Beginning Anew

By Penelope Thompson & Lee Lipp

It has been more than six months since our Sangha “got a divorce,” and it has been a time of suffering and broken-heartedness for everyone. It has also been a time of looking inward, learning to take responsibility for ways we have caused each other pain.

For seven years, we met weekly for meditation and Dharma discussion and monthly for a Day of Mindfulness. There was much joy among us and a shared love of the Dharma. As 14 individuals from different backgrounds and experiences, it is not surprising or unusual that there were also many issues and causes for conflict in the Sangha.

Our failing as a group is that we did not openly confront these shadows. We did not speak about problems that we did not wish to acknowledge. Furthermore, we did not practice Thay’s recommendations for conflict resolution and peacemaking.

Looking backward, it is easy to talk about how we failed to create peaceful means and safe structures in which we could speak truthfully to one another. There were unaddressed issues of power and control, leadership, direction of the group, and strong differences of opinion about rituals, perceptions of boundaries, and privacy concerns. We may have felt afraid of what would happen if we addressed these issues directly. But by failing to shine a bright light on the shadows, they grew larger and festered in the dark, until they exploded.

In the wake of this catastrophic community breakdown, the remaining members of the Santa Monica Sangha have worked over the past months to establish processes of peacemaking, conflict resolution, and Beginning Anew, based on Thay’s teachings. We are still fine-tuning and modifying the forms as we try them out.

Each month we have a new moon ceremony. We begin with “watering each other’s flowers.” Slowly and joyfully, we express our appreciation of one or more Sangha members for something they have done or an aspect of their way of being. In the second phase of the ceremony, each of us takes responsibility for our behavior that may have caused suffering to a member of the group or to the Sangha. This is received in silence, as other Sangha members practice deep listening. In the third phase, we each invite feedback from the others. Perhaps we have been unaware of a behavior in ourselves that has caused problems for someone. After some silence, other members of the Sangha may give feedback, which is received in silence, unless further clarification is needed.

This new moon ceremony is based on two prior steps of conflict resolution. Whenever there is some difficulty between members of the Sangha, the first step is for them to meet alone together, to speak and listen deeply to each other. If they are not able to complete the reconciliation process, the second step is for them to request a fair witness

from the Sangha to meet with them. The role of the witness is to hold loving energy for them and, where necessary, to intervene to assist them in listening to each other with open hearts. If the conflict is still not resolved, it is brought to the new moon ceremony and addressed by the whole group. At this time, both persons describe, without blaming the other, their perceptions of the problem. We meditate on the issue as a group, and then we make suggestions for reconciliation that the two conflicting members can agree upon. If the conflict begins to pervade the Sangha at large, a friend of the Sangha, a fair witness from another Sangha, might be invited to facilitate open dialogue, but we have not had to try this yet.

All of these procedures depend on the goodwill of everyone in the group. The forms alone are not enough to ensure stability and reconciliation. They are only a skeleton that must be fleshed out with loving compassion, right intention, and skillful speech. The new moon ceremony has helped us feel safer and more trusting. We have begun anew as a Sangha to heal ourselves from the wounds of separation and loss, so that we may grow and be strengthened as a community of practice.

Penelope Thompson, True Dharma Source, and Lee Lipp, True Opening of the Dharma, are psychologists practicing in Santa Monica and members of the Santa Monica Sangha.

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Dharma Talk: The Four Immeasurable Minds

By Thich Nhat Hanh

During the lifetime of the Buddha, those of the Brahmanic faith prayed that after death they would go to Heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal God. One day a Brahmin man asked the Buddha, “What can I do to be sure that I will be with Brahma after I die?” and the Buddha replied, “As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahma-viharas—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” A vihara is an abode or a dwelling place. Love in Sanskrit is maitri; in Pali it is metta. Compassion is karuna in both languages. Joy is mudita. Equanimity is upeksha in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali. The Brahmaviharas are four elements of true love. They are called Immeasurable, because if you practice them, they will grow every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier and those around you will become happier, also.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha respected people’s desire to practice their own faith, so he answered the Brahmin’s question in a way that encouraged him to do so. If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha’s spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.

According to Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extin­guishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity extinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings.

If we learn ways to practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we will know how to heal the illnesses of anger, sorrow, insecurity, sadness, hatred, loneliness, and unhealthy attachments. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha teaches, “If a mind of anger arises, the bhikkhu (monk) can practice the meditation on love, compassion, or equanimity for the person who has brought about the feeling of anger.”

Some sutra commentators have said that the Brahma-viharas are not the highest teaching of the Buddha, that they cannot put an end to suffering and afflictions. This is not correct. One time the Buddha said to his beloved attendant Ananda, “Teach these Four Immeasurable Minds to the young monks, and they will feel secure, strong, and joyful, without afflictions of body or mind. For the whole of their lives, they will be well equipped to practice the pure way of a monk.” On another occasion, a group of the Buddha’s disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, “We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?” The Buddha’s disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, “Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment.” Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

The first aspect of true love is maitri, the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

In Southeast Asia, many people are extremely fond of a large, thorny fruit called durian. You could even say they are addicted to it. Its smell is extremely strong, and when some people finish eating the fruit, they put the skin under their bed so they can continue to smell it. To me, the smell of durian is horrible. One day when I was practicing chanting alone in my temple in Vietnam, there was a durian on the altar that had been offered to the Buddha. I was trying to recite The Lotus Sutra, using a wooden drum and a large bowl-shaped bell for accompaniment, but I could not concentrate at all. I finally carried the bell to the altar and turned it upside down to imprison the durian, so I could chant the sutra. After I finished, I bowed to the Buddha and liberated the durian. If you were to say to me, “Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this durian,” I would suffer. You love me, you want me to be happy, but you force me to eat durian. That is an example of love without understanding. Your intention is good, but you don’t have the correct understanding.

Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and well-being. It is as natural as the air. We are loved by the air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand. For our love to continue, we have to take the appropriate action or non-action to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved.

Maitri can be translated as “love” or “loving kindness.” Some Buddhist teachers prefer “loving kindness,” as they find the word “love” too darigerous. But I prefer the word love. Words sometimes get sick and we have to heal them. We have been using the word “love” to mean appetite or desire, as in “I love hamburgers.” We have to use language more carefully. We have to restore the meaning of the word love. “Love” is a beautiful word. We have to restore its meaning. The word maitri has roots in the word mitra, which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

We all have the seeds of love in us. We can develop this wonderful source of energy, nurturing the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return. When we understand someone deeply, even someone who has done us harm, we cannot resist loving him or her. Shakyamuni Buddha declared that the Buddha of the next eon will be named Maitreya, the Buddha of Love.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as “compassion,” but that is not exactly correct. “Compassion” is composed of com (“together with”) and passion (“to suffer”). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may he crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find a better word, let us use “compassion” to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practices “looking with the eyes of compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world.” Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her. You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain. You are in deep commu­nication, deep communion with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha had enough understand­ing, calmness, and strength. That is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

The third element of true love is mudita, joy. True love always brings joy to ourselves and to the one we love. If our love does not bring joy to both of us, it is not true love.

Commentators explain that happiness relates to both body and mind, whereas joy relates primarily to mind. This example is often given: Someone traveling in the desert sees a stream of cool water and experiences joy. On drinking the water, he experiences happiness. Ditthadhamma sukhavihari means “dwelling happily in the present moment.” We don’t rush to the future; we know that everything is here in the present moment. Many small things can bring us tremen­dous joy, such as the awareness that we have eyes in good condition. We just have to open our eyes and we can see the blue sky, the violet flowers, the children, the trees, and so many other kinds of forms and colors. Dwelling in mindful­ness, we can touch these wondrous and refreshing things, and our mind of joy arises naturally. Joy contains happiness and happiness contains joy.

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Some commentators have said that mudita means “sympathetic joy” or “altruistic joy,” the happi­ness we feel when others are happy. But that is too limited. It discriminates between self and others. A deeper definition of mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves? Joy is for everyone.

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimi­nation, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upe means “over,” and ksh means “to look.” You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indiffer­ent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination.

Upeksha has the mark called samatajnana, “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides. We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. As long as we see ourselves as the one who loves and the other as the one who is loved, as long as we value ourselves more than others or see others as different from us, we do not have true equanimity. We have to put ourselves “into the other person’s skin” and become one with him if we want to understand and truly love him. When that happens, there is no “self’ and no “other.”

Without upeksha, your love may become possessive. A summer breeze can be very refreshing; but if we try to put it in a tin can so we can have it entirely for ourselves, the breeze will die. Our beloved is the same. He is like a cloud, a breeze, a flower. If you imprison him in a tin can, he will die. Yet many people do just that. They rob their loved one of his liberty, until he can no longer be himself. They live to satisfy themselves and use their loved one to help them fulfill that. That is not loving; it is destroying. You say you love him, but if you do not understand his aspirations, his needs, his difficulties, he is in a prison called love. True love allows you to preserve your freedom and the freedom of your beloved. That is upeksha.

For love to be true love, it must contain compassion, joy, and equanimity in it. For compassion to be true compassion, it has to have love, joy, and equanimity in it. True joy has to contain love, compassion, and equanimity. And true equanimity has to have love, compassion, and joy in it. This is the interbeing nature of the Four Immeasurable Minds. When the Buddha told the Brahmin man to practice the Four Immeasurable Minds, he was offering all of us a very important teaching. But we must look deeply and practice them for ourselves to bring these four aspects of love into our own lives and into the lives we love. 

This Dharma talk is from Teachings on Love, to be pub­lished by Parallax Press in March. 

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 “Heart of the Buddha” retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer’s when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can’t remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don’t believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, “When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence.” Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can’t remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don’t need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It’s not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don’t want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, “Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this.” Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don’t buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, “Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?” Then, they will begin to ask, “When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn.” At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, “Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don’t know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive.” Use ord­inary language. Don’t make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don’t look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don’t need incense. You don’t need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don’t say, “I am practicing spirituality, and you don’t know anything about it!” Try to avoid saying, “Darling, I am practicing Buddhism.” Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, “Darling, how do you do it?” Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, “Who is responsible for this?”

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn’t say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one’s own life. But I don’t want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, “What happens to the consciousness before death?” If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby’s diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don’t have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby’s diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I’m going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on “the art of mindful living.”

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Raindrops of a Bodhisattva

By Quyen Do

On the third day of our summer retreat at Maple Village outside of Montreal, the mountains around us were enveloped in fog. We woke up in the silence and fresh air, and after hearing the bell, entered the meditation hall for morning sitting. Then the rain started to fall lightly . After a session of sitting, Brother Chan Co led a recitation of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I felt calm and joyful being with my Sangha as we recited the opening verse three times.

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After the closing verse and the sound of the bell, Chan Co smiled and said, “It’s raining now.” He seemed to feel the Sangha’s energy and understand our need for a healing process. As the drops fell, they created music on the meditation.hall roof. Through the windows, we saw only the blurred shape of Me Foster in eastern Quebec. After a few minutes of listening to the rain, Chan Co asked Carol Gover to sing Sister Annabel’s song, “The Rain.” Carol’s soft voice fell harmoniously with the rain outside, and we listened in mindfulness:

“The rain is falling oh … so softly
Washing every leaf of every tree
Washing every care,
Namo Avalokiteshvara.”

As we listened, some people struggled with pains brought up in the first two days. Some problems seemed immense: one participant’s spouse had just received a diagnosis of cancer. Another had been raising a disabled child for 25 years.

“The rain is falling oh … so strong
Reaching every root of every tree
Reaching every root of affliction,
Namo Avalokiteshvara … ”

As the song continued, it seemed that the Bodhisattva of Compassion came to the meditation hall, waving her tiny willow branch ti’om which healing drops of compassionate water fell on everyone of us. I was so moved by the moment that all my small anxieties washed away.

“The rain is falling oh … so loudly
Playing the music of joy
For ten thousands of beings,
Namo Avalokiteshvara.”

Carol ended the song softly and total silence reigned in the hall. The raindrops sang on the roof. We sat for a long time, breathing in and out and listening to the rain. Even the bellmaster didn’t touch the bell.

I have never participated in such a beautiful recitation. I felt Thiiy and Sister Annabel as closely as if they were sitting next to us and smiling. We stood up and comforted each other with hugging meditation , then continued the day. After breakfast, we all had joyful expressions on bur faces. In the supportive atmosphere of the Sangha, our individual suffering seemed diluted, dissipating with the rain.

Quyen Do, Chan Huyen, is a co-founder of Maple Village. She lives in Montreal, Canada, where she is a pharmacist.

