joseph Campbell. I had a strong spiritual inclination but it suffered from my devotion to soccer, where success was measured in terms of fame and recognition rather than through understanding. On the other hand, my coaches taught me discipline, focus, and concentration. They were very good teachers in many ways.

At the same time I started doing hallucinogenic drugs, mostly mushrooms. Mushrooms became my “spiritual path”—they showed me things about myself I’d never seen before. I’d take them every full moon and go hiking alone. I was getting in touch with the natural environment in a new way, but it was usually drug facilitated. I also loved the Grateful Dead. A whole group of us—mostly older than me—would follow them around the West Coast and go to all their concerts. We’d free dance, spinning around in circles. There was this ethic of peacefulness and love among Dead fans. We never saw each other outside of the concerts. When we left we’d just say, “Love you. . .see you next concert.” I fell in love with a girl who was always at the concerts. She was twenty-five, a vegan, and an environmentalist. I was nineteen. I didn’t tell her how old I was.

What did you do after high school?

I went to UC Berkeley and played competitive college soccer. I trained every day but didn’t really hang out with my teammates. We were friends on the field, but off the field I enjoyed other things than going to parties, drinking, or chasing women. So, I spent most of my time training, studying, and being alone in nature. Then I crashed.

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What do you mean, you “crashed”?

I got injured during my freshman year at Berkeley and I just couldn’t come back from the injury. I couldn’t walk without pain. Yet the greatest pain was not the physical pain I experienced but the psychological trauma of losing who I felt I was. I fought with my old ideas of God and “what was meant to be.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer competitively but I couldn’t really let go. I became angry and depressed, lost confidence in myself. I was so lonely, and yet didn’t want to be in a relationship. I felt like I had work I needed to do on my own. I realized I didn’t really miss soccer, that I loved dancing and hiking more. I had virtually given up alcohol and other drugs by then, and I began to distance myself from my old friends. In my sophomore year I moved into an apartment on my own. I still felt heavy and depressed so I just put all my energy into school.

Did you have any spiritual practice at this point?

Not at first, but two things happened which influenced me. I went to an exhibit of Tibetan sacred art at a place called Dharma Publishing. The gallery was lit by thankas, colorful tapestries with different deities, natural scenes, and silent stories. I was in a dark place in my life at this time, so this color was a great gift.

There was a lecture afterwards about the Four Noble Truths. It really touched me. It addressed my real experience and gave guidance in a practical way. I wanted to hear more. Dharma Publishing became my Sangha and I started going to teachings every Sunday. The teachings fit with the values of nonviolence and peacefulness which I already held from my Grateful Dead days, and I found them intellectually flawless. No dogma. No conditions. Just “see for yourself.” I started reading books about Buddhism and felt nourished by the teachings.

Around the same time I was up late one night flipping through television channels and a guy named Tony Robbins was advertising workshops to help people see what they wanted in life and teach them how to get it. His approach was not strong on the spiritual but he did talk about knowing what your values are, understanding that many have been inherited rather than chosen. His idea was to create a hierarchy of values and make them your target. But first you needed to discover what your values were.

I saw that I valued two things very strongly: one was compassionate understanding, which was in accord with my new spiritual awakening. The other was a value I hadn’t even realized was strong in me—the desire to influence people, to be seen as someone who could do things. I decided to leave that behind and to try to live without looking for approval. I wanted to be truly free. But I needed wisdom, understanding. I also needed to drop my fear of not doing well in school. I was often nervous about grades. I began to see this was another way I sought approval and recognition. I saw it was based on fear of rejection. So I made sitting meditation my new priority. I began sitting for two hours each morning. School became easier and more enjoyable and I found my happiness was not so much about what I did but what was inside. Compassionate understanding became my number one priority.

Were you practicing with a teacher or on your own?

There were lay teachers at Dharma Publishing and they were wonderful but I got to a point where I wanted a teacher “with the glow.” I had a friend who was practicing in Dharamsala. After graduation I told my parents I was thinking of going to Chile to teach or to India, to practice. I told them I was also considering the monastic life. They didn’t take me seriously.

I’d also thought about getting a teaching credential. My father said he’d pay for school if I got my credential before going away. I thought, “The practice can be done anywhere; I can practice at school.” So I took the opportunity, with one condition: I would study because I loved it. And I would not stress. So I went back to school, tutored kids, and coached soccer. I liked teaching and the kids liked me but I was aware that my love was always conditional, even to my students. I gave them attention but I didn’t really know how to love and understand them. Through meditation I was beginning to see clearly that I didn’t really understand myself, yet I was teaching. There was always an element of hypocrisy, for I still had insecurities and fears I needed to resolve.

In the meantime I was still sitting every morning and had started reading Thay’s books and I’d found a Sangha two blocks from home. It was very alive, deep, and honest. One morning I was sitting and I saw all these ideas I had about myself and suddenly thought, “It’s all a painting—you’ve made it all up.” This was one of the first deep realizations I had. As I continued to sit regularly each day, the meditation bore more insight. I remember one morning after I had sat I opened my eyes and felt extremely calm. Everything was silent. There was one of Thay’s books beside me: The Diamond That Cuts through Illusion. I opened it and read a passage. It spoke of a type of giving called “the giving of non-giving.” It meant you gave to someone without conditions, with no discrimination between self and other. I read this passage and thought to myself, “Is this possible? Is this true?” And a very honest voice, that was my own, rose out of me: “You know it’s true.” And then I thought to myself: “It’s over. That’s it. It’s all over.” I stood up and called my department counselor and told her I was withdrawing from the education program. I told my dad that he hadn’t wasted a penny but I had learned all I could learn and was going to become a monk.

Why did you decide to go to Plum Village?

I’d read many of Thay’s books—the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Your Appointment with Life. I thought that if the community of Plum Village practiced in the same way Thay set out in his books I’d be fine.

I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could come that summer and was told to wait and come after the summer retreat. So I decided in the meantime to go to Thay’s Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont to practice for a month. It’s very quiet and contemplative there. I ended up staying for six months before coming to Plum Village. I ordained a month after arriving.

How did your parents react to your decision to become a monk?

My mom was upset. At first she cried and yelled. More recently though, she’s come to visit me, practice with us, and has even taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My father was absent. When I asked him why he thought I was becoming a monk he said he thought it was because I didn’t know what else to do. My reasons were exactly the opposite.

Does anyone ever leave the monkhood?

Sometimes. Overall the percent of Westerners who leave is higher than non-Westerners. There were sixteen people in my ordination family. One has left already.

What is your practice like now?

There’s a communal feeling that comes from living in Plum Village. Sometimes I miss the quiet of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, but I believe that mindfulness and awakening can happen anywhere, at any time. I feel that practice should be engaged, not just on the hilltop. Otherwise I’ve really tried to let go of any expectations. I want to create harmony and to share. I’ve retired from sports and moved away from competitiveness to things like yoga and dance. I’m losing my sense of ambition.

Are you interested in teaching?

I don’t think about teaching too much yet. I still have thundering insights on the cushion then get up and start making judgments about others. In monastic life you’re often put up before others and expected to teach. I still prefer to train myself until I am a more stable practitioner. I know I can’t get up there egoless yet. I still want to be taught.

mb41-Monks4

Viet Nghiem

Chan Viet Nghiem received the monastic precepts when she was twenty years old, in February 2002. Born in the north of France, she is one of the youngest Western nuns to have ordained with Thich Nhat Hanh. Her given name means “True Transcendence.” We spoke under the temple bell at Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet. She began our conversation by handing me a photo album. The first picture showsa bright-eyed baby; one of the last shows Thay cutting a lock of her thick, dark hair at her ordination ceremony.

What brought you to Plum Village?

My mom and I were living in Paris. She had come to Plum Village in the spring of 1997 and wanted to bring me back with her for a week that summer. We hadn’t been getting along, and she thought that with the help of the sisters at Plum Village we might learn to communicate better. I thought she wanted the nuns to “fix” me. The idea of spending a week with her at Plum Village sounded awful!

At the age of fifteen, I felt I had no preparation to face life and its challenges, at school and in my family. I often felt lost and hurt, and carried away by my emotions. I was discovering the presence of a world within me that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t know how to communicate that to my mother. She wanted to help me, but she didn’t know that I would end up wanting to become a monastic!

How was that first experience?

I didn’t like it at all in the beginning. The distractions of society had been keeping all my fears and feelings of insecurity hidden. It was very overwhelming to face them all in the silence of this place. I wanted to go home but my mom insisted that we stay for the whole week. After three days I started to settle, and discovered a sense of home and safety within me. During Thay’s first talk, he asked an American and a Japanese to practice hugging meditation as an act of reconciliation. It was so powerful. I noticed that the sisters and brothers practiced to make everything sacred in and around them, just by breathing in and out.

Did you take the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

Not that first year; the ceremony scared me. I was shy and didn’t want to stand up and kneel in front of the sisters. But I really liked

my first retreat at Plum Village, so I made my mom promise we would come back for a longer time the following year. And that time I took the Mindfulness Trainings and they really helped me. I was in a teenage crisis, rebellious and reactive against the whole world. Taking the Trainings was a foundation for me to learn to respect myself and others. They were seeds planted in the soil of my being. They gave me guidance, something to help me “swim” in society, They were a light in the dark for me.

What happened?

Something changed in me, slowly but deeply. I went back to my environment with a powerful tool of protection. I could imagine the misery I would put myself through without the Trainings. I had hard times, especially with my friends and my boyfriend, and their influence on me. But I knew I had support from a spiritual community, and that meant a lot.

Thay helps people to “re-become” human. Back at school it felt like the teachers and other students helped me lose my human nature. It was all about good grades—not about acknowledging our feelings, our suffering. Thay teaches through his actions. This really made an impression on me. I could listen to a Dharma talk and have no doubts. I had a capacity to put it into practice, at my own pace. Sometimes I would cry, seeing the difference between the love that Thay embodies and the lack of sensitivity that I met in some of my teachers.

Is this when you decided to become a monastic?

Not really. I was almost seventeen and thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I decided I wanted to live in community. I didn’t want to marry or have kids and I didn’t want to work for money. I felt a deep aspiration for service, but I didn’t want to be a monastic. I wanted everything about monastic life but to be a monastic.

The Christmas after my second retreat my mom and I returned to Plum Village together. Sister Jina became the abbess of Lower Hamlet that winter. As I watched the ceremony, with the rows of monastics in their yellow robes facing each other, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. From then on I started coming to Plum Village to get to know the life of the sisters. I developed and found a deep support from them.

How did your mother feel about your wanting to become a nun?

I hadn’t told her at this point. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friends. But deep down I knew this was what I wanted to do. At eighteen, I graduated from high school and came to spend the summer in Lower Hamlet. I started helping in the teenage program.

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When I came home from the summer retreat I told my mom that I was planning to return to Plum Village to ordain. She thought I was joking. When she realized I was serious, she asked me many questions to test me. Now I realize that I’ve been quite rude to her: I never really told her anything until three months before I left home! I’m her only child and my leaving for monastic life was hard for both of us.

Though my teachers supported me with many opportunities to go to university, I decided not to go. I was afraid I would be caught in some kind of study that would prevent me from discovering who I am. Finally, I left everything behind and decided to come to Plum Village to give it a try.

When did you become an aspirant?

I returned to Plum Village in November 2000 and became an aspirant on my nineteenth birthday. The sisters advised me to wait a year before ordaining as a novice. I shared a room with two other women—both were Vietnamese and old enough to be my mother and grandmother. We didn’t share a common language and I felt a bit lost, at first. The cultural differences were difficult for me to handle, but the practice we shared helped all three of us to get to know and support one other.

What are your days like now that you have ordained?

When there isn’t a retreat, we practice sitting meditation, chanting, and walking meditation every morning. We study basic Buddhism, chanting, and languages. We gather to listen to Dharma talks on Thursdays and Sundays and once a week we have a lazy day.

I’ve become interested in Christianity since I’ve become a nun. I have met Christian monks and nuns and we share our practices. Between us is born a dialogue (which they call communion), in which each one of us expresses the heart of our tradition.

I have so much fun here, in Plum Village. I feel happy, like I’m really blooming, getting to know myself better and at the same time, serving and getting to know others. I like interacting with people, listening to them, helping. For me it’s more important than a formal practice. I received full ordination in November 2004, exactly four years after I arrived in Plum Village to ordain. There is so much for me to learn, I feel I’ll never stop discovering something new!

Every sister has a mentor who is an elder sister in our community, a guide in the practice. My mentor has been a wonderful example of what true patience and listening are, and we share joy and love for life. Our relationship is sometimes sister-to-sister, sometimes mother-to-daughter, and sometimes simply between friends on this path.

Have you stayed in contact with your old friends in Paris?

They think it’s strange that I’ve become a nun. Some of them think I’m crazy. I’m still in touch with a few friends but none of them have come to visit. Most are indifferent to their church and don’t understand what I’m doing here. For them religion is something that changes your thoughts and takes away your freedom. To me, it is the opposite, it is where freedom begins. An inner freedom, the real one!

mb41-Monks6Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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Book Reviews

mb41-BookReviews1We Walk the Path Together:
Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh & Meister Eckhart

By Brian J. Pierce, O.P.
Orbis Press, 2005

Reviewed by Chan Phap De

This is not another academic comparison of two great mystics; rather, it is a love affair, a meeting of two brothers in the heart of the author. Friar Brian is a Dominican monk and Zen practitioner who has been guided through his own spiritual journey by these two teachers. “Permeated by the flavor of living experience,” comments Bhikshuni Annabel Laity, “this book provides a freshness of insight and the deep humility that we need on the spiritual path.”

