The Seedling Project

By Members of the European Wake Up Sangha

mb60-Seedling1Thay believed that Buddhism had much to contribute to real social change. He said he would find ways to support me in a movement for social change according to the Buddhist spirit. He would help bring together many good hearts who wanted to work together. He agreed to write articles about this in national magazines and then start several pioneering development villages to show that social change could be based on love, commitment, and responsibility. Eventually we could start a training center for workers in education, agriculture, and health care, who would then go all over the country.
–Sister Chan Khong, Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam

For a long time the vision to organize a Wake Up Vietnam Tour had been nourished by many conditions. Many of us shared a collective aspiration to connect to our spiritual home and ancestors, to practice as a Sangha on a journey, and to get in touch with perspectives and living conditions different from the Eurocentric way of looking and living. Reading Fragrant Palm Leaves by Thay and Learning True Love by Sister Chan Khong touched a strong and inspiring source within us. All these elements gave us the energy to cultivate the conditions for the realization of this vision.

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In August 2011, all the conditions came together, and a group of ten young people from Chile, Belgium, England, Germany, and Holland gathered at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism for a one-week retreat, preparing for a three-and-a-half week journey in Vietnam. We realized that going to Vietnam was essential to deepen our aspirations and our practice, and that to be in touch with the roots of Wake Up, we had to be in touch with Vietnam.

mb60-Seedling3Nourishing Our Roots

In Saigon, morning has broken. The sky is blue, the sun is shining. We are sitting joyfully in a bus on our way to Phap Van Monastery, the former School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), which was founded by Thay in the early 1960s.(1)  Arriving at Phap Van, we enter the meditation hall and are warmly welcomed by a monk and members of the first generation of the SYSS, who have been practicing and engaged in social service in rural areas for more than forty years. Together we enjoy sitting meditation and touching the earth to honour our blood and spiritual ancestors, followed by a sharing on engaged Buddhism, the history of the SYSS, spiritual practice, and our aspirations.

During this session the question is asked, “How can we continue the SYSS?” One of the social workers smiles and answers, “This is very easy. Only by asking yourself this question, you are already beginning to continue the SYSS.”

Leaving the meditation hall, we walk slowly and silently towards the garden in the centre of Phap Van, where there is a memorial to Sister Nhat Chi Mai (2), who immolated herself for peace during the Vietnam War, and to the monastic and lay SYSS workers who died during their service. One of the social workers starts digging a hole for the collective tree-planting ceremony, and each of us contributes by filling the hole with soil and watering the tree. Our first Wake Up tree in Vietnam has been planted, and in this happy moment, we are aware of our spiritual roots and of our aspiration to nourish this tree of understanding and compassion and to continue the beautiful work of the SYSS.

The Seedling Project

On our journey through South, Central, and North Vietnam, we continued to be nourished by the joy of being in touch with monastics, social workers, youth Sanghas, children who are supported by the Love and Understanding Program, and many other beautiful human beings. All these inspiring encounters and conditions gave rise to the development of a collective vision for establishing a green kindergarten in Vietnam. We started calling our vision “the Seedling Project” and imagining it in terms of its social, educational, environmental, and empowerment dimensions.

I. Social

In remote areas, the struggle for a better life leaves people with little time and energy to care about education or cultural and spiritual development. Our aspiration is to build a hybrid space for poor families that will benefit children as well as parents: during the day it will function as a home where children can take refuge, make friends, play, and rest while their parents work, while being provided with healthy nutriments and pre-school education based on mindfulness. In the evenings and on weekends, the space will be a meeting place where teachers and parents can exchange ideas and learn from one another.

II. Education

Teachers in this green kindergarten will be trained in the practice of mindfulness in daily life, healthy consumption, and the cultivation of environmental awareness and ecological practices such as solar cooking, rainwater collection, and organic gardening. The teachers will find ways to integrate mindfulness into the children’s daily activities. Together they will take time to enjoy being in nature and observing natural phenomena. Children will be given opportunities and tools to express themselves artistically through painting, drawing, molding, and tinkering with natural and recycled materials.

III. Architecture and Environment

The kindergarten building will be harmoniously integrated into the natural and cultural environment of the local people. The architectural construction will be simple and economical, ecologi cal and sustainable; it will utilize local know-how and materials and will weave tradition with contemporariness. Renewable energy technologies, such as solar cells, rainwater harvesting, geothermal power systems, greywater treatment plants, and compost toilets, will be introduced, and a permaculture garden with trees, flowers, fruits, and vegetables will be cultivated.

