Murder as a Call to Love

By Judith Toy

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When I smoked cigarettes it was two packs, sometimes three, a day. My record for lit cigarettes simultaneously burning either in ashtrays or in my hand was four. Sometimes I chewed gum, too. Half cups of cold coffee were strewn about my office. I was skinny and nervous.

It was my habit to stay in constant motion. What bogey­man did I think would strike me if I stopped moving, watching television, listening to radio, eating, reading, writing, jogging, paying bills, talking on the phone? Maybe what was living inside of me following the trauma of the murders of three of my family was anger, even rage. I had no lack of confusion, doubt, greed, self-contempt, jealousy, and ego.

If I stopped, I would have to come face to face with my deeply inadequate self.

The murders of my sister-in-law Louise and my two teenage nephews, Dougie and Danny, brought me to my knees. It was October 15, 1990, and looking back, I see that for me and my family, it was the holocaust. Everything normal about our lives had been shattered; our shock and despair seemed too much to bear.

The DNA evidence proved that Louise, Dougie, and Danny’s lives had been cut short by the boy across the street. Eric was a friend of Dougie and Danny, and had ranked in the top two percent of his high school graduating class. Three weeks prior to grad­uation, Eric had dropped out of school and began prowling the neighborhood at night. A year later, he stabbed and bludgeoned my family to death.

Eric’s father was the only neighbor willing to be interviewed by the television reporters after the murders. He was like the movie character Rambo, telling reporters, “We’re going to get whoever did this; we have guns and dogs!” This air of retribution was carried out by a mob of people after Eric was arrested in Florida and extradited to Pennsylvania. When Eric was brought back in restraints in the middle of the night, a waiting crowd screamed, “kill him, kill him!”

Two months later, the trial ended with Eric’s confession. From the murder through the trial and confession, my family and I had lost so much hope, we felt like we were going through life wading under water.

Many months later I came face to face with a Soto Zen monk, Patricia Dai-En Bennage, who was to change my life in two im­portant ways: by teaching me how to stop and enjoy my breathing, and by introducing me to the teachings on mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. That was thirteen years ago.

The act of stopping took courage, because I came face to face with my deeply inadequate self. At first when I meditated, guilt and betrayal and rage floated to the surface. I learned that the only way out of my pain was to let it happen ––to go through it. And on the other side of the pain, I was welcomed into paradise through noticing my breath.

Forgiveness a Breath Away

The breath became the gateway to my heart. Because I have learned to stop, sometimes I have felt my heart as an orb of a moonflower on the garden arbor, opening to the sky. I listen to my heartbeat. I let my heart open like a bud, like a leaf unfurling.

I did not plan to forgive the boy who murdered my family. But after five years of stopping, enjoying my breathing, and re­laxing every day, I was able to look deeply and understand Eric. He was not a monster, but a boy who had temporarily become a beast when he murdered my family. When I forgave Eric, I felt such a surge of relief that I understood why Jesus said, “Before you enter the temple, forgive.”

Through this insight, I knew Eric was suffering intensely for his actions. And I began to understand that the seeds of violence in our society and in his family partly caused the murders. Eric was serving three consecutive life sentences in prison, with no chance of parole. I began to mentally place myself in his prison cell and hold him gently in my arms. I will never know if this helped him. One day he took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his cell. When I learned he was dead, I profoundly mourned his passing.

Gratefully, I turned to the refuge of the three jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Realizing that everything changes and that I will sooner or later lose those I love, I began to deeply appreciate the preciousness of each moment. I began washing the dishes as if each one were the baby Buddha, and looking deeply into the eyes of my grandchildren. I allowed my grief to be absorbed by the earth during walking meditation, and felt the earth give back to me, cool grasses soothing the soles of my sometimes weary feet.

During seated meditation, when emotions arise, I try to notice and stay with them. As a pain or an itch arises, instead of moving or scratching for relief, I try not giving in to the urge, but just notice the pain or the itch. How refreshing, not to move or scratch! One hot July evening while sitting, I felt a mosquito sink its proboscis into my scalp and feed. Welcome, my friend! I guess you deserve to live, too, I thought. There was never any swelling or itch from that bite.

The Voice of the Bell in Prison

My husband, Philip, and I take a bell to a medium security prison to share our practice with young inmates, some of whom had known Eric, the boy who murdered my family. The small bell with a beautiful sound is the centerpiece of our practice together. The noise of slamming metal doors and the prison public address system is the background even as we sit and walk in silence. Upon hearing the sound of the bell we breathe three times, returning to the moment. The men named themselves Fragrant Lotus Petal Sangha, a place of refuge.

Healing Both Families

I called and talked with Eric’s mother. We cried together over the four needless deaths in our two families. She said that in the thirteen years since the murders, mine was the first phone call regarding her son. She and her husband have been so shunned that they have become invisible to their family and neighbors and friends. She thanked me and asked God to bless me for making the call.

The first holy truth of the Buddha is that life constantly of­fers up suffering. Life offered me my deeply inadequate self for transformation. I no longer smoke cigarettes and pace the floors, afraid to stop. In fact, now that I’m walking mindfully on the path of joy, everything in the actual world— the rising sun, the sound of sirens, a crying child, the squealing of brakes, a Mozart sonata, even a war — reminds me to breathe, to breathe in a universe that while full of anguish, will always, always breathe with me.

mb39-Murder2Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, is co-founder of Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This story is excerpted from her forthcoming book, Sitting on Fire, the Zen of Forgiveness.

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Heart to Heart

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on an assignment that Thây gave to the sangha at the Breath of the Buddha retreat in June (see the Autumn 2006 issue): to write a letter to a potential suicide bomber.

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Letters to a Suicide Bomber

Dear Beloved One,

I see your face, so fresh and full of energy, before me. I can see that you love this life, your mother, father, and family, and your culture, religion, and country.

I think that probably every day you have been taught that I am your enemy, and that given the chance, I will destroy everything you hold dear.

And even to me, a white American woman almost sixty years old, it looks this way. How else could you feel about me?

It seems that possibly the only alternative we both have to annihilation is, for one moment, to stop and just look into each other’s eyes. Can you see the great sorrow I carry for all the terrible harm my government has caused your people? Can you possibly forgive me?

I want you to have a long life filled with beauty, joy, and accomplishments. I want to offer you a way out of the one-way path to suicide you are on. The only way I know to do this is to show you my breaking heart.

There is so much pain and suffering in life, and there is also so much beauty, peace, and love. Can you and I choose to begin with one step by seeing each other not as “other” but as fellow human beings, each wanting fulfillment and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones?

I know that you are my beloved because I see the preciousness of my life in your face. Can you see me too?

With love and hope,

Barbara Casey
True Spiritual Communication
Jacksonville, Oregon, U.S.A.

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Dear Friend,

I want you to know that your anger and sense of powerlessness at the erosion of your culture and beliefs — I have known these too.

For a long time, I wanted to find a way to fight back at the forces of capitalism and consumerism that were eroding the culture that I love and the society that I hold dear. I envied those who were prepared to die for their beliefs but felt too disempowered to join them.

Then I found a better way than dying for my beliefs. I have learned instead to live for them by living by them. This seems to make a stronger statement than my death could — by showing my love for my society and my culture rather than leaving them forever.

I have learned to live deeply in the present moment, not overwhelmed by the anxieties about the future, or difficulties in the past. By taking good care of the present moment and finding peace in it, I influence my life, my society, and my country for the better.

I know that this path is available for you in the teachings of your faith and I urge you to consider this before you destroy the peace and happiness of those you love and many other precious human lives through your death.

Violence always leads to more violence, until someone has the courage to break this cycle. May you be given the strength and happiness to take this step to end the violence.