After years of reading Thay’s books, the author was finally able to join the Plum Village community for the 2004 winter retreat. He writes, “Meeting Thay and practicing with his monastic community have been a gift that I shall never forget, and in a surprising way, it brought me face to face with Eckhart. I realized with great delight that, through the person of Thay, I was sitting at the feet of both of these beloved teachers, drinking in their teaching in a profound way.”

Focusing mainly on Thay’s teachings in Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, the author explores the common ground between Christianity and Buddhism, finding many intersecting points in the spiritual wisdom of Thay and Eckhart. For example, the following statement of Eckhart’s sounds like Thay: “God’s seed is in us. If it were tended by a good, wise and industrious gardener, it would then flourish all the better, and would grow up to God, whose seed it is, and its fruits would be like God’s own nature. The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree,…the seed of God grows to be God.”

Friar Brian credits the simplicity of Thay’s teachings on the practice of mindfulness and contemplative meditation with helping him understand the theologically rich and dense sermons of Eckhart, who, seven centuries ago, was “easily misunderstood and labeled as dangerous.” Whereas Eckhart emphatically said “What does it avail me that this birth of God is always happening, if it does not happen in me?” Thay simply says, “We are all mothers of the Buddha.” Thay also uses the birthing metaphor: “Waves are born from water. That is why we adopt the language that waves are sons and daughters of water. Water is the father of waves. Water is the mother of waves.”

Thay warns against trying to grab onto the Buddha: “You believe that going to the temple you will see the Buddha, but by doing so you are turning your back on the real Buddha.” Eckhart says, “If a person thinks that he or she will get more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable—that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head and shoving him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it.”

What Thomas Merton said of Eckhart can be said of Thay: “He breathed his own endless vitality into the juiceless formulas of orthodox theology with such charm and passion that the common people heard them gladly.” In this book, Friar Brian taps into the good juices seemingly hidden in the Catholic tradition. He offers meditations on subjects such as suffering, the Cross, the Trinity, baptism, the Mystical Body of Christ, equanimity and grace.

As a former priest, a current Catholic, and a “beginner” monk, I felt great joy in reading this book. It not only helped me tap more deeply into my Catholic roots, it also connected me more deeply with Thay’s teaching. Like Thay, the author has made a significant contribution to helping Christians connect with their roots and spiritual ancestors.

mb41-BookReviews2Pine Gate Meditations

By Ian Prattis & Carolyn Hill

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

The guided meditations and chants offered in this CD come from the weekly practice at Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario. The hour long CD contains two chants, performed by Carolyn Hill, and four guided meditations offered by Ian Prattis.

The two chants, from the Plum Village Chanting Book, are the evening chant and the incense offering (the variation that starts,  “The  fragrance  of  this  incense”).

The guided meditations are each from twelve to fifteen minutes in length, making them a useful way to enjoy an extended guided meditation in solitary or in Sangha. There is a meditation on the Four Brahmaviharas, one on the Five Remembrances, an Earth meditation which helps us be in touch with our connection  to Mother  Earth, and  an Indian based So Hum healing meditation that comes from Ian’s practice in India. Prattis’s soothing voice and the gentle background sounds of water help to bring the hearers into a state of calmness and centeredness.

Though this presentation is rooted in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh practice, it also offers some new ways of exploring our spiritual connections. Ian encourages us to be creative in our use of these chants and meditations, and invites us to share them with family and friends.

A practical tool for Sanghas everywhere, the Pine Gate Meditations can be purchased by check or money order to Ian Prattis and mailed to 1252 Rideout Crescent, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2C 2X7. Costs are $23.00 US, including shipping; $23.50 Canadian. Or contact Ian at iprattis@cyberus.ca.

mb41-BookReviews3What the Stones Remember
A Life Rediscovered

By Patrick Lane
Trumpeter Books, 2005

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

Patrick Lane is a recipient of most of Canada’s top literary awards and considered one of the finest poets of his generation. He has also been an alcoholic and drug addict for over forty years. This book is the story of his first year of recovery as he emerges from a rehabilitation facility.

Lane finds his salvation in his half-acre garden, and shares intimate details of the lives of the flora and fauna that are his closest friends. Month by month, we track with Lane the change of seasons in the garden, and explore his circuitous path to healing and transformation through the gentle but unyielding examination of childhood memories.

The book flows seamlessly between childhood and early adulthood memories, usually painful; brief but sharply aware observations of a body and mind coming out of a lifetime haze of addiction; and intimate observations of the natural world. But perhaps more remarkable is the honesty that comes from deeply chosen words which reflect both the beauty and the pain of this man’s story. Lane tells us what his discovery of language meant to him: “Poetry was more important to me then than food or sleep, my wife or my children. I found my place in the world with language. I was certain that with language I could heal myself and control what surrounded me. If the house should burn down what would be most important was how I would describe the flames the next day. Love for me lay in imagined places, not in the real world. Death’s only dominion was in a poem.”

Walking through these stories with Lane––sitting with him by his pond with a cup of coffee in the early morning; watching the arrival and departure of the many spiders and birds that inhabit this territory; gathering boulders at a far-off quarry––weave this man into the reader’s heart. Though the stories focus mostly on his challenging early family life and his refuge in the natural world, the brief but stark reminders of the addiction he has just stepped out of remind us of his fragility and vulnerability.

In one of the many short paragraphs that sear with the challenge of freeing oneself of addiction, he states, “This is a fearful time for me and this first morning I stare at a whirl of flies and think the mad thoughts of an alcoholic. The absence of others has always meant excess to me. Bottles of vodka clink in my mind like wind chimes. I know my sickness will abate, the sickness of drinking will slip away, but I pray to the garden that I live this one day sober.”

As the months go by, it seems that Lane goes through a softening, an increasing sensitivity to the beings in his world. One story tells of his starting to drive down the road in his pickup, only to discover a small spider in her web on the outside mirror. Knowing that increasing his speed as he approaches the highway would kill this creature, he pulls to the side of the road and finds a place to gently put her in the bushes.

The final garden project is the creation of a meditation garden. Though at first its location is surprising––in the front yard, near the road––this choice seems to represent the final stage of healing, returning to the world, centered and imperturbable.

In this remarkable book, we witness the suffering of one man, healed and transformed through a deep awareness of the world around and within him. A model for us all.

mb41-BookReviews4A Mindful Way
A Simple Guide to Happiness, Peace and Freedom in Eight Weeks

By Jeanie Seward-Magee
Trafford Publishers, 2005

Reviewed by Constance Alexander

A Mindful Way offers an eight-week course combining mindfulness meditation with writing exercises as a means to self-exploration. The three-part program includes a daily ten-to twenty-minute sit with emphasis on breathing, two to four pages of free writing (in the tradition of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), and a nightly gratitude recollection. The layout of the book, wide margins with sidebar quotes from many traditions, makes for easy reading. The central five chapters each take one of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their focus.

The author has practiced in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition for a number of years, and Thay has written an introduction to this book. All profits from the sale of the book go to support Plum Village.

As a practitioner for four years, I decided to undertake this program as a way to deepen my own practice. I like to write—a bonus, given the many writing exercises. For those of us in a post-therapy era of our lives, going back to write about childhood and family may feel like “been there/done that.” However, the author raises enough interesting questions to keep one writing; for example, “Describe your life for the past ten years, but do it as though it’s ten years from now.” Talk about confronting all your hopes, dreams, and fears of the future!

I also enjoyed taking time before bed to remember five things for which I was grateful that day. I realized how often I prepared for sleep feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Remembering the small treasures of the past twenty-four hours and writing them down helped recast things in a brighter light. That little gratitude book became my reverse “to do” list—instead of guiltily reviewing what I hadn’t “crossed off my list,” I could refer to the list of blessings which had been heaped on me (many of which, I realized gratefully, were out of my control).

The author recommends that anyone using this book, if not already in a spiritual community, join with like-minded friends for this eight week journey. I agree. Sharing what arises will sustain and enrich the experience. In the early days of my practice, I dreaded reading the Five Mindfulness Trainings as, coming out of a strict religious background, I tended to see them as the Five Commandments (think stone tablets backlit with flashes of lightning!). It was only in sitting and sharing with my Sangha that I learned the beauty of the Trainings.

The author’s personal reflections, the stories she shares from her life, are an integral part of A Mindful Way. For me, these are sometimes not quite on target as illustrations of her point. This cavil aside, I found A Mindful Way a useful practice tool. It is an ambitious book, seeking to combine a spiritual guide with a more conventional self-help manual. But as such, it may also garner readers who would not otherwise pick up one of Thay’s books. There are many doorways to the practice.

mb41-BookReviews5No Time to Lose
A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva

By Pema Chödrön
Shambhala Publications, 2005

Reviewed by Judith Toy

The night the Buddha died in the tiny village of Kusinara, nearly three hundred bhikkhus lit torches. Until dawn they told stories of the Buddha’s life in the presence of his body in repose, while sal blossoms floated to earth. It was as if the torches symbolized the light of the Buddha himself entering the bodies of his disciples. Pema Chödrön has lit such a torch for us with her book, No Time to Lose, A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, her commentary on the Tibetan Buddhist classic, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacharyavat ara) by Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master from the monastic university of Nalanda, India. The author calls Shantideva’s work “a rhapsody on the wonders of bodhicitta,” the mind of love.

Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group into quatrains with the accessible cadence of iambic pentameter, Shantideva’s words sing: And may the naked now be clothed,/And all the hungry eat their fill./And may those parched with thirst receive/ Pure waters and delicious drink.(10.19) Shining the light of her wisdom on small groups of stanzas, Chödrön brings the twelvecentury old teachings home to present-day Westerners.

The emphatic and pragmatic title gives us a no-nonsense summons to get down to business in our own life and practice. Shantideva and Chödrön encourage us to use our lives to water seeds of love. As we set out on the bodhisattva path to free endless beings from their suffering, Chödrön offers, “Everything we encounter becomes an opportunity to develop the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart.” The authors repeatedly remind us to fall back on our essential Buddha nature.

Chödrön offers a helpful study guide at the end, which is useful while reading. Our Sangha’s aspirants to the Order of Interbeing will use this book as they enter the bodhisattva path. Compared to two previous translations of Shantideva, I found this one the most helpful for its rhythmic, poetic translation and for Chödrön’s down-to-earth commentary. Allen Ginsberg’s translation of the last famous lines of the Heart Sutra captures for me the imperative of this book: “Gone, gone, to the other shore gone, reach (go) enlightenment accomplish!”

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For Abby-Rose, With Love

By Laura Lester Fournier

The night before I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at Stonehill College last August, I sat with friends and together we read the Trainings. I remember taking in every word deeply and contemplating what I was about to commit to. The topic that kept coming up for conversation was found in number five: specifically, “I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant.” For me, there was no question that if I were to commit to that, I would commit to no longer drinking alcohol. My friends, however, found peace in the idea that this is a practice and not a commandment. They did not have to be absolute; they simply needed to approach drinking with more mindfulness—although that in itself seems like a contradiction in terms. Can one ever drink mindfully, given that alcohol is an intoxicant that alters our consciousness?

As we shared our feelings and laughed together, I became crystal clear about my intention. I was no longer going to drink alcohol.

Transforming the Generations

I come from a long line of alcoholics, though I myself am not an alcoholic. I have a strong desire to help transform this disease for my ancestors and for the children who will follow in the generations yet to be born. It occurred to me that although I am not an alcoholic, my beautiful ten-year-old daughter Abby-Rose could be. The moment I realized that my daughter’s very life could be the price I pay if I continued, I felt completely grounded in my intention to no longer drink alcohol. I had a profound opportunity to transform something in me and in my ancestors and potentially in my daughter. It was my chance to shine a light on something that could alter my daughter’s life profoundly. Although I only have a drink once or twice a month, alcohol was still something that I continued to reach for. I could dedicate my decision to my ancestors, my precious child, and all those who suffer with alcoholism.

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The following morning as I stood with my friends listening to Thây’s beautiful voice and hearing the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I felt so proud and sure that I was taking a step that only good would come from.

When I got home, I sat down with Abby and shared with her my decision to no longer drink. I shared how much suffering there has been in our family because of alcoholism and my wish for her for a life that is free from that kind of suffering. She listened quietly and when I was done she reached for me and gave me the longest and deepest hug I have ever received from her. I knew that she understood. I knew that she heard me on a level of spirit, connection, and conviction, beyond words.

The next day, I took my bottle of vodka out of the freezer. I walked to the kitchen sink and held it up to the sunlight shining through the window. As I gazed into the bottle, all I saw in it was suffering, and it caused me to weep. I unscrewed the cap and poured the contents down the drain, breathing deeply and remaining truly present to my commitment. I then walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water. I held the water up to the light streaming through the window and saw nothing but joy and thanksgiving. I drank the water and blessed it with gratitude.

But there was still the liquor cabinet in the family room. Ultimately, all that was left was a bottle of French wine. I thought that was appropriate, given that Plum Village is in France and it felt like a synchronistic connection with the Sangha and Thây. I knew right away what I wanted to do with the bottle. I wanted to return it to the earth. I walked outside to our summer house, a wonderful sanctuary where we have had many celebrations at our home in New Hampshire. The summer house is surrounded by a grove of trees and is very magical. I thought about all the good times we have had there and also about all the times when liquor was a central ingredient in those celebrations.