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Beginning Anew in Mexico

By Jo-ann Rosen

I n the early 1990s, the impoverished people of Chiapas State revolted against the Mexican government. Initially, the battles were widely reported. The war has now faded from the public eye, but the fighting and suffering are escalating with paramilitary takeovers of communities, massacres, looting, rape, and this spring, widespread fires. Despair penetrates the people as deeply as the smoke which blankets the state. In the last year, 13,000 people fled their Chiapas homes in terror. They live under tarps in the cold hills, unable to go home and plant the crops that keep them from starving. Orphaned children wander the camps, crying for their parents. Some bear terrible wounds from the fighting. Parents, suffering their own traumas, are unable to address the emotional needs of their children.

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I am living in San Cristobal de las Casas, center of the controversy. Here, we have been training local social workers to help children deal with the continuing trauma.Throughout our work, unexpected hurdles have popped up repeatedly, frustrating our efforts and creating divisive conflicts within the team of workers. The conflicts slowed our work and undermined the crucial sense of community. Discouraged by repeated setbacks, I was inspired by the chapter on Beginning Anew in Teachings on Love and wondered if we might use Beginning Anew to rebuild our sense of community. In Mexican culture, the process itself would be unusual. Saying something bothers you is generally not done directly, but the group agreed to try.

Each week we used one piece of the ceremony, which I modified to be more cross-cultural and accessible to the group. The first week, we gave positive feedback. This alone greatly relieved tensions and created seeds of hope. The second week we did self-criticism, but with a twist each person looked deeply at the source of their actions and did not speak without coming to self-compassion. Finding self-compassion seemed difficult, but the sharing was very moving. I could see layers of accumulated shame and judgment evaporating. The third week we offered criticisms of each other, but with an adaptation from another of Thay’s teachings, the Peace Treaty. Before speaking, we looked deeply into ourselves and into the other person.

Though difficult, our Beginning Anew almost worked magic. Our team has been energized. Meetings are more open, direct, and congenial. Individual talents have been recognized, and some who held back are finding their voices. We have all realized that we cannot help the displaced recover from the wounds of division and war without addressing those same issues among ourselves. In this place where hope is difficult to maintain, we are beginning to build places of refuge and healing.

Jo-ann Rosen, True River of Understanding, is a psychotherapist on sabbatical in Chiapas.

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Prison Mindfulness

By Mair Honan

A few years ago, the word “prison” arose repeatedly in my meditation. I thought it referred to an internal prison and laughed when the words “Thomaston prison” arose one day. Thomaston is a nearby state prison. I had no conscious desire to enter the prison and no experience in prison work. But, a week later I bumped into someone who works at Thomaston and asked about bringing meditation in. After an interview with the education office, our mindfulness program began.

We present mindfulness meditation as a way to focus the mind and develop peace and clarity in life, rather than as a Buddhist practice. We openly speak about our teachers, however, and the inmates know we have taken Buddhist precepts. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine came to the prison to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings to one dedicated practitioner. Each new person receives instructions from The Miracle of Mindfulness. We remind them they can get a free copy of We ‘re All Doing Time from Human Kindness Foundation in Durham, North Carolina and free books from Parallax Press. When someone wants to learn about Buddhism, we try to help.

During the sessions, the inmates sit on chairs. We sit in meditation at the beginning and end of each session. We also read and discuss a short piece from a variety of teachers. The guys may have questions or want to discuss their practices. During one session, I offered walking meditation, but it activated too much tension in the small room. For now, we pass out instructions from Thay’s Guide to Walking Meditation and encourage them to try mindful walking alone in their cell or out in the field.

About nine months after we began, I saw a connection between the inmates and my brother, my closest sibling. One evening, an inmate laughed a particular way and it felt as if my brother was there. A few years ago, through alcohol abuse, my brother killed himself and another young man. Such pain-I loved him so dearly. When I heard the inmate laugh, I remembered that my brother was arrested in his teens and spent a short time in prison awaiting trial. I had wondered why I felt so comfortable with these guys. As Thay says, the past and the future reside in the present.

We’re all learning from each other. I am particularly grateful to these men who are unwittingly helping me heal a deep grief. From the beginning, I knew this could work only with the Sangha’s help. Six regional Sangha members are cunently involved in the prison practice. We are all grateful to the Thomaston Prison staff. Without their openness, Support, and thoughtfulness, we would not have a meditation program in the prison.

Mair Honan, True Seal of Enlightenment, practices with the True Heart Sangha in Maine.

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Dharma Talk: Breathing for Our Children

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Before he passed away, the Buddha instructed his disciples to take refuge in the island of mindfulness within themselves by practicing mindfulness in sitting, walking, breathing, and every activity of daily life. Mindfulness means to be aware of what is going on in the present moment. If we take one peaceful, happy step and know that we are taking a peaceful, happy step, mindfulness is there. Breathing in and out mindfully, we see the many elements of happiness already available.

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Mindfulness is enlightenment, understanding, compas­sion, liberation, and healing. If we touch everything with mindfulness, the world will reveal itself in its full splendor. Mindfulness makes our eyes, our heart, our non-toothache, the moon, and the trees deep and beautiful. And when we touch our suffering with mindfulness, we begin to transform it. Mindfulness is like a mother holding her baby in her arms and caring for her baby’s pain. When our pain is held by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength.

Sometimes we feel that happiness and well-being are not possible in the present moment. Our grandparents and our parents may have taught us that happiness is only possible in the future. But according to the Buddha, we can be happy right here and right now. Even if a few things are not to our liking, there are many positive conditions for our happiness. Please try this exercise:

Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.
Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.

Generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace your eyes. Smile to your eyes. Having eyes in good condition is a wonderful element for your happiness. You only need to open your eyes, and you will see a paradise of form and colors. Please enjoy this paradise. Try not to let your worries, suffering, and anger overwhelm you. Please try this practice:

Breathing in, I am aware of my heart.
Breathing out, I smile to my heart.

When you use the energy of mindfulness to embrace your heart, you will see that having a heart that functions well is another condition for your happiness. But you have neglected your heart for a long time — by the way you work, eat, and manage anxiety. Embrace your heart with tenderness, love, and compassion, and smile to your heart. Practice with your whole body, while lying down or sitting up. If any part of your body does not feel well, hold it with mindfulness and tenderness. This is a wonderful practice. Mindful breathing is the door to reconcile with and take care of our self.

The first exercise the Buddha proposed in his Discourse on Mindful Breathing is: 

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. 

The object of mindfulness is your in-breath and your out-breath, and nothing else. Identify your in-breath as in-breath and your out-breath as out-breath. It’s that simple. Just say, “In,” and “Out,” as you breathe in and out. These words are not concepts. They are instruments for maintain­ing mindfulness. Observe the reality of your in-breath throughout its duration. Stay at one with your in-breath all the way through.

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You don’t need to make an effort to stop your thinking. Just by concentrating on your in-breath one hundred percent, your thinking will quiet itself. You don’t need to “force” yourself to be mindful. Just enjoy your breathing. When the practice is pleasant, concentration becomes easy, and insight is born. Mindful­ness, concentration, and insight always go together.

Sit or lie down in a way that allows your body to rest. Sitting, your head and spine form a straight line. Relax all your muscles. If you are sitting on a cushion, select one that is the correct thickness for your physical condition. Find a way of sitting that allows you to sit for at least twenty minutes, without becoming too stiff or tired. As soon as you sit down, pay attention to your breath. Then notice your posture, a little bit everywhere. Relax the muscles in your face. If you are angry or worried, those muscles will be tense. Smile lightly, and you will relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Then notice your shoul­ders, and let go of the tension there. Don’t try too hard. Just breathe mindfully, and scan your whole body.

When you watch TV, you can sit for a long time. But in meditation, you struggle. Why not imitate the way you sit watching television? The key is effortlessness. Don’t fight or try too hard. Just allow yourself to sit in a relaxed way, and you will feel deeply calm. A period of sitting meditation is time worth living. Don’t interfere with your breathing. Breathing takes place by itself. Just light the lamp of mindfulness and shine it on your breathing. Don’t modify, bend, or make your breathing the way you think it is supposed to be. This is mindfulness of breathing, not intervention. Just become aware of your in-breath and out-breath as they are. If your in-breath is short, let it be short. If your out-breath is long, let it be long. Become aware of your in-breath and out-breath as they are. Don’t try to make them shorter or longer. After a few minutes of practice, you will notice an improvement in the quality of your breathing, and a feeling of well-being will be born in you.

Mindfulness recognizes what is there, and concentration allows you to be deeply present with whatever it is. Concentration is the ground of happiness. If you live twenty-four hours a day in mindfulness and concentration, one day is a lot. Each moment of your life can become a legend. The Buddha didn’t leave behind a theory or set of dogmas. He left behind his life. Every step he took was solid and peaceful. His compassion penetrated the living beings of his time, and the living beings of today, as well. Each step, each breath, and each of his words convey the energy of mindfulness, understanding, and compassion. The practice is to live mindfully and deeply each moment of your daily life, to return to your true home in the present moment.

But many of us do not want to go home to ourselves. We were wounded as children, and it is hard for us to trust others or allow their love to penetrate us. So, instead of going home, we make every effort to avoid ourselves. We say we don’t have enough time to be with ourselves, and even when we do have five or ten minutes, we turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or get in the car and go out for a drive. We haven’t been in close touch with our body, our feelings, and our mind for a long time. We are afraid to go home to ourselves, because we don’t have the means to protect ourselves from the suffering that is within us. But mindfulness can be our protection, making it possible for us to go home safely. With mindfulness, we can touch the wounded child within and embrace him or her without being overwhelmed. With training in mindful breathing and walking, we will be able to go home and embrace our suffering. The practice is to prepare ourselves to go back and touch the wounded child within. Doing this will help many beings — past, present, and future — and not only ourselves.

To practice is not to transform ourselves into a battle­field, the good fighting the evil. There is no battle. There are only positive and negative elements within us, and both sides are us. We can embrace all of them, and when we do, the negative elements will transform themselves into positive ones, without any fighting or discarding. We need to learn to transform our garbage into compost. If we continue to practice dwelling in mindfulness, accepting all the elements we discover within us as ourselves, one day our wounds won’t force us to do and say things we don’t want to do or say, anymore. With mindful breathing, we learn to recognize our unwholesome mental formations even before they arise, and we can stop being the victim of the habit energies we’ve received from so many generations of ancestors. At that moment, we become an instrument in the work of transformation, for our own sake and for the sake of our ancestors and future generations.

The Buddha gave many talks on breathing in and breathing out in mindfulness. My little book, Breathe! You Are Alive, presents several of these, with commentaries on how to practice. The Buddha did not offer these exercises as theories or means for analysis. He offered them as concrete practices for us to do. Please practice mindful breathing, and enjoy your breathing. Breathing is enjoyable.

Twenty years ago we could not have imagined non-smoking flights. We suffered for years every time we had to sit in an airplane among those who were smoking. Now, thanks to our collective awakening, there are many non-smoking flights all over the world. Awakening is possible. In every one of us there is a seed of awakening. We should have confidence in this seed, and not be over­whelmed by despair. The practice is to touch the positive elements that are already there, so we will benefit from these elements and realize awakening.

If you practice mindful breathing, mindful smiling, mindful walking, and mindful working, your stability and strength will inspire those around you. Please practice together as a Sangha. When you see a group of people living mindfully, capable of smiling and loving, it will give you confidence in the future. Please learn the art of Sangha building. We mustn’t allow the younger generation to lose hope. Breathe, walk, act, and live each moment of life in a way that demonstrates to our children that a future is possible. 

This Dharma talk is from Thich Nhat Hanh’s 21-Day Retreat in Burlington, Vermont, in June 1998, on The Path of Emancipation. The talks will be published by Parallax Press in 1999. 

Photo: Mark Sternfield.

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Surrender and a Lotus

By Ian Prattis

After Thay’s “Heart of the Buddha” retreat in the fall of 1996 at Plum Village, I went to India to teach and train in Siddha Samadhi Yoga, a system of meditation for adults and children. Committed to global religious harmony, program participants work to heal and transform deeply rooted schisms in Indian society—through rural development, civic responsibility, and anticorruption programs. and through praying regularly with all the religious communities in India. It also has a marvelous outreach to introduce meditation into schools. training colleges, universities, and factories. I was privileged and honored to experience so many treasures of India.

Then, in November and December of 1996,I became seriously ill in India. As I observed my body’s systems crashing one by one, I knew there was a distinct possibility of death. I was surprised by my calm and lack of panic. As December drew towards its close, I totally surrendered. I will always remember Saturday, December 21, 1996. On that day, I let go of all attachments to my body. Throughout the day and evening, I read The Blooming of a Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh, from cover to cover, practicing those meditations that spoke to me. I felt at one with all my spiritual ancestors. I felt Thay’s wisdom, love, and gentleness as a tangible presence. I was in a small ashram in the city of Mumbai, reserved for saints and holy men, and I also felt their grace close at hand.