Yours sincerely,

Murray Corke

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Dear Sirhan,

It has taken me thirty-eight years to become willing to write to you. Learning how to love by practicing with Thich Nhat Hahn has gradually opened my heart. Right now, today, I love you and look deeply to see your suffering.

When I knew you in college, I enjoyed your company. We were always happy to see you when you came to class. You were fun, joking, smiling, polite, and very smart. You enlivened our classes.

We were part of a group of pacifists. We were dismayed by the war in Vietnam. One of us was an Israeli conscientious objector. You and he were especially close because you both suffered over the treatment of the Palestinians. I knew you were a Palestinian refugee.

I did not know about what had happened to you and your family as a result of your displacement.

I didn’t understand, none of us understood, how much you were suffering. Later, we found out that your sister had died of cancer at Los Angeles County Hospital. You thought that her medical treatment had been inadequate because your family was so poor. When she died, you were heartbroken.

You decided to call attention to the condition of Palestinian refugees by killing Bobby Kennedy. When I saw you kill Bobby on television, I was shocked. I was hooked by my critical discriminating thoughts against you. You had chosen violence, murder. I closed my heart.

At this present, wonderful moment, I see you again as my dear sweet friend, Sirhan. The Mindfulness Trainings of my teacher give me openness, nonattachment to views, and freedom of thought
space to breathe and open my I smile to you. We have both been strongly attached to our views. I wish you the freedom, peace and happiness I have found.

In friendship,

Dollie Laura Meyers
True Recollection of Loving Kindness
Marina del Rey, California, U.S.A.

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Dear Brother, Dear Sister,

Please believe me when I tell you I want with all my heart to know you, to know your feelings, the reasons that motivate you to offer up your life for a cause you believe in.

My first thought about your motives is that you feel you are doing a noble, heroic act for Allah, for your families, for the wellbeing of all and that you will be rewarded in heaven. Is this true? I also believe that the goodness you are seeking may not be so different from the goodness I am seeking. I wish for a peaceful life for all, where our nations respect one another, and no one is hungry or without shelter, where no one has to live in fear of war-torn violence, and where all have the freedom live their lives and to practice their beliefs without coercion from other nations.

Do you have other motives also? Do you suffer from not having enough food to eat? Or watching small children suffer from hunger, or cold, living in fear, or bearing the loss of their parents who have

been killed by our bombs? Or the many other injustices that happen when countries fight one another?

It is my wish that you can have a good life, be free to live with your faith, without our country’s attacks. The only way I see this can come about is that you and I understand each other better, know one another’s needs, hopes, and dreams. Deep understanding of one another will help us promote peace and develop compassion so you won’t have to sacrifice your life. Sometimes it requires more to live in order to promote peace.

Can you hear my need to know and understand you? To be able to change in the ways I need to change, in order to bring about the things we both want and need? I need you to understand me in a new light.

Above all, we are brothers and sisters. I pray we can live together as a family.

With love and compassion,

Margaret  Kirschner
True Silent Sound
Portland, Oregon, U.S.A

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Dear Suicide Bomber,

This may surprise you. I am a suicide bomber, too. The bombs I make explode inside you and cause you to want to make the bombs that explode outside of you. My bombs explode in your heart and in your mind.

When my country supports governments, ideals and people that hurt you, oppress you, and cause you to suffer, I detonate a bomb in your heart.

When my government works to undermine your country’s leaders because we fear your political, religious, or social ideologies, I detonate a bomb in your mind.

When the businessmen of my country take unfair advantage of your country to get goods and labor cheaply, I detonate a bomb in your soul.

In doing these things to you, I have violated values and precepts that I aspire to live by. In doing these things to you I have failed to practice deep listening and mindful speech. I have stolen not only your resources, but also your joy. My actions have killed your spirit and your will to live. But I have been too intoxicated by my lifestyle to hear your cries of pain, anger, and grief.

My bombs make you despair of living. They make you want to kill yourself and take others along with you. Looking deeply I can see that when my bombs explode in you, I die also. When you die, I die.

I know that for you to want to kill yourself and others, you must feel very helpless and angry. I feel helpless too, and I don’t know what to do. So I continue to live my life in such a way that you are hurt by my selfishness and greed.

Inside I am very angry and frustrated by the situation we are in together. Whenever I don’t know what to do, I have learned to breathe deeply and try to understand. So that’s what I’m doing. And as I breathe in and out, I can see you there in your country, also breathing in and out. I can feel your anger and frustration. And in this moment I know what I want to do. I want to soothe and comfort you. I want to remove the cause of your suffering so you don’t have to be in pain. I sincerely and genuinely want you to know peace in your heart and relief in your mind. I want you to be happy, whatever that means to you.

I know that you will find it difficult to forgive me and my country for the damage we have done to you. I know we have hurt you deeply and I want to listen as you tell me how we have hurt you.

I also find it difficult to forgive the damage done to my people. I am so sorry to have made you do such terrible things to get my attention. I was not able to hear. Well you have my attention now. I’m listening now. And isn’t that what you have really wanted all along?

Maybe now that we know that we are both suicide bombers, perhaps we could get to know each other. Then maybe you wouldn’t have to kill yourself for me and I wouldn’t have to kill myself for you. Maybe we could find a way to share our planet and its resources as equals. Maybe instead of bombing each other we could live peacefully together. I’d like to try.

Michael  Melancon
True Recollection of  Light
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

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Dear Friend,

I heard about you from a friend. She said you lost your husband and your son. Your grief and despair were so great you no longer wanted to live. You wanted to die and you wanted the people who hurt you so deeply and destroyed your family to suffer in the same way that they made you suffer. So you made the only decision you could — that your last action would be as a suicide bomber. And now you are gone — taking others with you. And all the grief, despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness you felt when you made your decision continue to spread out into more and more people’s lives.

Oh, how I wish I knew you — had been there with you when your husband and little boy died. How I wish I had been there to hold you, to comfort you, to help you to hold all your pain that was too much for one person to hold alone. How I wish I was there talking to you, letting you know you are not alone, and that even though this pain and grief are so intense and consuming, life can go on. The pain can be transformed — it will change. And the anger and hatred can be released in a different way. In a way that can put an end to suffering, instead of creating more suffering for others and for ourselves.

I also have known such pain and despair. My family — grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, altogether maybe twenty-five people were killed in a war before I was even born. My father somehow survived, and somehow continued his life. And I was born. How grateful I am to him, that he didn’t kill himself! All my life I missed my roots, my family so much, without even knowing them. And there was deep despair in my heart — without even being able to name it.

How I wish I was there to tell you — let us do this together, let us hold this pain and despair together, and find a way to continue living. Find a way to live that can really heal this suffering which is not just ours, but all humans. Together learn to see what the true source of this suffering is.

I know if I grew up as you did and had the same experiences, I also could do the same as you did. And if you had some of my childhood and experiences you could be alive now. And you could say this to me — Dear Friend, people are not the enemy. It is the hatred, anger, and pain that we do not know how to handle that is the enemy, that tortures us and hurts us the most. You are not alone in this. For generation upon generation we humans have continued to try to heal our pain by inflicting more pain on others. And so it continues until now.

But what if someone in your family had been able to find another way to heal their pain, to find a way of understanding and being with the pain that could transform it to compassion and love? Then you would have a different chance in your life. And what if you were that person in your family? And instead of being a suicide bomber, you and I together explored, learned, practiced, and found another way? Then you would still be alive now, and you would perhaps have more children and teach them how to handle their pain so that compassion and love could be born. Together we could spread this understanding, compassion, and love out into more and more people’s lives. And maybe one day, there would be peace on this earth, peace in our hearts, and we could be truly happy.

Oh, how I wish I was there with you, dear friend.

