Peace Is Mandatory, Plumbing Is Optional

by Margaret Kirschner


Visualize Deer Park during winter retreat. Imagine the logistics needed to accommodate 250 monastics and approximately 250 lay retreatants, up to 1,000 or so on Days of Mindfulness when the local community visits. Picture the kitchens that prepare the food, the dishes, pots, pans, and silverware that need to be washed after each meal. Estimate the number of showers, hand washings, toilet flushings, tooth brushing, tea making, and the amount of water needed to keep the gardens alive and flourishing.

During the afternoon free time, a retreatant goes back to her room, ready to take a shower. She turns the faucet. Nothing happens. The water is off. She checks with neighbors. Theirs is off also. Next with the kitchen, and the restrooms near the Meditation Hall. Solidity Hamlet, Clarity Hamlet–all are without water. The pumps had stopped working. Was there panic? Was there grumbling and complaining? Was the water restored shortly thereafter? No, no, and no. The aridness of the desert enclosed the Deer Park retreatants.

Shortly after, the monastics announced a plan. They said the kitchens had reserve tanks that allowed enough water for meal preparations and cleanup. Large trucks would bring barrels of water, which would be placed outside our dormitories, along with buckets so we could bring in water to flush the toilets. We were asked to use the old slogan, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” Packets of chlorinated wipes appeared here and there. Mindfulness practice continued as if nothing troublesome had occurred.  The water did not come back on until the next day, at least eighteen hours later. But even when it returned, only one pump was working, so we were asked to continue to conserve as much as possible in the week to come.

What caused peace to pervade the difficulties created by this situation? Was it the calm manner of the monk who made the announcement that solicited the acceptance of the water shortage? Was it the mindfulness practice of the participants? Surely both contributed, but the initial meeting of the monastics who were charged with responsibility must have been a generating source. There had to have been a committee of calm thinking ones, with an awareness that nothing is permanent. There must have been trust in the skills of those who were to do the repairs and an understanding that creative solutions come from serene minds. I’d have loved to have been a mouse in the corner watching the mindfulness that contributed to everything working out so harmoniously.

And so it goes at our retreat, day by day. Each small activity, imbued with mindfulness, builds further mindfulness and takes us through life’s vexations with equanimity and joy. May we show our gratitude by remembering this experience and by sharing this accepting awareness with our families and communities.

Margaret Kirschner, True Silent Sound, lives in Portland, Oregon and practices with the Portland Community of Mindful Living.  She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing during the winter retreat.

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Book Reviews

mb42-Book1This Tender Place
The Story of a Wetland Year

By Laurie Lawlor
University of Wisconsin Press, 2005
Hardcover, 166 pages, $26.95

Reviewed by Janice Rubin

In a volume of fewer than 200 pages, Laurie Lawlor, author of thirty-three books for children and adults, writes the story of a love affair with a swamp that is ultimately a clarion call to preserve our wetlands if we wish to ensure adequate supplies of potable water. Lawlor and her husband, Jack, bought the eleven-acre property in southeast Wisconsin as a way to “reconstruct” themselves following the deaths of their fathers within months of each other. In spring they planted a pin oak, beneath which were placed her father’s ashes.

This Tender Place is permeated with Lawlor’s deep practice of mindfulness in nature. As a Dharma teacher who has received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh, her stories reflect her ten-year intimacy with the vegetation, animal life, and minerals in this 14,000-year-old fen. In an enchanting tableau of the four seasons of the year, beginning with winter and going back to the start of the Ice Age, she chronicles the gradual formation of the current wetlands landscape and its seasonal changes.

We are with her as she travels by kayak or canoe along the streams and passageways of the fen to the lake, or walks the paths and slogs through mud, observing the changes in water quality, vegetation, and animal life at each season of the year. We note the coming of spring in the water bubbling up through cracks in the ice on the marshes as winter ends, the incipience of summer in the return of mated pairs of cranes in early spring, the crackling of the drying water-lily pads and the presence of scum, white swan feathers, and dead insects on the pond foretelling the coming autumn and “the long slide into the beginning of silence.” On her last kayaking trip of the year, she finds herself cutting through a thin film of ice; the turtles and frogs are gone, vegetation is floating loose, and snow begins to fall.

Unrestricted hunting led to the extinction in the area of elk, white-tail deer, black bear, wild turkey, sandhill cranes, and massasauga rattlesnakes by 1850. Past practices of draining wet areas to create land that can be farmed or developed for housing, shopping centers, or industrial uses have resulted in the diminished availability of fresh water as the population grows. Grassroots conservancy groups are now involved in promoting the reclamation and preservation of watersheds, prairies, woodlands, shorelines, and other sensitive areas from human indifference.

We feel, with Lawlor, a growing sense of oneness with the environment as she makes her way. Twenty-two photographs, most of them taken by her, reflect the peaceful aspect of this tender place even when animal and plant life are most abundant. For this, if for no other reason, wetlands areas must be preserved as places where people can find refuge from the hurly-burly of everyday life.

mb42-Book2Little Pilgrim

By Ko Un
Parallax Press, 2005
Softcover, 381 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by Judith Toy

A novel twenty-two years in the writing by celebrated Korean poet and former Buddhist monk Ko Un (pronounced ‘Go Oon’), this book is a Dharma treasure brought to us by translators Brother Anthony of Taizé and Young-Moo Kim. The protagonist is a tenyear-old boy, Sudhana, who during his life’s fantastical journey, morphs more than once into an adult and even once into a leper.