IV. Empowerment

We aspire to provide a space of help through self-help, where local people feel inspired to share knowledge with one another, cultivate awareness, and develop skills. This involves engaging local people in the building process, raising their understanding about the value of natural and cultural resources, training them in ecological practices for daily life, and thus enabling them to transmit their knowledge and skills to their children and other people. Hopefully, the green kindergarten will strengthen the bonds within the local community, become a model for other rural areas in Vietnam, and contribute to a collective environmental awareness.

We consider the project to be a great opportunity for mutual understanding, learning, and growth for both the project team members and the local people. We do not view ourselves as people from the West who are coming to help the poor, incapable people of Vietnam. We aspire to transform the superiority, inferiority, and equality complexes that may lie deep in our store consciousness, as well as the notion of a separate subject and object.

Favourable  Conditions

After presenting this project to Sister Chan Khong and the monastic and lay Sanghas during the Applied Ethics Retreat in Plum Village at the beginning of 2012, we have received much positive feedback. We have raised a great amount of money for this project and have been offered possible sites in Vietnam for the construction of the kindergarten. Many friends with diverse backgrounds and specialized skills have offered support.

We are in the process of making connections with people, organizations, and places in Vietnam and finding ways to establish fruitful cooperation between Europeans and Vietnamese who wish to be involved in the project. We are adopting and combining a variety of approaches—traditional and contemporary, local and global. A member of the project team will soon travel to Indonesia, where she will visit the Green School (3) in Bali, and to Vietnam, where she will visit the various sites that have been proposed for the kindergarten. She will also meet with SYSS workers to continue the dialogue between the SYSS and Wake Up. Meanwhile, our team in Europe is developing a website to present the Seedling Project to a wider audience and to be a platform for the exchange of aspirations, ideas, and know-how.

Clearing Our Streams

In Hue, the sky is still blue and the sun is still shining. It is our last day in Central Vietnam. With ten mango trees and ten pomelo trees in the trunk of our car, we are setting out for a kindergarten built by the Love and Understanding Program. When we arrive in the classroom, we find the children sitting in a circle, singing Plum Village songs to us. Their voices are sweet as mangos, refreshing as pomelos. The whole afternoon is dedicated to playing and singing with children from three different classes and to sharing milk and biscuits with them.

After we enjoy dinner in silence at the kindergarten with Uncle Dinh, the director of the Love and Understanding Program in Hue, and other social workers, an intimate sharing evolves. “How can you keep your deepest aspiration alive?” one of our brothers asks. Uncle Dinh replies, “By understanding and transforming your own suffering. If you are not capable of taking care of yourself, you will not be able to help others.”

Twenty holes have already been dug, and together with our uncles we lower the young trees into the ground. Planting trees with the intention of nourishing our roots and clearing our streams (4), hope to make the world greener, both literally and figuratively, by sowing seeds of brotherhood and sisterhood, understanding and love, joy and happiness, and by sharing our time and material resources with those in need. May there be mangos and pomelos for past, present, and future generations, starting with the cultivation of a small seedling.

This is a compilation of sharings by members of the European Wake Up Sangha who were part of the Wake Up Vietnam Tour. For further information on the Seedling Project, please write to wkupeu@gmail.com.
1. The School of Youth for Social Service was a grassroots relief organization that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives. Rallying some 10,000 student volunteers, the SYSS based its work on the Buddhist principles of nonviolence and compassionate action. The present-day continuation of the SYSS is known as the Love and Understanding Program.

2. Sister Nhat Chi Mai, one of the first members of the Order of Interbeing, burned herself in Saigon on May 16, 1967, as an act of protest against the Vietnam War.

3. For further information, visit www.greenschool.org.

4. Thich Nhat Hanh, original gatha, “Boi dap goc re, khai thong suoi nguon.”

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Deep Ecology

The World We Are

By Felipe Viveros, Miranda van Schadewijk, and Bas Bruggeman

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

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

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

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Permaculture: Cultivating External Soil

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

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

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

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

Deep Ecology: Cultivating Inner Soil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaping the Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Filipe Viveros

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Entering the Stream Down Under

By Ettianne Anshin

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I practice with seveerral Sydney Sanghas and have visited Nhap Luu (Entering the Stream) Monastery three times in the last eighteen months. This monastery is a two-hour drive from Melbourne and twelve hours ffrroom Sydney, Australia. Since their arrival two years ago, the original three monastics—Sisters Thuan Tien, Luong Nghiem, and Can Nghiem—have been joined by Sister Tri Duyen from Brisbane and a novice, Nguyen Ha, from another tradition in New Zealand. I would like to share with the larger Sangha a little of my experience of the changes occurring at this monastery.