Anne Speiser
True Jewel of  Understanding
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

This is an excerpt of a talk at the Sandy Beach Hotel in Da Nang on April 10, 2007. Thay spoke in Vietnamese to an audience of intellectuals and answered some fascinating questions from the audience. 

Thich Nhat HanhMost of us think that happiness is made of fame, power, money. Every one of us wants to have more power. We want to have more fame and money, because fame and money give us more power. We keep believing that when we have more money, fame, and power we’ll be happy. I have met a lot of people with great power, with a lot of money and fame, but their suffering is deep. They are so lonely.

William Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company in America, is the fourth generation of the billionaire Ford family. He came to practice with us in our practice center in Vermont. I offered him the gift of a bell, and I taught him how to invite the bell each day. He told me stories of millionaires and billionaires in America who have a lot of fear, sadness, and despair.

mb46-dharma2Who has more power than the President of the United States? But if we look into the person of President Bush we see he’s not a happy person. Even President Bush doesn’t have enough power to take care of all the problems that confront him. He’s so powerful — he has a great army, a great amount of money — but he cannot solve the problems in Iraq. He can’t spit it out and he can’t swallow it. You’re very lucky that you’re not the President of the United States! If you were the President of the United States you would not sleep all night long. How can you sleep when you know that in Iraq your young people die every day and every night. The number of American young people who have died there has gone up to more than three thousand. In Iraq — in that country that you want to liberate — nearly a million have died. The situation in Iraq is desperate.

The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the people with the most power feel that they never have enough power, and this is true. We believe that if we have power, we will be able to do what we want and buy what we want. We can buy a position, buy our enemies, buy anything. If we have power in our hands, we can do anything we want. We have to re-examine that belief, because in reality, I have met people who have great power and money and fame, and who suffer extremely.

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

In Buddhism we also talk about power. But power in Buddhism is very different; it is a kind of energy that can bring us a lot of happiness and bring a lot of happiness to others.

In Eastern philosophy and literature, we talk about the spiritual path. Each one of us has to have a spiritual direction in our lives. Whether we are business people, politicians, educators, or scholars, we should have a spiritual dimension in our daily lives. If we do not have that spiritual dimension, we cannot take care of tension and despair, or the contradictions in our mind. We can never establish good communication with our co-workers, our family, our community. Each one of us must have the power of the true spiritual path.

In Buddhism, we talk about the three powers that we can generate through our practice: cutting off afflictions, insight, and the capacity to forgive and to love.

The first one is the power to cut off our afflictions — to sever our passions, hatred, and despair. If we cannot cut off passion and hatred, we cannot ever have happiness. We can learn concrete practices to do this. Once we sever the ties of passion and hatred that bind us, we become light and free and spacious. If we have passion and hatred we suffer — both men and women, you have experience with this. We cannot eat, we cannot sleep; that is hell. So the first power is the capacity to cut off afflictions.

The second power is the power of insight — in Buddhism it is called prajna. It is not knowledge that we have accumulated from reading books or learning in school. Knowledge can be beneficial, but it can also become an obstacle. In Buddhism we say that the only career of a practitioner is insight. The insight of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas — what we call enlightenment — has the capacity to cut off afflictions and to generate the noble sentiments of compassion, loving kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity. That’s our only career, to give rise to insight. Once we have insight we can unravel our afflictions and help others to take care of their difficulties very quickly, just like a medical doctor. You only need to listen to the symptoms and you’ll be able to make a diagnosis and give the appropriate treatment.

mb46-dharma3The third power in Buddhism is the capacity to forgive. When we have the capacity to accept and to love, we do not have reproach or enmity. That love manifests in the way we look, in the way we speak. When we look with the eye of compassion and loving kindness, when we speak loving words, we are the ones who benefit first of all. In the Lotus  Sutra, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks at all beings with compassion. Looking at all beings with the eye of compassion is a wonderful way of behaving like the bodhisattva — without reproach, without hatred. And the person that we are looking at in this way feels forgiven and loved. We can help others to be liberated from ignorance and from the traps they are caught in.

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

When we have these three powers — the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to accept, love, and forgive — then fame, money, and power become wonderful tools. It is then that the more money we have the better, the more power the better, because they become means to help people, to enhance life. Buddhism does not accuse or judge people who want to become rich or successful in politics or business, but while you’re pursuing these things you should have a spiritual dimension. We must behave on a foundation of love, insight, and wisdom.

In the time of the Buddha, Anathapindika was an example of this kind of businessman. If you are a business person or a politician and you have love and compassion, then you become a bodhisattva. You have the capacity to cut off your passions and your hatred; you have insight to help resolve problems at your work; you have the capacity to accept and forgive people’s mistakes. You have a lot of power — spiritual power.

As Buddhist teachers we should not abuse our power. It is not because you are the abbot of a temple or the eldest in a temple that you have power. It is because you have the capacity to cut off afflictions, to forgive, and to love. It’s not because you are the abbess or the teacher that people listen to you, it’s because of your love and compassion.

In the political or business arena, the power of the owner or the leader has to be based on the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to love and forgive. Then you use your position skillfully and the things you do will not cause dissension. If you do not generate these three virtuous powers, power and money will corrupt everything, including the life of the owner or the leader. That is why spiritual direction is very important.

The Greatest Success 

The Buddha taught that we do not have to hurry towards the future to have happiness; we can be happy right now and right here. The greatest success is to live with love right in the present moment. We have the time to take care of ourselves. If we have pain, tension, irritation, and agitation, we suffer and naturally we cause others to suffer, including our loved ones. That is why we have to have time for ourselves. Then we’ll have time for our family and our community.

Come back to the present moment, do not allow the future to occupy all your energy and time. That is a very important principle from Buddhism. To come back is not easy, because we have the habit energy of running towards the future. Stopping that momentum, coming back to each step, to each breath — that is the basic practice. By living each moment of daily life, living in a way that is deep and free, we can be in touch with the wonders of life.

In a practice center, the basic practice is to use the breath and the steps to bring us back to the present moment. For example, when you listen to a bell you stop all your thinking and speaking and you come back to your breath. You breathe and you bring the mind back to the body, you are truly present in the present moment. In our daily life there are a lot of times our body is here but our mind is wandering in the past and the future. Our minds are not truly present in the body and we’re not present for ourselves. How can we be present for our loved ones, for our wives and husbands? These practices are very practical and clear, and they’re not difficult if we have the chance to begin.

I would like to leave the rest of the time so that you can pose questions related to the topic that we discussed today. Thank you for listening.

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

Man from audience: First, I’m very surprised when your disciples still keep their religion. For example, if they are priests or pastors or ministers, do they keep their religion? Second, I know that besides being a monk, you are also a scholar. I have read a few of your writings, and I see that you have done work to spread and explain Vietnamese Buddhism to the world, just like Master Van Hanh (1). How have you contributed to the development of Vietnamese Buddhism as a scholar?

Thay: Back when Christian missionaries came to Vietnam, they often tried to convert the Vietnamese people and force them to give up their tradition to embrace the new religion. This caused a lot of suffering.

mb46-dharma4When we had boat people dwelling in refugee camps in Thailand or in other countries, there were also missionaries. They wanted to help those boat people and also tried to lure them to follow their religions. It’s a great pity to force somebody to lose their roots. That is why when we bring Buddhism to Westerners, we tell them, “Do not give up your religion; you can study Buddhist practices to help you take care of your difficulties of body and mind and to learn great love and compassion. You do not have to lose your root religion, because we don’t think that’s the best way.”

In the West, there is a great number of young people who leave their Christian religion because that tradition does not provide the practices that people need today. A lot of people give up their religion and many of them come to practice with us. I have told them, “Once you practice with us, you can go back to help renew your own tradition and religion.” If a country does not have a spiritual foundation, that nation will not endure. So the Westerners see that Buddhism is very inclusive, accepting all and embracing all without denying other traditions.