The meditations in The Blooming of A Lotus took me deeply into my roots of being, and I felt very calm about the impermanence of my bodily existence. My heart opened wide. While I did the meditations on “Looking Deeply and Healing,” I thought about my many mistakes, and chose not to deny them or brush aside the bodily pain in this moment, for I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom that were flooding through me were dissolving both. I felt very simple, that I was living properly. I was without panic and present with whatever arose. I did not fear death. This lack of fear gave me freedom and strength, and opened a huge door to send love and joy to all. I felt my true self, peaceful, not pulled in any direction. Despite all that was going on, I was solidly and timelessly present. I could freely share whatever gifts, skills and energies I had. I finally understood the real significance of the Buddha’s words about the Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.


To be with myself at this time—happy and content in the moment—was all I had, and it was enough. As I practiced this meditation, I felt that each moment of life was absolutely precious and somehow I was communicating this to all that I connected to. Before I slept that night, one last meditation secured me in the refuge of all my spiritual ancestors. Although the focus was on the Buddha, I felt all my teachers and guides throughout lifetimes gathered together inside and around me, without boundaries, and they stayed while I slept. When I fell asleep, I was content and happy.

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The next morning, to my surprise and joy, I woke up! Over the next six months, I slowly recovered my health. Friends in North America who tune in to me very closely had booked airline tickets in December to take me out of India to recover. While I was touched by their love, I said no to their proposal.

Whatever the outcome, this particular journey was to be in India. I had written countless Christmas cards to friends and loved ones all over the world and signed them with “Blessings and Love from Ian.” That is what I had wanted to send before my death. Then I lived! And I was even more happy that the cards were sent.

I am glad that at the last moment before leaving for India I intuitively put The Blooming of a Lotus into my backpack. It has always been one of my favorite books, as it never fails to take me deeper into myself. I love it for additional reasons now. I can recommend it to people I meet as a “lifesaver,” for it was exactly this for me—a Lotus that carried me through.

Ian Prattis, True Body of Understanding, practices in Canada


mb26-DiaryDiary Entries

Prem Kutir Ashram, Mumbai, India

December 20, 1996

Feel weaker than ever this morning. Could hardly make it from my bed to the bathroom. Hope the saints who have passed through this little ashram are casting a protective eye over me. Perhaps they can cheer up Chotolal, the Nepali cook here, who has become quite anxious, especially as I have not had the energy or inclination to eat the special dishes he prepares. He only has me to look after at the moment, and my state of health is not a good advertisement for the care he gives. He is watching me write in my diary, so I will change hands and write with my left hand so he can laugh and feel less anxious about me. It worked! Is there some major purification going on in my body, is there something I do not see? What lessons are there in this for me? Or are my days drawing to a close in the silence of this ashram? My blood tests from the hospital show that I am low and deficient in just about every category, and the antibiotics and other medications only make me feel worse. So many questions and worries, yet they do not seem totally important. I ask them, then they fade away. It is a bit strange. A few days ago I collapsed and passed out while at dinner at Madhuma’s house. I know she and her family would take me in, yet this saint’s refuge is where I feel most comfortable right now. The quiet and simplicity of the place speaks deeply to me. I guess it allows me to prepare.

Have been in an almost constant state of mediation for days now, a deep quiet silence. Making entries in this diary is almost an interruption to the silence. Yesterday, Tom and Bev phones from Tucson in the States and it was wonderful to talk to them. They know how ill I am and sent prayers from the desert. Another friend, Barbara, from Michigan also phoned. She tunes into me very closely and was sufficiently alarmed to offer to fly to Mumbai and take me back to the States to get well in her home. Their love and care is very moving, but I know that whatever is to happen is to be here in India. For sure.

Have sent Chotolal on an errand as he was moping a bit an needed something to do. I gave him some money and asked him to buy some cards and stamps for me. The cards are beautifully hand-painted ones on pipal leaves, and have pictures of the Buddha, Krishna dancing and other such scenes. Want to make sure I finish my Christmas list. Sending tons of Christmas cards to friends and loved ones. Feel such a calm about all this that would normally surprise the heck out of me. The calm is just there, sitting with me, just fine. I know there is a distinct possibility I will not live beyond Christmas and want to send out a Christmas message from India–“Blessings and Love from Ian.” Guess there is some ego in that, but it is what I want to do. Just addressed a card of the Buddha to Thay Nhat Hanh in France. Writing and addressing the cards has exhausted me, but feel very satisfied and full–a sort of mission accomplished. Chotolal brought in a package of mail from Canada: letters and cards from family and friends. Made me very happy, also made me cry as I thought of friends I may not see again. Yet they were strange tears–not full of sorrow or anything, just tears as I thought of loving friends.

I keep falling asleep very quietly, then waking up very quietly. Sleep is like a light breeze that seems to visit now and then. Ate a little bit of dinner to allay Chotolal’s anxiety, but it is my supply of rice malt and vitamin C that is keeping me going. Chotolal is usually very jolly but I think my poor health has caused him to become quiet. He left some fruit and water on the table by my bed, then left to spend the next day with Nepali friends in another part of the city, taking my pile of Christmas cards to post. Care and love just beam from his eyes and drip off his moustache. I am enjoying the silence and aloneness, now that he has left. Going to bed now, it is about nine o’clock in the evening and I am drifting off to sleep as though gentle wings are carrying me.

December 21, 1996

Waking up was easy, getting up was a bit of a struggle but did that in stages. The quiet and silence inside the ashram is quite palpable and almost visible–maybe the lack of noise from the kitchen. But that is not it. I remembered my shamanic training with White Eagle Woman. Had a dream about her during the night but do not totally recall all the details. I do remember that she told me to call in my guides, and construct a mental medicine wheel around me, and include all my spiritual ancestors. Did that  and feel an incredible constellation of energies, like millions of guardian angels from every conceivable dimension. This place is really hopping with energy. I just know that today is about surrender to Go’d wisdom, and I freely place myself in His hands. Feel a funny kind of delight inside me, want to dance to an imaginary orchestra, but do not think my legs would move too well.

Took some fruit and returned to my book of meditations and began to read. The book is by my Buddhist teacher and I feel so grateful to have been around long enough to receive his teachings. I read slowly, stop frequently to close my eyes and feel the words. Doing quite a number of the meditations and have no sense of time or space today, as each meditation seems to move me with its own measure and carry me along. Feel such a deepening in my heart, all the way inside my body. Aware that there is no fear or panic, just a sort of simple and happy acceptance. That is all that is there. I have never experienced anything like this. Have no thought of anything and feel deeply content for no apparent reason. is this surrender? Peace with God? No flashing lights, visitations or visions–only a quiet surrender and being with the inevitability of it all, whatever “IT” is.

December 22, 1996

I woke up this morning, heard the crows saying hello from the tree outside the window. Feel so happy to be alive. Chotolal is singing in the kitchen and rattling his pots and pans, so I will celebrate this new day with a little breakfast. That will make us both very happy. A clear insight that this “death” is a spiritual one, as is the “rebirth.” I feel completely new this morning, as thought I have been rewired and plugged into sockets with a bigger voltage. Part of my preparation to continue moving along. I feel such gratitude to all the saintly energies, guardian angels and spiritual ancestors that supprted me thorough the most important experience of my life. I will eat a good breakfast for all of them.

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Accidental Insights

By Joanne Friday

The Five Remembrances
I am of the nature to grow old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
My actions are my only true belongings.

Eight years ago, I was seriously injured in a car accident. I lost my short-term memory, and I hurt. For two years, I tried to be the person I had been, but my brain and my body did not work the way they had. I was attached to my idea of who I was, and to the incorrect view that the way I was before the accident was the best I could be. I was attached to my view of how I was supposed to function. I experienced a lot of pain and suffering because of fear, lack of acceptance of impermanence, and attachment to wrong views. I developed a stress disorder, and my immunity dropped to almost nothing. I am of the nature to have ill health.

I had to give up a job I was good at, and as a result, faced financial problems. This created more fear. To add insult to injury, my insurance company refused to pay my medical bills, and instead, hired an attorney to avoid paying. The lawyer dealt with insurance fraud and  believed everyone was trying to defraud insurance companies. To see him interpret everything through that belief was a deep teaching for me on how our beliefs color our perceptions. I could see how much pain and suffering he was causing—to himself, as well as to me. He was paid by the hour, and dragged the process out as long as possible. Eight years later, with a settlement just big enough to pay the lawyers, the legal wrangling is over. It was of no financial value to
me—merely an exercise and an opportunity to practice. Everything that is dear to me is of the nature to change.

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I am still in constant pain, so I have lots of opportunities to be angry, frustrated, sad, doubting, and fearful. Initially, I was almost immobilized by fear. Fortunately, about a year into this process, I went to my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The practice of mindfulness has helped me look honestly at my feelings, and with time, transform them. It has helped me be aware of my reactions and my habit energy. I have learned to take good care of my feelings, and to look at the part of me that needs love and compassion, but reacts with fear or anger. Frequently, an old hurt makes me vulnerable, so the practice has taken me on a journey of healing the past in the present moment.

Mindfulness has helped me look at setbacks as opportunities to learn, instead of as negative events. It has helped me see how much pain and suffering is caused by attachment to my views of “the way things should be.” I spend more time being aware that I don’t know. I am still trying to develop loving kindness for myself when I am not able to perform at my previous level. I have learned about the small deaths that come with every loss. I am of the nature to die.

With the help of the practice throughout this difficult period, I have been able to come into the present moment and experience pure joy, even when I am in pain. This is a true gift. Last year, I received the transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and joined the Order of Interbeing. I was given the Dharma name True Gift of Joy. Because of the miracle of mindfulness, I am of the nature to experience true joy.

Joanne Friday, True Gift of Joy, practices with the the Clear Heart Sangha in Rhode Island.

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San Diego Retreat

By Patricia Webb

If I had to use one word to describe our September retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, it would be gratitude. All of the events opened my heart-the Dharma talks by Thay, the daily sitting meditations, the early morning walks on the University of California at San Diego campus (a powerful experience of many souls gracefully and silently moving into dawn), an evening of Deep Relaxation and Touching the Earth, the healing wonder of silent meals, and receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

I was surprised every day at how the gratitude I experienced grew. It opened like a flower, and I was filled with the fragrance of it-my marriage, my family of origin, my children, my grandson were present with me each time I became still. My love for them and appreciation for my life just as it is, was almost too much to bear. I had not allowed myself to feel this joy for many years.

My husband and I buried his only daughter a few months before the retreat, in the Winter of 2000. The retreat allowed us to more deeply accept her passing by touching our gratitude for her beautiful and completed life.

I arrived at the retreat in a great deal of physical pain from an old injury to my back-pain so intense that I wondered if I would be able to sit to meditate at all. But fortunately, miraculously, the discipline of sitting properly in order to breathe began to correct the problem. In the weeks and months since the retreat, my back has almost completely healed and I am pain free. Another thing to be grateful for!

The following poem is given as a tribute to the global Sangha whose energy is with us here every day in Oklahoma City, showing me how to live mindfully, gratefully, and more healthfully than I ever dreamed possible.

In the silence,
I notice my own heartbeat.
Thank you, heart, for serving me so well
All these years.
In the silence, I notice my own breath.
Thank you, lungs, for your good service.

In the silence,
I notice the small things
Tiny rocks beneath my feet,
Insects that land on my arm.
I am aware of how much goes unnoticed
In my busy day.

The sun makes my paper neon bright,
Bright as my life is
When I can breathe my thanks
And beat my heart thanks
And know that though I am a small thing
In this vast universe,
I am not insignificant.

And my noticing
Is not insignificant.
For its strange and silent power
Makes me thankful.

Patricia Webb, Silent Service of the Heart, is a poet and Artist-in-Residence in Oklahoma. For the past ten years, she has worked in schools and hospitals to bring silence and journaling techniques for releasing inner wisdom. She and husband David McClesky, Auspicious Guide of the Heart, sponsor The Silence Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing mindfulness practice to schools and hospitals.

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The Luckiest Daughter of Cambodia

By Sister Khe Nghiem

The Buddha said every one of us has the seed of peace within our consciousness. Unluckily, when I was a young child, the environment in which I grew up did not water my seed of peace. As a child, I ran under the bombs and bullets during the civil war in my country, Cambodia. My heart and body were wounded and traumatized by fear and hunger. This wound remained in me throughout my life until I met Thay’ s teaching. The Buddha’s teaching opened my heart wider.