I knelt on the ground; the sun was shining through the trees, dappling the ground with little moments of radiance. I dug a hole and placed the bottle in it and covered it back up with dirt. I bowed to the earth and placed my hands on the dirt. I felt all my ancestors around me at that moment. I felt their hands on my back and I felt them smiling, I felt their gratitude and their healing. I felt myself healing, too. I knew that the cycle had come full circle—all for the love of one very special little girl, one promise of the future, one Abby-Rose.

A Champagne Flute Full of Joy

Since giving up drinking, I have had the opportunity to really see when I want a drink. There seem to be two times when I crave it. First, when I want to really let my hair down and have a good time! And the other is when I am completely stressed out and want to escape. During those times I miss the feeling I would get from that first sip of alcohol. Instant relaxation. A few sips later, I would not even remember whatever it was that I was stressed or worried about. It was like a mini-vacation.

I did not realize how much I had come to rely on that bottle to give me peace or just take the edge off. I didn’t drink very often, but I knew alcohol was available if I wanted it. Just the thought that I could go to the freezer and get that bottle and escape was sometimes intoxicating enough for me.

Now that I am not drinking I have found myself wondering if I truly am an alcoholic. There have been days when I wanted a drink, because I was stressed or because I wanted to party. That’s when I have an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and go deep into my practice. I get to return to my breath. I get to go home.

I can choose to celebrate and fill my champagne flute with something nourishing and joyful, rather than something that will only cause me more suffering. I have the opportunity to remind myself of ways that I can avoid becoming so stressed. Rather than escaping into a false peace, I can embrace a true peace. A peace that I joyfully pass on to the next generation.

Laura Lester Fournier, Awakened Direction of the Heart, lives on a small farm with lots of animals in New Hampshire, where she facilitates a children’s sangha.

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Letter from the Editor

mb45-LetterFromEditor1Dear Thây, dear Sangha,

The Buddha taught the nature of interbeing. In our own time scientists have discovered the non-local nature of elementary particles. We feel in our daily lives that one nation is deeply connected to all nations of the world — we call this globalization. As Thay travels the world we feel the appropriateness of this way of teaching.

Thay goes to Vietnam and whether we stay behind in the U.S. or buy an air ticket to join the Plum Village delegation in Vietnam, we share in the karma of Thay and Vietnam.

The Grand Offering Ceremonies Bringing Relief without Discrimination from Past Injustice taking place in Vietnam during Thay’s visit are certainly very grand and powerful. Here at home we can set up our own little altar and gather as a family or sangha to read the Five Mindfulness Trainings for the souls of those who laid down their lives willingly and unwillingly during, or as a result of, the war in Vietnam four decades ago. The souls find relief in our own home although it may be far from Vietnam because they are non-local and our commitment to practice sila, the mindfulness trainings, is strengthened. As we gather before the altar our compassion is aroused for beings who are visible or invisible, already born or yet to be born, alive or departed. Here in the U.S. we have our role to play in practicing the mindfulness trainings, so that the tremendous inequity that lies between developing countries like Vietnam and over-developed countries can be redressed.

Still, in developing countries material development is already damaging the spiritual and moral dimension of life as it has done in the overdeveloped countries. With the destruction of this dimension the family breaks up because communication breaks down. Sila no longer has its place. The three spiritual powers — putting an end to the mental poisons, understanding, and love — give way to worldly and material power. Globally we need a practice of redeeming the three spiritual powers; this is what Thay is teaching in Vietnam and teaching the whole world.

We are praying that in August we shall have enough good merit to receive Thay in the U.S. so that Thay can encourage us and show us how to develop the spiritual and moral dimensions and powers in our own lives.

On a local level the Maple Forest Monastery of Vermont will move to the Blue Cliff Monastery of New York at the beginning of May. We hope to see you there in a spacious, beautiful, and comfortable setting at our opening (June 2), Wesak (June 3), OI Retreat (June 29, if you are an ordained OI member), or at our Summer Opening (July 6-20, for anyone who cares to come). Thay has given us the name Blue Cliff, so that we can work on the koan of our life: the koan that has practical meaning in terms of our everyday suffering and obstacles. (The Blue Cliff Monastery in China is the monastery where the most famous record of koans was compiled in the 12th century.)

May the monks and nuns of Maple Forest take this opportunity to thank all of you who are so generously supporting the purchase of this monastery with your material and spiritual support.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Reverence for Life

By Evelyn van de Veen

During the Summer Retreat in Plum Village, I was asked to give a short presentation about how I practice with the First Mindfulness Training, “Reverence for Life.” While I was preparing this presentation, something funny happened. I was sitting with my notebook, thinking about the theme of not killing, of protecting the lives of people and animals, and how I have tried to integrate the practice of the First Mindfulness Training into my life. It was very pleasant, letting my thoughts roam and feeling in touch with the beauty of the aspiration of the training. The bell for the working meditation was invited, and my work happened to be washing lettuce. Within a few minutes I found myself dunking lettuces into white tubs filled with cold water and salt, drowning many tiny insects. In that working meditation, I faced the contrast between my lofty aspirations and the impossibility of fully living up to them.

Dealing with small insects has taught me an interesting lesson. I was brought up to take great care of the well-being of animals. In our house, pets were fed before people. But this care did not extend to small insects such as spiders and mosquitoes. I swatted mosquitoes and vacuumed spiders without thinking about it. After taking the mindfulness trainings, I decided this was one area that needed the focus of my practice. Instead of using the vacuum, I tried to entice spiders to walk onto a piece of paper so I could put them outside. Or I would carefully cup my two hands around them and carry them that way, feeling their legs tickle the palms of my hands.

And then I noticed something. I had never been afraid of spiders (at least not the smallish ones you find in Europe), but I didn’t particularly like them. I was indifferent about them. But treating them with more care created a connection. As I watch a spider scurry off after I release it outside, I get a wonderful warm feeling of satisfaction and tenderness. It is as if the tenderness with which I treat the spider is also tenderness toward myself. I discovered that by being kind to a spider, I watered my own seeds of happiness. Being nice to spiders is not only good for them; it’s also very good for me!

Not every small animal is safe with me. Occasionally, I swat a buzzing mosquito that keeps me awake at night and refuses to fly out the window. I use an organic spray to kill the lice that eat my plants. I drowned tiny insects so we could all eat clean lettuce leaves. And so the list goes on. However, making a small change in my behaviour has taught me a valuable lesson about the close connection between actions and feelings, and about the value of trying to put the mindfulness trainings into practice in daily life, however imperfectly.

When I first came across the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I felt it was pointless to promise to try to do things that I knew were impossible. But I have changed my mind about this. A manager of the London Underground once said in an interview that their policy was to completely eliminate the chance of fatal accidents.

When the journalist commented that surely that was impossible, the manager replied, “Of course it’s impossible, but we cannot do otherwise than strive for it anyway. You can’t have as an official policy that one death a year is acceptable.”

I have begun to see the mindfulness trainings in the same way. The goal may be impossible, but it’s not an option to have a goal that is less ambitious.

mb65-Reverence1Evelyn van de Veen, Shining Strength of the Heart, lives in Amsterdam and works as a teacher trainer in higher education. She visited Plum Village for the first time in 1999 and has been coming back ever since. She practises with the Amsterdam Sangha.

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Retreating to My Roots

By Loan To Phan

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I am a Vietnamese-born Australian citizen. While attending a winter retreat at Plum Village in November 2007, I got in touch with my ancestral roots on a level that over the last twenty-three years has been unacknowledged and unexplored, almost foreign. “Boi dap goc re, khai thong suoi nguon” (nourishing our roots, clearing our streams) were the themes at Plum Village that awoke a deep gratitude and curiosity about my blood ancestors. I realized that my existence came from a life force that runs through my parents, grandparents, and continuing back and back through many generations before them.

Growing up in a generally individualistic society has distanced me from my roots. Ironically, this has created a blank space that allows me to bring a beginner’s mind to explore and understand myself through knowing my ancestors. What better way to find answers to these questions than a trip to Vietnam?! And what better conditions than Buddhist retreats — with opportunities to deeply contemplate myself and hence my ancestors in me?! It was particularly meaningful to be able to do this with my parents.

Dharma Rain at Bat Nha

The first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh or Thay (Vietnamese for Teacher) was a five-day retreat at Prajna Monastery in Bao Loc, Lam Dong province. The spacious monastery and temperate weather of the green highlands near central Vietnam were ideal conditions for practice. In total there were approximate 3500 people of all ages attending this retreat. I was surprised to see so many young people there, some as young as fifteen — students and young people working in business, film industry, social work, health, etc. They all shared a search for meaning as well as relief from the difficulties faced in their increasingly demanding and pressured  environment.

Vietnamese people really enjoy socializing; in particular they like to be lively and vocal. However, during meals together and walking meditation all one could hear were the click-clacking of plastic cutlery and crockery, or the melodies of bird songs and rustling of leaves.

Thay spoke lovingly to the young people about having ideals and purpose in life, recounted funny love stories, and explained how having values or guiding principles as outlined in the Five Mindfulness Trainings can help restore and improve the quality of our relationships. He urged the young people to be determined and diligent in their practice of returning to the present moment by focusing on their breathing as they go about daily tasks. He explained how to listen deeply to cultivate understanding and Beginning Anew, a practice of reconciliation and expressing hurt in a constructive way. Brother Phap An gave a compelling account of his personal experience in dealing with a block of suffering he had gained during his childhood as a result of the war. Brother Nguyen Hai’s explanation on the Five Mindfulness Trainings contributed to inspiring about a third of participants to take the commitment to study and practice the Mindfulness Trainings and take refuge in the Three Jewels.

The regular afternoon exercise time came to life with traditional Vietnamese games such as bamboo stick jumping and Vietnamese hacky-sack, singing songs of meditation and joyful practice, or just walking around the beautiful gardens of Prajna.

The question-and-answer session contained some queries about forming and maintaining a Sangha for young people.

As a Viet-kieu I was impressed at the openness, depth and wisdom my young Vietnamese friends had drawn from their experiences. For some, Thay’s Dharma talk was a confirmation of their hard-earned life lessons, while for others the retreat planted a seed of curiosity about what it means to live engaged Buddhism.

The pouring monsoon, symbolising Dharma rain, came down generously as we shared deeply our experiences of life’s challenges and successes during Dharma discussion groups. The tents that we slept in became soaked but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We just rolled up our sleeping mats and joined the snoring choruses of the “young at heart” participants in the main meditation hall. In fact, the hard floor, lack of sleep (because it was colder than expected so some of us could not get good sleep) actually made our memories of the joy and peace in newly found friendship even more memorable!

Retreat for the Young People of Hanoi

Continuing their tour to the north, Thay and the Plum Village delegation held another four-day retreat for the young people of Hanoi, at Bang Temple, Hoang Mai province. Bang Temple was still under construction when over a thousand people crammed into its grounds, overtaxing its already limited accommodation and sanitary facilities. I was particularly moved to see elderly women bent over from their hard laboured life as well as young people from well-to-do families determined to receive the Dharma so much that again, the wet weather, hard floors, simple meals did not deter them from fully participating in the mindful practices.

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My Dad, who only attended the last session and lunch, was moved to tears by the collective energy of the four-fold Sangha eating mindfully. The walking meditation through the narrow local streets brought curious faces to the doors, preschool children offering their joined palms in respect and bright smiles as the river of Sangha flowed past, silent and reverent.

A highlight of this retreat was the session between young people and young monastics of Western and Vietnamese background. There was lively singing that accompanied eager questions about monastic life and faith. These questions illustrated the young people’s collective responsibility through concerns about their future as a generation facing the challenge of living in a society with increasing materialism and consumerism, corroding morality, and where Buddhism is a religion rather than a way of life and practice. The question-and-answer session with Thay was also dominated by questions from young retreatants about monastic aspirations and how to deal with the tribulations of romantic love.

Busy Hotel to Tranquil Monastery

There couldn’t be more of a contrast between the last two retreats and the twelve-day retreat titled “Engaged Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century” held at the Kim Lien Hotel in central Hanoi. This included the UN Day of Vesak 2008 and a three-day conference on the theme “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civil Society.”

I went from a traditional incense-perfumed, spiritual environment with austere facilities to a relatively affluent, Western, secular hotel in downtown Hanoi. From sleeping on the floor and using squat toilets to serviced beds in air-conditioned rooms — I realised how attached I am to Western creature comforts! I am amazed at how in both of these environments the mindful practices can create wonderful and joyful energies, which confirms the universal nature of the Buddha’s teachings.

I am blown away at how a few simple collective practices of over four hundred participants from forty-one different countries can transform a busy worldly hotel into a tranquil monastery (not that there are any real differences in the ultimate sense!).

This retreat was special in that there was an ordination ceremony for the Order of Interbeing with over fifty people committing themselves to living the Fourteen Precepts, and close to one hundred taking refuge in the Three Jewels and Five Mindfulness Trainings.

After a week of solid practice one young person felt glad to call the hotel “home” after spending a day out in the hectic streets of Hanoi. Other under-thirty-five-year-old participants reported that their discussion groups provided an open, safe, and honest context where young monastics were accessible to lay friends, and together we listened and shared deeply our inner suffering, challenges, and experiences in living the Buddhist teachings. These were precious moments where we felt connected and supported to express ourselves; we could practice being the change we want to see in our lives and relationships with others.