He encounters fifty-three teachers in all, sometimes in dreams, from gods to singing snails to a boy who becomes a girl, to bums and bodhisattvas (sometimes the bums are bodhisattvas), a giant, an underworld, heavenly realms, vanishing beings, and a kite that points the way on his travels.

Ko Un’s fiction without a plot is based on the thirty-ninth, the last and longest section of the Avatamsaka Sutra, known as the Garland Sutra––a teaching that’s had an extraordinary impact on East Asian Buddhism since its introduction into China in the sixth century.

Supposedly derived from a series of sermons by the historical Gautama Buddha––or possibly by his disciple, the bodhisattva of Great Action, Samantabhadra, Ko Un’s poetic rendering of the pilgrim’s journey is like a string of wisdom pearls.

Like St. Exupery’s Little Prince, who always felt he was at home, the little pilgrim Sudhana teaches us two crucial lessons: how to see the signposts that show us where to go next on our life’s pilgrimage; and how to let go. At each stop, someone or something directs the boy to his next destination. He only hears them because this child without parents or roots is able to move through the universe with an open heart. He simply allows each teaching to enter him, and then the young pilgrim moves on.

The setting is India in the Gautama Buddha era, and some place names are familiar to us from the life of the Buddha. While the Buddha is not a character in the novel, there are increasingly frequent references to his teachings as the boy’s journey unfolds. To fully receive the sweep of Ko Un’s novel as a metaphor for our lives, it’s probably best to read it through at once, rather than piecemeal. Readers will want to linger at the striking papercut illustrations by Jason DeAntonis that pepper the text.

As a sangha body we can apply these two lessons––trusting the way enough to be available to the teachings that abound in every moment and becoming still enough to know where as a sangha our path is leading us next; and allowing ourselves to let go of the many people who come and go in a sangha, loving them in a nonattached way. Allowing the comings and goings to happen without any resistance, without clinging. With the Buddha, Ko Un shows how to let go and join the dance!

mb42-Book3The Wonder of the Tao
A Meditation on Spirituality and Ecological Balance

By James Eggert
Published by Humanics, Lake Worth, Florida
Hardcover; 90 pages; $14.95

Reviewed by Hope Lindsay and Barbara Casey

James Eggert is an emeritus faculty member of the University of Wisconsin. As both economist and ecologist, Eggert offers a singular perspective on the workings of our world and our relationships in it. For example, he suggests that we consider the concept of market capitalism as a flawed gemstone. Inspecting it for defects from the viewpoint of an economist and then an ecologist, Eggert offers a vision to bring balance and harmony back into our economic system.

Eggert’s simple stories offer a wise view of life and practical methods for deepening our understanding of interbeing. To help develop balance and an increased awareness of other species, he describes simple t’ai chi exercises that embody qualities of bear, crane, monkey, deer, and tiger. Opening our eyes to a larger view of the world, Eggert describes the unfolding of the universe, through stellar contractions and expansions, the origin of water, the moon’s influence, and the development of life forms.

Each chapter begins with a verse from the Tao Te Ching, a slim volume written by Lao Tzu 2,400 years ago, and woven into the heart of Buddhist teachings. The wisdom of simplicity, balance, and letting go show us a way through the complexities of modern life and the confusion of searching for happiness outside ourselves. The last chapter, “The Wonder of the Tao,” begins with the verse:

“If you don’t realize the source,
You stumble in confusion and sorrow…
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
You can deal with whatever life brings you,
And when death comes, you are ready.”

Eggert gently leads us back to the source of true happiness, through his stories of connecting with nature and seeing the world in all its remarkable beauty. In the book’s foreword, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Please enjoy this offering of our friend, James Eggert, as an invitation to enter into a deep relationship with our home the earth and all her creatures, to cultivate our awakened wisdom to find harmony and balance.”

The Wonder of the Tao is generously illustrated with calligraphy and brush paintings by Li-chin Crystal Huang. A lovely snapshot of one man’s walk in mindfulness through our world, this book reflects the simplicity and fullness of which it speaks.

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Offering to the Land Ancestors for the Dedication of Solar Electricity

mb47-Offering1We, your children of countless generations, respectfully request permission to make an offering to our Mother Earth, the ancestors of this land, and our descendants. Let us be aware that the ancestors of this land are present with us now and let us be aware of where we are, standing on this land with the mountains, plants, and all beings surrounding us. Dear Sangha, let us listen to the sound of the bell so that we may bring ourselves fully into the present moment. (bell)

We gather today to celebrate Deer Park Monastery converting to one hundred percent solar power this month. The installation of solar panels will provide for all the electricity needs of Deer Park. It is our sincere aspiration to live in harmony with this land, with all the vegetation and animals living here, and with all our brothers and sisters with whom we live and practice. When we are in harmony with each other, we are also in harmony with the land, with the plants and animals. We see our close relationship with every person and every species. The happiness and suffering of all humans and all other species is our own happiness and suffering. We inter-are. As practitioners we see we are part of and not separate from the whole of human civilization. As human beings we see that we are children of the Earth and not separate from the soil, the forests, rivers and sky. We share the same destiny.