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The practice of looking deeply at non-self and emptiness is a wonderful and healing practice for me. I see clearly that the wound that exists in me and in the world is not me. I have no right to possess or attach to it. So I practice letting go. Now I see I am lucky to experience this wound. I have the opportunity to encounter the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and I am happy to put the teachings into practice. I practice mindfulness to come back to my wounded mind and body. During the day or at night, when my heart does not beat normally, as if it were still under the bombs and the bullets, I follow my breath to calm my mind and relax my whole body. Letting go of all tensions, I become calm and happy again. Thanks to my daily mindfulness practice with a kind teacher and Sangha, I have experienced a lot of healing.

In the beginning, cultivating peace in my five territories (of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness) was very unpleasant. But as my practice goes deeper and becomes more familiar, there are times I can smile, free from my suffering. Whenever my mind is caught in negative perceptions or useless and unpleasant thoughts, I practice to recognize it. I sit stably in front of a mirror. I look at my face with care and love. I can see my little wounded parents, grandparents, and all my ancestors. I practice, “Breathing in, I am experiencing an unpleasant emotion. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I relax my whole body.” I give my blood a chance to flow freely. I sing my favorite song and listen to peaceful instrumental music for a while. I touch and embrace my blood ancestors, spiritual families, all people and species. I smile to them.

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Everyday I feel reborn and full of gratitude to life. Being here in Plum Village with Thay and  the Sangha, I feel I am the luckiest daughter of Cambodia. Thay gave me the dharma name Khe Nghiem, which means “Adornment with Appropriateness.” It is appropriate for me to cultivate peace in myself, family,nation, and in the world.

A moment with the dandelions
Dear dandelions,
you are so free
You seem very humble
and in harmony
You open your whole being
to the cosmos
You accept life as it is.

Sister Khe Nghiem ordained in 1999.

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Healing the Present, Healing the Past

By Azriel Cohen

Shared at the Hiroshima Commemoration Ceremony in Plum Village, August 7, 2001 .

Last night, a young man from Germany at the Hiroshima Commemoration in the Upper Hamlet shared with the community how he observed anger arising within himself, when the Israeli-Palestinian group shared that the trauma of the Holocaust was still a source of deep suffering for the Jewish people, and that it affected the situation in the Middle East. He decided to look deeply into the anger that was within himself, and he discovered that though he was born a long time after World War II he himself was still not healed from the wounds of that war. He had ancestors who were actively involved in the Nazi regime. He turned to the community and declared that he personally wanted to do something that might be healing and to somehow find a way to apologize to all the Jews who had suffered. He asked the community to breathe mindfully and  support him while he bowed his head to the ground in silence.

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I was deeply moved by what he did. When my turn came up to share my reflections on the experiences of the Israeli-Palestinian group, I offered the following story to this young German man:

My only other time in Plum Village was five years ago. The most moving experience I had was on my last day. At our last Dharma discussion of the retreat, a young woman who I did not know shared with our group a very deep pain that she had in her heart and soul. She was German and was tormented by the possibility that her ancestors had somehow played a role in perpetrating the atrocities of the Holocaust. Though she was third generation after the war, and though she had no certain evidence that anyone in her family was involved, she was haunted by the deeds of her grandparents ‘ generation. She was obsessed with discovering the truth and finding a way to heal from it. She read every book she could find on the Holocaust, saw films and spent time in archives combing through information to see if any of her relatives were mentioned. Through her eyes she shared her pain and suffering echoed in her voice.

After the circle was finished, I went over to her. I said, “Amelie, I’m named after my grandfather’s little brother, Azriel, who was killed in one of the concentration camps during World War II. The last time my grandfather saw his brother was when he was a little boy, so he was unable to ever tell me much about him.” Both of us had tears in our eyes, realizing that here we were three generations later, the two sides facing each other. Both of us realized that if there was anything whatsoever that we could do to contribute to healing what had happened, it would be by getting to know each other as humans. I had no plans to go to Germany during my travels through Europe, but I decided to visit Amelie at her parents’ home near Munich. We went together to Dachau, one of the more well-known concentration camps and we spent six hours in total silence, walking and just being. The next morning I departed, and though that was the last time we saw each other, the experience will forever be with me.

Last night, during the ceremony commemorating Hiroshima, the young man from Germany and I walked arm in arm carrying candles under the open starry sky. I realized how in the present we can impact on the healing of the past and what seems to be beyond us, and that each of us, in our own little way can contribute to peace if we find  peace within ourselves.

Azriel Cohen helped to organize the group of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who have come two times to practice in Plum Village together.

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Poem: Contemplation

Since the moon is full tonight,
let us call upon the stars in prayer.
the power of concentration,
seen through the bright, one-pointed mind,
is shaking the universe.

All living beings
are present
tonight
to witness the
ocean of fear
flooding the
Earth.

Upon the sound of
the midnight bell,
everyone in
the ten directions
joins hands
and enters the
meditation on
Mahakaruna.

Compassion
springs from the
heart,
as pure, refreshing
water
healing the
wounds of life.

From the highest
peak of the Mind
Mountain,
the blessed water
streams down,
penetrating rice
fields and orange groves.

The poisonous snake drinks
a drop of this nectar
from the tip of a blade of green grass,
and the poison on its tongue vanishes.

Mara’s arrows
are transformed
info fragrant flowers.

The wondrous action of the healing water—
a mysterious transformation!
A child now holds the snake in her innocent arms.

Leaves are still green in the ancient garden.
The shimmering sunlight
smiles on the snow,
and the sacred spring
still flows towards the East.

On Avalokita’s
willow branch,
or in my heart,
the healing water
is the same.

Tonight all weapons
fall at our feet
and turn to dust.

One flower,
two flowers
millions of little flowers
appear in the green fields.

The gate of
deliverance opens
with a smile on the lips
of my innocent child.

Thich Nhat Hanah, 1965

This is a metta (love) meditation to produce the balm of amirita (immortality) that can transform our hearts and the world. Mahakaruna is the mind of love that has the capacity to relieve the suffering of many living beings.

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The Perfect Sangha: New Zealand

By Shalom

The bell calls clear and time across the courtyard. Voices from the Dharma discussion groups fall softly back into the silent container of the native bush, hills, and a translucent blue sky. Only the chirrup of thousands of midsummer cicadas remains.

We breathe softly, filled with the sharings of each other and aware of the growing compassion in our hearts and consciousness. As a group of four women we have spoken and listened deeply to each other, sharing the Dharma, our lives and aspects of the practice. In the stopping, we can also feel the tangible presence of mindfulness and of love, carried on the pure clear tones of the sounding bell. We complete our group with a bow of true reverence, deeply grateful for this format of mindful sharing. Slowly the retreatants merge to talk and share the loveliness of this still summer morning. The energy rises as preparations to serve the mid-day meal come to completion.

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For most of those present, this is a relaxed time of day easily identifiable with their everyday lives outside of the retreat time; however, for the core organizer group, this is a time to take our practice a step further and join together for the daily check-in meeting. On one level we are simply talking logistics – who will lead the meditation walk today; is the evening program clear and are the videotapes of Thay set up; do we have enough milk for breakfast tomorrow; how are the retreatants doing generally; what announcements need to be made today; and so on. On a deeper level this is the time where we really experience the practice in action.

This year we do not have a teacher present to guide us and to turn to as the wisdom holder. We only have each other, a handful of practitioners that form the core of two fairly small and relatively young Sanghas. Over the past five or so years we have had our share of challenges. Becoming familiar with our different personality types and coping (or not) with each other’s egos, differing ways of interpreting the practice, different needs, levels of commitment, stress and experience. As the days progress and the retreat deepens, it becomes more and more obvious that something wonderful is unfolding within this core group. We almost do not dare bring attention to it for fear that the magic will dissolve. As we sit together we smile, somewhat shyly, at how well the retreat is going, although we continue to focus on the organizational aspects of our meeting. I notice how differently I am seeing these people, how spaciously we accept and share ideas, problems and possible solutions. I notice how gifted and giving they are. How much I have learned and gained from this collective experience of working together with quieted egos; I feel very humble. I look around at people who in the past have judged, criticized, challenged, misunderstood and felt misunderstood by. I see myself clearly reflected. I see that the very nature of our difficulties as Sangha and the practice itself have brought us to this place of healing our arrogance and experiencing on a profound level communion and true love. There is lots to do here but there is no struggle. The retreat is going well because of the quality of our being rather than the amount of our doing. I experience myself as a cell in the body of the Sangha in transformation. What beauty, what a wonder to feel these seeds being nourished in me.

Once again the bell sounds in the courtyard. Our meeting must come to closure. The silence steps graciously into the space that the bell creates.  I breathe in.  I hear Thay’s voice:  “Don’t look for the perfect Sangha.” How often in the past I have been caught by my ignorance, my aversion, and desires for a different or better Sangha, my practice not ripe enough to open to the seeds of Sangha in my very own garden.

The bell sounds again. I breathe and smile in gratitude. We don’t need to look for the perfect Sangha, we only need to stand still long enough and practice together, and leave the rest to nature to nourish the seeds of perfect Sangha within us.

One month later, back home and fully engrossed with the householder’s life, I move through the day of deadlines at work, childcare, bills, traffic, cooking, and cleaning and I continue to be nourished by the depth of practice of my sisters and brothers in the wider Sangha. Physically we are many miles apart and on one level it continues to be a challenge for me to live in an isolated rural community with few practitioners. However, on another level, this last New Zealand Retreat has changed my relationship to others irrevocably. My interactions at work, in community projects, school support groups, and in my family all come from a freer, softer, more connected me. In my body, in my heart, in the very eel.ls of my being, Sangha continues to bloom.

Shalom, True Precious Land, lives and practices in New Zealand.

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The Golden Well of Compassion

Light River of the Heart

I met the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; I lived with them for five days. It was heaven on earth; powerful transformation, golden drops from the well of compassion entered my heart.

I wrote these words in my journal on the day I returned home from the 2002 Stonehill College retreat with Thay.   It had been an unforgettable week.  I had witnessed the retreat give birth to a national peace initiative. It was like watching a collective Dharma wheel turn toward peace and reconciliation. On an individual level, I experienced my own turn of the Dharma wheel. As I left the retreat, I vowed to make peace within myself. This decision has reverberated in my life ever since, with far-reaching effects.

Many elements of the retreat nourished my soul and inspired me to change my perspective. I loved Thay’s Dharma talks, the meditation exercises, the energy of the other participants, the relaxation and silence. Most powerful of all was participation in a survivors of abuse Dharma discussion group. The Stonehill survivors group came to embody the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha for me. It was a profound healing experience.

I had no idea of any of this when I signed up for the group, rather furtively and with some shame, on the day it was to begin. Later I learned that almost no one had signed up for the group in advance. On the first day, I positioned myself near the door to be able to make a quick escape if necessary. I watched the people as they entered the room, quickly trying to find their psychological weaknesses so that I could protect myself in case of attack. I made jokes to disarm them. My heart was beating rapidly.

Our leader invited the bell to sound, and then lay down boundaries. We were to strictly preserve confidentiality and privacy. We were to practice deep listening. We were not to solve others’ problems, but to offer our own experience if it could be of help. One by one, we began to share. It was soon apparent that every member of the group shared not only the childhood experience of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse and its long-term effects, but also the sincere desire to embody spiritual values and to practice compassion and loving-kindness. There was immense good will, clarity, honesty, courage, respect, thoughtfulness, and humor in the group.

Many of us were reluctant to identify ourselves as survivors, feeling that this labeled us as victims, or that it would lure us into negative, blaming states of mind. For myself, I hated identifying as anything. I never wanted to be part of any group larger than two.  Being in a circle with twelve or fifteen other

human beings meant that I had completely lost control. I had grown up in the war-zone of a nuclear bomb family. Violence, rage, terror, grief, secrecy, blame and denial were part of my “normal” life. At an early age, my connection to other human beings had shattered. Trust was broken and never rebuilt. I took isolation, fear and distrust for granted. Terror was hardwired into my being. I never realized there was another way to be.

On one of the first days of the retreat, I did a guided meditation led by Thay. As I visualized myself “fresh as a flower, stable as a mountain,” I felt peaceful, calm and at ease. The energy of seven hundred other meditators in the room supported me. Suddenly I realized that pain, suffering and a continual state of hyper-alertness were my everyday state of mind. I knew how to protect, hide, defend, and retaliate, but rarely how to trust or relax. These behaviors had served a purpose when I was a child, but now they stifled my adult life.

Identifying myself as a survivor was a powerful healing tool. It made me able to participate in the group – an act which I think of as prayer in action. Showing up in the survivors’ group was a prayer to rejoin the human race and to heal myself fully.