The whole Sangha really flowed and practiced as one body as we did walking meditation around the beautiful Hoan Kiem (Returning Sword) Lake. Physically we must have looked quite impressive, all wearing the uniform grey robes or brown of the monastics, walking with each step contemplating the gatha: “Life is every step. Healing is every step. Miracle. Freedom.”

We ate together in silence and stayed within the hotel compound to preserve the wonderful collective energy, which was contagious as the hotel staff reciprocated our calm and respectful manners.

In his Dharma talks Thay warmly and humourously talked about the Four Noble Truths, Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Four Practices of True Diligence, and Three Doors Liberation. His presentation was always captivating, down to earth, and relevant to the current times, so that we could see daily applications.

Equipped with a week’s solid practice and new-found friendship and connectedness we attended the UN Day of Vesak 2008 with a strong and wonderful collective energy that moved and inspired other conference participants.

May all find a Sangha and flow as a river of clarity and freshness.

Loan To Phan, Tam Tu Hoa (Loving Harmony of the Heart), lives with her parents in Brisbane, Australia. She practices with the Solid and Free Sangha (Vung Chai Thanh Thoi) while working as a psychologist in a mental health service.

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New Trainings for a New Generation

mb52-New1This new version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings has been developed by Thay and the Plum Village Sangha in a series of Dharma talks followed by Dharma discussions during the three-month winter retreat, the week-long French retreat, and the three-week June retreat, in 2008 and 2009 in Plum Village.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

Sisters and brothers in the community, this is the moment when we enjoy reciting the Five Mindfulness Trainings together. The Five Mindfulness Trainings represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality and ethic. They are a concrete expression of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path of right understanding and true love, leading to healing, transformation, and happiness for ourselves and for the world. To practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings is to cultivate the insight of interbeing, or Right View, which can remove all discrimination, intolerance, anger, fear, and despair. If we live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva. Knowing we are on that path, we are not lost in confusion about our life in the present or in fears about the future.

1.       Reverence for Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

2.       True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

3.       True Love

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

4.       Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

5.       Nourishment and Healing

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 practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

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One Rock Star is Not Enough

By Angelina Chin

I came back from the Colorado retreat totally transformed. Before the trip to Colorado I’d read several of Thay’s books but had never been to a retreat or practiced with his Sangha before. Nor had I ever met Thay in person.

To be honest, when I arrived the first evening and realized that Thay was not there, I was very disappointed and felt cheated. I even told one friend that it was as if I had gone to a rock concert but the rock star had bailed out!

I was a night owl, so I couldn’t fall asleep on my first night, and by the time I finally felt sleepy it was time to get up to do walking meditation. It was very difficult for me to keep up with the activities of the first two days. Because of the lack of sleep, I slept through the Dharma talks. And while many of the Sangha members found the food to be quite decent, I didn’t enjoy it during the first two days. I wasn’t used to a vegan diet. Of course I practiced eating meditation, but the more I meditated, the more I thought about the food I enjoyed outside the retreat. I also formed negative perceptions of some Sangha members.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to me in the following days, but gradually I found myself enjoying every moment of the retreat. I think the wonderful songs were a great help. It was very healing to be able to sing and practice with a Sangha of nearly 1,000 people. Everyone was so friendly, focused and happy. It was very comforting to me, especially because I grew up in a different cultural environment and always have felt racial and gender discrimination around me. Toward the end of the retreat I became quite mindful. The food became tastier. Before the retreat I had only known Thay’s works by their titles, but his teachings really sank in during the retreat.

After a few days I began to realize that Thay’s physical absence was a good lesson in itself. It had been so silly of me to compare the retreat to a rock concert! I’d attended the retreat to practice mindfulness, not to look for the rock star! I think because Thay was not there, the members were less attached to his presence and became more focused on the practice itself. I did feel Thay’s spiritual presence, and I missed him very much. But I also want to express my gratitude to the monastic brothers and sisters who tried so hard to make the retreat possible. It must have been a great deal of pressure on them. I could totally see both the Buddha and Thay in all of them! Thank you, Thay, for training our future teachers.

I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings on the last day. I hadn’t planned to do so. But since the day after the retreat was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate my transformation (rebirth?) and show my commitment to becoming more mindful, I decided to receive them. I also was given a beautiful Dharma name—Wonderful Fragrance of the Heart. I felt peaceful when I left Colorado.

Here are a few of the ways my life has changed since the retreat:

  • I had insomnia before, and couldn’t get up until around 10:00 a.m. Now the insomnia has been cured and I wake up at 7:00 every morning.
  • I practice walking meditation every day.
  • I’ve cut down my meat and seafood consumption by 40%. I’ve also decided not to cook meat at home.
  • I try not to kill any living beings.
  • I can concentrate much better at meetings.
  • I’ve practiced “beginning anew” with friends. These friendships are now better than ever. I will continue to listen to them with my heart.
  • I used to have an inferiority complex, which had been affecting my life in many ways. Now I am more aware of my mental formations and try not to water my negative seeds. Life is more pleasant and I feel more confident and engaged.
  • I’ve become less judgmental of others and have built new relationships!
  • I drive more mindfully. I think I’m a safer driver now.
  • I’ve witnessed some improvement in my meditation and breathing practices.
  • Even though negative emotions still visit me frequently, I’ve learned to be patient and try my best to take care of them.

I was so inspired that I attended a Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery for the first time and finally met Thay! It was a blessing.

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Angelina Chin, Wonderful Fragrance of the Heart, lives in Southern California. She was born and grew up in Hong Kong. She teaches East Asian history at Pomona College.

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The German Maitreya Fonds

Helping Our Sisters and Brothers in Vietnam

By Eva K. Neumaier

For a period that seemed longer than it really was, we were squeezed together in a small bus, rocking along over a pothole-strewn gravel road on the way to a village near the Vietnamese coast. After a wonderful retreat under the guidance of Thay, our much honored and beloved teacher, and a splendid celebration of Vesak 2008, we were eager to learn more about Thay’s native land and her people. We were about to visit a poverty-stricken area where the Maitreya Fonds (Maitreya Funds) supports children’s day care facilities.

 

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Sitting near me on the bus, fellow retreatants asked about the Maitreya Fonds. Everybody on the bus was interested in learning more about this aid project. I explained that the Maitreya Fonds was created by the late Karl Schmied in Germany in 1992, in response to the poverty widespread among rural communities in Vietnam. Under the leadership of Christian Kaufl, a small group of dedicated volunteers—all students of Thay—has come together, working hard to raise funds to finance various projects in Vietnam. I promised to provide my fellow retreatants with more information once I returned to Germany.

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Kindergarten Is a Privilege

With a sharp jolt our bus came to a stop and retreatants from all over the world poured into the tiny coastal village of Phu An. Children crowded around us, eyes wide with excitement. Sister Chan Khong provided the basic facts about the kindergarten and the dire circumstances of life the parents and their children face.

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The kindergarten consists of one room with tables and benches made from roughly hewn boards; a thatched roof provides minimal protection from the scorching sun and constant downpours. There are no extra amenities in this room, nothing that is not absolutely necessary, and yet for the village children it is a privilege to attend the kindergarten. It means that they are not left to their own devices to forage for edibles in the fields while their parents look for work wherever they can find it as hired laborers.

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The children formed a circle and, led by their teachers, sang several songs. We returned to the bus, leaving with a mixture of feelings. On one hand, we were happy that the children were able to enjoy some education, care, and love, but on the other hand we were saddened by the magnitude of poverty and need in this country.

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When I returned to Germany, I decided to be one of the volunteers working for the Maitreya Fonds, providing help to those so greatly in need in Vietnam—a humble way of showing my deep gratitude to our teacher and our spiritual ancestors. It took almost a year for me to pull together the information for my fellow retreatants on that bus. Assuming most of them will read the Mindfulness Bell, I am summarizing our work for them and any other readers here.

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Where Help Is Needed

The Maitreya Fonds is a charitable association registered with the German government. All the work is done by eleven volunteers. Some of them visit the various projects in Vietnam on an annual basis, covering all their travel expenses themselves. Therefore only two percent of raised funds are needed to cover administrative costs, which consist mostly of banking fees for transferring money. On his annual visits to Vietnam, Christian Kaufl meets with social workers who are members of the Thien Hiep (Interbeing) Order, to learn about the progress made with some projects and newly-arisen needs in other areas.

The work of the Maitreya Fonds is possible only through the close cooperation of the volunteers in Germany with Plum Village and the social workers in Vietnam. The Vietnamese social workers understand where the need is most severe and where help is needed and possible, and propose projects for funding to the Maitreya Fonds accordingly. In mutual consultation with the social workers in Vietnam and Plum Village, the Board decides which projects will be funded. The work of the German volunteers consists primarily in raising the necessary money to fund the projects. On average we raise about $420,000 annually.

Our work is firmly grounded in the principles of engaged Buddhism as taught by Thay. Our basic philosophy is to assist people in gaining self-sufficiency. We believe that education and vocational training are the basis for improving one’s life. A severe problem in Vietnam is that teachers and social workers are paid less in rural areas than in urban ones, resulting in widespread teacher migration from the villages to the big urban centers, leaving rural communities destitute of educators. Therefore, a signifi     portion of Maitreya Fonds money goes to covering the salaries of teachers and social workers so that they may remain in rural areas where they are urgently needed. We also provide vocational training in sewing, carpentry, and computer technology, so that individuals will be able to support themselves and their families.

Another big project consists of providing children with supplementary food while they attend school or kindergarten. In general, parents must pay for the lunches their children get at school, but many parents lack the money. As a result, some children remain unfed while watching their peers eat. The Maitreya Fonds tries to cover this inequity, but sadly, at present we cannot provide adequate food for all the children in the schools and kindergartens we support.

Facilitating children’s education also requires basic physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and buildings which are sturdy enough to withstand the regular flooding during the annual rainy season. The Maitreya Fonds offers modern know-how to local builders and craftsmen to ensure that financial aid is spent in the most efficient and sustainable way.

While in general the Vietnamese honor and care for their aged parents and grandparents, there are situations in which elderly people cannot rely on the help and love of younger ones. In addition, lepers, shunned by most as outcasts, cannot look after themselves and are without hope. The Maitreya Fonds provides basic care for these two groups to ensure that these unfortunate people have a decent, humane life.

Without doubt, the material aid is much needed and also highly appreciated. But more precious than the material support is the education of children according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. In every kindergarten, the children are gently introduced to the practice of mindfulness. Teachers and social workers celebrate a monthly Day of Mindfulness with the children, an occasion of singing and joyful togetherness. Beginning at a tender age, children learn to abstain from opinionated and biased behavior, replacing anger with love and understanding. Thus the ideological rift that has caused so much pain to the people of Vietnam finds no breeding ground among this younger generation. The aid provided by the Maitreya Fonds is based on the practice of mindfulness, love, and understanding, setting it apart from other charitable operations in Vietnam.

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Among our first efforts at the Maitreya Fonds was the creation of an informative website in German, which was later translated into English and Vietnamese. All of the vital information is available there (www.maitreya-fonds.de) in all three languages, including past and present budgets and annual reports. The website provides all the necessary details for an easy, secure means, grounded in the Five Mindfulness Trainings, of supporting children and other destitute people in Vietnam. We welcome your support of Plum Village or the Maitreya Fonds, to reduce poverty in the home country of Thich Nhat Hanh.

For more information please contact Maitreya Fonds (www.maitreya-fonds.de).

mb53-TheGerman8Eva Neumaier, Peaceful Spring of the Heart, was born in Germany in 1937. She has studied Indian and Tibetan languages and taught in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.

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Mindful In Any Weather

By Frank Doyle

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I work as a postman in South East England. My workplace consists of a small, quiet sorting office for the first part of the day, and then the High Street and the narrow streets that lead off it for the rest of the day.

I’ve been doing this job since 1979. Years ago, I worked in a larger office in a nearby town, and that was a much noisier place to be, particularly at 5:00 a.m. when we started work.You wouldn’t think that we had all just woken up. In fact, when one man began working there, he remarked that he thought he had stumbled upon the annex to a lunatic asylum: music playing, shouting, insults (mostly friendly), laughter, complaints, arguments with management, none of it at all mindful. When I think back to how I behaved myself at that time, oh dear! But, as we all behaved very much in the same way, no one could see anything wrong with it.

The first time I heard about mindfulness was around 1990, when I came across a book called When the Iron Eagle Flies by Ayya Khema. The author wrote about washing dishes while washing dishes, quoting the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. This was the first time I had heard of Thay. I can remember thinking that this was an interesting idea—washing dishes while washing dishes. Ultimately, it meant being mindful all the time, something I thought only an enlightened person could do.

Having found out about Thay, I went in search of some of his books, in which he explains how mindfulness works, and that it is possible to be mindful of everything we do; we just have to practice, quite a lot.

I am now working in our reasonably quiet little office by the sea. Over time, since I have been studying Thay’s teachings and have become more committed to Dharma practice, I can see that mindfulness helps me to be more aware of what I am thinking, saying, feeling, and doing. It has helped me to accept things as they are much more easily.

As an example, I might feel that I am not happy with having to be at work, delivering mail in the wind and rain on a winter’s day. But by being mindful, I can become aware of the feelings in my body and the thoughts in my head, and say, “These are just thoughts and feelings; I don’t have to believe them; they will change anyway.” The remarkable thing is that they begin to diminish and fade away. “Hey! This really works,” I remember thinking once. Gradually, with much practice, I have been able to exchange negative thoughts and feelings for more positive ones. Now I can enjoy the work a lot more regardless of the weather; in fact, I quite like the days when the weather is really wild.