We are aware that much harm has been done to the Earth out of ignorance, craving and arrogance. As children of this land we ask for your great compassion to forgive us for these shortcomings. Today we are determined to begin anew — to make all efforts, large and small, to collectively effect real change in our global ecological situation. We vow not to deplete the energy of the land and her resources with our careless actions, but rather to contribute to the regeneration of this beautiful land, bringing freshness, peace, and happiness to all who come here.

Deer Park’s conversion to solar energy is one way that we lighten our steps on the Earth and truly arrive as responsible and loving children of the Earth.

With great respect we call on all our spiritual and land ancestors to protect us and to nourish us with your insight, compassion, and liberation. Like young shoots of ancient trees we look to you to know our roots on this soil. We ask for your guidance and understanding to show us clearly how to proceed on our path — so that we may awaken together to restore our future.

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Relationship Dharma

By Janelle Combelic

We need to create environments where people can succeed in the practice. Interpersonal relationships are the key. With the support of even one person, you develop stability, and later you can reach out to others.
—Thich Nhat Hanh


I sit on the patio across the table from my housemate of three weeks, Carol. A vase of orange and white cosmos, pink zinnias, and blue salvia sits on the table; a candle burns fitfully in the warm evening breeze. Carol and I sit in silence a few moments, eyes closed, and then I invite the bell.

This is our first session of Beginning Anew.

We’ve rented a big old house together in the middle of town –she, escaping from the dissolution of a twenty-five-year marriage; me, leaving the refuge of my mother’s house a block away, where I had lived since my return from Plum Village. We don’t know each other very well and before we moved in together, I told Carol I wanted to have a weekly “house meeting” to do a practice called Beginning Anew. At Plum Village I had frequently heard Thay speak about the importance of doing this practice once a week with one’s family or partner.

I know myself well enough by now (there are blessings to growing older) to accept that I like things done a certain way. I have extremely high standards, for myself and everyone else — this is a blessing in my work as an editor, it’s a curse in my relationships. I also tend to hold things in, especially irritation and hurt and anger. I would ten times rather turn it against myself than hurt someone’s feelings. So when something bothers me — like dirty dishes in the sink, clutter on the dining table, or a messy cupboard — I don’t speak, I seethe.

Moving in with Carol I knew that I needed some formal process for resolving whatever differences might arise. Little did I realize that the process of Beginning Anew would produce miracle after miracle and become in itself an essential part of my spiritual practice.

The Pull of Community

During half of my adult life I’ve lived alone. In recent years, especially since my fourteen months in and around Plum Village, I’ve felt drawn to living in community. In one Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet Thay said that lay people should try living together, in order to share resources, live more simply, and learn to co-exist in peace. “I hope,” he writes in Teachings on Love, “that communities of practice [like Plum Village] will form in the West, with the warmth and flavor of an extended family, as brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts… We have to work together to find ways to help each other. If we can do that, everyone will enjoy the practice.”

This is one of Thay’s most important teachings, one that he has made manifest through his monks and nuns in Plum Village and the other monasteries: it is possible — and necessary — to live together in harmony and love.

To live in harmony one needs three things, as I see it: a spiritual foundation, a conscious intention to create community, and tools for resolving conflict. As Carol and I discussed living together I wanted to make sure that these conditions were present. Carol is fairly new to the practice but she loves Thay’s books, enjoys meditation and yoga, and expressed a keen desire to learn more and to experiment with our spiritual community of two.

I’m happy to play teacher, but I really have no idea what I’m doing. Except for the ritual Beginning Anew ceremony practiced in small groups during retreats, I’ve never actually done Beginning Anew. I’ve heard Sister Chan Khong and other Dharma teachers explain it, I’ve read about it in Anger, in Joyfully Together, and on the Deer Park website [see sidebar page 26], but that’s a far cry from doing it.

Doing the Practice

While Carol and I sit silently in our back yard, serenaded by robins and finches, I pray for guidance. Returning to my breath,

I pray that I might speak the words that need to be spoken while holding back those that do not. A deep peace fills me, trust in the truth of the Dharma.

We begin.

On a piece of paper I have written out the four steps as I understand them:

  1. Flower watering
  2. Expressing regrets
  3. Hurts/anger/peeves (I added that last part)
  4. Asking for help

I take the first turn. Timidly, I look at Carol and tell her what I like and admire about her: her courage in the face of great emotional strain, her devotion to her two young adult children, her sense of humor, her delicious cooking, her easy-going nature. I can tell she is pleased, and when she takes her turn to water my positive seeds, I feel the same. It’s wonderful to be openly appreciated!

Next I express my regrets. Life has been pretty smooth these first three weeks together, but in my own head the Judge and Jury have convicted my gentle housemate on a variety of counts. Leaving crumbs on the kitchen counter — guilty. Loading the dishwasher wrong — guilty. Speaking to me in the morning when I want to be left alone — guilty. Of course these petty concerns are too silly to mention, so I never say anything to her at the time, and the trial just goes on in my own mind, endlessly. It is exhausting, and also cumulative, as I find the irritation getting closer and closer to the surface as it grows. So I express the regret that I have a very critical mind, and it is a struggle for me to relax and live with a little disorder, with someone else’s habits. Carol then expresses regret that she has been emotional lately, prone to fits of weeping and rage toward her inexplicably cruel ex-husband.