In Buddhism, we call that spirit of inclusiveness equanimity or non-discrimination. It means that we embrace all. If we say that you have to leave your religion so that you can take refuge in the Three Jewels — that’s not very Buddhist. Buddhism is very open. That is why we have been able to help the pastors and ministers. In their hearts they still love their religion, but they practice wholeheartedly because in Buddhism we have very concrete practices to help them take care of their tension and stress, and help them to help people. If we hold that only our religion has the right view, and other religions do not have absolute truth, this will cause war. Buddhism does not do that.

When we organize retreats or have public talks in the West, many thousands of people come to listen to me, but they’re not Buddhists. Most of them come from a Christian or Jewish background. Sometimes I give a teaching in a church and more people come than at Christmas time, because they see that Buddhism is very noble, very open. It is inclusive and non-discriminative. Moreover, now scientists find inspiration in Buddhism because they see interdependence and emptiness; these teachings attract a lot of scientists to Buddhism.

The second question addresses the issue of learning. In truth, each time we have a new retreat designed for a specific group of people, for example a retreat for police officers or Congress people or business people or environmentalists or war veterans, I have to do research. I have to study beforehand to understand their difficulties and suffering so I can offer appropriate practices. That’s why during all my years in the West I have learned a lot. If you do not understand the teachings and practices of the Jewish or Christian traditions, you cannot help those people. If you do not see the suffering of business people, you can never teach them to practice so they can take care of their tension and stress.

You do not need to become a scholar. As a monastic, we do not aim to become scholars, but we have to know enough in these areas to speak their language, to bring people into the practice. When you say that I’m a scholar and I spread Vietnamese Buddhism, that is not quite correct. When I taught at Sorbonne University [in Paris] about history or Vietnamese history or Vietnamese Buddhism, I had to do research. Just for that occasion I read books on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. I had to use the pen name Nguyen Lang because I was not allowed to publish under my name Thich Nhat Hanh. The government said that I called for peace and that I was a friend with the Communists, so they didn’t allow my books to be published. My aim was not to become a scholar or a historian, but the truth is I had to teach in the university. And I just wrote it down, so that younger generations could benefit.

The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and whose mother was a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. An artist drew his picture for me so we could have it on the altars at our different centers.

In Vietnam we have the Mahayana tradition and the Hinayana tradition. I was lucky that when I was trained in the Mahayana tradition I also had time to research the stream of original Buddhism. I discovered that Zen Master Tang Hoi had used the original Buddhist sutras with a very open view of the Mahayana tradition. That is why when we organize retreats in Europe or North America, many people come from different traditions and they feel very comfortable. Our practice combines both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions and the basic sutras we use in meditation are present in all different schools — in the Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, Korean, and Tibetan Canons of Buddhist scriptures. I have translated and written commentaries on sutras about meditation like Learning  the Better Way to Live Alone and The Mindfulness of Breathing. Even though I didn’t talk about them tonight, the spirit of my talk was based on the insight of these sutras.

Our true aim is not to spread Vietnamese culture in the world, but I want to help people to relieve their suffering by sharing with them the methods of practice. That’s why they know about meditation and practices that have Vietnamese roots. I say this so that you see clearly that when I go to the West it’s not to spread Vietnamese culture to other countries. I just want to help people.

When I went to the West to call for peace, I only asked to go for three months. The chief of the police station asked me, “What do you plan to do there? Whatever you do is okay, just don’t call for peace, okay?” And I did not reply. Because my aim was to call for peace, for the world to end the war, I just stayed quiet. Then I went to the United States and called for peace — how can we end the Vietnam war? So they didn’t allow me to come back to Vietnam. That’s why we cannot say that I left Vietnam to spread Vietnamese culture in the West. I only wanted to go for three months. Who would have suspected that I would stay forty years! The truth is that during the time I was in exile in the West, as a monk I had to do something to help people. If I couldn’t help my own people, then I could help Westerners. It seems like I had this aim to spread Vietnamese culture, but it happened naturally.

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

Man from audience: On this trip you came to Da Nang. How do you think we can help develop our city, including the Buddhist practice in Da Nang? And do you plan to have a monastery in Da Nang, where we have monastics and lay people, and where scholars in Da Nang can participate?

Thay: Da Nang is already very beautiful. It’s developing very quickly, very well. But we know that economic and technological development comes in tandem with social evils, such as gangs, suicide, and prostitution. If we know that, we should work to prevent it. The scholars and humanitarians, the monks and nuns, you have to sit down together and make a very concrete plan to prevent these social evils. That is something I can share.

The second issue has to do with our Buddhist path. Even though Buddhism has been in our country for many years, we have to renew it. If we do not, it does not have enough strength and it cannot carry out its mission. Our learning is still too theoretical, and mostly we still practice by worshipping or praying. That’s very important, but Buddhism is not just a devotional religion. If we can break through the shell of religious ritual, we can touch the deep source of insight. With that insight we can contribute a path for our nation that will bring true civilization, true culture. It will bring harmony, prosperity, auspiciousness. In the time of the kingdoms of the Ly and Tran dynasties (2) they also praticed with koans; they did not just worship and make offerings. Those were very auspicious eras, with love and understanding between the king and the people.

If Buddhism played such a role in the past, helping the country to be powerful and to dispel invaders, it can contribute to the country in the same way now and in the future. To that end we have to renew Buddhism in the way we study, teach, and practice. It is very necessary to establish monasteries, training new Dharma teachers and lay people to help young people with their problems in their families.

We think that Plum Village can contribute in this area. If the great venerables, the high venerables here in your Buddhist Institute want to stop these young people from getting corrupted, you need to establish monasteries. You can train five hundred or a thousand monks and nuns so that they can help people in society. They can help people in their districts and bring balance to those areas. They can help re-establish communication in the family so that young people do not go out to look for some sort of relief and then fall into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and drug addiction. That is the mission of Buddhism in this modern age. We can send Dharma teachers to you to help you train a generation of new monks and nuns. I think that our country is waiting for this rising up — to “uncloak the old robe” — and to renew Buddhism.

Question: Thinking About the Future

Man from audience: Respected Zen Master, from the beginning of this talk I listened to your teaching about meditation. My understanding — I don’t know if it’s correct or not — is that meditation is only for people who have suffering or misfortune, or people who have a lot of extra time. People who work, study, or have normal activities, they need to think about the past so that they can do certain things that are good for the present, but in meditation you talk about liberating yourself from the past. And they need to look to the future — only you know your dreams, how to be successful in your career— but in meditation you cut off thinking about the future. So the people who need to think about life, about society, about themselves for the future, should they practice meditation?

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

Thay: We can learn a lot from the past. We have to reexamine the past and learn from it. But that does not mean that we are imprisoned by the past. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.

While we are looking into the past, we can still establish our body and mind stably in the present moment. It is because we establish our body and mind stably in the present moment that we have the capacity to learn from the past. Otherwise we just dream about the past, or we are haunted by the past. The future is the same way. If we sit there and worry about the future, we only spoil the future. We have the right to design projects, to plan for the future. But this does not mean that you are frightened and worried about the future. These two things are completely different.

mb46-dharma5The future is made up of only one substance, and that is the present. If you know how to take care of the present with all your heart, you are doing everything you can for the future. Thinking and dreaming about the future does not take a long time — you don’t need twenty-four hours to dream about it! You only need one or two minutes, and that’s fine.

What is meditation? Meditation is not something you can imagine. Meditation first of all means you have to be present in the present moment. Earlier I brought up an image that the body is here but the mind is wandering elsewhere. In that moment you’re not present. You’re not present for yourself. You’re not present for your husband, your wife, your children, your brothers or sisters, your nation, or your people. That is the opposite of meditation.