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What has helped me most is being able to practice with Dharma friends. I attended an extended Day of Mindfulness led by Brother Michael at New Barn, South West England, in September 1997. The practice, the warm welcome, new friends, walking meditation in the fields, and the sound of the bell bringing us back to the present moment, all made me feel truly at home.

When I arrived back home and back at work, I decided that I would remember the sound of the bell at a couple of places on my delivery, where I could stop for a few moments, take three mindful breaths, or more, and try and be present for myself. Just stopping and taking three breaths has a wonderful effect, bringing me back to awareness, and so I am refreshed and ready to continue on my way.

At a recent retreat led by Sister Annabel, also at New Barn, she spoke about a pebble she carries in her pocket. When she feels it there, it reminds her to breathe mindfully. When she spoke about it I thought of a pebble I had at home that would be just right to use. Now I keep it in my pocket and use it during the day. It’s a reminder not only to breathe but also to come back to awareness.

On the last day of the retreat I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I knew that I needed to work on the fourth training, concerning mindful speech and deep listening. Mindful speech was something I felt I should be more aware of. The workplace is where I can be least mindful of what I say. Some of the topics and the language used may be acceptable to a degree in my working environment, but not anywhere else. I may find myself taking part in a conversation at work, using language that is unacceptable, and being the loudest voice, but I now am able to see what I am doing much more quickly. I’m able to see how I am watering the negative seeds within and how they affect me as they rise up. If I am aware enough, I will stop. And then, eventually, I won’t take part in unmindful speech in the first place.

mb53-Mindful3Frank Doyle, Wonderful Sharing of the Heart, took Thay’s advice and started a Sangha in South East England, called the Folkestone and Hythe Sangha. He also practices with Deep Listening Sangha, a telephone conference Sangha in the UK.

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Media Reviews

mb53-MediaReviews1Happiness
Essential Mindfulness Practices

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2009
Softcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

This book is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for longtime practitioners, beginners, anyone who is curious about the practice of mindfulness. Happiness summarizes in concise, clear chapters what Thay has been teaching for the last sixty years.

It also answers, for me, the question of what the word “practice” means in our tradition. Several years ago, twenty or so lay people gathered at Plum Village to consider the idea of a lay community. It soon became clear that people had vastly different meanings when they spoke of “practice.” Some meant formal sitting meditation, chanting, reciting sutras. And while those activities can enhance our experience of the Dharma, they are not the essence of our daily practice. “Mindfulness,” writes Thay in the introduction, “is the energy of being aware and awake to the present. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment…. The practice of stopping is crucial. How do we stop? We stop by means of our in-breath, our out-breath, and our step. If you master these practices, then you can practice mindful eating, mindful drinking, mindful cooking, mindful driving, and so on, and you are always in the here and the now.”

The book is divided into six sections; each short chapter is a gem. “Daily Practices” covers the basics, such as breathing, sitting and walking meditation, bowing, gathas, and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. “Eating Practices” and “Physical Practices” are guidelines for caring for body and soul. The section on “Relationship and Community Practices” describes how to start and maintain a Sangha. It also offers techniques for creating healthy relationships, such as beginning anew, hugging meditation, deep listening, and loving speech. Several pages are devoted to anger and other strong emotions.

Some “Exended Practices” include solitude and silence, as well as lazy day, touching the earth, metta/love meditation, and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The section on “Practicing with Children” contains many useful tips for parents and teachers: listening to young people, walking meditation with children, the breathing room, and so on.

These are familiar teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh, which many of us have heard in Dharma talks or read in other books. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to read them again and again, because we might need to be reminded to actually practice them. And they really do work! I can vouch for that. Even practicing as unskillfully as I have, has made a huge difference in my life. In the six years since I committed myself wholeheartedly to Thay’s tradition, I have experienced deep healing and transformation. I am far happier than ever before.

Happiness is aptly titled. “We have a rich inheritance, but we don’t know it,” writes Thay at the end of the book. “We behave as if we were poor; a destitute son or daughter. Instead we can recognize that we have a treasure of enlightenment, understanding, love, and joy inside us. It’s time to go back to receive our inheritance. These practices can help us claim it.”

mb53-MediaReviews2Savor
Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung
HarperOne, March 2010
Hardback, 256 pages

Reviewed by Sister Chau Nghiem (Sister Jewel)

Two out of three people in the United States are overweight and one in three is obese. Obesity is becoming a pandemic around the globe. Most methods of weight loss focus on the symptoms, not the root of the problem, which lies not only in our way of thinking and living as individuals, but very much in the increasingly unhealthy and toxic societies in which we live, which encourage us to eat more, to eat foods that undermine our health, and to move less.

Based on both the profound Buddhist wisdom of mindfulness as well as the latest science on nutrition, this book by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung offers a new and penetrating perspective on how we arrived at our current weight problem and what we can do to reverse it, individually and collectively. The authors gracefully apply the teachings on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Four Nutriments, and other key Buddhist teachings to help readers understand and transform the suffering of excess weight and obesity.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, of the Harvard School of Public Health, compassionately and engagingly encourage readers to have faith in their ability to change and improve their life situation, no matter what difficulties they may have had in the past around weight loss. With the latest data on the health and environmental benefits of a more plant-based diet, meditative verses that help us incorporate mindfulness in all our activities, detailed guidelines for creating and implementing a mindful living plan that incorporates weekly goals for eating, exercising, and living more mindfully, and inspiring stories and suggestions for social activism, the book is packed with a wealth of resources for how to begin to make significant and lasting changes in our weight, in our life, and in the world, starting now.

mb53-MediaReviews3Failsafe
Saving the Earth from Ourselves

By Ian Prattis
Manor House Publishing, 2008
Paperback, 192 pages

Reviewed by Christopher Titmuss (excerpted with permission from www.resurgence.org)

Ian Prattis, a former professor of Anthropology and Religion at Carleton University, Canada, belongs to a growing school of thought that believes humanity requires a real shift in consciousness to handle the global crises—environmental, political, and economic. A core tenet of Failsafe: Saving the Earth from Ourselves is the simple maxim that our thinking has to change if the current worldview is to change.

Under the guidance of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Prattis states that the three poisons of the mind (to quote the Buddha) have become institutionalized. Greed pervades the corporate world. Hate pervades the military. Delusion pervades advertising. The poisoning of land, water, and air, and the catastrophes for the world’s poor and marginalized have their origins in the state of mind of those who run our institutions and their intentions to make profit, act violently upon people and the earth, and manipulate the public mind. There are signs of soul-searching in our major institutions, but the pace is painfully slow.

Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru, told Prattis that only two percent of the global population needs to meditate on a daily basis to transform human consciousness. Prattis endorses such a view and encourages people to slow down their relentless “doing” in order to experience a sense of “being”: a slowing down of thought, making it possible for fresh ways of thinking to emerge.

The book serves as a valuable collection of reflections on global issues and the part each one of us can play in making the necessary changes. While drawing on the wisdom of various authorities, past and present, Failsafe reminds us of the Buddha’s recipe for global ills—namely mindfulness, letting go, reflection, inner change, watching desire, inter-connection, and the transformation of consciousness.

Prattis writes that he remains “confident and optimistic about making the world a better place environmentally.” He has usefully employed his own experiences, the wise voices of others, and practical advice to address concerns about life on Earth. Failsafe concludes with a list of useful websites that inform and inspire further exploration.

mb53-MediaReviews4Touch the Earth

By Joe Reilly
CD, 40 minutes

Reviewed by Nicole Brossman

Touch the Earth showcases true genre diversity, taking listeners through an intriguing landscape of rock, hip-hop, country, eco-rock, and meditative balladry. Reilly’s honest voice and consistent message have the unique ability to pull the eclectic mix together. With his Native American heritage, roots and upbringing in contemporary Catholic folk music, ever-deepening understanding of life through Buddhist meditation practice, and academic studies in environmental justice and racism, Joe Reilly is able to unite people across diverse lines of race, class, gender, age, religion, ability, and musical genre.

While listening to Touch the Earth, listeners are able to engage in lyrical discussions of ecological cycles, meditation, global warming, war, and spirituality with an open mind. Reilly’s music strengthens community while embracing diversity, inspiring listeners to experience the interconnection with one another and their environment, and inviting them to look deeper and connect with the positive aspects in their own nature. This is exemplified when he asks, in the title song, “Where’s the Earth?,” then answers, “in your hands, underneath your feet right where you stand…. It’s what you eat. Take off your shoes and socks and sink your feet in the mud of the Earth, it’s the blood of your birth.”

Reilly is a practitioner in the Plum Village tradition, and practices with the Huron River Sangha in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He also practices at Deer Park Monastery, where he received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2004, with the Dharma name True Faith of the Heart. He has visited Plum Village twice, and wrote many of the songs on Touch the Earth while he was there. It’s clear from the first track of the album, when Reilly sings “Keep it E-A-S-Y,” that his songwriting invites listeners to smile, laugh, and sing along with him. Reilly’s creativity brings both humor and depth to things that seem very ordinary. Through his songs we learn that a tree, a tomato, a guitar, and a human being are not separate and isolated.

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The Wisdom of Ordinary Children

By Mike Bell

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I started learning to meditate in the late 1980s and went on my first retreat with Thay around 1992. I joined the Order of Interbeing in 1996. By 1999 I was looking for a new career and decided to take up teaching. I found I had less time to go to local Sangha meetings and so spent more time integrating the practice into my everyday life.

Mindfulness Trainings: Guidelines for a Better Life

I first thought about trying to use Buddhist ideas in the classroom while teaching a General Studies class of sixth formers (sixteen-year-olds). We had been talking about ethics. I remembered hearing that if you ask a group of schoolchildren about the things that upset people at school, and then ask them to come up with rules to prevent these things from happening, they will naturally generate the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided to give it a try.

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I asked the pupils to write down one or two things that had made them unhappy at school. They read their ideas out loud, and I wrote them on the board. The most common reason that people get upset in school is because of things others say, and particularly, being talked about behind their backs. I asked the pupils to group the ideas into categories and, finally, to come up with a rule that they might be prepared to follow to prevent these things from happening.

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It soon became clear that this exercise was going to work, but not quite as I had anticipated. The pupils came up with a list of what they called “Rules for a Happy Society,” which included:

  1. Consideration for others—no discrimination on the basis of age, sex, religion, or disability.
  2. No stealing
  3. No hurting, violation, or murder.
  4. Protection for religions and cultures.
    Accept a reasonable level of risk—do not look for blame.
  5. Welcome asylum-seekers, but deport illegal immigrants.
  6. Make facilities available for people of all ages.
  7. Limit the use of addictive drugs.

I noticed the importance to young people of tolerance: religions, musical tastes, fashions, and sexuality were all mentioned in our class discussion as objects of tolerance.

I have tried the same exercise with twelve-year-olds. I introduce the practice as “the science of happiness,” and tell them not to believe what I tell them, just to examine the facts. On one occasion, without any prompting, they did indeed group their concerns into the same five areas as the precepts: violence, stealing, speech, sexual misconduct, and consumption. I found from experience that I needed to include a second question, such as: “What things that you eat, buy, or consume can make you or other people unhappy?” Once prompted, they easily came up with overeating, getting drunk, and using drugs.

Mindfulness Practice: Calming Your Mind

I have several times tried to adapt our mindfulness practice to the classroom. I introduce these ideas as ways to calm your mind, to stop from worrying, to think more clearly, or to help you focus. Initially I thought I would follow Thay’s idea of the “pebble meditation”: moving five pebbles from hand to hand as you breathe in and out. I then realised that if I sent thirty pupils out of the classroom to collect five pieces of gravel from the driveway, I would really not end up with a meditation lesson! So first I tried using five pencils. Unfortunately, not every child has five pencils, and pencils come with some disadvantages—they take a lot of tidying up, they lend themselves to tapping, and they fall on the floor—so I decided to invent a simpler system. This is the five-finger meditation.

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You start with the index finger of one hand resting on the wrist of the other hand, just below the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the thumb. Breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the first finger; breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of that finger, etc. With nothing to fall on the floor, this system has worked reasonably well.

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Slow walking meditation around the outside of the classroom was less successful— too many pupils did silly things, giggled, and poked each other. However, walking meditation has really worked with children who are being bullied.

I point out that bullies are people who enjoy seeing somebody else upset, so the trick is to not give them any idea that you are upset. I have shown several pupils how to bring their attention down to the contact point between their feet and the ground and how to keep their focus there as they walk across the playground, not allowing any change in expression when somebody makes a taunting comment. I have observed a change in two or three pupils. One girl, who would stop behind to tell me how horrible people were, now stops and tells me something else!

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After I taught these exercises to one or two classes, a group of rather unruly boys asked me if I would teach them meditation. I told them that I would only do it with classes that I knew and only if everybody agreed to participate. I never expected the boys to be able to be quiet enough to do it. But each lesson they kept asking, so I decided to give it a try. To my amazement, they did quite well, with one particular boy practising extremely well. I asked him whether he did any activities that were repetitive and that required focusing his mind. He told me that he was a cross-country runner and that when he was running, he often paid attention to the feeling in his legs. He had no trouble sitting still without fidgeting, clearly focused for much longer than the other pupils.