We haven’t quite mastered deep listening yet, so we interrupt and reassure one another that we understand. In later sessions we will use the flower bouquet as a “talking stick” and try not to interrupt. But for two people who love to talk, that’s an ongoing challenge.

Now comes the really really hard part: expressing angers and hurts (and pet peeves, of which I have hundreds, thousands). I’m embarrassed to do so, but I mention just a couple of my concerns, mostly involving the kitchen, which don’t phase her in the least. She frowns at first, then smiles. Then it is her turn, and she says she wishes I weren’t quite so grumpy in the morning. I can live with that.

The fourth step comes to us easily: I ask for help in being more flexible and easy-going, she asks for help being more calm and centered. We stand, both of us glowing, and hug. What’s happened for me is that in the space of forty-five minutes our relationship has deepened from a casual cohabitation to a spiritual friendship. There’s a level of trust between us, that came from sharing painful and scary things, that might have taken years to establish without this process.

The Blessings of Beginning Anew

Because we understand each other better, we have more compassion. As the calligraphy in the meditation hall at New Hamlet says so beautifully, “Listen well to understand deeply, look deeply to love well.” Because we are learning to love our little Sangha of two, we want the other person to be happy. Carol tries to accommodate my need for order, and I’ve let go of a lot of my pet peeves. Amazingly, I’m even learning to speak up — skillfully — when something really does bother me.

An even bigger miracle occurred during our third Beginning Anew. Several weeks had passed since our second session — in spite of our intentions, we don’t manage to do it weekly — and my irritation at small things was eating away at me. On this day, I really needed to do Beginning Anew. It was her turn to start, and when she came to the second step she hesitated a long time. Then she confessed that she had done something she regretted deeply: on her husband’s birthday earlier in the week, with her family celebrating in a nearby restaurant without her, she had started feeling suicidal; while I was at our weekly Sangha she overindulged in alcohol (neither one of us ordinarily drinks). I knew nothing of any of this until Carol tearfully confided it during Beginning Anew.

Immediately my irritations vanished, to be replaced with a wave of compassion and tenderness. We talked, listening deeply to one another and providing support for each other’s healing. In the sacred space of the ritual, surprising insights arose, as if the process took us to a deep place of shared wisdom.

Several months have passed since then, and we are scheduled to do Beginning Anew tomorrow morning. We’ve become rather lax, and we paid for it the other day when we had our first fight. Of course it was over something relatively minor, and we’re both sorry we lost our tempers. We’ve patched it over, but I’m looking forward to working through it more deeply.

Well, it’s not entirely true that I’m looking forward to it. Beginning Anew is not easy, especially for those of us who never learned how to express our anger and hurt. It’s a challenging practice, but one that yields profound results, and not for ourselves alone. “We should live our daily lives,” writes Thay, “so that there is Beginning Anew in every minute. If everyone practices, there is hope for the future. Look deeply to make renewal possible. Sangha building is the most important art for us to learn.”

In our little community of two, I am looking deeply at my expectations, my irritations, my control issues — the neurotic dance of my mind. Beginning Anew is a powerful tool for manifesting the practice of mindfulness in relationship. It’s allowing me to have more trust, more love in my life.

And a messy kitchen no longer summons the Judge and Jury. I can actually walk through it and smile. Such freedom!

Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, lives in Longmont, Colorado with her dog Serafina. All quotes in this essay are from the “Community” chapter of  Teachings on Love, Parallax Press, 2007.

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A Frolic Down the Path of the Buddha

By Janelle Combelic


A Buddhist retreat at Plum Village is unlike any other Buddhist retreat (as far as I know). There’s relatively little sitting meditation, which surprises and disappoints some folks. But there are lots of other forms of meditation — in fact the practice of mindfulness means meditating twenty-four hours a day, no matter what we are doing. The point, of course, is to teach us how to do this in daily life, out in the “real” world.

There are two particularly ingenious methods that Plum Village has devised for teaching the practice of mindfulness. The first is working meditation. At the Path of the Buddha retreat, I was in the francophone family with my friend Pascale and my mentor, Sister Dao Nghiem. Our job for the three-week retreat was to clean the bathrooms in Lower Hamlet. Hence our name: Delicate Fragrance.

Working with people every day, you get to know who likes to scrub every corner and who would rather pick flowers for the sinks. Who has a bad back but doesn’t want to complain. Who stops to chat (and chat and chat), who’s cheerful no matter what, who’s grumpy. Who wants to tell people exactly how to do everything (me) and who on the second day realizes that grown women know how to clean bathrooms and can decide among themselves who’s going to do what (me again).

You learn a lot about other people, but mainly you learn about yourself, in the context of community and activity. Being as how most of us live and work with others, these lessons come in very handy once we return home.