In the present moment there are needs; for example, you have certain pains and difficulties. Your loved one has certain pains and difficulties. If you cannot be present in the present moment, how can you help yourself and the other person? That is why meditation, first of all, is to be present in the present moment. Being present in the present moment means you are not imprisoned by the past and your soul is not sucked up by the future. Meditation is not thinking, not something abstract.

Sitting meditation, first of all, is to be present, to sit still. Once we have that stillness, we’ll be able to see the truth. We can have projects and take actions that are appropriate to the truth in order to take care of a situation. That is why dwelling peacefully, happily in the present moment, is so important. You come back to the present moment to be nourished, to be healed, and also to manage the problems and issues in the present. If we can take care of the issues in the present, then we’ll have a future.

Dreaming about the future and planning about the future are two different things; one is a scientific way, the other one is running away. For example, perhaps there is sadness in the present and we want to run away. Dreaming about the future is a kind of calming medicine, like barbiturates, that can help you temporarily forget about the present.

We have to practice. Taking steps in freedom, with ease, is something that you have to practice. Once you have joy and happiness in the present moment, you know that these moments of happiness are the foundation of the future.

Please remember this for me: If you don’t have happiness in the present moment, there is no way to have happiness in the future.

To the friends practicing Pure Land tradition I say that the Pure Land is a land of peace, of happiness. There are those among us who think that the Pure Land is in the west and in the future. The west is not about Europe or North America — the western direction! Those who practice Pure Land, especially beginners, believe that the Pure Land is in the future. They think that only when we die we go there, and then we go in a western direction, the direction of extreme happiness.

People who have practiced Pure Land for a long time go more deeply. The Pure Land is not in the west or in the east, but right in our mind. When we practice meditation, and we practice properly, we practice in the Pure Land. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look can bring us happiness in the present moment.

The Buddha, wherever he went, never left the Pure Land. If now we can live in the Pure Land with each step, each breath, each smile, everything can give rise to the Pure Land; with certainty the Pure Land is something in our hand. But if we suffer day and night, and we think when we die we’ll go to the Pure Land, that something is not so sure.

That’s why I want to remind you once again: If you have no capacity to live happily right in the present moment, in no way can you have happiness in the future.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

1 This is the master who helped the first Ly king in the eleventh century when Vietnam had just gained independence from the Chinese.

2 The Ly and Tran eras spanned the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries in Vietnam.

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Sitting in the Spring Breeze

The Sangha in Vietnam, February–May 2007

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In a letter from Hue, Brother Phap Lai wrote, “Tomorrow the Sangha flies and will land in Hanoi for the final leg of this 2007 ‘Sitting in the Spring Breeze’ Vietnam trip.”

These sketches from monastic and lay participants give us a glimpse into the power and beauty of the Sangha’s historic journey to Vietnam with Thich Nhat Hanh.

Brother Phap Lai continues, “So far the ancestors, patriarchs and Vietnam’s present-day Sangha have been taking wonderful care of us, opening the door for the Dharma, for Thay and the Sangha to touch the hearts of so many people. The trip continues harmoniously although there is plenty of diplomatic work going on behind the scenes to help it be so. Thay is tired at times but you seldom know it as he shines, offering his best each and every day. At ease connecting with the old and new generations of Vietnam, whether it be monastics or devoted congregations of women, intellectuals, politicians or business people, Thay disarms folks with his warmth and humor.”

Flow

When I fi st stepped out of the airport of Ho Chi Minh City, I thought I would never survive crossing the amazing flood of motorbikes. How could I imagine the great lesson I would learn by first being forced to jump into this phenomenon, and then by looking deeply into it. This experience is all about the collective and individual management of constant change, of confidence and the vital importance of connection and absolute awareness of the present moment — “Go with the flow!”

—Dagmar Quentin

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Ceremonies to Heal and Transform

In Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] the first of the three “Great Requiem Ceremonies to Pray Equally for All to Untie the Knots of Great Injustice” was conducted at Vinh Nghiem Temple. The second of these took place in Dieu De Temple in the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue, which, as a battleground between the North and South, suffered terribly with many thousands of civilians killed. Thousands of lay people came to both Vinh Nghiem and Dieu De Temples over the course of the three-day ceremonies. Many Sanghas in the West as well as those in Vietnam who were unable to come conducted their own ceremonies in their own centers and homes.

The three days included daily Dharma talks by Thay in which he particularly encouraged us to generate wholesome, forgiving, and loving thoughts, and to purify the three karmas or actions of body, speech, and mind. Thay shared about the practice of beginning anew, even for those who have committed the worst of bodily actions. If we know how to begin anew and purify the mind of wrong thinking, then like a phoenix rising from the ashes we can free ourselves from the complex of guilt and despair to become a true bodhisattva. Thay also read several times “Prayers and Vows to Be Expressed During the Great Requiem Ceremony,” which set the spiritual intention and offered a common aspiration for all [see page 16].

In Saigon, ceremonies were led by Master Le Trang, Abbot of Vien Giac Temple, whose concentration and wholehearted intention as well as his expertise in chanting and mudras enriched the event tremendously. Each day it seemed he donned a different and more elaborately embroidered sanghati. For the opening ceremony Thay was persuaded to wear the dress reserved for the highest master. After that Thay was happy to return to wearing his own simple sanghati.

As well as the dress many of the ritual instruments and other ornamentations are rarely if ever used, instead being preserved as precious antiques, relics of the tradition. Traditionally dressed musicians playing the old instruments — percussion, a single stringed box guitar, and a reeded woodwind horn — accompanied the chanting master and the processions in general. Monks also sounded conch horns at various stages of the procession. The musicians were able to continuously follow, build, and crescendo with each nuance of the chanted texts for the whole three days. Their contribution was magnificent. The second evening ended with a grand procession of monastic and lay people to set thousands of candles in origami lotus flowers floating down the river along with our prayers and vows for those who were killed in the Vietnam war. In Hue a similar event had our whole sangha board a flotilla of large tourist boats and after some time traveling upstream we congregated to set the lighted candles on the Perfume River while chanting. The image of hundreds of floating candles emitting their soft light could not fail to touch our hearts and the onlookers from the bridge.

In Saigon, the entire floor area underneath the Buddha Hall was converted into a maze of altars draped with golden yellow fabrics. Incredible artistry went into decorating many altars, each with their own bodhisattva, some fierce looking, some gentle. Part of this was an inner sanctum that served as the main area for the long chanting sessions. During these sessions only monastics could enter in order to generate and maintain the high level of concentration necessary. Lay people followed these on a big screen outside but at various points the chanting master would lead a procession outside to the temple gates and back. Outside the inner sanctum altars held food offerings and lists of hundreds of loved ones with the date they were killed in the war. After the very final chanting of the three-day ceremony at 2:00 a.m. all the decorations, altars, papier-mâché statues made especially for the Grand Requiem Ceremony and the lists of countrymen and women who died were burned together as an offering.

With the support of the monastic and lay community of Saigon and the cooperation of government officials, the ceremony that took place in Saigon was a major success. Mass ceremonies of this scale and intention are a unique occurrence in Vietnam. It is not surprising they are controversial — they bring up past suffering and require acknowledgment that great injustices were suffered on both sides. It has not always been possible to attain the official acceptance of a ceremony that acknowledges that people suffered unspeakable injustices on both sides and that asks that we pray equally for all without any discrimination across the old divides of geography and ideology, man and woman, civilian and the army. Imagine previously warring nations coming together in this spirit and one begins to understand the significance of these ceremonies, the potential healing but also the obstacles in the mind that prevent them from taking place.