On the day of their exams, I was waiting with my pupils outside the examination hall when two of them asked if they could do the relaxation practice again. (I had told them it would help them with their exam.) A group of five or six started breathing meditation. One of their friends came over. “What you lot doin’?” he asked in a jeering voice. One of my pupils immediately replied, “Meditating. Sir taught us… and it’s gonna make us better in our exam, so you can shu’ up!”

Can We Live by Ourselves Alone?

This year I was planning to teach eleven-year-olds about the characteristics of living things. I asked the technician to bring me a green plant and a large stone. Showing these items to the pupils, I asked them what would happen if I put the stone in a cupboard and left it for a year and took it out again. They had no trouble telling me that the stone would be roughly as it was before—perhaps a little dusty or even mouldy, but basically the same. When I asked them what would happen to the plant if it were kept in a cupboard for a year, they readily agreed that the plant would be dead, all rotten or all brown. I then asked them what the plant needed that the stone didn’t, and they said that it needed light and water and stuff from the soil. They copied my diagram and labelled it with things the plant needed. I then asked them what the plant needed to be happy, and they were clear that it needed more sunlight, more water, and more nutrients. I asked them what the difference was between the stone and the plant, and they came up with the general idea that the plant “cannot live by itself alone.”

I then asked what would happen if the pupils were shut in a cupboard for a year (pointing out that I had no intention of doing this!). They easily agreed that they would be dead and rotten and smelly. I asked them what they needed to stay alive, and they first thought of food, water, and air; they soon added friends, family, and a house. They were ready to acknowledge that they could not live by themselves alone. I then asked them what they needed to be happy, and again they had no trouble listing the things that would help them. I asked them whether they thought the plant was separate from the water and the sunshine and the soil. This needed a little more thought, but they eventually agreed that the plant was not separate. I asked them if they were separate from their family and the air and the rain. They had no trouble with the idea that they were not separate. I asked what they needed to do to make sure that they were happy, and they decided that they needed to look after their family and the environment in order to be happy.

These experiences suggest to me that the wisdom found in Buddhism can be easily discovered by ordinary children without any reference to Buddhist terminology. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are not rules handed down by an authority but a set of guidelines for living that any group of reasonable people—even schoolchildren—can agree upon. I believe that my efforts to introduce mindfulness practice into the classroom have significantly affected and improved the lives of my pupils.

mb54-TheWisdom7Mike Bell, True Sword of Understanding, lives near Cambridge, England and teaches science in a state secondary school. He is interested in exploring ways to offer the benefits of the practice to those who would be put off by labels, rituals and complex language.

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Solidity and Generosity

A Retreat for the U.S. Congress

By Susan Hadler

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Word came from Sister Peace that Thay and the Plum Village Sangha would visit Washington, DC toward the end of their North American tour in October 2011. Thay would offer a talk at the Warner Theater, sponsored by Omega Institute, and then a talk at the Library of Congress, followed by a special overnight retreat for members of Congress. The Faith and Politics Institute, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Fetzer Institute would sponsor the retreat and the talk at the Library of Congress.

Thay had offered a retreat for Congress in 2003. The Washing- ton Mindfulness Community (WMC) and the other area Sanghas had provided support in a multitude of ways. Sister Peace had been part of that effort (before she was Sister Peace). Now she was inviting the North American Sangha to bring mindfulness into Congress by writing letters and visiting members of Congress, inviting them to attend the talk and retreat.

I was not part of the organizing team in 2003. I had recently scaled back my professional life so that I could deepen my practice and have more time to sit, walk, and enjoy the trees and the sky, my family, and the Sangha; to write, play my flute, and paint. At that time, I had very little inner space, and I needed time to slow down, to come home to myself, and to heal. I needed to take one breath and then another. The Sangha supported and nourished me deeply during that time, never demanding or expecting more than I could be or give.

Sitting in silence with others on Sunday evenings, followed by true sharing of our practice, strengthened my whole being and gave me the space to be with myself in the midst of being with others, something that I had seldom experienced before. By 2011, I had changed. I was no longer fiercely guarding my privacy and my need for silence. I understood the need to mindfully reach out to Congress.

Early in September, Sister Peace invited the WMC to organize visits to Congress and to support the Plum Village Sangha when it arrived in DC. Having no plan except to follow the guidelines on the Plum Village website for contacting Congress members, I sent out an announcement for a meeting. All the rest flowed from deep Sangha energy. Friends came to the meeting. Joey designed an invitation and Abbie printed it. Local Sanghas contributed funds to purchase seventy-five copies of Thay’s new book, Peace Is Every Breath, to give to Congress members.

Some of us met in a friend’s Congressional office with books, invitations, letters, and a list of members of Congress to visit. After stopping to breathe so that we could walk the marble halls with mindful steps and deliver invitations with Buddha smiles, we began to open the heavy doors and greet our new friends, the staff who support the members of Congress.

Almost everyone was receptive. When we spoke of Thay’s understanding of their stressful, pressured, busy lives, most of them laughed and said they sure could use the retreat. As we left the offices, many were already beginning to read Peace Is Every Breath. We were heartened. We felt Thay’s presence as help arrived exactly when and how we needed it.

Sangha energy continued to flow like a river of mindfulness. Sangha members met with Sister Peace to plan ways to support Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. One member of the WMC, a caterer, volunteered to make dinners for the monastic Sangha on the evenings of the talks. Another member designed and printed cards with information about area Sanghas to be handed out at the talk. At the Warner Theater, some Sangha members handed out programs and fliers while others sold books for Parallax Press. Thay’s Dharma talk was like good medicine. Tiredness vanished from people’s faces as Thay led them to a deeper, more spacious place where they could breathe and know they were breathing.

Knowing that only plastic flowers would be available at the Library of Congress for Thay’s talk the following night, I asked Skip at Omega if we might rescue any unwanted flowers for that event. Abbie volunteered to take the flowers home and bring them to the Library of Congress the next night. Smiling, I watched Abbie drive away with huge bunches of flowers filling her car. Early the next day at the Library of Congress, Sister Peace and I found out that the flowers would have to go through an off-site inspection lasting an hour and a half. Laughing at the impossibility of this, we called Abbie, who decided to prune the flowers and arrange them into smaller security-acceptable containers.

Hours before the talk began, we were informed that Thay had requested that each person receive a copy of the new Five Mindfulness Trainings at the door. We shared this news with the woman guiding us through the details of the evening at the Library of Congress. She offered to help us print 500 copies. When we delivered them, we found out that the Faith and Politics Institute had also made 500 copies. Later, I passed the fliers on to Sister Chan Khong to use at the Day of Mindfulness in New York. I was learning that everything works out beautifully and I don’t really need to worry.

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Entering the auditorium, I noticed the flowers standing like monks lined up in front of Thay, adding color and simplicity. I listened to Thay encourage us to come home to ourselves, listen deeply to each other, and nurture clarity, compassion, and courage through the concentration that mindfulness practice generates. I listened with the ears of a person in the midst of a divided situation and felt hope. I know that Thay’s way works because of my experience with my own family: sitting and breathing and sending peace to myself and to each family member from whom I was estranged, I gradually shifted my heart and my perspective until full reconciliation happened.

The members of Congress and guests seemed to be deeply affected by Thay’s talks and by the collective energy of mindful- ness at the retreat. They were completely engaged and appreciative of the practice. One said to me how much she enjoyed eating mindfully in silence, and that she would take this home with her. Another came to the retreat quite tense, and I noticed how much more relaxed and young she looked over time. I understood the depth of these seemingly simple changes.

Retreatants were eager to learn ways to communicate effectively with each other in Congress and the nation. I left the retreat aware of suffering caused by lack of understanding mutual needs. I also felt a deeper appreciation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, a quintessential ethical and spiritual guide for living a life of meaning and connection with oneself and all other beings.

I became aware of many fruits of the practice. As the oldest daughter of seven children whose father was killed in war, I know how to respond and to take care of others. But this time, I saw the difference between responding out of desperation and necessity and responding out of inner strength. In the past, I often gave of myself heedlessly, neglecting my well-being until sickness made me stop and rest; or I would protect myself, holding back to avoid becoming exhausted. This time, even as I dealt with the challenges of planning and organizing, I was aware of the pleasure of supporting the Sangha. Another delicious fruit was experiencing, over and over again, the joy and sturdiness of true Sangha generosity.

mb63-Solidity3Susan Hadler, True Lotus Recollection, practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC.

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Retreat Among Jacarandas

By María Jiménez

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The Felicidad family, originally from Mexico City, was spread out. Some of us had known each other a long time; others, however, weren’t aware of the existence of happy and enthusiastic brothers and sisters in search of someone with the same last name. But thanks to the efforts of our Sangha in February of 2012, hundreds of emails went out and arrived like rainfall of flowers inviting people to “Coming Home: The Road to Our Happiness,” the big family reunion to be held in April. The response was immediate. Thirty-six sisters and brothers accepted the invitation, because who wouldn’t want to come back home? Who wouldn’t want to find the road to happiness? Besides, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, two monks from Deer Park Monastery, would be coming to share ways of conscious living with us and to converse intimately with the earth.

The location of the retreat, Casa Xitla, is a big old house surrounded by gardens in the southern part of Mexico City. It is a spacious place that invites one to withdraw and reflect; silence is the order of the day here. Thanks to the infinite goodness of Mother Earth, our encounter is dressed in violet; at this time of the year the jacaranda trees are in their most conscious here and now. Our hosts, a community of people in charge of administering and caring for this place, are an example of interbeing. As in a colony of bees, they organize themselves to live in harmony: they care for the water, use solar energy, protect the vegetation, and maintain a compost heap.

On April 4, Casa Xitla begins to buzz with our arrival. The brothers and sisters who organized the retreat and the monks Phap Lac (Happiness Monk) and Phap De (Young Monk) await us with their conscious presence. The smiles with which they greet us are an unmistakable sign that we have arrived home. Adults, some in couples, some with their families, and the majority alone, begin to fill up the space and prepare for the experience of the next five days. The majority of us come from bustling cities; we are full of expectations, with our minds agitated. The sweet sound of the bell, the conscious embraces of our sisters and brothers, the dim lights in the hallway on the way to the bedrooms, the shade of the trees, and the night remind us that we have arrived home. In an instant, all these signs come together, form a stream, and invite us to flow as a single river. “Happiness is here and now,” they whisper in our ears.

The Fountain of Life

In the first Dharma talk, Brother Phap De delicately suggests that we observe in our inner selves the impulse to do things: eat, read, talk. He proposes, instead, that we walk or write. “Life comes from within ourselves; we can feel it; we can connect ourselves with the fountain of inner and outer life, all united.” Like an expert gardener, the brother knows that before planting the seed, we must loosen the dirt. He invites us to recite gathas. It’s impossible to turn down his invitation, knowing that we can cultivate flowers in the garden of the heart.

At five o’clock in the morning, the bell wakes us, and a half hour later we begin guided meditation. Our bodies are tired; the majority of us aren’t used to waking up so early. However, our conscious inhaling and exhaling wake us up and fill us with joy. At 6:30 a.m., our sister, Norma Inés, better known as Hapinés, guides us down the roads of Qigong. With the noble bamboo pole at hand and the sweetness of her voice, we travel to the interior of our bodies, feel how our muscles stretch, and begin a dance that connects us with the foliage of the jacarandas. The pivoting of legs, trunks, arms, and eyes lifts us to the clouds and slowly and softly allows us to take root in the earth.

The morning advances. The bell invites us to share a delicious breakfast, which we enjoy slowly from the silent line. We share the table and the reading of the Five Contemplations. We eat slowly, looking to feel in every mouthful the flavor and goodness of all the beings who prepared it and made it possible.

Work meditation offers us the opportunity to do chores in the garden, which for some of us are unusual; some chores are light, like picking up leaves and branches; others are heavy, like lifting and moving the compost. Cleaning and arranging the building and preparing food for the whole group are some of the other tasks at hand. We have the opportunity to learn and to teach, to lead and to follow, to see our old habits as we work, to smile, embrace, and be present in the here and now.

At ten in the morning, the bell calls us to walking meditation. Our sister Gaby shares her experience:

I remember that marvelous walk as an experience of conscious enjoyment that keeps love, peace, calm, serenity, and forgiveness alive in my memory. I return to live in plenitude and to understand and experience interbeing with my new Felicidad family, to feel myself as part of nature, to be present, feeling the caresses of the air and the heat of the sun on my skin. I feel how Mother Earth receives me and comforts my every step, and I see and feel the happiness of the monastic brothers.

I remember Phap Lac’s talk about forgiveness. Nine months ago I’d signed my divorce from the father of my children and I had such an emotional charge that I asked myself how I could forgive myself for the guilt that I felt. I asked: ‘Is it strange that after years of sharing a life with someone you loved, you now ask yourself how to forgive?’ The walk was about to start and the brother said that we should invite our loved ones to walk with us. He suggested that we take the hand of one of the members of the Felicidad family and even that we invite our absent loved ones to come with us.

The sensation I felt is indescribable: I imagined my little children, Emilio and Sofía, at each side, felt their still-tender hands, and felt the peace and love of being united as one. I advanced slowly and smiled genuinely and lovingly, with gratitude and respect. Later I invited my parents and sister to walk hand-in-hand and felt the same sensations. Finally, uninhibitedly, with thanks, and in peace, I invited the person who had been my partner for ten years. I embraced him while I walked, thanking him for having shared his time, space, and love, for having participated with me in giving life to these two gifts. I decided to forgive the things that we consciously or unconsciously did when we lived together that hurt or damaged us or made us uncomfortable and I smiled at him. We stayed together like that for a few moments. Then I let go of his hand and saw him go, smiling and relaxed.

