Grief and Wholeness

By Leslie Rawls

When my father died in the summer of 1965, my world shattered. I was 11 years old, he was 39, and I adored him. In those days, few Americans spoke with their children about terminal illness and death. My parents were no exception. And Daddy’s life hadn’t seemed to change much while he was sick. He went to work every day and was the doctor-on-call each week, though he occasionally slept in a recliner because of pain. When he collapsed and went to the hospital—to die, as it turned out—we were more than halfway across the United States, on a family vacation during which he’d changed two flat tires. Shocked to my core, I struggled for a long time with the truth and finality of his absence.

Before our father died, my older brother and I had taken increasing responsibility around the house and in caring for our younger brother and sister. Afterwards, my mother relied even more upon us. As I grew to adulthood, I became strong and dependable. I worked hard and accepted responsibility. I sometimes felt I could handle just about anything. Within a short time of meeting me, most people learned that my father died when I was young. I saw it as a badge of strength and independence. Yet, I ached with unresolved grief. I always cried on his birthday and the anniversary of his death, each time mistakenly believing that this last cry would exhaust my well of sorrow. Finally, 31 years after he died, with the help of the Sangha and guided by Thay’s teachings, I was able to transform and “resolve” this bone-deep ache.


 

In the fall of 1996,1 spent four weeks in Plum Village. During the three week “Heart of the Buddha” retreat, I lived in New Hamlet. There, as usual in Plum Village, we formed work families. Our New Hamlet families were all named after fruits. I was in the banana family, and we became quite close. I told many of my new friends about my father’s death. During a seemingly unrelated conversation, my banana brother Kees Lodder said to me, “I wonder why that eleven-year-old girl still hurts so much?” I have forgotten what prompted his statement, but these simple words opened the door to my practice focus for much of the rest of the retreat. Over the next few weeks, Kees’s deep listening and mindful speech and the support of other Sangha members helped immensely. And Thay’s sharing of the Buddha’s teachings offered the tools that made transformation whole.

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The day after Kees’s troubling question, Thay taught us about the Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is suffering (dukkha). The Second Truth is the origin or roots of suffering (samudaya). The Third Truth is the cessation of suffering (nirodha). The Fourth Truth is the path that leads out of suffering to well-being (marga). Thay encouraged us to test these truths through our own experience. With a deep outbreath, I realized how deeply and how long I had hurt. “Here,” I thought, “is a real test for these Truths.”

Practicing the First Truth seemed easy. Suffering surely existed in me. To practice the Second Truth felt more challenging. It seemed simple to say that the cause of my suffering was my father’s death. But starting from this cause, how could I possibly move to the Third Truth—that there is a way out of suffering? There was no way to undo the death. I felt stuck. “Look deeply at the causes of your suffering,”Thay encouraged. “What we first see as the cause may not be correct.” I practiced walking meditation on the roads around New Hamlet for hours each day, holding my suffering like a child. Sometimes Sangha friends walked with me. Sometimes we sat beside fields and talked about the practices.

I am somewhat reluctant to share what happened next, for it involves something I can only call a vision—not an ordinary experience for me. I did not consciously beckon or create this vision, but one day, as I listened to Thay’s Dharma talk, it came. I was not daydreaming, but in my mind’s eye, I saw a tornado dropping from the sky. It did not move across the ground, but stood stationary. Near the top, a face went round and round. I recognized the face as myself at eleven years old. With this vision, I saw that, just as Thay had taught, my original perception about the cause of my suffering was wrong. My suffering arose not from my father’s death, but from my own entrapment, my own clinging to all the things I still wished for—to have been a teenage girl with a father, not to be hurt…. I listened to Thay and followed my breath. My mind’s eye watched the girl—me—trapped high in the whirlwind. I wanted desperately to get her out.

A few days later, Thay taught us about transforming the suffering of our ancestors and making peace with them. He encouraged us to see our parents and grandparents in every cell of our bodies, in our speech and actions. My vision had not left me, although I did not always focus on it. The girl kept whirling. Thay said to call on the strength of the ancestors in us to transform our own suffering. Putting the teachings into practice, I touched my ancestors, and hoped to gather their strength to liberate the girl in my vision. Each night, I practiced the Five Touchings of the Earth after sitting meditation. One day, in walking meditation beside a rustling cornfield, I tried to free her. In my vision, I stood beside the tornado with my father. “Come on, Daddy. We’ll get her down,” I thought. I focused. But the girl kept whirling.

“Not enough ancestor power,” I thought. So I decided to call on my land ancestors too—the mythological Pecos Bill, legend of the American West. I wasn’t sure if myths counted as real ancestors, but he seemed a perfect candidate. At the end of the American tall tale, Pecos Bill lassoes a tornado, jumps on, and rides the whirlwind into the sunset. So, standing at the edge of the cornfield, breathing mindfully, I called with all my heart on Pecos Bill and my father to help me get her down. It didn’t work. After fifteen minutes of my conscious breathing and focusing, she still twirled and looked down woefully. I felt defeated.


 

The next day it rained during Thay’s Dharma talk in Lower Hamlet. I sat. I breathed. I listened to Thay and the rain. Then, Thay said, “Practice must be linked to a real problem. Look to see its connection to your life, not as an escape.” Hearing this, I saw that the goal of my efforts so far had been to escape from my suffering. I wanted transformation in order to leave the suffering behind. Listening to Thay, I began to feel a deep peace.

The vision did not leave me as peace descended, but it changed. Now, in my mind’s eye, I sat cross-legged beside the tornado, following my in-breath and my out-breath. I no longer tried to pull the girl down. I saw that just as my father is present in every cell, this hurt child in a whirlwind is also an integral part of me. As I listened to Thay’s Dharma talk, I knew that I didn’t need to “save” the girl. I needed to accept her suffering, my suffering, without judgment or blame.

I thought the Third Noble Truth had stumped me, but I had never really practiced the First. Trying to conquer my suffering, I had separated from it, not fully accepting the truth of the suffering itself. After weeks of strong Sangha support, miles of walking meditation, and Thay’s transmission of the Buddha’s teachings, my heart opened to my own suffering and to the little girl of my vision, and I could offer nonjudgmental love and acceptance.

In the Dharma Hall—as in my vision —I sat and followed my breath. And things began to change. Slowly, the tornado collapsed, ring by ring, like an old-fashioned camping cup. The girl walked to me with a smile. Now, I could accept my own feelings of grief, anger, and abandonment. And I could see, welcome, and love my father in me—all of my father, including his death at the age of 39. Practice transformed the compost of suffering, and joy bloomed in my heart.

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Leslie Rawls, Country of True Enlightenment, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Got White Rice?

By Lien Shutt

I was born in Saigon in 1964. My birth mother was a clerk at the American Embassy. When she realized that she was dying of cancer, she asked her boss to help her find Americans to adopt my older sister and me. In 1973, European Americans adopted us. Because my adoptive parents worked for the State Department, part of my upbringing was overseas. In between these overseas posts, my parents moved the family to Virginia with the specific purpose of, in their words, “Americanizing the children.”

In the early 1970s, the concept of “multiculturalism” had not been developed, at least not in my parents’ consciousness. Although my parents sponsored two refugee families from Vietnam, I had no other consistent interaction with other Vietnamese. The concept of helping me or my siblings retain or access our racial and cultural heritage was not part of my parents’ thinking.

My parents were good-hearted, kind people who raised us the best they knew how. They both told me that going to Vietnam in the late 1960s changed their lives, opening up their worldview. But they are also the products of their upbringing, generation, and culture. For them, the United States’ overseas actions were helpful and necessary efforts to assist “developing” nations. In no way did they consider their actions race-based.

As part of my “Americanization,” I was baptized and raised Presbyterian. My mother was a devout Christian and attended church regularly. As a child, I was required to attend church regularly. In my early teens, I realized that what was preached and what was practiced were two very different things and I refused to go to church anymore. I even became quite antireligion. But while my experience with Christianity did not work, I knew something was missing in my life.

Glimpses of Buddhism wafted in and out of my life. During my first year of college, a good friend and I talked about learning to meditate, but nothing ever came of it. In my early twenties, I had a Thai friend who practiced Buddhism and had an altar. I wanted to ask her about the practice, but somehow never did. And then we grew apart. Four years ago, when I first moved to San Francisco, I lived just down the street from a Zen temple. I walked by its locked doors several times and noticed the people going in and out. I did not see any people of color. After several months, I got up enough nerve to call the temple. No one returned my call.

Then, in 1997, a Vietnamese American friend had told me about the Day of Mindfulness at Spirit Rock. I had read a few of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, including Peace Is Every Step and The Heart of Understanding, but had never been to any of his events.

My friends and I arrived together and found a spot among the large crowd on the hills. The event had not started. I wandered around, feeling overwhelmed by the size of the crowd (approximately 2000) and the fact that it was mostly people of European ancestry. I sat down on a little knoll behind the crowd. There, looking at the bamboo stage with two tall palm fronds swaying in the wind, I began to cry. I tried to resist. I reminded myself that I was among strangers. But, against my own will, I felt my heart softening. I cried uncontrollably, with large, gulping sobs, and felt release.

I also felt a sense of coming home.

Later, as Sister Chan Khong led the Touching the Earth exercise, this feeling deepened. The ritual grounded me. I had always thought that I needed to return to Vietnam before I could really “heal.” The practice helped me understand that my connection to the universe was not dependent upon a sense of place. It also helped me see that the universe can contain all our emotions, including our pain. For me, the exercise rested on the vital Buddhist principle that we can touch peace by accepting the here and now.

I believe that Buddhism has a distinct resonance for Vietnamese- or Asian Pacific Americans such as myself. For Asian Americans, there is a level of understanding, a level of affinity that comes from a family or cultural background we may not even recognize until we begin sitting. Buddhism has a certain flavor for us that it may not have for others.