On the Road to Plum Village

The other ingenious device to teach mindfulness on retreat is the skit. Most Vietnamese people love to play; and since their culture was only recently infected with modern technology, they still enjoy old-fashioned homegrown entertainment. So at the end of every retreat there’s a grand performance. Fortunately, we’re doing the performances within each hamlet rather than all 600 of us together. After living together for three weeks, Lower Hamlet feels like one big family.

Which is a good thing, because there’s nothing that brings up people’s neuroses like the idea of performing in public.

Unlike most families, we started working on our skit the very first week. Serge, the one man among twenty-three women (our hamlet hosts women and a few couples), proposed a lovely old French folk song that someone had rewritten into a Plum Village song, “On the Road to Plum Village.” We decided to rewrite the song again with a story about us: arriving at Plum Village all tired and stressed out, then cleaning toilets and showers together, finally finding freedom and happiness.

Working on the song that first week was a blast. A few people did the writing, then Beatrice, a delightful and energetic Swiss woman who could not for the life of her hold a tune, emerged as the director. We formed two choirs who sang back and forth to each other. Sur la route des Pruniers…

At the end of the second week it all turned sour. We’d been rehearsing every day, and had the music down pretty well but were getting tired of it. Hélène, who happens to be a fabulous singer, arrived at the retreat two weeks late. That evening she sat down with the only two people who still wanted to rehearse and she taught them a slightly different version of the tune. And the three of them came up with a new way of performing it.

The next evening after dinner we started to rehearse, and all hell broke loose. Ah non non non! On recommence pas à zéro! No, we’re not starting over, someone huffed and stomped off. Others shook their heads in disgust and did not return from cleaning their dishes. The rest of us regrouped, decided to put the song mostly back the way we had it, and had a great time singing our hearts out and laughing.

The next day we started adding the skit. It had been my bright idea to have actors pantomime what the words were saying. (No one in our audience was going to understand our song, because it was in French! The other 140 retreatants at Lower Hamlet were British, Dutch, German, American, with a few Italians.) From the supply closet by the kitchen, I had collected all kinds of props — new brushes, sponges, mops, spray bottles — all stashed in a suitcase for the first part of the skit.

Retreat Rockettes

Don’t you just wish that after all these years of listening to Dharma talks, meditating, paying therapists, going on retreat — don’t you wish you could stay enlightened for more than thirty seconds at a time? When it came time to create the little skit, just three minutes of pantomime, my ego came out to play. Big time.

Because I had some really good ideas! Brilliant ideas! Every morning and every evening in meditation, in the deep stillness of the meditation hall, it was the first thing that sprang into my mind: Sur la route des Pruniers… I saw our three nuns doing this, and our lay friends doing that in the next verse, and a stupendous finale with everybody dancing… as stunning as the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.

Enough already! Quiet.

When it came time to rehearse with our family, my overbearing enthusiasm was not well received. Beatrice was a little miffed that I had wrenched all the fun stuff away from her. And the actors never managed to come together at the same time: Andréa got sick, Géraldine had to make an emergency trip to care for a friend, Josslyn had somewhere else to be after Dharma discussion. But the obvious reason that it didn’t come together is that it was supposed to be a collaboration. Silly me.

Day after day, I dealt with my feelings and frustrations — looking deeply in meditation, stepping back when rehearsals weren’t going well, letting go, letting go.

Thank goodness the performance was pushed back to Thursday. On Tuesday Sister Dao Nghiem, who had left us to our own devices, initiated a rehearsal. The two groups sullenly stood facing each other in a semicircle and half-heartedly sang: Sur la route des Pruniers… The nuns walked through the center as we had scripted. The actors feebly acted out our part. With only a little squabbling in the middle, we limped to the finale.

Sister Dao Nghiem calmly admonished us to relax a little bit and have fun. Then she redesigned the ending, adding some peaceful walking in pairs rather than our manic scurrying and jumping. We performed it a few more times but our hearts weren’t in it.

I Have an Idea!

The big day came. We rehearsed before dinner, but it wasn’t going very well. I was disgusted with myself for getting so hung up on the whole thing, for not being able to communicate my ideas effectively, and especially because my magnificent finale had been scrapped.

Finally I decided to just throw myself into it. What did I have to lose? I banished my ego once and for all and joined in the fun. We were nervous, we were excited, we were enjoying ourselves again.

Then Hélène said, “Attendez, j’ai une idée! Wait, I have an idea!” We all screamed. She was joking of course. Béatrice suggested next time we do a skit we should call it “I have an idea!” We all laughed; we knew exactly what she meant.

That night in the meditation hall we were one of the last acts to perform. There were five or six before us, all funnier and more inspired than the last. The pot-washing family pounded tubs and pans for an energetic percussion piece, accompanied by nuns and laywomen waving big pot lids in a traditional Vietnamese hat dance. The vegetable-chopping family did a skit about having to work in silence (Delicate Fragrance conveniently forgot about the practice of silent working meditation).

When it came our turn, yes, you guessed it — we pulled it off! Our fellow retreatants laughed and clapped along to our silly song. We exited the stage area breathless, joyful, eminently pleased with ourselves.

Someone from another family later remarked on how much harmony there was in our family. We laughed our heads off when we heard that.