Drops in a River

At the end of each morning, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, taking turns, offer us a Dharma talk. Next to them a Mexican sister or brother listens attentively and interprets simultaneously. During these talks, the words of Phap De and Phap Lac weave in interbeing. Phap De speaks of his own life experience and shares the stories of his parents and the seeds they deposited in him. He shows us how the spiritual life of our ancestors is connected with our own. And he invites us to recover the spirituality of the people who inhabited these lands before the arrival of white people. Our spiritual realization, he says, is a matter of integrating ourselves like drops of water in a river that has flowed for thousands of years. This moves us, because in Mexico, indigenous blood is an underground river that only awaits our glance to revitalize us with its powerful energy.

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Thay Phap Lac offers other seeds. With soft strokes he recreates his experiences in the company of our dear master Thich Nhat Hanh. The words of Phap Lac have the power to bring Thay to our encounter: we can see and feel him; the voice of the brother becomes the voice of Thay. With simple stories of day-to-day life, Phap Lac reveals the efficacy of our practice. He shares a story of a single mother who learned to enjoy working meditation, and that of Thay, who, having suffered an injury in a crowd in Vietnam, sat down calmly to drink a cup of tea. Phap Lac is also a master of dispelling uncertainties. To a sister who has doubts about forgiveness, Phap Lac says sweetly: “The only help you have is your happiness. Only love can cure—love with compassion.” This teaching is an outstanding moment during the retreat.

mb62-Retreat3After lunch comes total guided relaxation. We lean our bodies against the earth, which generously receives our tensions, our tiredness, and our worries. With our minds we pass through each part of our body, we smile at it with thanks, we loosen it, and we relax. We listen to our guide from afar, as if in a dream. He sings to us a sweet song that rocks us and he brings us back, little by little, to the happiness of the present moment.

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The Dharma sharing at mid-afternoon is a moment of encounters. Some of us know each other from long ago, others have seen each other a few times, and there are those who are meeting for the first time. In two groups, each guided by one of the monastic brothers, we focus on practicing compassionate listening and loving speech. Little by little, our hearts open as we share happiness and sadness, presences and absences, hope and despair. We offer our loving presence to our friends; we receive their experiences and their smiles.

After supper we have another guided meditation, and then go off to sleep smiling, crossing the garden of Casa Xitla in silence, now lighted by a moon full of the here and now.

Like Water Reflecting

The second night, five sisters and brothers who have taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings share their personal experiences and reflections. The struggles and the joys of the road of Dharma parade before us. We hear that the trainings are like the North Star, a light that orients us. As the days go by, the question continues to arise: Who will take the trainings? Many of us are confused. We don’t know if we can meet the goals, if we should or want to commit ourselves. Thus three days pass. In Dharma sharing, some people express their decision to take the trainings. Others reveal confusion or a negative decision. We all listen with care and attention. Eleven brothers and sisters take the vow to revere life, practice generosity, look for true love and fidelity, practice loving speech and deep listening, and procure a nutritious and healthy life. It is beautiful to share this intention, knowing that these trainings will take us all our lives, and that we are accompanied on this road.

One memorable practice is that of starting anew. One night, Laura and Jorge water their flowers in front of the community. At first, they look each other in the eyes and each says the virtues that she or he sees in the other. Then they offer apologies for the discomfort or suffering they have caused each other. We see how their words turn into sun and water, the nutrients of the seeds of love and compassion. They give us a living example of the fourth training: our eyes witness the fact that loving speech and compassionate listening are the tools of the artist who creates reconciliation and peace. Later, Thay Phap De invites us to practice in couples. Some of us are with our life companions and we practice with them. Some are with parents or children. Those who have come alone pair up and practice watering the flowers of an absent person. It’s an intimate time, deep and hopeful. We learn that it’s always possible to start over.

As the days pass, we cultivate silence, but also listening. Mónica, Hapinés, and Laura help us to sing in key, inspiring cantos. We give thanks to life with our Chilean sister Violeta Parra. With Mercedes Sosa we remember that everything changes and with Fito Páez we offer our heart. Phap De teaches us an Irish blessing: “May love hold you in the hollow of her hands.” During the last night’s gathering we all sing “Cielito Lindo,” a traditional Mexican song, which our monastic brothers love. Three children who have lent a special touch to our time together, David, Elías, and Sofía, sing the turtle song, and Fausto thrills us with a cappella numbers. His crystalline voice reminds us that we are like water that reflects what is beautiful and true.

The last day, we finish our meditation by walking under the shade of a jacaranda. With the children cross-legged at their sides, Phap Lac and Phap De teach us the art of waking up the bell. Only five days have passed, but the conditions of the retreat have let the people of the Mexican Felicidad family recognize each other in interbeing. Without coming or leaving, neither before nor after, we embrace firmly and then let each other go. We know that each of us is in the other and that the other is in us. We leave Casa Xitla wide awake. We have learned to recognize that the present moment is a wonderful moment.

Thank you, dear Thay; thank you, dear family.

mb62-Retreat5María Jiménez, Felicidad Valiente del Corazón (Courageous Happiness of the Heart), is a professor at Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM). Maria enjoyed the retreat among jacarandas twice: the first time while living it and the second while writing this article. Two other members of the Sangha in Mexico City, Jorge Hirsch and Gabriela Rosales, contributed. Their voices are a vehicle to convey the sound of a single river: the Felicidad Family.

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Leaving a Legacy of Love and Compassion

An Interview with Brandy Sacks

mb61-LegacyMindfulness Bell: Brandy, where did you grow up and what were your first religious experiences?

Brandy Sacks: I’ve lived all my adult life in San Diego, California. My parents were non-practicing Jews, and I really wasn’t raised with any spirituality. As I grew up, however, I was attracted to Buddhism, but most of what I saw here in California was Japanese Zen practice. The Zen Center in San Francisco was very prominent. Japanese Zen really didn’t click for me; it seemed too strict, with too many rules. I did, however, become a Reiki Master. 

MB: How did you first encounter the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh? 

BS: I first became aware of Thich Nhat Hanh through my Reiki teacher, who would quote from Thay’s writings and talks. In 1993, I heard Thay was coming to Malibu to lead a Day of Mindfulness. It was one of his earliest retreats on the West Coast; there was no Sangha in Los Angeles or San Diego at the time, and we might get a hundred people for a multi-day retreat, several hundred for a one-day event—much smaller than now. I went to the ‘93 Day of Mindfulness. 

MB: Obviously it was a life-changing experience. 

BS: It was. What really resonated for me were the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thay’s vision for a global spirituality and ethic: reverence for life, true happiness, true love, loving speech and deep listening, and nourishment and healing. They were clear, direct, but not ten commandments. We weren’t striving for perfection, but by following these trainings we could become happier. That really made sense to me. I wanted a spiritual practice that emphasized happiness. So I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings at that retreat. 

MB: Where did you go from there? 

BS: I began reading Thay’s books and continued my sitting here on the West Coast. Then I heard he was coming in 1997 to lead a multi-day retreat in Santa Barbara. We had a huge turnout. People still talk about that one and the one that followed in 1999 as solidifying the West Coast community.

There was still no San Diego Sangha in 1997, but after the retreat there was a lot of talk about Sangha building. Thay stressed that if you wanted to become a member of the Order of Interbeing you had to lead or start a Sangha. About the same time, Christopher Reed, a lay Dharma teacher, started a meditation class that became the first San Diego Sangha. We later moved to the Wat Lau Temple for the Sangha’s meetings and I began leading it. I took the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings at the retreat in 1999. 

MB: How has your personal commitment to Buddhism influenced your professional career? 

BS: I was an elementary school teacher for a number of years. Later I became the manager of operations for a nonprofit called Bread for the Journey. I currently work for another nonprofit, GroundSpark, which uses documentary filmmaking to ignite social change. It’s a great organization and won an Academy Award in 1991 for Deadly Deception, its documentary film on the environmental and health dangers of creating nuclear weapons. Our current project is called Respect for All, a series of films aimed at elementary, middle, and high school audiences on respecting diversity. The middle school films focus quite a bit on stopping bullying; the high school films deal with bullying, sexuality, and other issues.

Around 2001, once the Community of Mindful Living office in Berkeley closed, I took over running the iamhome.org website. The website featured, as its successor still does, an international Sangha directory and a listing of retreats and talks by Thay.  After five or six years I appealed to Janelle Combelic, then editor of the Mindfulness Bell magazine, for assistance with content and direction for the website. We got together a small team of OI members, Dharma teachers, and monastics. We decided to broaden the focus of the website to include the online version of the Mindfulness Bell magazine. We changed the name to mindfulnessbell.org and I’ve been webmaster ever since. 

MB: You’ve been engaged in this practice now for almost twenty years. Looking back, what has it meant for you? 

BS: I’m very dedicated to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and once every six weeks I lead a recitation at our Sangha. They remain for me one of the most concrete and real aspects of our practice and underlie all Thay says in his books and all we do.

Looking back, I’m a lot happier, a lot less anxious and fearful, a lot more compassionate and caring. I got ninety percent of that from the practice. It helped me realize and stay mindful of the impact that my words and actions have on those around me. As Thay says, it’s not just about you, it’s about the community of family, friends, and colleagues around you, about the whole world, really, and the impact you have on it, moment to moment.

Thay talks about not turning away from suffering. That’s a continuing challenge for me, but I draw strength from his encouragement to have solidity, be mindful, be content and happy in myself so I have the energy and inner resources to look at the suffering in the world. It’s inspired me to have a career devoted to helping others. 

MB: And because of all this, you’ve decided to leave half of your estate to furthering the work Thay has begun. 

BS: Yes! As soon as I heard that the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation had been created, I decided making a planned gift was a really good thing to do. Planned gifts are going to be essential to helping the monastic and lay communities continue to grow and thrive. Many of us want to ensure that the teachings and the monastic order continue in the future, but we may not have the wealth to make a major gift at the present moment. That makes planned giving an attractive option: if you’ve got a retirement plan, you have assets that you can give after your lifetime.  All it takes is filling out a codicil to your will, and changing your beneficiaries if you have a retirement plan, which is what I did. It’s very easy to do.

mb61-Legacy2How to Leave a Legacy of Love and Compassion

You can leave a legacy of love for our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and his inspirational work around the world by making a bequest gift to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation. Your bequest allows the Sangha to care for our U.S. monastic practice centers, support worldwide humanitarian efforts, and promote programs that bring the practice of mindfulness into schools. Your gift transforms suffering into compassion—bringing peace and joy to millions around the world.

What is legacy giving or planned giving?

A legacy or planned gift is a gift that a donor decides to make available at some future date. Through your will, you can make a generous gift that might not be possible during your lifetime—and have a huge impact on continuing to spread mindfulness and peace around the world.

Who can make a bequest?

Anyone can make a bequest. You do not need to be wealthy; it does not cost a thing, and if you change your mind at any time, you can simply alter your will.

Is it possible to make a gift through my will, and do you want a gift like this?

Yes. A bequest is the most common type of legacy gift and is often the easiest way to make a significant contribution toward the continuation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of mindfulness and peace around the world. The suggested language below can help you and your advisors include us in your will or other estate-planning documents.

May I designate my gift for a specific purpose or practice center?

Yes. Your gift may be designated for any program or practice center supported by the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation. We would be happy to review your designation options with you.

Is it possible to name the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation as a beneficiary of my retirement plan?

Yes. Leaving a retirement plan or IRA (or a portion of it) is a tax-wise gift because you will avoid all estate and income taxes on the plan assets after your lifetime (or at the death of the survivor of you and your spouse). To make this gift, you simply notify your plan’s administrator of your wish to change the beneficiary. A “change of beneficiary” form will be required. The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation can be designated as a full or partial beneficiary of your plan.

Can I use my life insurance policy to benefit the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation?

Yes. You can name the Foundation as a primary, partial, or alternate beneficiary of your life insurance policy by filling out a change of beneficiary form with the insurance company. Furthermore, if you no longer need the policy proceeds in your estate, you can transfer ownership of the policy to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation.

What if I already have a will and I want to make a bequest to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation?

Generally, you would not need to rewrite your will, but you could create a sort of amendment called a codicil. It is very important to consult a lawyer where you live, so your codicil complies with local laws that will govern your estate.

The beneficiary should be designated as Trustees of the Unified Buddhist Church, a Vermont charitable corporation, tax identification number 03-0356845, (“UBC”), and if you like, you may designate that UBC shall use this gift: (examples)… at the discretion of the TNH Continuation and Legacy Foundation Board of Directors… for Blue Cliff Monastery… for Deer Park Monastery… for Magnolia Grove Monastery.

Whom should I consult about making a planned gift?

You may consult attorneys who practice estate planning, accountants, financial planners, trust officers, insurance agents, stockbrockers, and/or any professional advisor you know and trust who has knowledge about planned giving.

Your will is your legacy of love. Please take a moment to breathe and experience the joy of compassionate giving through a bequest gift that ensures the continuation of Thay’s work. We bow in gratitude for your compassionate heart and would be honored and grateful to be notified of your bequest intentions.