An analogy I keep thinking of relates to eating rice. In Saigon, I grew up eating white rice almost every day. Here in the West, we are told that white rice is not as nutritionally sound as brown. Trying to be health conscious, I have eaten brown rice, but I prefer the taste of white rice and eat it almost exclusively. There is nothing like the taste of white rice for me. And the smell of it cooking is the most comforting smell in the world!

Currently, I practice with a Sangha of people of color. We are a nondenominational group. I tried several other Sanghas in the Bay Area, but was turned off by the lack of racial diversity and the coolness of my reception. While I acknowledge that my path back to Buddhism adds its own unique difficulties, Sanghas must address their lack of diversity if they want to be accessible to Asians and other people of color.

On one level, lack of diversity in our Sanghas reflects current race conditions as a whole. At a People of Color retreat last year, many Asian Pacific Americans and mixed-race Asian Pacific Americans talked about how Buddhism was part of their family background but they had not been aware of it because of assimilation or acculturation.

On another level, it can be difficult when European Americans do not understand why practicing with a Sangha that does not have many people of color “should be” a difficulty. Many do not contradict my experience outright, but repeatedly talk about how finding refuge with a Sangha is a hard task for all of us. They move immediately to offering absolute truths. On one level, I agree, but on another, it is only a subtler form of racism.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about relative and absolute truths by discussing the way we look at ocean waves. When we look at waves, we may decide that there are big waves and little waves, or high waves and low waves. We may see the beginning of a wave and the end of a wave. But if we look deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. Water is its essential self. As long as a wave thinks of itself as a wave, it may become sad or happy, with superiority or inferiority complexes, and it may fear death. When the wave sees that it is water, it will never have such worries. It transcends the notions of space and time, and comparative judgments.

Relative truth is a wave. Absolute truth is water. This teaching is true for all of us. The absolute  truth is that we are all connected. We are the same. The color of our skin does not matter. But the relative truth is that we live in an imperfect world. Racism exists. Race itself is a social construct, made up of how others perceive and, therefore, relate to us. Our society is not “colorblind”; the historical experiences of people of color must be taken into account. I may know that I am water, but as long as others see me as a wave, I will be treated as a wave. And, while you may see me as water, as long as others see me as a wave, that is how I am treated—especially if, like the media, they have the power to distribute their concepts of how they see me and others like me.

In the absolute world, how I decide to experience my world is the key to freedom; in the relative world, my perception can impact the immediate moment only so much. I may know that the person who called me a “Jap” and tells me to “Go back where you belong!” as she beats me is only saying such things out of ignorance, fear, and personal pain, but this knowledge doesn’t change my need for stitches in the gash on my head. Nor does it change the social structure that allows such acts of hatred to occur. I may think I am an “American,” but if most people perceive me as a “foreigner”—as reported in a recent study on Asian Pacific American race relations—then I will be treated with less rights if not outright hatred.

Racism and other oppressions are based on relative truths. Like most people, I want to live in a world of absolute truth, but the world is filled with relative truths. For me, a major gift of Buddhism is the ability to sit with complexities; to see, acknowledge, and be able to contain both truths. So, even if brown rice is “better” for me, I prefer white rice. I have tried brown rice. In my everyday, relative world, the taste of white rice is sweet and feeds me on a deeper level than nutritionally. And, while white rice may taste especially divine to us Vietnamese or Asian Pacific Americans, finding Sanghas in the United States that serve white rice is hard.

In his teachings on the Four Noble Truths, Thich Nhat Hanh says that we must learn to “embrace” our suffering. An important part of my practice is to fully experience my suffering; to fully accept the impact of relative truths on my life. In an oppressive system, creating conditions in which the disenfranchised question their experience is half of the objective—”Did he really mean to touch my breast on that crowded bus? Maybe she just didn’t see me here in front of the line? When she said to bring a guest to the party, does that include my (same sex) partner? Am I overreacting or being too sensitive?” In an oppressive system, self-validation is an act of conscious, mindful concentration, and to accept that one’s experience has merit is a revolutionary act.

In the West, we try to alleviate pain immediately. Have a headache? Feel depressed? Take a pill. Then, you can go on with the “important” things in life. Similarly, in Buddhist practice, we may rush to master the Third and Fourth Truths before fully accepting the full implication of the First Truth. A deeper observation of the First Truth needs to be emphasized in practice. As a product of this society, I too run for relief from my pain. Often I run to absolute truth, to the belief that if only we all operated from an absolute truth viewpoint, then things would be different. I try to push away the pains of relative reality.

My practice challenge is to understand that in every ocean, there are waves, and to see that while those waves may take me to the other shore, the trip will not always be smooth. Undertows and tsunami are also part of the nature of oceans. My challenge is to not wish that I were somewhere else, to not pretend that these forces are not happening, or to rush to figure how they could or should be different. My challenge is, first, to fully be with what has arisen. To be with the ocean as she is: as water that contains waves.

Lien Shutt practices with the Buddhists of Color Sangha in the San Francisco Bay area.

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Buddha Eyes

Our dear Thay has done his very best over many years, transmitting the Buddha Eyes to us. The June retreat in Plum Village was a profound experience of this continued Buddha Eyes transmission. We learned of many types of eyes—Heavenly Eyes, Wisdom Eyes, Dharma Eyes, Sangha Eyes, and Buddha Eyes.

The beginning of our retreat was spent developing our Sangha Eyes. Sangha Eyes call us beyond our ego eyes, which would have us believe we are substantially separate selves, with individual sensibilities and destinies, concerned only with what matters to us.

During the retreat, we touched the suchness of Sangha, and it healed our pain and transformed the fear in us. The more we were able to surrender to Sangha energy, the more joy we found in each breath and each step. We realized that the practice of the Sangha is the practice of deep interbeing or emptiness. Touching true emptiness, we reclaimed our solidity and freedom and our Buddha Eyes grew bright.

Buddha Eyes allow us to look deeply into the wonders of life, and as we touch these wonders, our peace and happiness are restored. But Buddha Eyes also allow us to see and touch the Sangha everywhere, within us and around us. It is said that upon awakening, the Buddha could see 48,000 beings in a cup of water. Buddha Eyes give us the gift of courage to come home to the present moment and see reality as it is, in its connectedness and wholeness. Buddha Eyes made our Dharma Eyes shine with the light of mindfulness. As the Dharma rain of the retreat fell on us, our understanding of the Four Noble Truths came, like the full moon into the darkness of our times. We dared to look into ourselves and into our new millennium, and we saw alienation, violence, and fear at the root of suffering.

After the retreat, I added a new daily practice. After sitting and walking meditation, I now read our local newspaper, noticing stories of suffering, alienation, violence, and fear. I have found that my heart and mind are open to new levels of identification, loving kindness, and compassion. We learn to practice the Noble Truth of suffering not for its own sake, but to find ways out of suffering. Thay charged us to practice this way during our retreat. We met in Dharma Discussion groups on education, health, and business, non-profit, youth, and others, in order to bring the Four Noble Truth to life.

With Buddha Eyes, we also saw clearly the great temptations of our millennium. We are tempted to believe that genetic and electronic invention and manipulation are our way out of suffering. While genetic manipulation promises new health and longer life spans, it also carries the shadow of seeking perfection disconnected from the reality of Interbeing, and from the causes and conditions that are a powerful part of who we are and who we become. Through insights into the ten realms, we realized that there is no genetic escape from the totality of our store consciousness, which contains all the seeds, both positive and negative, found in the depths of our cells.

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Our only hope is to create causes and conditions that water our positive seeds until they bloom as beautiful flowers, and to wrap our negative seeds within the arms of loving kindness until they fall asleep. The conditions that support healing and transformation must be created within us, in our Sanghas, and in our societies.

To transform and heal our alienation, violence, and fear, Thay encouraged us to create lay residential practice communities. He said that there are not enough monks and nuns, or enough time to provide the refuge needed to create the conditions for the healing and transformation of our suffering. Lay residential centers are crucial to transmit the field of energy, environment of safety, and presence of Dharma and Sangha that our times so desperately need. With our monastic centers, locals Sanghas, Mindfulness Practice Centers, and lay residential centers, we have a powerful way out of our suffering.

I am grateful for the Eyes of the Buddha retreat. I am grateful for the monks and nuns of Plum Village whose efforts made it possible. I am grateful for our dear teacher and his unselfish transmission of the Buddha Eyes.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, heads Community of Mindful Living and Parallax Press in Berkeley, California. He practices with the Stillwater Sangha in Santa Barbara, California, whose members have begun to look for property to establish a residential lay practice community.

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Questioning Habit Energy

By Jack Lawlor

Each day, our culture sends innumerable messages urging us to consume. If we are modestly observant, we can see that many human consumption patterns threaten the air we breathe, the forests we admire, the other species we profess to love, and even the ability of less fortunate people to earn a living wage under adequate working conditions. And yet we struggle to curb our desire to consume even more, even when we’ve sensed that compulsive consuming thwarts-rather than enhances-our ability to live happily and to be truly free.

Our habit energies know us well, and we often feel stuck in them. Think of all the energy we expend on this never-ending, never satisfied cycle of appeasing our wants! The Irish novelist, Flann O’Brien, found a kind of humorous pathos in our tendency to be recidivist victims of desire. In his brilliant novel, The Third Policeman, O’Brien’s characters are condemned to an eternity of repeating the same patterns, circulating the same emotional landscape over and over, by their unacknowledged grasping. In Buddhist terms, O’Brien was describing manifestations of karma.

The teachings of the historic Buddha look deeply into the connection between desire and suffering. The First Noble Truth sets forth the Buddha’s observation that life contains suffering and unease; the Second Noble Truth observes that grasping and clinging are often a direct cause of this suffering. We are invited to experiment with these insights. We may well find that it is unhealthy to incessantly feed the flames of desire, yet we do. We often give in to compulsion in an effort to appease it, only to find that a fresh compulsion arises. If we give way to a fraction of the messages we receive urging us to consume, or if we give way to every desire that arises in us, we will find ourselves spent and exhausted. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the Second and Third Realizations of the Great Beings candidly assess the relationship between compulsive desire and our experience of unhappiness:

… more desire brings more suffering. All hardships in daily life arise from greed and desire. Those with little desire and ambition are able to relax; their bodies and minds are free from entanglement.