The conditions here at the beginning were probably similar to those in Plum Village about thirty years ago. For example, the monastery had no electricity or permanent buildings other than the meditation hall. However, each year the conditions have become a little easier and the Sangha acquires a greater capacity to tolerate them. This is the third winter retreat for the sisters at Nhap Luu, and I have witnessed a subtle and substantial transformation.

Last year, a member of the Sydney Sangha, with the help of friends from Melbourne, installed a beautiful wooden floor in the meditation hall. Also, Brother Ian Roberts sold his property adjoining the original monastery to Unified Buddhist Church of Australia, so the sisters now have a comfortable home with indoor plumbing. The sisters’ house, named “Peace House” by Ian, has magnificent views of the lake where there are ducks, wild geese, and black swans. The house has a loft with huge windows where the sisters can listen to talks, meditate, and work at the computer. The meditation hall and Peace House now have solar panels for electricity, which should offset the energy used at the monastery. The Sangha can use Peace House as an accommodation for retreats, too.

The bush setting at Nhap Luu is exceedingly tranquil, and the Sangha has created many beautiful paths for walking meditation. Each day we see kangaroos, wallabies, hares, and possums that have many young. The possums come every night to eat from the hands of the sisters, and indeed the wildlife has become quite used to the Sangha. The kangaroos, hares, and wallabies eat near the buildings and allow you to walk close to them. They are fond of eating the flowers that the sisters grow. In the warmer months we can see the rare echidna (a spiny form of anteater) as well. As I write, I can hear kookaburras and crows calling, and we observe many other native birds, such as robins, magpies, and eastern rosella.

Growing Community 

Nhap Luu is an extensive property that requires much work from the sisters. Sangha members come for weekend stays and sometimes longer. The Sangha in Melbourne is quite small, although recent efforts to promote the monastery locally have seen some new friends joining. Some members of the Sangha have been helping to run a monthly market stall, and their efforts are bearing fruit as they make contacts within the local community. The Melbourne Sangha has been of considerable assistance to the sisters, giving both physical support and help with administering the centre. Many have been generous with time, skills, knowledge, and financial assistance.

The sisters have become more involved with the local community. They’ve taught high school students about taking care of their suffering, helping them to transform. They’ve also done chaplaincy training, so they can assist when needed.  At Vesak, they celebrated with other monastics from the State of Victoria and the community, and led a guided meditation. They’ve also joined the Australian Sangha Association for monastics. The monastery now has a blog and a Facebook page to keep the community informed, and there is a bookshop for visitors to purchase Plum Village merchandise.

Tomorrow a group of ten community members will visit from a nearby information centre to join in a Day of Mindfulness and learn about our practice. This monastery is in a quite rural area of Victoria with many generations of farming families; it will be interesting to see their reactions to a very different culture transplanted into this community.

Last September and October, two brothers visited from Plum Village. They led retreats and gave talks here and in Sydney. Thay Phap Hai and Dharma teachers Kenley Neufeld and Karen Hilsberg have been providing a superb program of online teaching for lay friends, Sangha builders, OI aspirants, mentors, and Dharma teachers in training. Meanwhile, UBC Australia has been accepted as a sponsoring body for monastics, and in early 2013, Nhap Luu will welcome seven more sisters—six originally from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam and one who has Australian citizenship. A lay friend has been tremendously helpful, sharing her expertise and assisting with immigration paperwork and office administration—more hands to lighten the load.

I have been helping Sister Can Nghiem with her English comprehension and pronunciation, while she in turn has been helping with my Vietnamese. Sister Luong Nghiem has been instructing me on the bell, and I am tremendously grateful to her and all the sisters for their guidance, sumptuous food, and warm smiles during my stay.

The conditions are basic at Nhap Luu, but the environment is quite beautiful. As I sit and write, I watch the sun set and I hear the crickets singing against the background of a new moon. We hope to see many visitors come, support the monastery, and help us to bloom.

For more information about Nhap Luu Monastery, visit www.nhapluu.blogspot.com or find Entering the Stream Monastery on Facebook.

mb62-Entering2Ettianne Anshin, True Auspicious Path, lives in Sydney, Australia and practices with several Sydney groups, including the Lotus Bud Sangha. She works part-time for The Buddhist Council of New South Wales, coordinating the Schools Religious Education program, and consults on community development projects.

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Retreat Among Jacarandas

By María Jiménez

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

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

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

The Fountain of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drops in a River

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

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

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

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

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

Like Water Reflecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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