Before I left for the retreat, I had a dream in which I found two polished amethyst stones that looked like stained glass windows in a cathedral. I heard Thay’s voice saying, “The city is now safe for people to walk in.” Participating in the survivors’ discussion group was like being inside a cathedral and watching light illuminate stained glass windows one by one. Each person offered his or her own slant of light. Listening to others and being listened to alternated in a natural rhythm. There was no agenda; we revealed ourselves as we were in the moment. Compassion arose naturally for each other.  Kindness and understanding blossomed everywhere. In an atmosphere of honesty and safety, bonds of friendship were forged and the illusion of separateness dissolved.

My sisters and brothers of the survivors group were all bodhisattvas for me; through them, I experienced the transformative power of compassion. The group was the Dharma in action, as we helped each other bring painful emotions into light and awareness. It was a Sangha, each individual person having integrity and wholeness, yet functioning in relationship to a greater community. The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha were not ideals or abstract concepts, they were alive and present in me and around me. As old assumptions, fears, and wrong perceptions crumbled, new and beautiful feelings of connectedness, trust and wholeness began to emerge. Being part of this group of survivors was powerful healing medicine. It seemed like nothing less than a miracle.

On the long drive home, the group continued to “meet” inside my mind. I held a conversation with my friends, sharing the most painful things about myself and my family. Suddenly a shift in my perceptions took place: instead of seeing the suffering as mine, I saw the terrible suffering of my family as a whole. Compassion flooded through me for all of us. These experiences have strengthened my resolve to practice mindfulness, to develop a deep well of compassion within myself, and to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Light River of the Heart, (dharma name of the author) shares, “Since I wrote this article, many perspectives have shifted and I have begun to open my heart to family members. Healing is slowly and steadily taking place.”

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Peace Song Circle

Tricia  Diduch

The entire Sangha had been praying for sunshine for months leading up to this day. Yet, when I woke up and peered out the window, I was greeted by gray skies and a light drizzle. Had it been a few months ago, I surely would have panicked. Instead, I donned my raincoat, decided to adopt a sunny attitude and headed out the door to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill to begin setting the stage for the first annual Peace Song Circle organized by Pine Gate Sangha and Friends for Peace. It would be the culmination of three months of effort by the organizing committee. A total of seven local choirs, one dance group and three soloists would soon assemble to share a message of peace through song with their community and the world. With a sense of excitement and just a little nervous anxiety, I could hardly believe the day had arrived.

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Early in December, when Ian Prattis, the founder of the Pine Gate Sangha, first proposed the creation of a Peace Song Circle, I was skeptical about the plan. He envisioned several local choirs singing in unison in the name of peace, along with members of the community, other peace organizations, and spiritual groups. The assembly would create a sense of solidarity and strength during a time when we were all feeling increasingly powerless to change the course of world events. It would be a reminder that through our daily practice of mindful living we are doing our part to help create a better world. I fully supported the purpose and need for such an event; I just didn’t see how it would be possible. I suggested it was highly unlikely that we could assemble enough choirs to attend with only three months’ notice. It would require too much rehearsal time and coordination.

A week later, Ian asked for volunteers to help organize the event in Ottawa, on Saturday, March 22. Jean, a woman new to our Sangha, was the first to volunteer. Her contagious enthusiasm set off a chain reaction and a committee of seven organizers was established. I too found myself volunteering to take an active role in this project. I don’t know what possessed me. With a full-time job, how on earth would I find time to contribute?

The organizing committee adopted as our motto, “Stand for Peace, Sing for Peace, Be Peace.” Since Ian was preparing to attend a two-month retreat in India, he was leaving the initial planning entirely in our hands. Now, not only would I be assisting with communications, but I also volunteered to recruit choirs to participate. Having never been involved in such an activity before, I felt overwhelmed.

I was also experiencing a personal crisis in my life after having been laid off from a position I had held for five years. As we were discussing plans for the Peace Song Circle at a committee meeting in late January, I shared my recent news over tea and cookies. Fighting back tears, I offered to devote more time to the project. Soon, I was overcome with emotion. While I hadn’t been happy with my employment situation for some time, I regretted leaving behind talented co-workers with whom I had developed close relationships. I also considered my departure a personal failure, feeling I hadn’t been able to live up to my employer’s expectations of me. As I let the tears fall, the entire group offered their support. As the meeting wrapped up, Jean said to me, “Divine intervention is at work here – just trust in it. You are simply needed elsewhere.”

Through these words, I realized that losing my job was a blessing. During the preceding months, I had often been overcome with work-related anxiety. Being asked to leave brought with it an enormous sense of relief. It eradicated a lot of fears, offering me an inner peace I hadn’t experienced in a long time. And now, I had been given an opportunity to better employ my talents, helping the Sangha to organize the Peace Song Circle. From that point on, I made a conscious choice not to focus on the past, but on the task at hand.  When I actually shifted my energy to organizing the Peace Song Circle, I felt a sense of purpose, which my life had been lacking for a long time.

Organizing tasks began to fall into place. Our first major obstacle was finding a sound crew and system on a non-existent budget. Somehow, one miraculously materialized. Next, we had to recruit the performers. Although I received many, many rejections, we eventually did end up with just the right number of choirs and soloists. When two choirs backed out three weeks before the event, I stayed relaxed, and within two days, two more choirs offered to participate.

And then, there I was, on Parliament Hill, as the final preparations for the Peace Song Circle were underway. The sound system was assembled, and all of the choirs and individual performers had arrived.

As the clock on the Peace Tower struck 10:00 am on March 22, Chris, the master of ceremonies, launched the proceedings. Ian came forth and thanked the two or three hundred gathered for having braved the weather to join us in our stand for peace. He invited everyone to remain strong in the face of the overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, and hatred that tend to arise during such difficult times. Given that war had actually begun just days before, uniting to convey this message of peace seemed more crucial than ever. As I stood at my post near the sound booth, I was grateful to Ian for having had the leadership and vision to initiate the event. The Peace Song Circle had already created an enormous impact on my life; I just hoped it would have an equally powerful effect on everyone gathered to share in it.

As the first choir broke into song with, “All Within Me Peaceful,” the atmosphere began to transform. With each graceful sway of their arms, the accompanying dancers cast a calming spell over everyone. In turn, each performing group shared its unique talents and message with the audience. Whether it was through the middle-eastern flavor of the music of Jeanette de Nazareth, the spirited rhythms of the Ottawa Community Gospel Choir, the aggressive guitar riffs of the local rock group, Nir Blue, or the gentle folk melodies of the Oddities, the call for peace was strong and consistent. Throughout the two hours, children in the crowd danced happily as their parents joined in the singing, lending further strength to our call for peace and attesting to the healing energy that had been generated.

During the final performance, it dawned on me that the light rain was appropriate for the occasion. The sky seemed to be weeping tears of joy on the colorful array of umbrellas assembled, thankful for the peace offering we had just made. I too shed a joyful tear, grateful that, despite my fears and anxieties, everything had run so smoothly and that I had been able to contribute to this special event. I surrendered to the beauty of the moment. And in that moment, I found peace.

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A one-hour documentary of the Peace Song Circle is available, please contact: kburton@cyberus.ca.

Trisha Diduch practices with the Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. After four months of unemployment, Tricia is now happily working in Ottawa’s tourism industry.

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Reflections of a Quaker Woman of Color

By Valerie Brown

Growing up on the streets of New York City, I learned the rules of engagement at an early age, I learned to live tough and play even tougher. Violence, distrust, and anger hung around my neighborhood like the Mister Softee truck on a warm summer day.

Mindfulness and awareness were as foreign to me as an uncharted journey to a distant pole.  I was schooled in street rhythms, and learned that the world was unsafe, hostile, and filled with people who could not be trusted. Reflecting back, I realize that these feelings were rooted in a lack of safety and need for protection which stayed with me into adulthood, becoming habits of the heart, hardening my personality. I avoided intimacy, pushing people away like bits of uneaten food on the side of my plate.

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The journey of dismantling this constructed self, discovering and reconstructing my authentic self that is not limited by fear has been my spiritual awakening.

The desire to develop a spiritual life was submerged in the will to succeed, to rise above my single-parent upbringing and ghetto surroundings. I yearned for success, believing that a good education, a good job, and money could immunize me from the effects of my childhood. I surrendered to this pursuit.  In my training to become an attorney, stress, anxiety, competition, and hard-driving ambition were the constructs of my daily life. I reinforced childhood patterns of distrust by relying heavily on the words of legal contracts. My distrust of others gave me permission to compete fiercely at all costs. I was immersed in doing, achieving, and analyzing instead of being. Deeper still, I had lost connection with my body, emotions, spirit and soul, and with my feminine energy—nurturance, awareness, intuition, creativity, sensitivity, receptivity, and emotionalism. I was further wounded by a failed, brief marriage and a string of broken relationships that cut into me the way a river cuts into a mountainside.

The healing began after my divorce and hospitalization with a serious illness. Only then did I stop and begin to ask questions and listen for the answers deep within me.

Can I surrender to God’s will? Are the loses, the hurts all part of my prayer? Can trust in myself and others grow in me? What are the true longings of my heart?

The way to an open heart began when I stumbled upon a meditation center near my home. I decided to try meditation, and immediately realized how difficult it was for me to quiet my mind. At first, I saw the practice of meditation as a challenge, as something to conquer. Slowly, with silence as my open door, I passed through it to find my authentic self that cannot be defined by name, color of skin, hair texture, height, or weight. This journey has been punctuated by deep longings and uncertainty, as well as clarity and peace of mind. At first when I attended mindfulness retreats and sitting practice, I was aware that I was often the only person of color. I felt isolated. With time, I realized that to focus on the differences between myself and others would reinforce separation. During retreats, in listening and sharing stories of life journeys, I released the grip of judgment and entered the field of acceptance. I made a conscious effort to surrender the outcome of my practice, be with the uncertainty, and make friends with my distrust, which is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes. I read Thay’s teachings, attended his retreats and days of mindfulness and developed a daily home practice and weekly sitting practice with my Sangha and a meditation teacher.  Gradually, my heart made tough as day-old bread by not enough loving and not enough laughter, softened. Breathing deeply, I know that emotions like anger and distrust come, stay awhile and go away.

Several years ago, through a chance encounter with a Quaker woman, I found the Society of Friends, which too has strengthened my mindfulness practice. While meeting for worship is not sitting practice, the conscious act of noticing my breath, resting in awareness of myself and others during meeting, the fellowship of gathering to worship, and sharing in vocal ministry when feeling the call of God, have deepened my meditation practice. At meeting, we sit in silence—moment to moment, gathered together to worship the Inner Light, listening to the “still, small voice within,” each in our own way.

On this sunny winter’s day, inside the meetinghouse, lit only by the light of the winter sun and the glow from the fireplace, ten or more people sit silently in simple, unpainted wooden pews. I take my seat as others come in until each pew is filled. Sitting in silent ministry, I know the seeds of mindfulness are being watered. As silence deepens, a warm glow envelops my body, heart, and mind, and I rest in deep awareness.

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Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, practices with Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA. She is an attorney and certified Kundalini yoga teacher, leading retreats in the northeast. She was recently ordained into the Order of Interbeing at the Stonehill College retreat.

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From Warriors to Peaceful Warriors

Veterans Lighting the Way

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis in Conversation

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Brother Phap Uyen (Brother Michael) served in the military during Desert Storm, Desert Shield. He was ordained as a monastic by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 26, 2002, with the Nimba Family. Paul Davis served in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968. In 1966, he was in Vietnam when Thich Nhat Hanh started the Order of Interbeing. He took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the mid-1990s and was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and facilitates the Being Peace Sangha.

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis are part of a group planning a Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery this November. To share with the Sangha their experiences and insights as veterans within the Sangha, they met by phone for a Dharma discussion on February 25, 2014.

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Roots of Personal Suffering: Family, Military, and War

Brother Phap Uyen: You and I have had numerous conversations because we were both in the military—you during the Vietnam War and me during Desert Storm, Desert Shield.

Paul Davis: I went into the Marine Corps three weeks after I graduated from high school. I grew up in a rural part of northeastern Ohio. I went into the Marine Corps not out of patriotism, but because I didn’t have anything better to do at the time, and two of my friends were going into the Marine Corps. I turned eighteen when I was in boot camp at Paris Island in 1964. About a year later, I got orders to go to Vietnam. By then I was nineteen. I didn’t really know much about life, and I knew nothing about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people. I was a field radio operator, which meant I carried a radio and I kept communications with headquarters. When I went to Vietnam I had no opinions, I was just there. It was probably different for people who went later, when they knew more about the war and formed opinions about whether it was good or bad. But I grew up in the fifties and early sixties with John Wayne and America being right, so those were the filters that I took to Vietnam with me.