… the human mind is always searching for possessions and never feels fulfilled. This causes unwholesome actions to ever increase. Bodhisattvas, however, always remember the principle of having few desires. They live a simple life in peace, in order to practice the Way, and consider the realization of understanding as their only career.

The good news experienced by the Buddha is that freedom from destructive habit energy is possible, and that the way is an Eightfold Path of appropriate view, thinking, mindfulness, speech, action, diligence, concentration, and livelihood-practices that enable us to dwell in freedom during this very lifetime. These teachings are known as the Third and Fourth Noble Truths. For most of us, liberation from compulsive behavior does not arise from intellectually grasping the Buddha’s analysis or memorizing the various lists that summarize the Buddha’s teachings. Instead we make real progress in liberating ourselves from compulsive behavior when we directly experience the fruit of the teaching.

We are fortunate to practice in a mindfulness tradition that emphasizes the centeredness and peace provided by conscious breathing. Everyone who has experimented wholeheartedly with sensing and feeling the breath has tasted the freedom from anxiety, fear, and compulsion afforded by just a few moments of dwelling in the present moment. Conscious breathing enhances our capacity to be aware and alert, not rutted or stuck on autopilot. This experience enables us to stop–samatha-and look deeply-vipassana. Taking refuge in the island of mindfulness in the midst of confused, chaotic, and turbo-charged contemporary circumstances enables us to be the calm person in the cultural boat of consumerism. When we practice samatha, we find a respite from our habit energy of consuming in order to fill the aching void we sometimes find within ourselves, particularly when we feel tired, stressed, or unappreciated.

Taking refuge in our breath in the midst of doubt and confusion provides a moment of freedom and the option to follow the road usually not taken. If the desire to consume frivolously arises, we can recognize its emergence and disengage from it for a moment by enjoying our breathing. Rather than be swept away by habit energy, we can pause and observe what is actually going on. We can take a moment to reflect on how our habit of giving way to compulsion often gives way to greater complications, weariness, and suffering. And we have an opportunity to look deeply into the causes and conditions of our desire, in order to transform at the base our habit of compulsive acquisitiveness. A complete mindfulness practice involves both stopping and looking deeply in this way.

I have found that moments of desire are a precious opportunity to practice an insight meditation inspired by the chapters on Right View and Right Thinking in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. There, Thay essentially invites us to ask ourselves four questions: “Am I sure?” “What am I doing?” “Hello, habit energy! What are you asking me to do without my knowledge?” and “Where is the bodhicitta, the mind of love, in myself and those I am with, and how do I nourish it?” For me, these questions are a kind of natural koan that arises in the context of daily life. The moment of freedom provided by our practice of conscious breathing gives us the chance to ask these questions when confronted by desire.

We are constantly urged to consume. When we are surrounded by the Sunday morning paper, gleaming with colorful advertisements, the thought arises in us that we need a new car. The day provides a wonderful opportunity to remain home, alone or with loved ones, but the seed of new car ownership is also arising. We breathe, smile, and say hello to the thought, perhaps breathing through it to sense its marrow. I find it is helpful to ask Thay’s question, “Am I sure? Am I sure I need a new car? Don’t I already have one with only 114,000 miles? Am I sure I want to disrupt the grace and ease of a lazy Sunday morning at home with the family, the funny papers, and Dave Barry’s humor column? And aren’t car dealerships closed on Sundays?”

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Nonetheless, the day will come when the air conditioning breaks down for the second time, making it uneconomical to engage in further auto repairs. I may find myself at the dealership, being magnetically attracted to the Behemoth showroom. Thay’s second question arises then, like a guided meditation, “What am I doing? I came here to buy a replacement for my 1991 Ford Taurus and I find myself eye-level with the floorboards of new Gigantors. The family, the dogs, and I can make do with much less. What am I doing? Why? Am I about to affiliate with a symbol rather than a reality? If the goal is to vacation with the family in a natural setting, why not go home and make plans to do that rather than purchase a symbol that proclaims that some day I may get around to doing it?”

If we look deeply into our consumption patterns, we may find the same theme recurring beneath the surface of our behavior. “Am I trying to make a statement rather than ‘walk the talk’? Am I trying to find an easy way to affiliate with an image rather than live genuinely and free? How much time, money, and energy are spent on this kind of behavior? How many hours of extra work?” This is Thay’s third question: “Hell o, habit energy. What are you asking me to do without my knowledge?”

Oftentimes, when we are mindful and awake, the mere recognition of habit energy will drain it of much of its strength. On the other hand, some of our habit energies are quite strong, having been well-nourished and accommodated for many years. When strong habit energies are encountered, we can also nourish what is strong and healthy in us. For example, many Americans have strong seeds that value equality and fairness. When we weigh our consumer tastes against the air pollution and resource depletion that results from our consuming, our desires may be tempered by empathy for other people and species who share our desires to breathe air and drink water that is as clear and unpolluted as possible. “Where is the bodhicitta in myself, and in those I am with?” we might ask. This is Thay’s fourth question: “What is the best way to nourish the mind of love?”

How do we nouri sh what is best in ourselves and others? How do we water the seeds of compassion? If our insight meditation proceeds to this question, the interdependence of self and other becomes clear, and the Dharma door to taking refuge in Sangha is thrown open. Individually, we feel weak in the face of habit energies, especially those that are fed with the vigor of our mass culture. Collectively, as a Sangha, we can slowly build what Thay and Father Daniel Berrigan call a “community of resistance” to societal and individual habit energies. Practicing alone, our efforts may seem minor and insignificant. Convening regularly as a Sangha to sit in meditation and explore the Mindfulness Trainings, we know that we are part of a collective effort to transform suffering at the base.

The practice has both individual and collective manifestations. A few years ago, I read a little cartoon showing two meditators sitting beside each other on their cushions. One turned to the other and said, “Can you watch my breath for me? I have to feed the parking meter.” Of course, neither the Buddha nor Thay–nor monks and nuns, nor the local Sangha–can watch our breath for us. They cannot practice samatha for us, or ask Thay’s four insightful questions about our habit energies. Nonetheless, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha serve us as a kind of collective compass that helps in moments of doubt and confusion. And even when doubt and confusion arise, with a few moments of conscious breathing, we can take refuge in the sanctuary of mindfulness. Taking refuge in this practice in the midst of temptation, habit energy, and confusion can provide us the opportunity to ask a few very important questions about what we are actually doing. Most practitioners find that stopping and looking deeply can free us from the compulsions that rob us of our time, our freedom, and our happiness. We can learn from small successes in taking the road not usually traveled. We build upon these small successes and pretty soon, we’re following the very Eightfold Path the Buddha spoke of as the means to transform our suffering.

As the founder of our lineage, Lieu Quan, observed in his enlightenment verse, “For the realization of True Emptiness to be possible, wisdom and action must go together.”

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Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, practices with Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, and leads retreats throughout the American Midwest.

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The Fifth Mindfulness Training

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


 

Elementary School Bodhisattvas

Clay  McLeod

There is a movement in education today called “global education.” It originated in the peace education movement, but it has now grown to encompass teaching students about social justice, human rights, equality, and ecological sustainability, as well as peace and harmony between people. The idea of global interdependence is fundamental to the approach that global education takes in the classroom, and this idea mirrors the Buddhist teaching of interbeing. The similarities don’t stop there though. As an elementary school teacher who uses a global education approach, I have found that the similarities between global education and engaged Buddhism are striking, and I have adopted the practice of global education as part of my mindfulness practice.

Global education is an approach to teaching that stresses the interconnection of all things on this planet. According to the theory behind global education, we are all related to one another in a network of links, interactions, and connections that encircle the planet like a web. Global education stresses the importance of looking at the world and the relationships of people and things in the world as integrated systems that are dynamic and inseparable. It exposes the relationship between and unity of familiar dualisms like “local” vs. “global” and “past” vs. “future.” According to the theory of global education offered by Graham Pike and David Selby, building on the ideas of physicist David Bohm, everything causes everything else, and what happens anywhere affects what happens everywhere. The reality of global education exists on two levels, described by Bohm as the explicate and implicate orders. At the explicate level, objects seem to be separate from one another and discrete, but at the implicate level, looking deeply into the relationships between things, we see that the whole of reality is “enfolded” into every part of reality.

This precisely mirrors the Buddha’s teaching of interdependent co-arising and interbeing. This is, because that is; that is, because this is. All dharmas are conditioned and are really the continuation of other dharmas. This is the reality of impermanence and non-self. In Transformation at the Base: Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness, Thay also discusses David Bohm’s explicate and implicate orders, and he compares these “orders” to the Buddhist teaching about the historical dimension or relative reality (samsara) and the ultimate dimension or absolute reality (nirvana). Global education touches this insight and attempts to open students’ eyes to it.

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Global education also touches the insight of the four noble truths.  Through the lens of global education, students are encouraged to look at the world clearly and see the reality of suffering, like the unequal distribution of wealth, the existence of sweat shops where workers are abused and exploited, the devastation of war, and the consequences of racism, sexism, and discrimination. More importantly, it is an approach that encourages students to do something about the suffering that they see in the world. Global education tries to encourage social responsibility by teaching students how to shape the future through their actions in the present moment.

This penetrates the third noble truth; there can be a cessation of creating suffering. The idea of effective action that reduces injustice, oppression, and suffering is central to global education. Students are encouraged to realize that their choices have consequences and that they can change the world with their actions. This parallels the practice of engaged Buddhism. When a bodhisattva sees suffering, she is moved by compassion to act in order to reduce that suffering. This is the aspiration of global education; to create a culture of bodhisattvas who see the relationship between their well-being as individuals and their character and actions as these things relate to the well-being of the planet. Through the development of students’ character, knowledge, skills, and abilities, it aspires to transform the things in the world that lead to suffering.