—Brother Phap Lai

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A Miracle at Bat Nha

In the magical mountainous region described by Thay in Fragrant Palm Leaves near the town of Bao Loc, Lam Dong province, about six hours north of Saigon, is Bat Nha Temple. Sadly, much of the ancient rainforest once inhabited by tigers has been cleared for coffee and tea plantations. Many in this region form the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. A long tradition of trust has developed between these indigenous people — some of whom ordained at Bat Nha — and our community, thanks to long-time funding for social projects from Plum Village. Arriving in Bat Nha, we were hosted by some three hundred young monks and nuns, nearly all under twenty-five, who were ordained as novice monastics under Thay since the last Vietnam trip in 2005. At that time the Abbot Duc Nghi, a devoted follower of Thay, offered the temple to Thay and the Sangha. Since then, with funding from the Western Sangha via Plum Village and lots of dedicated work from the Sangha and local people, many new buildings have sprung up including a very large Dharma hall, the Garuda Wings Hall, and two residences for the hundreds of newly ordained.

The first major event held in Bat Nha on this trip was a four-day residential retreat for lay people. Prior to the retreat the limit of those registered had been set at 2000 but by the evening before we had more than 4000 names registered. After hearing that a full bus of people from Saigon (six hours away) had been turned back by the monastery guards because they weren’t registered, Thay made it clear he did not want to turn away anyone who had come for the Dharma. But numbers were growing and where to house everyone? As planned the big new hall was used as one dormitory but many more had to fit in than was first intended. For instance, the football field with the help of acres of tarp was transformed into a dormitory for 1000. From the first day the cooks say they prepared for 7000 but there were as many as 10,000 people on the Sunday of Mindfulness. Considering the huge number of people attending everything went extraordinarily well. The registration team kept their cool, practicing mindfulness and compassion, and all who came found a place to sleep and go to the toilet! The cooking teams of Bat Nha’s brothers and sisters along with local supporting lay friends performed daily miracles preparing three good meals a day for everyone. Forty lines for food provided a good flow and everyone was able to eat together in families at one sitting.

—Brother Phap Lai

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Phuong Boi Ordination

Our time together on this trip has given the monastics of Plum Village and the centers in the United States and our young brothers and sisters in Vietnam a chance to meet. In Bat Nha we enjoyed drinking tea, making music, working together, two rather serious games of soccer and the odd dramatic downpours from broody evening skies.

The last week in Bat Nha included a five-day Grand Ordination Ceremony given the name “Phuong Boi” (Fragrant Palm Leaves). It included transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings to 100 monks and nuns and forty lay practitioners, all Vietnamese with the exception of our German brother Kai presently living in Hanoi. There was also a ceremony to transmit the ten novice precepts; it is always an exciting and heart-warming day when a new family of novice monastics are brought into the Sangha. We now have the sweet young Sandalwood family of eighty-nine young novices in our fold. An age range of 15 to 25 limits the numbers although there were some exceptions.

Fifty-three bhikshus [monks] and fi y-four bhikshunis [nuns] were ordained by a special envoy of Venerable Monks who came especially to form the official presiding Ordination Committee. The Lamp was transmitted by Thay to twelve new Dharma Teachers.

—Brother Phap Lai

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Receiving the Lamp Transmission

Several of you asked me before I left about my gatha. It really started to come together when we visited a beautiful waterfall near Bat Nha. I sat there watching the 200-meter-tall streams of water falling and felt so peaceful and calm. Then I saw this old, kind face in the rock, smiling mischievously to me! I had to laugh back. My father [OI member Al Lingo] was one attendant for the Lamp Transmission, Sr. Dao Nghiem, a younger sister from the Persimmon family, was the other. I shared a little in Vietnamese at the beginning and cried quite a bit. I spoke mostly about my gratitude to Thay and the Sangha, and about my monastic path as a journey of self-acceptance. I sang “Amazing Grace” at the end.

This is my gatha:

A face in the wet rock smiles to me
Wise, loving eyes twinkle with laughter
Everything I need is already here
I am totally at ease
Before I was born, my work was already accomplished
At every stage of manifestation we are complete
There is no final product. No progress needs to be made.
You don’t have to change!
Just be yourself, love yourself
It is the only way to make progress.
Let go, fall without fear
Like the waterfall, dancing its endless dance of freedom.
Wheeee!

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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Bowing to the Mystery

Following Thay and the monastics our Western delegation moves into the An Quang Temple in Saigon. We are greeted by Vietnamese men and women in the same grey temple robe we are wearing on this trip. Again a woman bows to me, her hands folded in front of her heart. I stop and return the bow. As we both straighten up and look at each other, she has tears in her eyes — and me too. How old is she, seventy, eighty years maybe? What may she have experienced during the war? Who does she see in me? What do I represent? I allow myself not to know, as I so often do on this trip. I practice simply trusting that Thay’s wish to bring healing and transformation to Vietnam will be fulfilled and that wondrously I can make a tiny contribution to it.

—Heike Mayer

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Treasure of Healing

I was so moved by the chanting and Grand Requiem Ceremonies in Saigon. Many of us had powerful experiences of connection and healing and reconciliation. I touched my own ancestors in a new way during the last night of eight hours of straight chanting. I felt their presence and their happiness, even those I never knew. I also felt connected to the many land ancestors throughout the history of the U.S.—all the injustices and tragedies they suffered, from the decimation of native peoples, slavery, to the many wars. I invited them to come into the space we created for healing, for peace. I was surprised that I could sit still for so long, peaceful, concentrated, and present. The monks who led the chanting and all the thousands of people practicing with us outside the hall at Vinh Nghiem temple created a powerful atmosphere of transformation. Afterwards, instead of feeling tired I was energized by this rare and precious event.

Sister Chan Khong told us many monasteries brought out statues and artifacts for the ceremonies that had not been publicly displayed in years — national treasures held in secret for preservation. Many sanghas joined to host this event, unprecedented in Vietnam on such a large scale. I feel so grateful to Thay for holding his vision. In the West, we have so many unhealed, misunderstood, unacknowledged wounds. If only we had taken time to be with the suffering of the Vietnam war, to recognize and heal it, the war in Iraq would never have happened.

–Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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Kitchen Mindfulness

I was on a cooking team at Tu Hieu for working meditation. In the kitchen as we made breakfast starting at 3:30 a.m., the energy was peaceful and calm, everyone still sleepy and soft. Everywhere in Vietnam we cooked with wood. One of my favorite jobs was to sit in front of the stove fanning the fire. I did whatever task I was given, finding each enjoyable. Many lay people came to help—even lay men cooking along with women! Once when we were making lunch, we ran out of things to do at 9:00 a.m. so we all sat in the dining hall and taught each other songs until the food arrived. Just being together, the smiles, the care, we weren’t really there to work, yet everything happened as it needed to and the meals were always on time.

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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A Chorus of Grass Birds

Today, after sitting meditation we practiced walking meditation through the peaceful temple grounds of Thay’s root temple in Tu Hieu. We gathered to sit silently in a circle on the same grass where he played as a child monk. I was four feet from Thay — just breathing, smiling, joyous — a treasure I will never forget. Then he delighted us all — picked a wide blade of grass, put it in

his palm, and suddenly impishly blew, making grass sound like a bird — gleeful as a boy! This started a chorus of monks and nuns chirping with their own grass leaves, a veritable bird chorus! A light private moment, a glimpse into the playfulness of a forever young 82-year-old poet.

—Harriet Wrye

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An Offering of Shoes

During the last powerful evening of chanting in Hue, I was really present for myself, for my inner child, and for the many who died in the war, seeing them healed, happy, restored. When the monks blessed the rice and threw it into the crowd, people began to push and shove us, trying to get some of the rice. They believe if they make soup from rice blessed in such an important ceremony, any sick person who eats it will heal. So I got up from quiet sitting to become a bodyguard for the chanting monks! Holding back the rowdy crowds, I’ve never seen my sisters so tough.