For more information on including the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation and Unified Buddhist Church in your bequest gift or estate plans, please contact:

Community Liaison, Lorri Houston
Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido, CA 92026
Phone: 760-291-1003 ext. 104
Email:   Info@ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org
Website:  ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org
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Dharma Talk: Right Action: Waking Up to Loving Kindness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Right Action is a part of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. It includes, first of all, the kinds of actions that can help humans and other living beings who are being destroyed by war, political oppression, social injustice, and hunger. To protect life, prevent war, and serve living beings, we need to cultivate our energy of loving kindness.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Loving kindness should be practiced every day. Suppose you have a transistor radio. To tune into the radio station you like, you need a battery. In order to get linked to the power of loving kindness of bodhisattvas, buddhas, and other great beings, you need to tune in to the “station” of loving kindness that is being sent from the ten directions. Then you only need to sit on the grass and practice breathing and enjoying.

But many of us are not capable of doing that because the feeling of loneliness, of being cut off from the world, is so severe we cannot reach out. We do not realize that if we are moved by the imminent death of an insect, if we see an insect suffering and we do something to help, already this energy of loving kindness is in us. If we take a small stick and help the insect out of the water, we can also reach out to the cosmos. The energy of loving kindness in us becomes real, and we derive a lot of joy from it.

The Fourth Precept of the Order of Interbeing tells us to be aware of suffering in the world, not to close our eyes before suffering. Touching those who suffer is one way to generate the energy of compassion in us, and compassion will bring joy and peace to ourselves and others. The more we generate the energy of loving kindness in ourselves, the more we are able to receive the joy, peace, and love of the buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout the cosmos. If you are too lonely, it is because you have closed the door to the rest of the world.

Right Action is the action of touching love and preventing harm. There are many things we can do. We can protect life. We can practice generosity (dana). The first person who receives something from an act of giving is the giver. The Buddha said, “After meditating on the person at whom you are angry, if you cannot generate loving kindness in yourself, send that person a gift.” Buy something or take something beautiful from your home, wrap it beautifully, and send it to him or to her. After that, you will feel better immediately, even before the gift is received. Our tendency when we are angry is to say unkind things, but if we write or say something positive about him or her, our resentment will simply vanish.

We seek pleasure in many ways, but often our so-called pleasure is really the cause of our suffering. Tourism is one example. The positive way of practicing tourism – seeing new countries, meeting new people, being in touch with cultures and societies that differ from ours – is excellent. But there are those who visit Thailand, the Philippines, or Malaysia just for the sake of consuming drugs and hiring prostitutes. Western and Japanese businessmen go to Thailand and the Philippines just to set up sex industries and use local people to run these industries. In Thailand, at least 200,000 children are involved in the sex industry. Because of poverty and social injustice, there are always people who feel they have to do this out of desperation. In the Philippines, at least 100,000 children are in the sex industry and in Vietnam, 40,000. What can we do to help them?

If we are caught up in the situation of our own daily lives, we don’t have the time or energy to do something to help these children. But if we can find a few minutes a day to help these children, suddenly the windows open and we get more light and more fresh air. We relieve our own difficult situation by performing an act of generosity. Please discuss this situation with your Sangha and see if you can do something to stop the waves of people who profit from the sex industry. These are all acts of generosity, acts of protecting life. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to spend months and years to do something. A few minutes a day can already help. These acts will bring fresh air into your life, and your feeling of loneliness will dissolve. You can be of help to many people in the world who really suffer.

Right Action is also the protection of the integrity of the individual, couples, and children. Sexual misbehavior has broken so many families. Children who grow up in these broken families become hungry ghosts. They don’t believe in their parents because their parents are not happy. Young people have told me that the greatest gift their parents can give them is their parents’ own happiness. There has been so much suffering because people do not practice sexual responsibility. Do you know enough about the way to practice Right Action to prevent breaking up families and creating hungry ghosts? A child who is sexually abused will suffer all his or her whole life. Those who have been sexually abused have the capacity to become bodhisattvas, helping many children. Your mind of love can transform your own grief and pain. Right Action frees you and those around you. You may think you are practicing to help others around you, but, at the same time, you are rescuing yourself.

Right Action is also the practice of mindful consuming, bringing to your body and mind only the kinds of food that are safe and healthy. Mindful eating, mindful drinking, not eating things that create toxins in your body, not using alcohol or drugs, you practice for yourself, your family, and your society. A Sangha can help a lot.

One man who came to Plum Village told me that he had been struggling to stop smoking for years, but he could not. After he came to Plum Village, he stopped smoking immediately because the group energy was so strong. “No one is smoking here. Why should I?” He just stopped. Sangha is very important. Collective group energy can help us practice mindful consumption.

Right Action is also linked to Right Livelihood. There are those who earn their living by way of wrong action – manufacturing weapons, killing, depriving others of their chance to live, destroying the environment, exploiting nature and people, including children. There are those who earn their living by producing items that bring us toxins. They may earn a lot of money, but it is wrong livelihood. We have to be mindful to protect ourselves from their wrong livelihood.

Even when we are trying to go in the direction of peace and enlightenment, our effort may also be going in the other direction, if we don’t have Right View or Right Thinking, and are not practicing Right Speech, Right Action, of Right Livelihood. That is why our effort is not Right Effort. If you teach the Heart Sutra, and do not have a deep understanding of it, you are not practicing Right Speech. When you practice sitting and walking meditation in ways that cause your body and mind to suffer, your effort will not be Right Effort, because it is not based on Right View. Your practice should be intelligent, based on Right Understanding of the teaching. It is not because you practice hard that you can say you are practicing Right Effort.

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There was a monk practicing sitting meditation very hard, day and night. He thought he was practicing the hardest of anyone, and he was very proud of his practice. He sat like a rock day and night, but he did not get any transformation. His teacher saw him there and asked, “Why are you sitting in meditation?” The monk replied, “In order to become a Buddha.” Thereupon his teacher picked up a tile and began to polish it. The monk asked, “Why are you polishing that tile?” and his master replied, “To make it into a mirror.” The monk said, “How can you make a tile into a mirror?” and his teacher responded, “How can you become a Buddha by practicing sitting meditation?”

To me, the practice should be joyful and pleasant in order to be Right Effort. If you breathe in and out and feel joy and peace, you are making Right Effort. If you suppress yourself, if you suffer during your practice, you are probably not practicing Right Effort. You have to examine your practice. Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are manifested as the practice of mindfulness in daily life. This is the teaching of engaged Buddhism – the kind of Buddhism that is practiced in daily life, in society, in the family, and not only in the monastery.

During the last few months of his life, the Buddha talked about the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (understanding). Mindfulness is the source of all precepts: We are mindful of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, so we practice protecting life; We are mindful of the suffering caused by social injustice, so we practice generosity; We are mindful of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, so we practice responsibility; We are mindful of the suffering caused by divisive speech, so we practice loving speech and deep listening; We are mindful of the destruction caused by consuming toxins, so we practice mindful consuming. These Five Precepts are a concrete expression of mindful living. The Threefold Training – precepts, concentration, and understanding – helps us practice Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort.

In his first Dharma talk, the Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path. When he was about to pass away at the age of eighty, it was also the Eightfold Path that the Buddha taught to his last disciples. The Noble Eightfold Path is the cream of the Buddha’s teaching. The practice of the Five Precepts is very much connected to his teaching. Not only is the practice of Right Action linked to the Five Precepts, but the practice of Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also linked to all Five. If you practice, you will see for yourself. The Five Precepts are connected to each link of the Eightfold Path. We need Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Action. Buddhism is already engaged Buddhism. If it is not, it is not Buddhism. It is silly to create the term engaged Buddhism, but in society where people misunderstand so greatly the teaching of the Buddha, this term can play a role for a certain time. Whatever we say, what is most important is that we practice.

This lecture will be incorporated into The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh, to be published by Parallax Press in early 1996.

Photos:
First and second photos by Therese Fitzgerald.
Source of second photo unknown.

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Dharma Talk: New Century Message From Thich Nhat Hanh

Tu Hieu Temple and Plum Village December 7, 1999 

To All Venerable Monks, Nuns, Lay Men And Lay Women Of The Sangha In The Tu Hieu Lineage, Inside And Outside Of Vietnam:

Dear Friends,

The Twentieth Century has been marred by mass violence and enormous bloodshed. With the development of technology, humanity now has the power to “conquer” Nature. We have even begun to intervene in the chemistry of life, adapting it to our own ends. At the same time, despite new and faster ways to communicate, we have become very lonely. Many have no spiritual beliefs. With no spiritual ground, we live only with the desire to satisfy our private pleasures.

We no longer believe in any ideology or faith, and many proclaim that God is dead. Without an ideal and a direction for our lives, we have been uprooted from our spiritual traditions, our ancestors, our family, and our society. Many of us, particularly young people, are heading towards a life of consump­tion and self-destruction.

Ideological wars, AIDS, cancer, mental illness, and alcohol and drug addiction have become major burdens of this century. At the same time, progress in the fields of electronic and biological technology are creating new powers for mankind. In the 21st century, if humans cannot master themselves, these new powers will lead us and other living beings to mass destruction.

During the 20th century many seeds of wisdom have also sprouted. Science, especially physics and biology, has discovered the nature of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self. The fields of psychology and sociology have discovered much of these same truths. We know that this is, because that is, and this is like this, because that is like that. We know that we will live together or die together, and that without understanding, love is impossible.

From these insights, many positive efforts have recently been made. Many of us have worked to take care of the environment, to care for animals in a compassionate way, to reduce the consumption of meat, to abandon smoking and drinking alcohol, to do social relief work in underdeveloped countries, to campaign for peace and human rights, to promote simple living and consumption of health food, and to learn the practice of Buddhism as an art of living, aimed at transformation and healing. If we are able to recognize these positive developments of wisdom and action, they will become a bright torch of enlightenment, capable of showing mankind the right path to follow in the 21st century. Science and technology can then be reoriented to help build a new way of life moving in the direction of a living insight, as expressed in terms of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self.

If the 20th century was the century of humans conquering Nature, the 21st century should be one in which we conquer the root causes of the suffering in human beings our fears, ego, hatred, greed, etc. If  the 20th century was characterized by individualism and consumption, the 21st century can be character­ized by the insights of interbeing. In the 21st century, humans can live together in true harmony with each other and with nature, as bees live together in their bee hive or as cells live together in the same body, all in a real spirit of democracy and equality. Freedom will no longer be just a kind of liberty for self-destruction, or destruction of the environment, but the kind of freedom that protects us from being over­whelmed and carried away by craving, hatred, and pain.

The art of mindful living expressed in concrete terms, as found in the Five Mindfulness Trainings, can be the way for all of us. The Trainings point us in the right direction for the 21st century. Returning to one’s root spiritual tradition, we can find and restore the equivalent values and insights. This is a most urgent task for us all.

I respectfully propose to all Venerable Monks, Nuns, and Lay people within our Tu Hieu lineage, in Vietnam and outside of Vietnam, to carefully reflect upon the following recommendations, and to contrib­ute some part in helping to create the direction for mankind in the New Century:

1. We should continue to set up monasteries and practice centers. These centers can organize retreats—one day, three days, seven days, twenty-one days, ninety days, etc.—for monastics and for lay people, aimed at developing our capacity for transfor­mation and healing. Activities at these centers should cultivate understanding and compassion and teach the art of Sangha building. Temples and practice centers should embody a true spiritual life, and should be places where young people can get in touch with their spiritual roots. They should be centers where the practice of non-attachment to views according to the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing can be experienced. To cultivate tolerance according to these trainings will prevent our country and mankind from getting caught in future cycles of religious and ideological wars.

2. We should study and practice the Five Mind­fulness Trainings in the context of a family, and establish our family as the basic unit for a larger Sangha. Practicing deep listening and mindful speech, we will create harmony and happiness, and feel rooted in our own family. Each family should set up a home altar for spiritual and blood ancestors. On important days, the entire family should gather to cultivate the awareness and appreciation of their roots and origins, thus deepening their consciousness of these spiritual and blood ancestors. Accepting the stream of ancestors in our own beings, we draw on their strengths and recognize their weakness, in order to transform generations of suffering. Each family should recognize the importance of having one member of their family devote his or her life to the learning and practice of the Dharma, as a monastic or a lay person. The family should invest in, support, and encourage this family member.

3. We should give up our lives of feverish consumption, and transfer all merits of action created by thoughts, speech, and work to the Sangha. Our happiness should arise from understanding, compassion, and harmony, and not from consumption. We should see the happiness of the Sangha as our own happiness.

4. We should invest the time and energy of our daily life in the noble task of Sangha building. We should share material things that can be used collec­tively by the Sangha, such as houses, cars, television, computers, etc. We should give up alcohol, drugs, and smoking. We should learn to live simply, so that we may have more time to live our daily life deeply and with freedom. Living simply, we become capable of touching the wonders of life, of transformation and healing, and of realizing our ideal of compassion in the educational, cultural, spiritual, and social domains of our lives.

The 21st century is a green, beautiful hill with an immense space, having stars, moons, and all wonders of life. Let us climb the hill of the next century, not as separate individuals but as a Sangha.

Let us go together, hand in hand, with our spiritual and blood ancestors, and our children. Let us enjoy the climb together with our songs and our smiles, and allow each step to create freedom and joy and peace.

Wishing you and your Sangha a wonderful century full of faith and happiness,

mb25-dharma1Thich Nhat Hanh
Elder of the Tu Hieu Lineage

 

 

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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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