In my classroom, I have a poster that represents the four immeasurable minds. It’s title is “Friendship Tips,” and it says “Be friendly and kind to everyone that you meet (loving kindness); be happy and joyful (sympathetic joy); be caring, and think about other people’s feelings (compassion); try to stay calm, even when things aren’t going your way (equanimity).” These are the values that I try to personify and teach in my classroom. When I was learning to be a teacher, one of my practicum teachers told me that the students probably wouldn’t remember much of what I actually taught them, but that they would remember how I treated them. In my interactions with my students, I try to offer them a kind and loving example of how to treat others. Global education is an approach that allows me to try to explicitly teach them the knowledge and skills that they need to live these values. Through global education, I try to make what I teach them match the example that I attempt to provide through my actions.

Every year, I begin the year by teaching my students how to be good friends and how to respond to bullies. My hope is to create a safe and supportive classroom environment where students can grow in confidence and feel that they belong. One of my central classroom expectations is that students solve their problems peacefully. Through brainstorming, role playing, reading, writing, and drawing, we explore ways to be kind and friendly and ways to respond to violence with communication rather than an escalating cycle of violence. The students practice their basic reading and writing skills, developing literacy and the ability to communicate effectively, while also developing their ability to get along with others, perform as cooperative members of a group and a community, and solve problems in peaceful, constructive ways.

Throughout the year, we study various topics and themes that address the goals and aspirations of global education. While we address the learning outcomes required by the curriculum, we create a classroom community of caring and support, and we learn about peace building, deep listening, loving speech, equality between people, the relationship of people and animals to their environments, the interactions and interdependence of elements in the ecosystem, and ways to stay calm and resolve the conflicts that we have with each other through discussion rather than violence. Through global education, I try to cultivate and nourish the seeds of love, compassion, joy, understanding, and peace in my students and myself. To me, the practice of global education is an essential part of my mindfulness practice.

Clay McLeod practices with a Sangha in Chilliwack, B.C., Canada, where he teaches grades three and four. He and his wife Meaghan look forward to watering seeds of joy and happiness in their own family “classroom” when their first child arrives in July.

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Dharma Talk: The Horse Is Technology

By Thich Nhat Hanh

November 10, 2013
Plum Village

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Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is the 10th of November, 2013, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall of the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village. The Winter Retreat will start in five days and will last ninety days. The Winter Retreat is the most beautiful retreat in Plum Village because we can go deep into the teaching, and we have plenty of time to build brotherhood and sisterhood and transform ourselves.

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During this Winter Retreat we should stay in the compound of Plum Village, in the Sangha. We do not have permission to go out, even with the Internet. So there will be no individual email addresses and no Facebook. Facebook is neither good nor evil, but how you use it can bring more negative things than positive and can waste a lot of time. With Facebook, we are looking for something outside of us, and we do not have time to go back to ourselves and to take care of ourselves. So there will be absolutely no Facebook during this retreat. If you have anything that is not the Dharma, including iPod, iTouch, iTablet, films, and music, you have to throw it out.

Teaching at Google

On the 23rd of October, we spent the day at Google. We were in three groups at different locations, with Thay in one group and sixty monastics spread through the groups. Thay’s talk was seen and heard by everyone simultaneously.

We began with breakfast, and then at 8:30 we gave instructions on walking meditation. The people in the Google complex––they call it Googleplex––did walking meditation very seriously. At one point during the walking, we sat down, and Thay invited the small bell three times and had a cup of tea. Those who came late saw the calm atmosphere; it was very rare.

Then a Google representative delivered a welcome speech, and Thay gave a talk followed by a session of questions and answers. Thay offered a guided meditation that was used the next day at a plenary session broadcast worldwide. There were gifts exchanged, and at noon after sharing instructions on how to eat mindfully, Thay ate lunch with everyone. At 1:45, Sister Chan Khong led a session of total relaxation. At 3:00, Thay and some of the monastics met with senior Google executives, including a number of engineers. We had a long and deep discussion on how to make good use of technology in order to help people suffer less.

Google offered the theme, “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” They wanted to know the interplay between intention, insight, and innovation, not only in terms of work, but also in all aspects of life. The basic question was: How can technology become a force for integration rather than destruction? Because so far, it is a force of destruction; it’s pulling us away from each other.

Before we went to Google, a number of monastics wrote to Thay, describing the situation there and suggesting some questions to address. The first question was, “How can we innovate in order to take good care of ourselves?” Second, “How can we take care of the health of our workforce and take care of Mother Earth?” There is enlightenment in this question: it shows that they see the negative aspects of technology. They have found that emotional health is decreasing and distress is increasing in the Google workforce. They want some teaching and practice to deal with that situation.

Another question was, “Given the high rate of burnout, is there a way that we as a corporation can assist employees to create a better work-life balance?” Many Googlers are addicted to their work, they have a hard time detaching from it, and it can take over their lives. Maybe each of us feels that way also. We are being taken over by our work, and we do not have the time and the capacity to live our life deeply. Life is a gift, and we are not able to enjoy it, to make the best of that gift.

Strangely, there is an eagerness to find a technological solution to technology addiction. There is a disease called technology addiction, and yet you want to use technology to heal. Can we heal drug addiction with drugs? Can we heal anger with anger? Can we heal violence with violence? That is a contradiction.

So that is the First Noble Truth, not only for Buddhists, but for everyone. We have to contemplate the First Noble Truth of ill-being. Technology is destructive. Technology is taking our time away. We do not have the time to take care of ourselves, our families, and nature. Our civilization is going in a wrong direction.

This question is the beginning of a kind of awakening. We recognize the ill-being, and we want to transform it. We are looking for the way, the path, to heal that ill-being. That is the Fourth Noble Truth: the noble path leading to the transformation of ill-being.

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Where Are We Going?

There is a Zen story about a person sitting on a horse, galloping very quickly. At a crossroads, a friend of his shouts, “Where are you going?” The man says, “I don’t know, ask the horse!”

This is our situation. The horse is technology. It carries us and we cannot control it. So we have to begin with intention, asking ourselves, what do we want? The unofficial slogan of Google is “Don’t be evil.” Can you make a lot of money without being evil? That’s what they try to do, but so far, not very successfully. You want to be wealthy. You want to be Number One, but that costs you your life, because you are carried away by work.

Searching for information on your computer becomes a way to distract you from your problems. In this way we run away from ourselves, from our family, from our Mother Earth. As a civilization, we are going in the wrong direction. Even if you don’t kill or rob anyone, you are losing your life. If you do not have time to take care of your family and nature, making money that way costs you your life, your happiness, and the life and happiness of your beloved ones and Mother Earth. So that way of making money is evil. But is there a way to make money without being evil?

People have suffering within themselves: loneliness, despair, anger, fear. Most people are afraid of going home to take care of themselves, because they think they will be overwhelmed by the suffering inside. Instead, we try to run away from ourselves or to cover up the suffering inside by consuming. Technology is helping us to do this, so in this way technology is evil.

The horse is supposed to carry us to a good destination, as is technology. But, so far, technology has mostly helped us to run away from ourselves at the cost of our own life and happiness, and the happiness of our beloved ones and the beauty of Mother Earth. So you cannot say that we are not evil, because while realizing your dream of being wealthy, you sacrifice your life, you sacrifice the happiness of your beloved ones, and you cause damage to Mother Earth. So it’s not so easy not to be evil.

But if technology can help you to go home to yourself and take care of your anger, take care of your despair, take care of your loneliness, if technology helps you to create joyful feelings, happy feelings for yourself and for your beloved ones, it’s going in a good way and you can make good use of technology. When you are happy, when you have time for yourself and your beloved ones, maybe you can be more successful in your business. Perhaps you will make more money if you are really happy, if you have good emotional health, if you reduce the amount of stress and despair within yourself.

The Four Nutriments

During his talk at Google, Thay spoke about the four nutriments. In Buddhist psychology there are five universal mental formations: contact, sparsa; attention, manaskara; feelings, vedana; perception, samjna; volition, cetana. They are always present, expressing themselves in our consciousness. The first one is contact, and the last one is volition. These two mental formations are considered to be the kind of food we don’t consume with our mouth.

Some of us use technology to consume in order to forget the suffering in us, in the same way that we sometimes use edible food. When we are lonely or fearful, we search in the refrigerator for something to eat, not because we need it, but we want to forget the suffering in us. Many of us are addicted to eating and become fat and suffer from many kinds of diseases, just because of this kind of consuming. Edible food is the first of the four nutriments.

The second nutriment the Buddha taught was sensory impressions. We pick up a book to read, hoping to have a sensation. We go to the Internet, looking for pictures and songs and music to have a certain feeling. When you listen to music or read a book or newspaper out of routine, you are doing it so you won’t encounter yourself. Many of us are afraid of going home to ourselves, because we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside of us. So we look for sensory impressions to consume. Technology, the Internet, is helping us to do this.

Many young people do this. A teenager confessed to us in a retreat that he spends at least eight hours each day with electronic games, and he cannot stop. At first he was playing games to forget, and now he’s addicted to it. In real life he does not feel any love or understanding in his family, school, or society. Many young people are trying to fill up the loneliness, the emptiness inside, by looking for sensory impressions. That is the second source of nutriment.

Now, as a Buddhist monk or nun, are we doing the same? If you go to the Internet and download a film and a song to enjoy, then you are doing the same. You have to do what the Buddha taught you to do: learn to go home to yourself without fear. Breathe and walk to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and insight, and go home and take care of the loneliness inside. We do not have time to look for sensory impressions to fill up the vacuum in us. If we do that, we are not really monastics, we are acting just like the people in the world. That is why in this Winter Retreat, we have to practice letting go from our own choice, not because Thay tells us to do it. We do it because there is an enlightenment, there is an awakening in this way of living, and you can help people in the world by choosing to live differently. We have to learn to go home to ourselves and take care of the suffering inside and get the peace, the joy that we need, so that we can help people.