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I had been in Vietnam for about ten months when I was wounded and evacuated. I spent three months in the hospital. And still I had not really thought about my experience in Vietnam. That came about a year later, in 1967. The brother of a friend of mine asked me to participate in a presentation at Ohio State University. It was about the cultural aspects of Vietnam, not about the war. A speech teacher was coordinating the event, and he asked the three of us if we felt that the people of Vietnam wanted us in Vietnam. I volunteered to answer the question, and I gave a long answer. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question.” I just sat there. I was numb, almost. I still get emotional thinking about that moment in my life, because it changed me in so many fundamental ways. I’m grateful for that question because it started my process of rebuilding who I was.

I came across Thay and his teachings much later, sometime around 1991 or ’92. I had just experienced a deep loss—it was a period of reflection and questioning. I left Vietnam in 1966 just two or three months after Thay left. I know you left Vietnam when you were two. Is that right?

Brother Phap Uyen: Yes. I was born in June 1973, in Saigon. In 1975, my family left Vietnam. We were in the last plane to leave Tan Son Nhut Airport before the communist government took it over. Our plane was up in the air already when the soldiers stormed the airport. My aunt had married a person that worked for Air America, the CIA’s covert flying group. He was able to help us get out of Vietnam. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about two weeks, and then we ended up in Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California. After that, we went to Arizona to live with my aunt and uncle who had sponsored us. I was in the US by ’75. For my parents it was a huge adjustment. In 1979-80, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles started coming over from Vietnam.

My dad had served in the South Vietnamese military. He had traumatic experiences from the war, as well as being a heavy drinker, so it was quite challenging for the family. He and my mom separated when I was nine and a half. They divorced and I lived with my mom for a while. Then there was the battle between my mom and my dad. I was pushed back and forth between my parents, and they were kind of using me against each other.

Paul: I do know that the journey that took me to the Marine Corps was because of issues growing up. When I was in the service, I wasn’t angry. I was more mentally unconscious. When I got out of the service, I enrolled in college at Kent State University and began classes in 1968. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, the National Guard came on campus and killed four students and shot more. I got involved in the anti-war movement, not a peace movement. I was a lot angrier as a war protestor than I was as a Marine. I had a lot of energy as an angry person. I know that part of your story is issues of anger as well.

Brother Phap Uyen: My mom remarried, and I didn’t feel a sense of security in that relationship either. I hung out with the wrong elements and joined a gang. We got into a lot of trouble. After high school, I didn’t have plans to go to college, so I joined the military. I wanted to try a challenge, so I tried out for the Navy SEALS. I went through the training program but I didn’t graduate from the program. Later on, I was an executive bodyguard for a four-star admiral.

Practicing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After coming out of the military, I ended up with what we now call PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even though I had known Thay since 1989 and I had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him, I didn’t really practice because I was still very young. I didn’t know how to handle the anger and frustration. I had nightmares at night. I didn’t want to be alone, so I was married when I was twenty-three. My ex-wife and I divorced about a year and a half into our marriage because I couldn’t handle my anger and my emotions. That also led to a disconnection between my daughter and me for a while. My daughter is now eighteen years old.

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There were moments when I was in a really dark place, thinking about killing myself because I was hurting the people I loved and cared about. My mom was quite scared for me because of the lifestyle that I was living—in and out of relationships, not being able to focus and go to school or handle a job. I didn’t like conflict. I would just up and leave my job and move to a different job if I didn’t feel the workplace was harmonious enough. I couldn’t really be around a lot of people at that time. Both of my marriages ended within a year and a half because I couldn’t communicate. There was always a part of me that was trying to hide the things inside of me, not being able to share openly or intimately. A lot of times, my anger would do the talking. After leaving the military, there was a time where within three months I moved six times. That’s partly because I couldn’t accept myself and I didn’t know how to be my own best friend. I wasn’t happy with myself. You can run away from a lot of things, but the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself. Around 2001-2002, my mom suggested for me to go to Plum Village and possibly take a break, because I hadn’t had a break since I left the military.

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Connecting with Thay and the Plum Village Tradition

Paul: I ultimately found Thay and his teachings in the early nineties, after my youngest son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident. The two things that led me to Thay’s teachings were the war in Vietnam and Nathan’s death. I always looked at spirituality or religion from more of an intellectual standpoint, but at that point I had to face some very serious issues of life and death. I first found an article that this Vietnamese monk had written, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name! And then I read Peace Is Every Step. I found out Thay actually did retreats here in the United States.

I went on my first retreat about 1995, at Omega Institute in New York. Being in Thay’s presence was supportive. I hesitate to use the word “healing,” but it was very supportive. When I got there, I found a veterans’ discussion group within the retreat. It was a combination of war protestors and veterans who had been to war, and their families. It was a good opportunity for families to come together and sit and heal. I kept going to Thay’s retreats every two years, and I kept sitting with the veterans’ group and getting to know other veterans and their stories.

The people who came to those groups weren’t always veterans. The woman who became known as the Central Park jogger, who was assaulted in Central Park and had been in a coma, came to one of Thay’s retreats and joined the veterans’ group because she felt it was one place where people could understand the trauma that she had gone through. So the veterans’ group was, in many ways, a safe place for others who had gone through serious trauma.

The initial group I attended at Thay’s retreat was co-facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, who was one of the early vets that got connected to Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s since left our tradition, and he was ordained in the Zen Peacemaker Order. The other was Roberta Wall, an OI member from New York. The two of them, the peace activist and the war veteran, co-facilitated that group, which I think made everybody feel welcome. A lot of people lost their youth to the war even though they weren’t there because they got so angry about it.

Brother Phap Uyen: In 2002, I was getting ready to come back to the US from Plum Village. I had already completed 1500 hours of massage therapy, and then I was going to go to school for Oriental medicine. I went in to see Thay and pay my respects. Thay said, “So, I hear you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor.”

“Yes, Thay.”

Thay asked, “So, why do you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor?”

“So I can help people heal, because the military has trained me to do things and use my skills to hurt other people, and I want to change that energy inside of me.”

But Thay said something to me that really made me stop and think: “If you want to help them heal, the only way you can do that is by helping them go to the root of their problem. And the root of their problem is in their mind. But in order for you to do that, you need training. So you need to become a monk.”

I thought, “I’m not sure if I want to commit to being a monk yet.” In the Asian culture, when you become a monk, it is for the rest of your life. I decided to do it anyway, because I saw the effect that being around the Sangha had on me.

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Healing Power of Sangha

The more I practiced with the Sangha, the more I could slowly start opening up. I slowly started being more gentle, friendly, happy. I smiled a lot more! My mom shared that seeing me grow within the Sangha has been a really great thing for her, because she saw me during the worst of my time, when I didn’t really smile.

Now that I look back at it, I see that when I was in the military, with my friends on the base, all those things that we have as part of PTSD were normal to us because everyone else around us was doing the exact same thing. They were drinking; they were not being faithful to their partners. There was anger, violence, hostility. While we’re in that environment, everything seems normal until we transition out of the military; then you realize you can’t just solve that problem by shooting that person. You can’t just blow up at that person anymore. You have to find a more civilized way. Fortunately for me, I came in contact with the Sangha.

When I was in Plum Village in 2002, the US was going to war with Iraq; later on, I got news that seven of the friends I had served with had died. Thay was in Italy at the time, and when he came back I was working in the registration office. Thay came in and asked me how I was doing. Thay said, “I’m sorry to hear that one of your friends passed away.”

“Dear Thay, it wasn’t one. It was seven of them. Right now, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, because I just received the news.”

Thay asked, “How are you going to practice for them? What are you going to do for them?”

I was looking at Thay and said, “They’re already dead. There’s not much I can do for them.”

“No,” Thay said. “They’re dead, but how are you going to practice so that you can help your other brothers and sisters that are not dead yet, or that are going to come back from the war zones?”

That really got me thinking about what I needed to do to practice—doing walking meditation and bringing the images of the soldiers up with me while I’m walking, or the images of my friends that are now dead and don’t have an opportunity to walk anymore, and to take those mindful steps for them.

But at that time I was still very young and fragile in the practice. It’s taken twelve years for me to work on my practice, to hopefully offer something to our brothers and sisters in the military. Granted, all my symptoms from PTSD are not completely gone, because they’ll never go away. But I can handle them in a more appropriate way instead of letting those emotions control me like they used to.

Paul: What stands out for me in listening to you is the importance of the Sangha, not only the monastic Sangha but the lay Sangha as well. For me, I could not do this without the fourfold Sangha. I know that if I wander off the path, once a week I have a gentle reminder with my local Sangha to return to the path. It’s the same when I’m able to spend time with the monks and nuns. It’s like meditation—when our mind wanders away from our breath, we return—and returning to the practice and the Sangha helps me maintain my practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: The way I’ve been practicing is using mindfulness like a bullet-proof vest. During your time, you had fl jackets; now they use Kevlar. Without the mindfulness practice, it’s like walking into battle without a flak jacket or a Kevlar vest on. I’m not about to walk into battle without my Kevlar vest on!

Helping Other Veterans Heal

Paul: I’m glad to be one of the threads in that jacket. You remind me of the importance of what can happen after the Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in November. I know that the veterans who have benefitted most from Thay’s retreats are the ones who found the Sangha and stayed with it. Maybe that’s one of the areas where local Sanghas could really help out—to reach out to the veterans who come to the retreat, to make sure that they’re welcome without judgment into Sanghas that continue to support them in the practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: I think it’s really important, because the veterans often feel a disconnection between themselves and the rest of society. If we can get the local Sanghas to help with that, as well as having veterans’ Sanghas in different geographical locations, and possibly get together once a year, or have a big veterans’ retreat—something that they can pencil in every year on their calendar.

In Sister Chan Khong and Thay’s Love and Understanding program, when I sponsored a child for a school year, I would receive a thank-you letter and the child would share a little bit about what’s going on with their life and how school is going. We can connect veterans and local Sanghas by asking local Sanghas to sponsor a veteran for the Veterans Retreat. If we do that, the veterans will see that people do love them and care about them. It allows the veteran to send a thank-you letter, and the Sangha sees concretely that this is a person that they’re supporting.

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When I was living in Plum Village recently, Thay was talking about wanting Sanghas to have service projects—not just practicing and gathering at one person’s house, that’s good, but also to reach out to different aspects of our community to help. This is a way that we can do both things. A lot of the veterans have trouble finding jobs because people won’t hire somebody from the military, especially if they have PTS or PTSD on their record. There are financial difficulties for a lot of the veterans. That’s why we’re trying to do anything we can to get them to the retreat.

Paul: I was very upset when we decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the people speaking at a public gathering against going to war. I was also doing volunteer work with the VA [Veterans’Administration], meeting with families whose children had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was torn between the idea of providing support for the families and honoring their loss, and at the same time speaking out against the war.

Veterans all react differently. There are veterans like me, who quickly realized that what they had been participating in was not right. There are other veterans who strongly feel they were doing the right thing, but they’re still experiencing strong emotion from those actions, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, or depression, or other things that can come from war.

Brother Phap Uyen: I understand where you’re coming from. Some people have come up to me and said, “Being a Buddhist monastic, how can you support the war?” I don’t support the war. I don’t want to ever support any act of killing or hurting people. But I support the healing of the individual. Everybody understands a human being needs to be able to heal. We see the strong power of the Sangha in being able to help us heal. The war has already happened. There’s nothing we can do about that right now. But what we can do is help them heal.

Paul: I’ve always liked Thay’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” I am the marine who went to war and I am the veteran who protested the war. Those are all part of who I am.

Brother Phap Uyen: Yeah, I see that in myself too. A big part of it is the environment. I think because we’ve been through the war, we want to stand up and not have our future generations go through what we went through.

Edited by Janelle Combelic, Brother Phap Uyen, and Paul Davis

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At the Colors of Compassion Retreat

By Angela Dews

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Participants at the Healing Our Families, Building True Community: People of Color Retreat at Deer Park Monastery in September 2005 collaborated on an elaborate mural. According to artist and writer Brett Cook, the project was “an interactive, multidisciplinary, revolutionary experience in mindfulness that culminated in a large public work illustrating what makes a happy community.” For photos, video and a story of the process, go to homepage.mac.com/brettcookdizney.

I am feeling increasingly that my New York Sangha is a family. Still, this brother and sister connection at people of color retreats brings a joy that startles me when I look up and see us walking, sitting, breathing, smiling, and listening to Thay. My brothers and sisters who are Asian, Black, Latino and Native are not the same as me, but there is something we share about living in a power structure where white privilege is a given.