But there was harmony. A far deeper harmony than when we started. During the worst of it, when some people disappeared from the family for a day or two and our dinners together were glum, Sister Dao Nghiem told us that harmony does not mean the absence of conflict. You can have differences — in a community there will always be differences — but still you have harmony because you care about one another. You want it to work, so you do whatever it takes.

In fact, I believe those very difficulties are what knit the community into a harmonious whole. How else would we get to know one another deeply, to know ourselves?

That’s why Thay says he wouldn’t want to go to a heaven where there’s no suffering. It’s in those cracks that healing occurs. It’s when our heart breaks that we learn how to love.

That’s the whole point of the skit — aside from motivating us to relax and play, us Westerners who can take the whole thing so seriously. It’s fi to feel peaceful and loving when you’re sitting on a cushion or walking in the woods or eating with friends in silence. But try to do something together and that’s where the real practice begins.

Those are the lessons that I’ve taken home with me, and put to use in my daily life — humility, joy, Sur la route des Pruniers…

mb52-AFrolic2Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, practices with Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado.

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Integrating Head and Heart

Organizing a Wake Up Tour

By Brandon Rennels


A year ago I was sitting at a cafe in Ann Arbor, Michigan, enjoying breakfast with a beloved professor from university. When I was in school he taught a course entitled Psychology of Consciousness, which was my first introduction to mindfulness practice. Peace is Every Step happened to be required reading, and after I finished the course I wondered why this material wasn’t taught in every classroom.

That day, I had gone to the professor seeking guidance. For a few years I had been working internationally in the business world as a management consultant. During this time I developed a skill set for turning high-level strategy into tactical recommendations, and for the cultural sensitivity necessary to bring messages to diverse audiences. While I enjoyed the problem-solving nature of my work, I felt I should be serving a different clientele; it was people, not corporations, I wanted to help grow. I had been keeping up my spiritual practice and also knew there was a growing interest in mindfulness in major U.S. institutions, especially in the field of education.

I knew I wanted to make a change but I didn’t know where to start.

My professor mentioned that there was a growing number of interested educators with Ph.D.s, and a wealth of mindfulness practices. Perhaps what was missing, he said, was support in managing the various threads and actually implementing these new models of learning. He asked: Instead of abandoning my business training, could I somehow integrate head and heart by leveraging my consulting skills to support the realms of mindfulness and education?

I had no idea. But it seemed like the right question to ask. As with all great teachers, he merely pointed the way… and I took it upon myself to forge ahead into the unknown.

Leap of Faith

A few months later I decided to take a leap of faith by embarking on a six-month leave of absence from my corporate post. I had two stated intentions: 1) immerse myself in mindfulness practice, and 2) learn how I might support its growth in education. My first stop was a weeklong retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. I figured it would be an opportunity for immersion. Little did I suspect that both of my intentions would be watered.

On encouragement from a friend, towards the end of the retreat I worked up the courage to ask a monastic if I might be of service. I explained my background and that I could offer my support as a volunteer for the next few months. Much to my surprise, his eyes opened wide: “Ah ha! The universe is aligning.” He told me there were a couple of education initiatives that were searching for support from someone with a business/organizational skill set. Now it was my eyes that opened wide.

Supporting the Sangha

The next month, a week before the east coast Wake Up tour, I arrived at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York. The monastics and I were unsure how I was going to help, but in that not-knowing was a freedom to respond appropriately to whatever situation arose.

Much of the work had already been completed by the time I arrived, and we were in the final stages of preparation for the tour. Entering any project mid-stream can feel overwhelming; ideally, you are there from the beginning. In most cases, however, you don’t have that luxury. More importantly, it just isn’t necessary. Asking questions, listening deeply, and being patient are all it takes to be able to contribute.

My intention was to be as helpful as I could in supporting the Sangha. I began by asking one of the main organizers, “Is there anything you need help with?” When he was feeling more comfortable, I went to the other organizers and asked them. Then I began asking a different question: “This looks like it could use help; do you want me to work on it?” Over time, this evolved into: “I went ahead and took care of this. Let me know what you think.”

This approach created conditions for me to take on operational items such as supporting the website and managing the email list, as well as strategic areas such as overseeing social media presence and helping to allocate the advertising budget. My responsibilities grew organically, and were nurtured in a supportive and collegiate environment with the backdrop of a serene monastery. Not a bad way to work!

A week later the team at Blue Cliff set out on the road to begin the tour.

Space to Breathe

Our first events were in Boston, where we convened as an entire group. The day before the Harvard University event we had a number of decisions to make, and the full community of fifteen-plus monastic and lay friends gathered around a large wooden table. I had become more familiar with the working styles of the group and was looking forward to an unfiltered view of how a Fourfold Sangha makes decisions.

Coming from the corporate world, I was accustomed to a top-down, fast-paced, heavily structured decision-making process. The monastic community operates bottom-up, in a very organic and non-hierarchical way. The meeting opened with three sounds of the bell, and we began by speaking one a time. One of the primary issues was whether or not we were going to visit Occupy Boston. Many questions were raised: How political is the event? Could we go just as spectators? What kind of message would we be sending by going? Should we just go to invite people to our sitting meditation? There were divergent viewpoints, but we eventually reached a full consensus. Afterwards it was explicitly stated that the meeting was over and it was time to let go of any residue and move on. While it was a lengthy process, shortening it would inevitably result in some people not being heard. By giving everyone space to express themselves, regardless of outcome there was no resentment and everyone felt respected.