That is why having no email address, no Internet, no Facebook, is not something that makes you suffer, but helps you to become a real practitioner. If you do it, if you wake up to that kind of truth, you will do it with joy, not with a sense of deprivation. There are many people who check their email several times a day and find nothing new. Because you are empty inside, you are looking for something new. You have to learn to generate something really new: a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness. That is possible with the practice of mindfulness.

What Is Your Intention?

Volition is the third nutriment, another source of food. Volition is intention. What do you want to do with your life? That is the question. Of course, you have the right to look for material and affective comforts, but that is not your deepest desire. Do you have an ultimate concern? Do you know the meaning of your life? That can be a tremendous source of energy.

If your volition is only to make money, to become the number one corporation, that’s not enough, because there are those who have a lot of money, a lot of power, and yet they are not happy. They feel quite lonely and they don’t have time to live their life. Nobody understands them and they don’t understand anyone. Happiness is not there because there is no understanding or love.

So your volition is not to have a lot of money, to have social recognition, to have a lot of power or fame. What you really want may be something more. Maybe you want to reverse the direction of civilization. You want to help people know how to handle the suffering in themselves, how to heal and transform, how to generate joy and happiness, how to live deeply every moment of their life, so that they can help their beloved ones to do the same and help the Earth to restore her beauty. That is a good desire, a good nutriment. As a corporate leader, if you have that kind of energy, you will become very strong. That is the first item they wanted Thay to speak about at Google: the intention, the motivation that pushes us to do what we are doing.

The Buddha had a strong desire to transform himself, to have the freedom and compassion to help people suffer less. That is a good desire; that is good food. Animated by that kind of energy, he spent forty-five years teaching and helping all kinds of people. He had very strong energy.

So those of us who have a good source of the nutriment of volition can be very happy. To generate understanding and compassion, to be truly happy and to be able to help many people: that is good volition, good intention. If a corporate leader has that kind of bodhicitta, he can reverse the trend of civilization. He can be himself, he can control the horse, and he can make good use of technology.

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With a knife, you can chop vegetables and peel potatoes. The knife is a helpful tool. But a terrorist can use a knife to kill people also. Technology is like that. If you have compassion and insight, you can come up with innovations that make good use of technology, that will help you and others go home to themselves, take care of themselves and their beloved ones.

The fourth nutriment is consciousness. Your individual consciousness is a source of food. There are many good things in your consciousness: you have the capacity to love, to forgive, to understand, to be compassionate. You need to know how to cultivate these elements in your consciousness. We all have the seed of compassion in us. If we know how to water the seed of compassion every day, it will grow. Every time we touch the seed of compassion, it becomes a mental formation, and with compassion alive in you, you don’t suffer anymore. That is good food.

But compassion is not the only good food you have. You have the seeds of joy, of happiness, of tenderness, of forgiveness, of nondiscrimination––many good things in yourself. You have to learn to cultivate more of these elements so that you have good food to nourish you and make the people you love happy. In you, there are also negative seeds, like a seed of anger, a seed of despair, a seed of loneliness. If you consume in a way that waters these negative seeds, then when you read a newspaper or play an electronic game or have a conversation, anger, despair, jealousy may arise in you, and you cultivate food that is not healthy for you.

As a gardener, you grow things that are good for you to consume. We know that there are plants that can make us sick, like poison oak, so we don’t cultivate those. That is true with anger, despair, violence, discrimination. These are not good food.

All of us have the seeds of these negative things in us. The collective consciousness is also food. There are neighborhoods now full of violence, fear, anger, and despair. If you happen to live in that neighborhood, you consume the collective energy of anger and fear. You don’t want to be angry and fearful and violent like them, but if you continue to stay there for a few years, you consume that collective energy and you become like them. That is not good food.

When you come to a retreat, you see hundreds of people who know how to breathe, how to concentrate, how to release tension, how to generate compassion. They generate a powerful collective energy of mindfulness and compassion, and you consume it. You feel the peace, you feel the joy, you feel brotherhood, and you consume it. That is good food. Collective consciousness can be good food or can be poisonous. The collective consciousness nutriment is very important.

But at Google, we spoke more about volition, because understanding volition was the most direct response to their inquiry about intention. A corporate leader should have a clear volition, a desire to help people suffer less. If you have that kind of good food, you become a happy person and you can be a good leader. A corporate leader needs to learn how to go home to himself first, to listen and understand his own suffering, to have compassion and take care of himself. Then he can help people in his family to do that and his family will be his support. And then he can try to help his associates do the same, and they will practice helping all employees in the workforce to go home and take care of themselves and their families. You can inspire them to have that kind of volition, that kind of intention, that kind of motivation. You give them the third nutriment. As leader, you might say, “Dear friends, you come here not just to have a job and to feed your family. You come here to join us in helping people to suffer less. We work in a way that helps people go back to themselves and take care of themselves. In order to do that, we have to do it for ourselves.”

Making Good Use of Technology

Some of our brothers have proposed to Facebook and Google to create a website where people can come and learn how to breathe, how to walk, how to handle a strong emotion, how to generate a feeling of joy and happiness for themselves and for other people. Facebook has promised to help make that happen. If Google has a mindfulness website, all the employees of Google can go there and learn how to take care of themselves and their families. Then they will have insight into what kind of electronic gadget or device will help us to go in that direction.

Suppose you talk to your smartphone. “Dear friend, I suffer. What shall I do?” And your smartphone says, “Oh! The first thing you have to do is to breathe in mindfully and go back to yourself.” This is the advice of a good teacher. An electronic device can tell you, “Dear friend, you are not in a good situation to do something. You have anger in you. You have to go home and take care of your anger.” When you are driving a car while falling asleep, a sensor would detect that. It might invite the bell to sound and say, “Dear friend, you are sleepy. Wake up! It’s dangerous to drive in this condition.” That is the practice of mindfulness.

The electronic devices that you invent can do that kind of work. iReminder; iReminding; iReturning. Returning to yourself. We spent two hours consulting with Google executives and engineers to find ways to make good use of technology to help people take care of themselves and suffer less.

There are many new functions they can put in telephones to help us, like the bell of mindfulness every quarter of an hour so that you remember to go back to yourself and to take care of yourself. In Plum Village, every time we hear the bell, we stop our thinking, we stop our talking, we stop our action, bringing our mind back to our body, and having the insight, “Ah, we are alive! We are present, sitting, walking on this planet, how wonderful.” You enjoy breathing in and out three times in mindfulness in order to celebrate the fact that you are still alive. When you are confused, when you are angry, you can talk to your phone, and your phone can remind you what to do and what not to do.

There was a young engineer who said, “But if we do these things, it’s like we are imposing on others what they don’t need.” Thay said that there are real needs, and there are needs that are not real. When you look for something to eat when you are not hungry, but are trying to forget the suffering in yourself, that is not a real need. If technology is trying to satisfy these kinds of needs, you are not helping people, you are only giving them the kind of sense impressions that cover up their suffering. But they have real needs, like going home to themselves and taking care of themselves, taking care of their families. That is why you have to help people to identify the real needs, and needs that are not real.

I think we planted a lot of good seeds in the minds of these Googlers. Let us see what will come after a few months.

Enjoyment Is the Practice

Thinking that work is one thing and life is another thing is dualistic thinking. For example, after you park your car in the parking lot and begin to walk to your office, you can choose between mindful walking or walking just to arrive at your office. If you know how to walk mindfully, then every step from the parking lot to your office can bring you joy and happiness. You can release the tension in your body and touch the wonders of life with every step. Walking this way is a pleasure. On the one hand, you see walking as life; on the other hand, you see walking as labor, as work.

When you wash the dishes, there’s a way to do it that helps you to enjoy every moment of dishwashing, so washing the dishes is not work, it is life. If you want to know how to wash dishes, read my book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. If you know how to mop the floor and cook your breakfast in mindfulness, it becomes life, not work. When a doctor receives a patient, it is work. But with compassion, with joy, you can transform the meeting between you, the doctor, and the patient, into a beautiful relationship, and that’s life. So life and work are not two different things.

When Thay does calligraphy, he begins every session with a cup of tea. Tea was invented by monastics in the Zen tradition who found that by drinking it, they were more awake for sitting meditation. So tea and meditation have been together for thousands of years.

Then Thay mixes some of the tea with the ink, and when he draws half a circle, he follows his in-breath. When he draws the second half of the circle, he breathes out. So there is the breathing in the circle, there’s mindfulness in the circle. From time to time he invites his own teacher to do the circle with him. In his hand is the hand of the mother, of the father, of the ancestor, of the teacher, of the Buddha. To do the circle in mindfulness, there must be the hand of the Buddha in his hand. So during that practice of drawing the circle, there is mindfulness, there is concentration and insight. This insight is made not by a self, but by a collective of selves. The Buddha is there and helps to make the circle in mindfulness.

So if you say that Thay is working hard, you are not right, because he enjoys making the circle. That is also his life and his practice. Meditation, working, and practicing become one.

In the monastic life of Plum Village, we do four things in our daily life. We study the Dharma and we practice the Dharma. Third, we work: cleaning, cooking, organizing a retreat. And fourth, we play: having tea with each other, playing basketball, and things like that. These are the four aspects of monastic life.

These four aspects inter-are. You do not enjoy only the time of playing, because the time of playing is also learning, is also building brotherhood, sisterhood, and cultivating health. Enjoyment is the practice. So within the playing is the studying, the practice, and the work.

We learn and practice in a way that cultivates joy. We can do walking meditation and sitting meditation the same way we play a game. It can be very joyful, just sitting together and doing nothing, or walking together. When you listen to a Dharma talk, allow the seeds of joy in you to be watered. It’s not good practice if you suffer.

When we organize a retreat or a Day of Mindfulness, we do it with compassion. We have a chance to serve, and that gives us a lot of joy. That’s not work, that is practice. When people come and practice, we practice with them. So there is no distinction between working and living and practicing.