My shoes stolen, I walked barefoot in the mud among fallen food offerings to burn paper tablets on the ancestral altar, ending our ceremony. Many of our shoes were taken that evening. One barefoot brother casually said, “It was an offering”!

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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“Each of My Steps Is a Prayer”

Upon touching down in California after the Vietnam pilgrimage I felt like I had been put through the wash, then spun partly dry. As a dietitian it’s easy for me to say there was a lot to consume as we went from Ho Chi Minh City to the north in a short time. I see that it took all the ingredients of Vietnam’s wars, including over six million deaths, to have conditions necessary for a compassionate teacher to conduct extraordinary ceremonies of reconciliation and healing. Concurrently, many of us pilgrims were advancing our own personal transformations by leaving our cozy, familiar world to join in one or more of the journey’s segments. My personal experience in several Great Requiem Ceremonies untied my own knots of great injustice. This seemed to be so for others I talked with along the way. We were fortunate to be Thay’s supporting cast during his epic reconciliation and healing production, students and teacher practicing in the spring breeze of Vietnam.

Everyone’s effort, using a solid-as-a-mountain practice, helped transform the government’s distrust of Thay’s sincere intention to help the situation in his homeland. It was amazing to be at dozens of talks, at retreats and ceremonies with tens of thousands of Vietnamese. For most, it was their first glimpse of Thay, the mysterious, most venerable who transforms the suffering of the West and East. To observe Thay’s presence and focus while big crowds bowed, chanted and touched the earth before him was unforgettable and humbling. Westerners who posted words and images during the 2005 trip inspired me to share pictures and a blog. The teacher in me wanted to help sangha friends and family stay tapped in as events unfolded. As a final offering to the Sangha, I produced a 42-minute video, “Each of My Steps Is a Prayer” — words Thay used to describe his practice — presenting sounds and images of transformation and beauty in Vietnam. I am donating the video to the Sangha as a way to raise funds for Vietnam’s monastics.

The video is currently in English and works on NTSC DVD players; a version formatted for European PAL players is also available. Please send two checks or money orders, one for a tax-deductible $13.00 donation made out to “UBC Deer Park” and the other $3.00 for shipping made out to “David Nelson,” to: David Nelson VN07, 4360 Jasmine Avenue, Culver City, California 90232. Make sure to include your shipping address. Or contact David at rezdog_latte@hotmail.com for information.

—David Nelson

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Fierce Compassion

By Cheri Maples

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Cheri Maples received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and became a Dharma teacher on January 9, 2008 at Plum Village. Here is part of the Dharma talk she gave to the Sangha that day.

Since I was very young, I have had a passion for justice, which led to my work as a police officer and my work in other parts of the criminal justice system. However, I began working for social justice, not from a peaceful place, but from the place of an angry rebel. Looking back, I realize that fighting for social justice in various forms was one of the fuels I used to keep the unconscious habit seeds of anger burning strongly. As a result, the unskillful behaviors I engaged in created some harm in my personal and work relationships.

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I attended my first retreat with Thay in 1991. That retreat started the beginning of the mindfulness journey I have been on ever since. I have lots of habit energy and karma to transform, so this lifelong journey, while not a speedy one, has been and will continue to be a journey characterized by constancy and right aspiration.

For me, the path of mindfulness continues to be about waking up to the mystery that is right here in the present moment. Although there continue to be painful experiences and cycles in my life, I get increasingly frequent and reassuring glimpses of my vastness and my interconnection with everybody and everything in the universe.

As my practice has progressed, I have begun to understand that working for peace and justice is a journey of gentle honesty and a process of learning how to be present so that every interaction with another person is an opportunity for authenticity and understanding.

I was such an unlikely candidate for this path that I consider finding my way to it nothing short of a miracle. Today, I would like to share with you some of the most important things I have internalized about Thay’s teachings.

Suffering as Compost

First, I have learned that our personal suffering is the richest compost of our practice.

I experienced much pain in my relationship to my parents as a child, in my relationship to my children as a parent, and in my other intimate relationships. I have learned how to use this pain to understand more about what it is to be human.

I now understand that blame has often been a barrier I erected not to take responsibility for my own emotions. As I learn more about how to understand and frame my own suffering, I continue to see my own preciousness and that of others. I have learned that imperfection is not a thing to be avoided or blamed on others and that the very things that make me feel so very unlovable, all those defects I tried so hard to hide, are precisely what I have to offer others.

I have learned to remind myself that I need to stop relating to what I would like to fix in myself and replace the seeds of project mentality with loving kindness and unconditional friendship with myself and others. It’s helpful to remember that what I am doing is unlocking a softness that is in me and letting it spread in order to soften the sharp edges of self-criticism and complaint.

The Path of True Redemption

Second, I have learned that the truth is many-sided and can be approached from multiple perspectives, and that it is important to develop a deep sense of openness.

I see multiple doors to the Dharma around me every day and understand that different people enter through different doors. To me, any door that helps people lead a more ethical and compassionate life is a legitimate Dharma door. My challenge as a Dharma teacher is to find and invite people through the Dharma doors that they can relate to by translating Thay’s teachings into a language they can understand. Of course, a major focus of mine will be bringing Thay’s teachings to those who work in the criminal justice system because I understand not only their language and fears, but also the injustices committed when people abuse the trust and state authority bestowed upon them.

I hope I can help people to understand the difference between fear and faith, between doing the right thing and righteousness, between action and compulsion. I hope I can help them internalize Thay’s teaching that when we stop seeing ourselves solely as victims or oppressors, we can develop a sense of forgiveness for ourselves and others that leads to true redemption. And, in finding their way, I hope I can encourage people to think enough of themselves to claim the right to question what is offered, to investigate what they are being told, to trust their own experiences, and allow others to do the same.

In finding my own middle way between action and compulsion, I try to remind myself that although my spiritual practice requires me to take action, it should not be one more thing to judge myself about or be compulsive about. In every major step along my own path, first in receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, then in receiving the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and now being made a Dharma teacher, I have gone through what I call an “I’m not worthy crisis.” When I really get scared that I am not worthy, my partner will say to me, “Do you trust Thay?” I say, “Of course. I trust Thay with all my heart.” She says, ”Then, trust him not to make a mistake. Get out of the way and let the Buddha be the Dharma teacher.”

I do trust that the process of becoming a Dharma teacher will work in a similar manner as the process of receiving the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The trainings and the possibilities contained within the trainings work on me as I work on them. As my understanding and practice deepens, old habit seeds and energies are transformed as new seeds get watered by living up to the possibilities of the path.

So I have decided that the purpose of being a Dharma teacher is no different than the purpose of any student on the path. The purpose is not to do it right but to reside in the joy and possibilities provided by the opportunity to commit more deeply to the Dharma and reap the bountiful harvest that this possibility offers.

In finding my way between fear and faith, I have learned that faith is about discovering the existence of an ultimate dimension and learning to live with heart. Discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart and letting the world tickle your heart with the wonders of the present moment and your relationships with others. It comes from being willing to open up, touching your own vulnerability, and having the courage to share your heart with others. This is the path to the authentic relationships that are the litmus test of spirituality.

In discovering the difference between doing the right thing and righteousness, I have learned that dogma and righteousness are subtle forms of violence. In contrast, faith enables us to meet life with a sense of curiosity rather than a definition of reality.

One of Thay’s greatest gifts to me was the teaching that if we truly understand our interconnection with others, we can all find a victim and an oppressor within ourselves. I can look back and find painful examples of my own mistakes and unintentional abuses of power. Likewise, I can find painful examples of my own victimization. When we learn to acknowledge and make friends with these parts of ourselves, it enables us not to become one or the other.