Some of us were concerned about the presence of white folks at this year’s Deer Park retreat. I quickly noticed them, then had to let it go. In fact, I was glad that mixed race couples could share that space, but was glad that my Dharma discussion group was all people of color (a must, I think). And, because some of the white folks were friends, I was able to tell them:

  • I didn’t necessarily come to talk about race and culture with my people of color; although I did.
  • I definitely didn’t come to explain anything about my experience as a Black woman to you; although I did.
  • I didn’t come to hear what in your life experience and political viewpoint makes you the same as me; although I did.
  • I didn’t even come to take part in the late night “rap” sessions; although I envy the sharing that I missed.

I came for retreat and healing and to learn. I came to be in a rare space with my teacher. It turned out that I could talk about the anger and despair I was feeling about politics in Harlem, which had just about worn me out. And it was a gift not to have to apologize or start from the beginning.

Thay told me things that I needed then and that I need daily. Among the things I remember: mindful consumption is essential for community building; harmony is possible; your way of life is your message; don’t think because you are poor you are helpless; anger is not the only source of energy.

Two More Gifts

Sister Jewel talked with me about my ancestors. She gave me the idea and the “permission” to go to Abyssinian Baptist Church and clap hands and sing about Jesus being “right on time,” because I need the community. I’m going to take a Jewish New York friend with me to Abyssinian. Months ago, we crossed tribal lines by deep listening in a conference room in a seaside hotel in Vietnam. I accepted his invitation to Brooklyn where I felt happy, breathing and walking with his Sangha family. He’s already been to my Sangha; now he’s coming to Abyssinian.

For years I failed to add the third refuge to my practice because I felt alienated from Sanghas full of white people. Meeting practitioners and teachers at people of color retreats (including two at Spirit Rock in California and two sponsored by Insight Meditation in New York), who were usually the lone practitioner of color at their Sanghas, inspired me to find a local home. I am also inspired to continue to seek out their company whenever the gift is offered.

Angela Dews, Peacemaker Strength of the Heart, practices with the Riverside Sangha of the Community of Mindfulness New York Metro.

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Book Reviews

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

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

Reviewed by Chan Phap De

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mb41-BookReviews2Pine Gate Meditations

By Ian Prattis & Carolyn Hill

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

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

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

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

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

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

mb41-BookReviews3What the Stones Remember
A Life Rediscovered

By Patrick Lane
Trumpeter Books, 2005

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jeanie Seward-Magee
Trafford Publishers, 2005

Reviewed by Constance Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Pema Chödrön
Shambhala Publications, 2005

Reviewed by Judith Toy

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

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

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

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

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For Abby-Rose, With Love

By Laura Lester Fournier

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

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

Transforming the Generations

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Champagne Flute Full of Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Reviews

mb43-BookReviews1The Energy of Prayer
How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2006
155 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

When Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “You are a cloud,” this sounds very poetic. What he means is that our bodies contain cloud elements,  a fact that science cannot dispute. Taking the same no-nonsense approach to prayer in his new pocket-sized book on the subject, our dhyana master begins with the facts. In the book’s introduction, Larry Dossey, M.D., writes that there are currently 200 controlled experiments “in humans, plants, animals, and even microbes” suggesting that the energy of prayer can affect another individual or object, even at great distances.

But does prayer really work? In the first chapter, Thây offers readers the story of a double healing through prayer—a boy’s skepticism is healed at the same time that a woman’s brain tumor disappears. Reading this book proves what I, too, know, as I once healed completely from fibromyalgia and stomach ulcers through prayer. I have been present in the dharma hall when Thây requests that we “send energy” to someone who is sick or dying. We do not ask for the person to be healed; we simply send our concentrated, loving energy, sometimes long distance. And we know this has its effect, just as the moon has an effect on the earth.

Prayer is not meant to be a wish list; it’s a state of being. The secret is to pray with a mind of no attainment. While our teacher gives us many classic chants and prayers to choose from, as well as an appendix with exercises in meditation, he tells us that prayer can be realized not only in words, but in action. This is important especially for those who think they need “an answer” to prayer. The prayer itself is the answer. Prayer transforms the pray-er.

One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s greatest pedagogical gifts to the world has been tying East to West, Judeo-Christian to Buddhist practice. We need not drop our Judeo-Christian roots; our mindfulness practice makes us more sincere Christians, more deeply reverent Jews. In two of his watershed books, Living Buddha, Living Christ, and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, the author marries Christian and Buddhist practices. For me one of the most exciting chapters is Thây’s discourse on the Lord’s Prayer, which I’ve been praying for six decades.

Love is reflected in love. With “And forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors,” Thây exhorts us to pray in such a way that we “go beyond birth and death.”

What is prayer, then, but a raising of the mind and heart to God? And who is God but our very interbeing, the eternal flame that illumines everything, including the cloud. Our meditation and daily mindfulness practice is prayer. So prayer is a lightening and a lifting up. “We will lift her up [to God],” says the Christian. “We and God are not two separate existences,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. I know this to be true.

mb43-BookReviews2Mindful Politics

Melvin McLeod, editor
Wisdom Publications, 2006
Paperback, 304 pages

Reviewed by Svein Myreng

In the introduction to Mindful Politics, editor Melvin McLeod writes, “This is a handbook, a guide, a practice book, for people who want to draw on Buddhism’s insights and practices to help … make the world a better place.” A long-time Buddhist practitioner with a background in political science, McLeod has gathered 37 prominent Buddhist teachers, writers, and practitioners for this book.

At the core of mindful politics is the importance of stability and calm and how Buddhist practitioners can make this contribution to politics, especially in connection with anger and conflicts. In his essay, Roshi Bernie Glassman states: “I don’t believe in a utopia of non-conflict. Whatever you do is going to create conflict in some ways and peace in other ways.”

Also central to the book is Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice on understanding and compassion in all walks of life—familiar teachings to Thay’s students, but well worth re-reading. These are teachings of an uncompromisingly radical nature; just look with fresh eyes at a statement like “Compassion is our best protection.”

Other contributors bring perspectives from their own traditions, with Vajrayana and Zen perhaps a bit overrepresented. Buddhism is not monolithic. At times, however, the book’s perspective feels a bit too narrow, tipping the scale with people who are popular authors in U.S. Buddhism right now. For instance, I miss the fearless words of an Aung San Suu Kyi, or the old-time political commentary of Gary Snyder.

Especially interesting to me are the articles on racism and economy. Sulak characterises “free market fundamentalism” as “akin to other kinds of fundamentalism.”

Rather than GNP, Gross National Product, Jigmi Y. Thinley, Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs in Bhutan, suggests we use GNH, Gross National Happiness, as an alternative for measuring real weath. Thinley suggests four vital elements to GNH: “(1) sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, (2) conservation of the environment, (3) preservation and promotion of culture, and (4) promotion of good governance.” I would like to read more on these topics.

I write this review as a Dharma teacher, a father, and someone who wishes to make a positive contribution to the world. Though my wife and I try to live a simple, non-harming life and protect our son and ourselves from the greed-and-speed society, it is difficult. We neither wish nor are able to live in a cultural cocoon. We want to influence society, even in a small way. Mindful Politics is definitely helpful in this respect. It makes me think more deeply about aspects of my life and society.

Three Poetry Books

Reviewed by Susan Hadler

Something wonderful happens when we slow down and take the time to wake up to our bodies, our minds, and the world around us. We see things in the light of interbeing. We are able to touch the true nature of reality. The poets whose work is reviewed here devote themselves to noticing and connecting deeply with life in the present moment. They’ve put into words their experiences of delight and transformation and insight. It is a joy to find so many images that bring together the historical and the ultimate dimensions.

Fruits of the Practice

By Emily Whittle
Self-published, 2004
222 E. 5th Ave., Red Springs NC 28377
Soft-cover, hand-bound, 25 pages

The author of this beautiful earth-brown hand-bound book is a gardener of the heart and mind. Trained as a fine artist, primarily in book arts, Emily has taught all aspects of book making, and she brings her skills to the construction of this book. Her poems offer delicious fruit ripened in the sunshine of awareness. Playful images and fresh connections abound, this one from “A Break in the Weather”: “After seven days of rain, dawn serves up a new day, round as an egg, sunny-side up,” and this, the opening line of “Zafu”: “My church is a round cushion.” Still other poems astonish us with reality, as in the last line of the poem entitled “You Asked About My Anger”: “Even with remorse it takes a long time before the birds come back.”

Most of all, the poems live as stories of life on the path of awareness, bright with surprise and clarity of insight and transformation. Here, from the first poem in the book, titled “Origami”:

Watch this!
A square of paper
folded
on itself
becomes a crane. . .
When my spirit lies
flat and limp,
a lost scrap
under my heart’s table,
I must bend
and stretch,
touching all my corners.
Aha!
I see the tiger
emerging already!

mb43-BookReviews3Bird of the Present Moment

By Pamela Overeynder
Plain View Press, 2005
Soft cover, 79 pages

A sense of belonging, “each thing to every other,” infuses the poems in Bird of the Present Moment with the beauty and truth of nature; grasses “flowing nowhere in great waves,” and oaks that “go gladly with the wind,” and this from “Hillside Theater”: “The sun takes its final bow and melts down into the rock. Then like a child who doesn’t want to sleep, it peeks upward just before the chill.”

There are poems that declare the narrator’s delight in simple things like swimming “comfortable as a fish” and in brushing her teeth “to the rhythmic sound of crickets.” Other poems, like “Bird Island,” state in elegant simplicity what the poet knows from connecting deeply with herself and the present, in this case terrifying, moment:

What slowly seeps into both of us during
this longest night. . .
is the irreducible and indestructible truth
that the present moment
is all the life we have.

mb43-BookReviews4Gateways: Poems of Nature, Meditation and Renewal
A Self-Guided Book of Discovery

By Sylvia Levinson
Caernarvon Press, 2005
35 pages

Each of the 15 poems in Gateways is like a dharma sharing that opens mind and heart. The poems come from stopping, Levinsontells us in the introduction, and attending to life around and within. A withered fern offers a “meditation of resting.” During walking meditation a young monk “places a finger below a single droplet [and] waits for it to fall.” Sitting in the quiet of early morning, a finger traces “a sifting of pollen that has settled like powered sugar on the blue bowl”; ordinary experiences brought to life with attentiveness and shared as poems.

The poet is our guide to what may lie unnoticed, yet is alive within us right now. She does this by introducing each poem with a short prose description of the discovery that inspired the poem. Before “What Feeds My Soul,” she writes, “Things all around us can give moments of pleasure and peace.” Here, a fragment:

Yesterday, it was the little redheaded bird
that lit on my balcony and poked its beak
among the sweet alyssum.

Last month, the bowed head of a classical
guitarist
suspended over his instrument,
waiting as the final note disappeared. . .

After each poem, the author poses questions. For this poem, she asks the reader, “What ‘something’ takes you out of the routine and mundane and feeds your soul?” Opposite each written page is a  lined blank page, space for the reader to try writing poems of her own.

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Sitting in the Spring Breeze

The Sangha in Vietnam, February–May 2007

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

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

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

Flow

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

—Dagmar Quentin

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Ceremonies to Heal and Transform

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Brother Phap Lai

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A Miracle at Bat Nha

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

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

—Brother Phap Lai

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Phuong Boi Ordination

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

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

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

—Brother Phap Lai

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Receiving the Lamp Transmission

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

This is my gatha:

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

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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Bowing to the Mystery

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

—Heike Mayer

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Treasure of Healing

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

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

–Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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Kitchen Mindfulness

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

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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A Chorus of Grass Birds

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

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

—Harriet Wrye

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An Offering of Shoes

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

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

—Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

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“Each of My Steps Is a Prayer”

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

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

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

—David Nelson

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The Light at the Tip of the Candle

mb48-TheLight1I was deeply touched recently by a book called At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. The author, Claude Anshin Thomas, describes in detail the suffering he has experienced as a Vietnam veteran [see below].

The description of his suffering made me look more deeply into the experiences of a soldier. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be trained as a killer at the age of eighteen. How it would feel to kill another human being. How it would feel to watch my friends die in front of me, or to watch children die as a result of the military action in which I was involved. How it would feel to live in fear of violent death on a day-to-day basis.

Looking deeply at these things helped me to understand the suffering on a different level. I realized, for example, that I could not even begin to think of how I would reconcile the thoughts and emotions around killing another human being, let alone many human beings. I know that labeling the people I killed as “enemy” would not bring me comfort in the long run. I know the energy of those actions would continue with me in some form as long as I lived.

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Anshin Thomas also offers his opinion that the United States, as a people, never really took responsibility for the Vietnam War. Most people viewed the war as distant and unconnected to their day-to-day lives. They did not recognize that it was their lifestyles that supported the institutions of war. And, for the most part, they did not offer support for the veterans of the war, or for the victims of the war in Vietnam.