That is the meaning of monastic life. The four aspects of life: learning, practicing, working, and playing. Each of the four has the three others inside it. As a lay practitioner, you can do the same. That is why you have to transcend dualistic thinking about work and life. We have to train ourselves to do our work in such a way that every moment of work is a moment of life.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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

Cultivating Our Blue Sky Nature

Skillful Means for Emotional Healing

by John Bell

In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.

John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay specific attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.

Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.

Each year, more people attend.   In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.

This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difficult feelings.

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Feelings

There are some things we know about feelings.  They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.

Five Practices for Handling Feelings

In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the five are:

  • “Blue sky”: Ground ourselves in the ultimate The blue sky is a metaphor for the nature of things, ultimate reality, our home. It is always there behind the local, historical dimension that we get conditioned to think is reality. The blue sky is the is-ness, the ok-ness. To describe it, we use words like “spacious, free, happy, connected, oneness, well-being, no separation, no separate self ”. Each of us has experienced our blue sky nature many, many times. Perhaps in music, love-making, nature, a moment of being “awake.” In C.S. Lewis’s happy phrasing, “surprised by joy!”
  • “Noting:” Learn to observe feelings coming and going. After establishing ourselves solidly in the breath, we allow the different feelings to arise and fall away like waves on the We can use helpful phrases like “feeling sad” (or, “angry, jealous, fearful”, and so on), or “this feeling too” to whatever comes. Relating back to the “blue sky” practice, we can be aware of different feelings like clouds moving across the blue sky.
  • “Change the peg”: Move attention off suffering, onto something positive or interesting, or at least In older methods of carpentry, pieces of wood were attached with a peg. Sometimes a rotten peg would have to be replaced by pounding a new one into the same hole. Originally taught by the Buddha, Thay uses this metaphor to point to the many tools at our disposal for “watering the positive seeds.” When a negative feeling seems to dominate our awareness, we can deliberately choose to get our attention off our troubles by reading a poem, listening to music, taking a walk, reciting a sutra, caring for another person. This list is unlimited.
  • “Taking the hand of suffering”: Embracing what Accepting, befriending feelings. Thay urges us not to treat our sadness or unhappiness as an enemy. “Dear anger, I recognize you. Come, stay with me. I know you are suffering. I know how to care for you.” The practice is to just be with the feeling, not get overwhelmed or swept away, and not run away. This is a variation of “noting.” “So this is what sadness feels like. Hmm.  Very interesting.”  Kind and gentle.
  • “Look deeply”: Examine the roots of With persistent feelings that seem to have a deep hold on us and won’t go away, we can practice exploring the roots of distressed feelings. In my experience, the roots are either in repeated experiences of hurt beginning early in our lives, or in a severe incident of trauma or hurt at any vulnerable moment along the way. What is helpful is to have a friend listen warmly and attentively while we explore the past. Typically tears and fears and laughter and anger will accompany the release of deep and long-lasting hurts. The emotional release will allow understanding to arise. “Oh, that’s why I have always felt like that!” Insight.

Each of these five practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the five practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the first and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”

Blue Sky Practice

In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Blue birds singing a song
Nothing but blue birds from now on

We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.

To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.

After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.

We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.

In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of

the moment. For some, tears flowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.

Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering

Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.

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Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:

There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the first truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”

There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.

There is a way out of suffering.  For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identifies with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of purification as a step towards liberation.

The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.

  • Cultivate a noble view of human beings. Know that every human being, by nature, is Buddha I use this description: By nature, human beings are
    • inherently valuable
    • deeply caring
    • enormously intelligent
    • immensely powerful
    • infinitely creative
    • naturally cooperative
    • innately joyful

Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the first set of words!

  • Listen deeply. What are the elements of deep listening? We practice these in our Sanghas.
    • Hold the person in high regard; visualize their Buddha nature.
    • Treat the person with complete respect.
    • Be present and
    • Assume the person knows best how to lead his or her life.
    • Communicate acceptance and lack of judgment.
    • Give your undivided attention, focused concentration, and mindful
    • Encourage awareness and recognition of feelings; recognize that release is a key component of healing.

Deep listening is a powerful tool for healing. Our listening can improve with practice. Invoking Avalokiteshvara’s name states: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice, without any judging or reacting. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”

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  • Hold some understanding of the impact of distress. Hurts lead a person to develop self-defense patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Buddhist psychology calls them “kleshas”—powerful reactions that drive our  behavior.  Initially  developed as survival mechanisms to deal with the hurt, these patterns take on a life of their own and persist long after the hurtful experiences have passed. In other words, the negative seeds have received too much water! They tend to control our vital energies and obscure our inherent nature. The most persistent of these patterns are chronic—that is, they operate almost all the time and a person tends to identify with them. Think of someone who is chronically angry, or chronically depressed, or always ready to criticize any good idea, or can be counted on to be the center of attention, or is painfully shy.
  • Practice separating a person from his or her patterns. Always view that person as wholesome and worthwhile, deserving nothing less than complete Always view their patterns as a map of the ways they were mistreated or hurt; not an inherent part of their being, but an add-on. Nurturing compassion is another form of this practice. For example, Thay suggests we practice visualizing our father or our mother as a six-year-old child. Even if we have suffered greatly from our parents, seeing them as younger can open our hearts— we might see them as innocent and pure-hearted, or we might see them already hurt at an early age, and set up to pass that hurt on to us.
  • Welcome feelings. One level of healing happens as a person releases the emotional distresses that are the glue of the patterns. Crying, laughing, shivering, feeling hot with anger are outward signs of the release of distress feelings. This release is natural to all human beings, as can be observed most readily in small children: when hurt they cry. In my experience, most people can learn how to accept and express their pent up feelings appropriately rather than suppress them or act them out. Dealing with feelings with mindfulness is a learned practice. We can learn to feel them without getting overwhelmed by them or identifying ourselves with them.
  • Practice appreciation and validation. “Violence never ceases by violence, but only by love,” said the Buddha. Our hurts have caused us to direct huge amounts of internal violence towards ourselves in the form of self-criticisms, low expectations, lack of self-worth, and so on. Such internal negative chatter cannot withstand a steady dose of self-appreciation. Repeatedly telling yourself things like “I forgive myself,” or “You are fine just the way you are,” or “I’ll never give up on you,” done with mindfulness and persistence, can bring healing tears of release and joy. Loving kindness, or metta meditation points us to our inherent well-being: may I be filled with love and compassion; may my body be peaceful and at ease; may I be safe from fear and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy.  Directed towards oneself, metta is a form of self-appreciation that serves to counter the sometimes constant drone of negative self-talk. Directed towards others, it becomes an effective practice of appreciating others that also has a deep healing effect on oneself.
  • Hold a direction towards our inherent nature. Here is where we circle back to the Blue Sky Regular practice of noticing the presence of the good, the beautiful, the true builds our strength and can put us increasingly in touch with the reality of our inherent nature. In a Dharma talk (November 25, 1999, Plum Village), Thay said: “To allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative feeling when we touch what is wrong, is not a good thing to do. Therefore we should…recognize the positive elements for our nourishment and healing.”

Skillful Means

Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing.  All it takes is practice.

mb36-Cultivating4John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation.  He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.

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Confined in Anger, Freed in Love

By Jacob Bowley

I was confined in the summer of 1999, twenty years old and more a prisoner of my own deep inner fears than the walls around me. Wrapped up in the great speed of the world, I had been able — with the help of drugs and alcohol — to maintain in my mind an impressive illusion of control. Here in prison the reins were clearly not in my hands; I knew no way to keep up my speed. Forced to stop, or at least slow down, I had to face the bitter truth: my will did not rule the world. This disappointment was too much for me to contend with day after day so I closed my eyes in anger. I would rage against the whole world until it consented to the perpetual gratification of my senses.

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By the beginning of 2001 the institution was not pleased with my method of seeking fulfillment. They expressed this sentiment by giving me an extended stay in segregation. I knew the stay would be for only five or six months, so I saw no reason to change and quickly got into more trouble. At this point they told me I would stay in the hole for three years. My party stopped. This was no game. I could feel the anger oozing out of me, reverberating in my little cell and gaining strength. We looked at each other, my anger and me, and I knew it would destroy me.

While in the depth of this personal hell I came across a few pages about Buddhism. Strangely, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find any ground on which to cut Buddhism down. What I read seemed to be simple common sense.

Truth Cuts to the Heart

I read that life contains suffering. I found this to be an insultingly obvious statement, and yet there it was, in black ink; I had no way to deny it. This was not metaphysical speculation or theological proofs, here was something which cut right to my heart. I could clearly experience this in my own life and see it in the lives of those around me.

I read that suffering has a cause. That cause is not the outside world but is within; it is ignorance and clinging. Not the outside world? This had my full attention. I was putting so much energy into the delusion that with enough effort I could bend the world to my will — could it be possible to just change myself? The prospect of putting this burden down gave me, for the first time, the courage to acknowledge how large the burden was.

I read that the burden could be put down: if the causes of suffering are not, the suffering is not.

Finally I read that there is a path leading out of suffering. I needed to learn more about this path.

That summer and fall I immersed myself in new and exciting Eastern philosophy, ideals of compassion, and graded paths to enlightenment. Amazed by the deep and lucid wisdom I found in these teachings I nurtured a whole-hearted intention to realize their virtue. Slowly I began to experience the strength, healing, and freedom found in kindness and love.

Gradual changes were noticed by the institution and they responded by allowing me to return to the general population early. It was November 2001, and despite the excitement of moving out of segregation I was scared. I knew that the true test of my resolve to change would come when I returned to my friends. I came out of the box strong in intention, but weak in appreciation of the importance of practice. I held on to my new ideas but did not continue to meditate or study. Compared with the solitude of the past year, all the new ways to spend time provided a rich and stimulating life.

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The sponsor of our Narcotics Anonymous group, Tyrone, says “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” The opposite is also true. I was acting my wholesome thinking and intentions into the back of my mind. My way of living systematically hardened my heart, but I didn’t notice the gradual loss of my freedom until I got into a fight over being called a name. How bitter it was to find myself bound once again in anger and rage! The anguish of this prison cut deeper now that I knew a small taste of peace.