The following day, over one hundred people showed up for a Day of Mindfulness at Harvard. I volunteered to staff the registration desk, where each attendee would be asked a series of questions that were entered into an Excel file. It was a chance for me to practice my efficiency skills in a potentially stressful environment, as most people would be arriving in a hurry just a few minutes before the start time. I felt it was important for this process to go smoothly, knowing this was the first impression most people would have.

Sitting at the desk, I found myself simultaneously wondering how fast I could process each person’s info and how many people I could get to smile. While I had my verbal script and keyboard strokes down to a science, I protected the space to provide a warm welcome to every person and to allow them space to breathe.


One hundred people came, one hundred people went. I was gifted with many smiles.

Harmony Was the Way

As the tour progressed I gained more responsibility, and eventually some of the monastics started lovingly (I think) introducing me as “the manager.” While they were mostly joking (I think), in this structure I was perhaps as close to a lay manager as one could get.

A fundamental skill of being a good manager is knowing when to delegate tasks to others. Having faced this situation in the past, I was familiar with the trade-offs. Do the task yourself and it will likely get done faster and with more accuracy. Give the task to others and while it may take longer (and they may not want to do it), you will be teaching someone. What was unique about this situation, however, was the underlying objective. In the corporate world, the priority is productivity; here, the priority was harmony. Ideally you have both, but oftentimes you need to choose which is more important: getting it done or making everyone happy. For the first time in my life, it was clear that harmony was the way.

Near the end of the tour we aspired to send out a “feedback survey” for participants to share their thoughts following the workshops. There were multiple purposes here: for the participants, to provide an outlet to reflect on their experiences and encourage them to keep up their practice; for us, a chance to learn what went well and how we could improve for the next tour. Timing was important; if the survey was sent out too late, response rate would likely be low and the experience would no longer be fresh in their minds.

We decided to administer the survey using two online tools with which the monastics didn’t have much experience. I spent time training one of the tech-savvy nuns how to create the survey, send it out, track responses, etc. Two weeks later the surveys hadn’t yet been sent and I was becoming slightly anxious. I sat with this anxiety and it passed with the understanding of how busy our lives can be. I emailed the sister asking if she needed help, which I would be genuinely happy to provide. The next day I awoke to find all the surveys had been sent out, along with a friendly reply back thanking me for my encouragement. I smiled.


Looking back at that afternoon with my professor in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t have imagined a more direct manifestation of my desire to integrate head and heart. Perhaps my greatest lesson on this tour was that of trust. Trusting in myself and my abilities, trusting in others and their capacity to support, and trusting in the universe to light the way.

mb60-Integrating4Since the east coast Wake Up tour, Brandon Rennels decided to resign from his post in the corporate world and continue to support mindful education initiatives while deepening his own practice. He spent three months in Plum Village this past winter, practicing and assisting with the Applied Ethics initiative, and is now heading back to California for the next chapter of his journey… just in time for another Wake Up tour.

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Dharma Talk: Taking Care of Each Other

By Thich Nhat Hanh

One day, Ananda and the Buddha came to a retreat center where there was only one monk. The monk was very sick with diarrhea. When the Buddha and Ananda came to his room, they noticed a very bad smell. The Buddha asked the sick monk, “Did nobody take care of you?” He answered, “I have been sick for a long time and many monks took care of me. But I do not want to disturb them anymore. Now I can take care of myself.” But the Buddha said, “No. You should not do it that way.”


The Buddha told Ananda, “Go and get a bucket of water and a rag.” The Buddha cleaned and washed the sick monk, while Ananda cleaned his room. The Buddha and Ananda cleaned the room for three hours. Then Ananda offered one of his three robes to the monk. He washed the monk’s robe and dried it outside. After that, the Buddha and Ananda sat outside. Soon they saw all the monks coming home.

When the other monks saw the Buddha and Ananda, they were very happy. But the Buddha said to them, “Dear friends, we are all away from our families. Our blood sisters and brothers and our parents do not take care of us. If we don’t take care of each other, who will take care of us? If you want to take care of the Buddha, then you have to take care of your brothers. When you take care of your brothers, you are taking care of me, and when you take care of the Buddha, you are taking care of your brothers.”

Today, we too must support each other in the practice and take care of each other. Our practice is not an individual practice. We practice with other people, we practice with our Sangha. The Sangha is also our body, and all our brothers and sisters are a part of this Sangha body. Sangha bodies have eyes, noses, and ears. Our Sangha body can hear and understand.

The practice of the second body is one way we take care of each other in the Sangha. Each member of the Sangha needs a second body. When you go to sitting meditation, you invite your second body. If your second body is sick, you have to know that your second body is sick, and look for a doctor or someone to help. The second body doesn’t need to be younger, the second body can be older. The second person also has his or her second body, that third person also has a second body, and so forth.