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As long as we see ourselves solely as victims, our anger will fuel a dangerous sense of entitlement that can be just as destructive as the oppressor’s abuse of power. When I see all the ways that I have been a perpetrator and a victim, I can relax. I can hold more paradoxes, more dichotomies. I can also let go of my guilt about the past and understand that redemption lies in the correction of the course of my mistakes. I can continually begin anew by taking the opportunity the present moment puts in front of me to make a different choice.

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An Unwavering Commitment to Non-Violence

Third, I have deeply internalized Thay’s teaching that it is impossible to end violence with violence.

I believe this is the biggest challenge and the most important lesson for all those working in the criminal justice system. Working to provide public safety means working for peace and justice, and requires an unwavering personal commitment to non-violence in our own lives and in our environments and systems. This requires a personal aspiration not to contribute to violence or aggression in any form. If the personal is indeed political, the most radical political act of all is to learn how to live in more harmony with everyone and everything.

When we understand our interdependence deeply, we understand that when we care for ourselves, we care for others; and when we care for others, we care for ourselves. This understanding enables us to effectively work for peace in ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Unfortunately, I work in a criminal justice system based on the premise that punishment of the perpetrator will heal the victim and rehabilitate the perpetrator. Of course, people insistent on punishing each other usually become allied in making each other suffer more.

I have observed that it is not the wrongdoer’s repentance that creates forgiveness, but the victim’s forgiveness that creates repentance. This is where forgiveness enters the realm of spirit and paradox. Because it becomes a mysterious gift offered to one who does not necessarily merit it, it becomes the essence of compassion itself.

In conclusion, my own path has taught me how important it is to be present to my own life, to trust myself and help others to do the same, to allow my heart to be torn open in love rather than protected in fear. I have learned to keep asking myself if what I am doing is making me kinder, more understanding, and more loving.

Cheri Maples, True Jewel, worked in the criminal justice profession for twenty-five years; she is also a licensed attorney and clinical social worker, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. Cheri practices with SnowFlower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Together We Are One

Excerpted from Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery
September 10, 2011

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Question: Dear Thay and dear community, as a survivor of rape, how do I forgive my attackers?

Thich Nhat Hanh: The criminals, those who have made us suffer, also are victims. They were born and raised in an environment that was not loving enough to nurture them. And they had difficulties, but no one, including their parents, could help them. So they are victims of their environment. If we had been born and raised in that same environment, we may have become like them. That’s why, when we look deeply, understanding comes and compassion arises in our hearts. We can forgive.

Many people in Vietnam escaped the Communist regime by boat, and many of them died during the trip crossing the sea to Thailand or to the Philippines. Many of their deaths were caused by sea pirates.

The sea pirates were often born into families of poor fishermen in the coastal areas of Thailand or the Philippines. They heard that when the boat people fled their country, they may have had their family valuables, like gold or jewelry, with them. So if the sea pirates could rob them of their valuables, they could escape the poor, desperate situation they and their families had been stuck in for so long.

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Your grandfather was a poor fisherman. Your father also was a poor fisherman. And you are a poor fisherman, and you have no opportunity to get out of this situation. Your father and your grand­father couldn’t get good educations, so they had no opportunity to get jobs that would enable them to live easier lives. So if your mother did not know how to read and write, and your father was drunk every day, then it is very difficult for you to get an education and get out of this terrible cycle. It’s difficult for you to learn to have a loving heart. So when people tell you that if you go out one time and rob the refugees of their gold and their money, this will get you out of your desperate situation, you are tempted. In this way, the poor young fisherman becomes a sea pirate because of his ignorance, because of his background, because of his desperation.

I was in France when I heard stories about boat people. Many of us tried to go to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines to help. They encountered a lot of suffering.

Suppose you are on the refugee boat. Of course, you can protect yourself. You can shoot the sea pirate. Otherwise, the sea pirate will throw you into the ocean, rape your daughter, and take your valuables. Every time you hear that a boat person has been raped and killed by a sea pirate, you suffer, and you believe that if you had a gun and you were on a boat, you would be able to shoot that person. But if you shoot the sea pirate, he will die and you will not be able to help him. He’s a victim of his environment, and he did not have any education, any opportunity for a better life. So the sea pirate is also a victim.

If we meditate, we know that today there will be babies born on the coastline into these poor families. If educators, politicians, and others do not do anything to help these babies get better food and education, when they grow up they will become sea pirates. We can see that if we are born and raised in that way, we too may be­come sea pirates. That kind of meditation allows us to understand, to see that these criminals are also victims of their environment, and that allows the nectar of compassion to be born in our hearts, and we can forgive. Not only do we not want to kill them or punish them, but we are motivated by the desire to do something to help them. We can see that those who rape us are also victims. With that kind of understanding, we know that there are things we can do to help rapists and to prevent people from becoming rapists.

That is something parents, teachers, educators, and politicians have to meditate upon. We have to take the kind of action that will help change the situation and prevent these babies from becoming sea pirates and rapists.

Forgiveness is possible with understanding. You cannot for­give if you only have the desire, the intention to forgive. In order to truly forgive, you have to see the truth, to understand that that person is a victim. When you see that, compassion arises, and naturally you can forgive, and you feel lighter. And you don’t want to punish him anymore. You want him and his children to have a better environment in order not to continue like that, generation after generation.

So many of us in society are victims of violence, anger, fear, and discrimination. The only answer is compassion. Compassion arises from understanding. Understanding is the fruit of medita­tion, namely, the practice of looking deeply in order to understand why things become the way they are. When you respond with compassion, you suffer less, and you are able to help.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact The Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Letter from the Editor

Editor-NB

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

Last fall, some of our Facebook friends told us they’d like to read about forgiveness. They wanted to learn how to heal the past in the present. As submissions came in, I was inspired to look deeply at the theme in my own life. Every day gave me an opportunity to forgive myself or someone else!

I learned that sometimes, before I’m able to forgive, I need to move through a firestorm of grief or rage. When I hear of a child who has been abused or killed by an adult, I feel blinded by those strong negative emotions. When I’m righteously angry, it feels unnatural to forgive adults who harm children. Yet when I embrace the anger and uncover the need beneath it—such as the need for justice and kindness—I begin to move through the painful emotion and into inner peace. Within that peace, my heart feels wider and more willing to understand perpetrators of abuse. It’s necessary to honor the anger and sadness—like mud is necessary to grow a lotus. And for me, the lotus is an insight: forgiveness will only come when I love the hurting child within an adult who hurts children.

In this issue, Thay’s response to a rape survivor (“Together We Are One”) tells us that to truly understand is to forgive. He skillfully shows us how to grow our understanding and use it to stop the cycle of suffering. Sister Jewel frames her two visits to prisons with a lovely teaching on self-forgiveness that is not just for inmates. She calls out to the truly free person within each of us. Practitioners share about their rocky roads to the beautiful vista of forgiveness.

The time is ripe to heal the past in the present, to fully arrive in the now. The challenges in our world, the needs of our planet, are asking us to rededicate ourselves to awakening. Our mindfulness is needed now. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Plum Village—a time to celebrate, to reflect, to honor our wondrous transformations as individual “cells” and as a global Sangha body.

As we reflect on the path that led us to this moment, we can also turn our attention to a vision of how to continue beautifully. The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation Fund gives us a chance to support our practice centers and to invest in peace. Please read Elizabeth Hospodarsky’s article, “A Handful of Rice” (p. 38), detach the brochure from the center of this issue, and return it with your contribution. Your gift makes a tremendous difference in sustaining our teacher’s legacy.

May this collection of heartfelt offerings nurture your understanding and peace.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

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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