Taking Refuge in the Practice

I turned for refuge to the practice, this time not in the isolation of the hole but right in the midst of my crazy world. I faced my habit of trying to maintain a certain image in front of my peers; I faced the deep fears at the root of this habit, and I chose instead to heal. The progress was slow and cautious, but there was peace in every step.

I met a wonderful spiritual friend early in 2004. Matthew Tenney is a living Dharma talk and he shared an infectious happiness with all of us here. He didn’t spend a lot of time engaging in the intellectual speculation and analysis regarding the practice that I wrapped myself in; rather, he introduced me to Thay’s teaching and to the true miracle of mindfulness in daily life. I had read about the importance of cultivating this obscure quality of mindfulness, and I was trying. But until now the methods appeared vague and overwhelming. Thay offered very concrete and simple ways that allowed practice to become a reality of my life.

One day, not long after meeting Matthew, I shared with him a yearning that had been percolating in my heart: I would like to be a monk after I was released. He asked “Why wait? Why not live that ideal right here, right now?” The aspiration to do just that has been the center of my life ever since, a center from which peace, stability, and freedom increase every day.

Witnessing the impact these qualities have on the emotional tone of this environment, and on the hearts of people who live here, gives me the strength to continue. It seems a long time ago that someone said of me, “Man, you can feel the hate radiate off that guy.” Today it is a quiet comfort for my heart to know that I no longer radiate pain and suffering to others, and that there is freedom in love.

Jacob Bowley received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, along with Matthew, long-distance from Brother Phap Bi on January 12, 2006, “a kindness,” writes Jacob, “ which brought tears to my eyes.”

Jacob is incarcerated in the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; this essay was written for the Mindfulness Bell and submitted by his father, Freeman Bowley.

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Dharma Talk: History of Engaged Buddhism

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanoi, Vietnam – May 6 -7, 2008 

At the beginning of the seven-day English-language retreat in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh gave a rare glimpse into his early career. This excerpt from two Dharma talks reveals Thay as a teacher, social activist, and prolific writer – and revolutionary advocate of Engaged Buddhism, also called Applied Buddhism. 

In 1949 I was one of the founders of the An Quang Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, and I taught the first class of novices. The temple was very simple, built of bamboo and thatch. The name of the temple was actually Ung Quang. A Dharma teacher came from Danang, the Venerable Tri Huu, and we both built Ung Quang temple. The war was going on between the French and the Vietnamese resistance movement. 

Five years later, in 1954, the Geneva Accord was signed and the country was divided into two parts: the North was communist, and the South was anti-communist. Over one million people migrated from the North to the South, among them many Catholics. There was a lot of confusion in the country. 

At the Ung Quang temple from time to time we received French soldiers who came to visit us. After Dien Bien Phu the war with the French ended, and it was agreed that the country should be divided and the French would withdraw from the country. I remember talking to the French soldiers. Many of them came to Vietnam and died in Vietnam. 

A Fresh Look at Buddhism 

In 1954 there was great confusion in the minds of people in Vietnam, especially the young people – monks, nuns, lay practitioners. The North was inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the South, president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was trying to run the country with another kind of ideology called “personalism.” It seemed that the ideological war had begun. 

Buddhism is a very ancient tradition in Vietnam, and most of the people have a Buddhist seed in them. Mr. Vu Ngoc Cac, manager of a daily newspaper, asked me to write a series of articles about Buddhism. He wanted me to offer insight as to the spiritual direction we should take in order to deal with the great confusion in the country. So I wrote a series of ten articles with the title, “A Fresh Look at Buddhism.” 

It is in this series of ten articles that I proposed the idea of Engaged Buddhism — Buddhism in the realm of education, economics, politics, and so on. So Engaged Buddhism dates from 1954. 

At that time I did not use a typewriter, I just wrote in the oldfashioned way. And they came and they took the article, and the article was always printed on the front page with a big red title. The newspaper sold very, very well because people were very thirsty. They wanted spiritual direction because confusion was so huge. 

Rose Tea and Fresh Corn 

That series of articles was published as a book later on. Not long after, I visited Hue. Duc Tam, who had been in the same class as me at the Buddhist Institute, was the editor of another Buddhist magazine. His temple was on a small island in the Perfume River, Huong Giang, where they grow a very tasty kind of corn. He invited me to stay a few weeks in his temple. Every morning he offered me tea with a kind of rose — it’s a very tiny flower, but it smells nice when you put it in the tea. Every day we did walking meditation through the neighborhood, and we bought some fresh corn. He nourished me with rose tea and fresh corn, and he wanted me to write another series of articles on Engaged Buddhism! [laughs] 

In fact, I wrote another series of ten articles with the title “Buddhism Today,” which was also on the theme of Engaged Buddhism. This series was translated into French by Le Vinh Hao, a scholar who lives in Paris. The title he took for the book is Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme. 

In 1964 when I visited America to give a series of lectures, I met Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and I gave him a copy of Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme; he wrote a review. 

Buddhism That Enters Into Life 

In 1963-64, I was lecturing on Buddhism at Columbia University. The struggle led by the Buddhists for human rights ended the regime of President Diem. Maybe you have heard about the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself with fire, and who drew the attention of the whole world to the violation of human rights in Vietnam. That was a completely nonviolent movement for human rights. When the Diem regime fell, I was asked by my colleagues to come home and help. 

So I went home. I founded Van Hanh University, and I published a book called Engaged Buddhism, a collection of many articles I had written before. 

I think this is the first time you have this information. [laughs] 

This is the beginning of 1964. I had written these articles before that, but I put them together and published under the title Engaged Buddhism, or Dao society. Di vao cuoc doi. Cuoc doi here is “life” or “society.” Di vao means “to enter.” So these were the words that were used for Engaged Buddhism in Vietnam: di vao cuoc doi, “entering into life, social life.” 

Six months later I produced another book, Dao Phat hien dai hoa, “Buddhism updated,” “Buddhism renewed.” This is the Chinese — Buddhism made actual, the actualization of Buddhism. So all these terms, all these documents, have to do with what we call “Engaged Buddhism.” And after that I wrote many other books – Buddhism of Tomorrow. [laughs] 

But at that time already, my name was banned by the government of the South, the anti-communist government, because of my activities for peace, calling for reconciliation between North and South. I became persona non grata. I could not go home anymore, and I was in exile. 

So my book, Buddhism of Tomorrow, could not be published in Vietnam under my name. I used a montagnard’s name — Bsu Danlu. You may wonder where that name came from. In 1956 we founded a practice center in the highland of Vietnam called Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery, Phuong Boi. We bought the land from two montagnards, K’Briu and K’Broi. The name of the village where the Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery was situated is Bsu Danlu. 

Wisdom in the Here and Now 

I continued to publish my books in Vietnam with many other names. I wrote a history of Vietnamese Buddhism in three thick volumes and I signed the name Nguyen Lang. So although I was away from the country thirty-nine years, I continued to write books and some of them were published in Vietnam under different names. 

As we have said, the first meaning of Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there — so that you know what to buy and what not to buy! 

Also, Engaged Buddhism is the kind of wisdom that responds to anything that happens in the here and the now — global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ecosystem, the lack of communication, war, conflict, suicide, divorce. As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now. 

A Fresh Take on the Four Noble Truths 

We can speak about Engaged Buddhism in terms of the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is dukkha, ill-being. Traditionally Buddhist teachers have spoken of the First Noble Truth in this way: old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, separation from those you love is suffering. Leaving all those you love; wishing for something but never obtaining it. But these are old ways of describing the First Noble Truth. Now as we practice mindfulness we have to identify the kind of ill-being that is actually present. First of all we know there is a kind of tension in the body, a lot of stress. We can say that suffering today involves tension, stress, anxiety, fear, violence, broken families, suicide, war, conflict, terrorism, destruction of the ecosystem, global warming, etc. 

We should be fully present in the here and the now and recognize the true face of ill-being. 

The natural tendency is to run away from suffering, from ill-being. We don’t want to confront it so we try to escape. But the Buddha advises us not to do so. In fact he encourages us to look deeply into the nature of the suffering in order to learn. His teaching is that if you do not understand the suffering you cannot see the path of transformation, the path leading to the cessation of suffering. 

All of us know that the First Noble Truth is ill-being and the Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. Without understanding the First you never have the opportunity to see the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. 

You should learn to come home to the present moment in order to recognize ill-being as it is; and as we practice looking deeply into the First Noble Truth, ill-being, we will discover the Second Noble Truth, the roots or the making of ill-being. 

Each of us has to discover for himself or herself the cause of ill-being. Suppose we speak about our hectic life — we have so much to do, so much to achieve. As a politician, a businessman, even an artist, we want to do more and more and more. We crave success. We do not have the capacity to live deeply each moment of our daily life. We don’t give our body a chance to relax and to heal. 

If we know how to live like a Buddha, dwelling in the present moment, allowing the refreshing and healing elements to penetrate, then we will not become victims of stress, tension, and many kinds of disease. 

You can say that one of the roots of ill-being is our incapacity to live our life deeply in each moment. 

When we have a lot of tension and irritation in us we cannot listen to the other person. We cannot use loving speech. We cannot remove wrong perceptions. Therefore wrong perceptions give rise to fear, hate, violence, and so on. We have to identify the causes of our ill-being. This is very important work. 

Suppose we speak of suicide, of broken families. We know that when communication becomes difficult between husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, people are no longer happy. Many young people fall into despair and want to commit to suicide. They don’t know how to handle despair or their emotions, and they think that the only way to stop suffering is to kill oneself. In France every year about 12,000 young people commit suicide, just because they can’t handle their emotions like despair. And their parents don’t know how to do it. They don’t teach their children how to deal with their feelings, and even school teachers don’t how to help their students to recognize and hold their emotions tenderly. 