We have to be responsible for the mindful manners and the practice of our second body. If the manners and the mindfulness of the second body are not very high, you are responsible. If you cannot do that, if you need help, you can ask help from Thay or from other brothers or sisters. If your second body’s manners and mindfulness are not very good, you have to remind him or her. If you feel that you cannot, then you should ask brothers or sisters to help you. This practice is not just for monks and nuns, but for all of us.

When each Sangha member takes care of his or her second body, the whole Sangha is taken care of. When your second body has some happiness, you share that happiness. If your second body has difficulties, you need to understand these difficulties. And if alone you cannot help your second body, you need to ask for help from somebody else. You don’t have to be better than your second body, you need to help your second body.

Practicing like this, you will see a miraculous result. You are responsible for everything that happens to your second body. When you take care of your second body, your third, fourth, and fifth bodies are also taken care of. Taking care of your second body, you take care of everybody else.

We may have a second body who feels difficult to look after. Perhaps the people we think would be easy to look after have already been taken. The method of getting a second body is this: everybody in turn says the name of the person they want to be their second body. At first, there are many people to choose from, but as we go along perhaps there is only one person left, and we have to choose that person. We may feel that this person is very difficult to look after, but you should know that this is a wonderful opportu­nity. The person who you think would be difficult can bring you a great deal of benefit and joy in your practice. Some fruits have thorns and are hard, but when we break them open, they taste very good. The monkeys know that—they break open these hard-skinned fruits. There are people we see who from the outside are not very sweet, but if we know how to open them up, the fruit is wonderful. Don’t be deceived by the outside. Don’t think that the second body is very difficult to look after. Bring all your ability to look after that person and he will become a sweet spring of water.

The practice of the second body is a wonderful Dharma door and we need to succeed in its practice. We should not practice according to the outer form, just saying I have a second body. We should not practice only half-heartedly. With sincere practice, we will have a direct experience of the benefits of the practice.

Another very important practice is Shining Light, offering guidance in the principle of Sangha eyes. The Sangha eyes can see thoroughly. Many people think that the Sangha does not know, but the Sangha knows. It can see much better than you can. This practice comes directly from the tradition that on the last day of the winter retreat (or the rainy season retreat) a monk should bow down in front of his brothers and ask, “Please, with compassion, shine light on me so that I can see my strengths and my weakness during the past three months of this retreat.” He must prostrate deeply to receive this guidance. In Plum Village, we have developed this into a practice that is not only used at the end of the winter retreat, but also from time to time, when any of us needs the guidance of the Sangha. We can come forward, make deep prostrations, and ask for guidance. Even a senior teacher, like Sister Annabel Laity, comes to the Sangha from time to time, prostrates, and asks her younger sisters to shine light on her practice. Most of the people who are there, whom she bows before, are her students.

Shining Light practice is a Dharma door which we offer to the Three Jewels and which we will hand on to future generations. We have to do what we can. We have to shine the light with all our compassion and lovingkindness, all our respect and love. We should see the person we are shining light on as ourselves. We haven’t the right to hide what we have seen. We have to be sincere in saying what we have seen. This is a method of deep looking. We may need to take time from sitting meditation to look deeply, because sitting meditation and looking deeply are the same. In a session of shining light, we need the same seriousness as we have in meditation. We should sit, body and mind as one, our backs straight, not in a sloppy way. We should shine light, sitting as straight as we do in sitting meditation and with all our heart.

The collective insight of the Sangha is offered in the form of a letter. The letter always begins by mentioning the positive qualities of the person who has asked for guidance to help him or her strengthen his or her self-esteem. The weaknesses of the person concerned will be mentioned after, with details, and then the suggestions to help him or her to practice. All are written with the language of lovingkindness and compassion.

One beautiful autumn day during a retreat at Omega, we were happy to walk in the forest beside trees with all their leaves of different colors. I came to a maple tree and looked deeply at the leaves. I realized that no leaf was perfect. Many leaves had holes or ragged edges. But when I looked at the whole tree, the maple tree was so beautiful. Each leaf has its own position, its own integrity. There are small leaves and big leaves, and the tree is beautiful because of the harmony of all leaves. The leaves on the top were not proud that they were the top leaves, and the leaves at the bottom were not sad that they were at the bottom. All the leaves were very happy with their own positions. The whole tree forms a miracle, and that is the harmony of the tree. Like the leaves, we don’t need to be perfect, but when we live together in harmony, our Sangha is beautiful and we don’t need to feel bad about ourselves.

Harmony is the practice of the Sangha. If we have harmony, we have happiness. We don’t need to be perfect. I myself am not perfect and you too, you don’t need to be perfect. But in your own position, if you can express your harmony in the Sangha, this is your beauty. The Sangha of the Buddha is called the Sangha of six harmonies. When the Sangha makes a decision, we first ask, “Has the community assembled in sufficient number?” Then we ask, “Do we have harmony in our community?” If the answer is no, then the decisions are not valid. If you want to build a Sangha, you have to remember that harmony is the basic ingredient.

We need to practice in such a way that there is harmony in our Sangha. Each of us is a younger brother or a big brother, a younger sister or a big sister; each of us has our own position. We are happy in that position, like the maple leaves. When the maple leaves are in their own position, they make the harmony of the whole tree, and when we look at the tree, the tree is so beautiful.

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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