When people cannot communicate they don’t understand each other or see the other’s suffering and there is no love, no happiness. War and terrorism are also born from wrong perceptions. Terrorists think that the other side is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a way of life, as a nation. If we believe that the other person is trying to kill us then we will seek ways to kill the other person first in order not to be killed. 

Fear, misunderstanding, and wrong perceptions are the foundation of all these violent acts. The war in Iraq, which is called anti-terrorist, has not helped to reduce the number of terrorists. In fact the number of terrorists is increasing all the time because of the war. In order to remove terrorism you have to remove wrong perceptions. We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism. 

So looking deeply we can see the making of ill-being, the roots of ill-being, by recognizing ill-being as the truth and looking deeply into its nature. 

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of ill-being, which means the presence of well-being — just as the absence of darkness means the presence of light. When ignorance is no longer present, there is wisdom. When you remove darkness, there is light. So the cessation of ill-being means the presence of well-being, which is the opposite of the First Noble Truth. 

The teaching of the Buddha confirms the truth that well-being is possible. Because there is ill-being, well-being is possible. If ill-being is described first in terms of tension, stress, heaviness, then well-being is described as lightness, peace, relaxation – la détente. With your body, breath, feet, and mindfulness you can reduce tension and bring about relaxation, lightness, peace. 

We can speak of the Fourth Noble Truth in very concrete terms. The methods of practice enable us to reduce tension, stress, unhappiness, as seen in the Fourth Noble Truth, the path. Today’s Dharma teachers may want to call it the path of well-being. The cessation of ill-being means the beginning of well-being — it’s so simple! 

From Many Gods to No God 

I would like to go back a little bit to the history of Engaged Buddhism. 

In the nineteen-fifties I began to write because people needed to have spiritual direction to help them overcome their confusion. One day I wrote about the relationship between religious belief and the ways we organize our society. I described the history of the evolution of society. 

First, our society was organized in groups of people called tribes. Over time, several tribes would come together and finally we set up kingdoms, with a king. Then the time came when we had enough of kings and we wanted to create democracies or republics. 

Our religious beliefs had been changing along the way. First of all, we had something parallel to the establishment of tribes — polytheism, the belief that there are many gods and each god has a power. You are free to choose one god to worship, and that god will protect you against the other gods and the other tribes. 

When we form kingdoms, then our way of belief changes also — monotheism. There’s only one God, the most powerful God, and we should worship only one God and not many gods. 

When we come to democracies, there’s no king anymore. Everyone is equal to everyone else, and we rely on each other to live. That is why monotheism is changing to the belief in interdependence — interbeing — where there is no longer God. We are fully responsible for our life, for our world, for our planet. I wrote things like that during the time I was trying to build up Engaged Buddhism. 

Birth of the Order of Interbeing 

In 1964, we established the Order of Interbeing. The birth of the Order of Interbeing is very meaningful. We need only to study the Fourteen Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings in order to understand why and how the Order of Interbeing was established. 

At that time the war was going on very fiercely. It was a conflict between ideologies. The North and South each had their own ideology; one side was Marxism-Leninism, the other, personalism and capitalism. Not only did we fight with ideologies imported from the outside, but we also fought with weapons imported from the outside — guns and bombs from Russia, China, and America. As Buddhists who practice peace and reconciliation, brotherhood and sisterhood, we did not want to accept such a war. You cannot accept a war where brothers are killing brothers with ideologies and weapons imported from the outside. 

The Order of Interbeing was born as a spiritual resistance movement. It’s based completely on the teachings of the Buddha. The First Mindfulness Training — non-attachment to views, freedom from all ideologies — was a direct answer to the war. Everyone was ready to die and to kill for their beliefs. 

The First Mindfulness Training: “Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones…” 

This is the lion’s roar!

“Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.” 

The teaching of the Buddha from the Nipata Sutra concerning views is very clear. We should not be attached to any view; we have to transcend all views.

Right View, first of all, means the absence of all views. Attachment to views is the source of suffering. Suppose you climb on a ladder, and on the fourth step you think you are already at the highest level. Then you are stuck! You have to release the fourth step in order to be able to get up to the fifth step. To be scientific, scientists have to release what they have found in order to come to a higher truth. This is the teaching of the Buddha: When you consider something to be the truth and you are attached to it, you must release it in order to go higher. 

The basic spirit of Buddhism is non-attachment to views. Wisdom is not views. Insight is not views. We should be ready to release our ideas for true insight to be possible. Suppose you have notions about impermanence, non-self, interbeing, the Four Noble Truths. That may be dangerous, because these are only views. You are very proud that you know something about the Four Noble Truths, about interbeing, about interdependent origination, about mindfulness, concentration, and insight. But that teaching is only a means for you to get insight. If you are attached to these teachings, you are lost. The teaching about impermanence, nonself, interbeing, is to help you to get the insight of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. 

The Buddha said, “My teaching is like the finger pointing to the moon. You should be skillful. You look in the direction of my finger, and you can see the moon. If you take my finger to be the moon, you will never see the moon.” So even the Buddhadharma is not the truth, it’s only an instrument for you to get the truth. This is very basic in Buddhism.

War is the outcome of attachment to views, of fanaticism. If we look deeply into the nature of the war in Iraq, we can see that it is also a religious war. People are using religious belief to back up the war. Mr. Bush was supported by many [right-wing Christian] evangelists. The resistance fighters and the terrorists in Iraq are backed up by their Muslim belief. So this is somehow a religious war. Peace cannot exist if we maintain our fanaticism concerning our views. 

Lotus in a Sea of Fire 

In 1965 I wrote a small book on the war in Vietnam, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, published by Hill and Wong in America. The war in Vietnam was raging, it was an ocean of fire. We were killing each other; we allowed American bombers to come and destroy our forests, our people. We allowed weapons from China and Russia to come. But Buddhism was trying to do something. Those of us who did not accept the war wanted to do something to resist the war. 

Buddhists did not have radio or television stations. There was no way for them to express themselves. 

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I do not accept this war,
let me say this one more time before I die.  

These are lines in my poems.

Our enemies are not men. 

Our enemies are hate, fanaticism, violence. Our enemies are not men. If we kill men, with whom shall we live?

The peace movement in Vietnam badly needed international support, but you could not hear us over there. So sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to tell you that we didn’t want this war. Please help stop this war, this killing of brothers by brothers! Buddhism was like a lotus flower trying to survive in an ocean of fire.

I translated the book into Vietnamese, and an American friend in the peace movement helped bring that book to Vietnam. The book was printed underground and many young people tried to circulate that book as an act of resistance.

Sister Chan Khong, who was a professor of biology in Hue University, brought a copy to Hue for a friend. She was arrested and put into prison because she owned one copy of that book. Later on she was transferred to a prison in Saigon.

The School of Youth for Social Service

Young friends came to me and asked me to publish my poems about peace. They called it anti-war poetry. I said okay, if you want to do it, please do. They collected about fifty or sixty poems of mine on this topic and submitted them to the government of South Vietnam. Fifty-five of the poems were censored. Only a few were left. But our friends were not discouraged and they printed the poems underground. The book of poetry sold very, very quickly. Even some secret police liked it, because they also suffered from the war. They would go to the bookstore and say, “You shouldn’t display them like this! You should hide them behind the counter!” [laughs]

Radio stations in Saigon, Hanoi, and Beijing began to attack the poems because they called for peace. No one wanted peace. They wanted to fight to the end.

In 1964 we also established the School of Youth for Social Service. We trained thousands of young people, including monks and nuns, to go to the countryside and help the peasants rebuild their villages. We helped them in four aspects: education, health, economics, and organization. Our social workers went to a village and played with the children and taught them how to read and write and sing. When the people in the village liked us, we suggested building a school for the children. One family gave a few bamboo trees. Another family brought coconut leaves to make a roof. Then we began to have a school. Our workers did not receive a salary. After setting up a school in the village, we set up a dispensary where we could dispense rudimentary medicines to help the people. We brought into the village students of medicine or a doctor and tried to help one or two days. We also organized cooperatives and tried to teach people the kind of handicrafts they could do in order to increase the income of the family.

We have to begin with ourselves, from the grassroots. The School of Youth for Social Service was founded on the spirit that we don’t need to wait for the government.

A New Youth Organization in Europe 

We trained many young people, including young monks and nuns. Finally we had more than ten thousand workers working from Quang Tri to the south. During the war we helped sponsor more than ten thousand orphans. That is part of Engaged Buddhism — the young people.

This year we intend to set up an organization of young Buddhists in Europe: Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society. So many young people have come to us, to our retreats in Europe, America, and Asia. Now we want to organize them. They will use the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their practice, and they will engage themselves into society — to help produce a healthier society, one with more compassion.

If my friends here are inspired by the idea, then please, when you go home, invite the young people to set up a group of Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society.

Last month we went to Italy, and we had one day of practice with the young people in the city of Napoli [Naples]. The five hundred young men and women who came to practice with us loved it! They are ready to engage in the practice of peace, helping to produce a healthier, more compassionate society.

Our young monks and nuns will also be involved in that organization.

Foundation of an Institute of Applied Buddhism 

We have also set up a European Institute of Applied Buddhism. I hope that during this retreat, Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, will offer a presentation on the Institute of Applied Buddhism. We shall have campuses in America and Asia also. Everyone who has successfully completed the three-month retreat in Plum Village or Deer Park will be given a certificate of completion issued by the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

The Institute of Applied Buddhism will offer many interesting courses. You might like to help organize a course in your area; we will send Dharma teachers. One example is the twenty-one-day course for young men and women who are preparing to set up a family. There they learn how to make their conjugal life into a success.

There will be courses for those who have been diagnosed with AIDS or cancer, so that they can learn how to live with their sickness. If you know how to accept and live with your sickness, then you can live twenty, thirty more years.

There will be courses for businesspeople, for school teachers, and so on.

This kind of certificate will help you to become an official Dharma teacher. One day you might be inspired to become a Dharma teacher, to go out and help people, to be a continuation of the Buddha.

Nowadays we are using the term “Applied Buddhism,” which is just another way of referring to Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel. 

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