All of this got me to thinking about the war in Iraq, and my connection to that war. I realize that I have not really taken responsibility for my connection to that war. I follow the news about Iraq, and frown at it. I think from time to time about the tragedy of the war, and how I disagree with the U.S. government’s position on the war.

The Light at the Tip of the Candle

By Claude Anshin Thomas

mb48-TheLight2Claude Anshin Thomas came home from the war in Vietnam in 1967. In the years following his military service, his life spiraled downward into post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness, but his life turned around when he discovered Buddhism. Zen, he found, offered him a path toward healing, a practical way to cope with his suffering rather than run from it. The following took place in 1990, when Thomas attended a meditation retreat for Vietnam veterans led by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I drove to the retreat on my motorcycle. At that time I was riding a black Harley Davidson. I was dressed in a typical fashion for me: black leather jacket, black boots, black helmet, gold mirror glasses, and a red bandanna tied around my neck. My style of dress was not exactly warm and welcoming. The way I presented myself was intended to keep people away, because I was scared, really scared.

I arrived at the retreat early so I could check the place out. Before I could think about anything, I walked the perimeter of the whole place: Where are the boundaries? Where are the dangerous places where I’m vulnerable to attack? Coming here thrust me into the unknown, and for me the unknown meant war. And to be with so many people I didn’t know was terrifying to me, and the feeling of terror also meant war.

After my recon I went down to the registration desk and asked where the camping area was, because I didn’t want to camp where anyone else was camping. I was much too frightened to be near so many strangers. This time each day, sunset, was filled with fear — fear of ambush, fear of attack, fear of war exploding at any moment. Rationally I knew that these things wouldn’t happen, but these fears, like the reality of war, are not rational.

I put my tent in the woods, away from everybody else, and I sat there asking myself, “What am I doing here? Why am I at a Buddhist retreat with a Vietnamese monk? I have to be out of my mind, absolutely crazy.”

The first night of the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh talked to us. The moment he walked into the room and I looked into his face, I began to cry. I realized for the first time that I didn’t know the Vietnamese in any other way than as my enemy, and this man wasn’t my enemy. It wasn’t a conscious thought; it was an awareness happening from somewhere deep inside me.

As I sat there looking at this Vietnamese man, memories of the war started flooding over me. Things that I hadn’t remembered before, events I had totally forgotten. One of the memories that came back that evening helped me to understand why I had not been able to tolerate the crying of my baby son years earlier.

At some point, maybe six months into my service in Vietnam, we landed outside a village and shut down the engines of our helicopters. Often when we set down near a village the children would rush up and flock around the helicopter, begging for food, trying to sell us bananas or pineapples or Coca-Cola, or attempting to prostitute their mothers or sisters. On this particular day there was a large group of children, maybe 25. They were mostly gathered around the helicopter.

As the number of children grew, the situation became less and less safe because often the Vietcong would use children as weapons against us. So someone chased them off by firing a burst from an M60 machine gun over their heads. As they ran away, a baby was left lying on the ground, crying, maybe two feet from the helicopter in the middle of the group. I started to approach the baby along with three or four other soldiers. That is what my nonwar conditioning told me to do. But in this instance, for some reason, something felt wrong to me. And just as the thought began to rise in my head to yell at the others to stop, just before that thought could be passed by synapse to speech, one of them reached out and picked up the baby, and it blew up. Perhaps the baby had been a booby-trap, a bomb. Perhaps there had been a grenade attack or a mortar attack at just this moment. Whatever the cause, there was an explosion that killed three soldiers and knocked me down, covering me with blood and body parts.

This incident had been so overwhelming that my conscious mind could not hold it. And so this memory had remained inaccessible to me until that evening in 1990 .…

At the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh said to us, “You veterans are the light at the tip of the candle. You burn hot and bright. You understand deeply the nature of suffering.” He told us that the only way to heal, to transform suffering, is to stand face-to-face with suffering, to realize the intimate details of suffering and how our life in the present is affected by it. He encouraged us to talk about our experiences and told us that we deserved to be listened to, deserved to be understood. He said we represented a powerful force for healing in the world.

He also told us that the nonveterans were more responsible for the war than the veterans.* That because of the interconnectedness of all things, there is no escape from responsibility. That those who think they aren’t responsible are the most responsible. The very lifestyle of the nonveterans supports the institutions of war. The nonveterans, he said, needed to sit down with the veterans and listen, really listen to our experience. They needed to embrace whatever feelings arose in them when engaging with us — not to hide from their experience in our presence, not to try to control it, but just to be present with us.

I spent six days at the retreat. Being with the Vietnamese people gave me the opportunity to step into the emotional chaos that was my experience of Vietnam. And I came to realize that this experience was — and continues to be — a very useful and powerful gift. Without specific awareness of the intimate nature of our suffering, whatever that suffering may be, healing and transformation simply are not possible and we will continue to re-create that suffering and infect others with it.

Toward the end of the retreat I went to Sister Chan Khong to apologize, to try to make amends in some way for all the destruction, the killing I’d taken part in. I didn’t know how to apologize directly; perhaps I didn’t have the courage. All I could manage to say was: “I want to go to Vietnam.” During the retreat they had said, if we who had fought wanted to go to Vietnam to help rebuild the country, they would help arrange it. And so I asked to go to Vietnam; it was all I could say through my tears.

* When Thay gives teachings he does not normally say that nonveterans are more responsible than veterans for the war, but nonveterans are just as responsible as veterans. — Sister Annabel

mb48-TheLight4From At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, by Claude Anshin Thomas, © 2004, 2006 by Claude A. Thomas. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.

Claude Anshin Thomas is a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and the founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace and nonviolence.

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On Love and Being Gay

By Laurie Arron

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“I believe that we all have the need to love and to be loved, and life without love is not pleasant, it is suffering.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Friday, July 13, 2007, Lower Hamlet

These are the words Thay spoke to me during the first Question and Answer session of the summer retreat at Plum Village. I had asked about finding love and had clearly stated I was gay. Thay’s answer was all about true love, and it demonstrated to me that he believes true love is possible regardless of sexual orientation.

Although I’ve accepted being gay, there’s still a voice in my head saying there’s something wrong with me. I’m forty-five now, I’ve been single for over four years, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find true love — or be able to let go of my grasping for it.

Years of Silent Suffering

Sometimes the memories of being a gay teen cause tears to well up inside me. I know that I have a long way to go in healing my suffering.

I first realized I was gay when I was thirteen years old. It was a terrible and frightening realization. At school, a “fag” was the worst thing you could call someone. It’s what we called the kids we didn’t like, the ones who didn’t fit in. I’d used it many times. How could I possibly be one of them?

But the fact was that I had a strong physical attraction to some of the boys in my class and none whatsoever towards the girls. My grim realization was indisputable.

I could not deny my sexual orientation, but I could keep it an absolute secret. I thought being gay was unnatural and I desperately wished I could be “cured.” I was convinced if anyone knew they would hate me, except my parents who would simply be devastated. I thought it would be better to be blind or in a wheelchair. At least then people wouldn’t hate me.

I hid my sexual orientation from everyone until I was twenty-seven years old. Being “in the closet” was very difficult, and I turned to smoking marijuana to ease the pain and escape my reality. I did fine in school and work, but whenever I thought about having to live life without love I was consumed with despair. It wasn’t until a close friend of mine (who wasn’t gay) killed himself that I realized life was too short to waste. I decided to take a leap of faith and stop hiding who and what I really was.

I went to a “coming out” support group and there I finally started to accept my sexual orientation. At the group they did things like turn on their head the questions gay people often get asked. They pointed to the absurdity of asking questions like “when did you first realize you were heterosexual?”, “what do you think your parents may have done to contribute to your heterosexuality?” and “what made you choose to be heterosexual?”

I’ve come a long way since then. I got involved in working for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people when I was thirty-one and eventually became Director of Advocacy for Canada’s national LGBT equality advocacy group. In 2005, Canada’s federal government debated and passed a law extending civil marriage to include same-gender couples. I did many media interviews and was about as publicly “out” as you can be.

But even being so comfortable with being gay, in public places I still had to ask myself whether it was safe enough to hold my partner’s hand or give him a kiss when I greeted him at the airport after not seeing him for several weeks. These are simple acts that most people take for granted, but for gay and lesbian people they are not so simple. And that’s in Canada, one of the most accepting and progressive countries in the world. In many countries, being gay is still criminal, sometimes even punishable by death.

I look back and sometimes it feels like my youth was stolen from me. While my friends learned to date and to be in relationships when they were teenagers, I started from scratch at age twenty-seven. The whole possibility of young love was already gone.

I find it particularly hard not to regret those lost years and wish I’d had more courage and come out earlier. My equality advocacy has been driven by my desire to make the world a better place for LGBT youth, so they don’t have to go through what I did.

The most difficult thing about the suffering I experienced was not being able to tell anyone. I suffered alone and in silence, with absolutely no support. I think about how wonderful it is to have a Sangha for support. Looking back on my years in the closet I realize that it was the exact opposite. The fact of not being able to tell anyone magnified my suffering a thousand times.

The Question of Marriage

A big source of suffering for LGBT people is the exclusion from marriage. It’s often said that love and marriage go together, but for same-gender couples this is usually not permitted. Only the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa have equal marriage. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts permits same-gender couples to marry but our marriages are not recognized by the federal government. Israel also recognizes our marriages, but they must be performed in another country.

Marriage is about many things, including love, commitment, intimacy, companionship, emotional support, financial support, children, and fidelity.

Some people argue that marriage is essentially about procreation, but many opposite-gender couples don’t have children and many same-gender couples do. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, studies show that children of same-gender couples do just as well as other children and are no more likely to be gay or lesbian themselves.

Simply put, marriage is the central and most prominent way in which society recognizes romantic love and commitment. Since being gay is defined by who you love, the exclusion or inclusion in marriage sends a powerful signal about our place in society.

Exclusion says our love is inferior to the love between a man and a woman. This message does us great harm, both in affirming anti-gay attitudes and also in telling LGBT people that there’s something wrong with us. Inclusion in marriage sends the message that we are not flawed because of our sexual orientation. It says that we are equally worthy of respect and consideration.

This is especially important for LGBT youth. This poignant letter to the editor was written when equal marriage legislation was before Canada’s Parliament:

“I wonder if those fighting so hard against same-sex marriage ever consider how much it means to gays. They don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager — when the pressure to conform is so great — and you experience the horror of realizing that you are gay. They can’t understand what it’s like to listen to your friends talk about how they hate queers and how they wish they were dead. You consider suicide, because you never want anyone to find out the truth about yourself; your shame is too great to bear.

“And these people can’t understand the hope that filled my soul when I first found out that Canada was considering allowing same-sex marriage. This legislation goes so far beyond marriage. It is a symbol. It represents the hopes and dreams of gays for a better world. Now that I’m 18, I can finally admit to myself that I am gay and no longer feel the shame that almost drew me to suicide. At least now I have hope.”

The Desire for True Love

My deepest aspiration is to understand my suffering and to transform it. At Plum Village Thay Phap An told me that most of us spend much of our time struggling with one particular issue, one that is based on a misperception of reality. This misperception acts like a prism, distorting how we see the world and causing us to suffer. Covering up this misperception is a block of pain that has been built up over the years.

My block of pain seems to revolve around my desire to find true love and my belief that I won’t, perhaps because there is something wrong with me, or perhaps because I am simply fated to be alone.

I have had many insights about the source of my suffering, usually when I cry during sitting meditation. This has happened many times when I recall a feeling from the past, such as the sadness and despair when my partner left me, or the fear that I will never find another. And then another thought will manifest, perhaps from a different time in my life, and I know that there is a connection between the two.

Slowly, slowly, I am chipping away at the block of pain that exists deep inside me. I still have a long way to go to get through the block of pain, and to see and penetrate the misperception that lies beneath it. I don’t know if I will ever get there, but I know I am on the path, and I have faith in that path. The more diligent my practice, the happier I am.

For example, sometimes I despair. But I identify it as despair, or perhaps a mix of despair, sadness and grasping, or whatever feelings I can identify. I observe my in-breath and out-breath. I remind myself that this is just a feeling, and that feelings come and go.

For much of my life I learned to suppress my feelings and to cut myself off from my body. But that did not end my suffering. If anything, it made the suffering worse and prevented me from taking positive action. My practice is helping me to re-connect with my body and to become whole again.

Feelings are not only in my mind, but also in my body. I find the feeling in my body and I describe it to myself. Perhaps the feeling is a tension between my shoulder blades, or tension from my neck extending outwards to each arm. I observe that this is how despair is manifesting in my body. When I release the tension in my body, the feeling also dissipates. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes I don’t have time to wait because I’m too busy at work and I just live with the tension until later.

Underneath despair I find joy. I have experienced this hidden joy many times. Sometimes I can even find joy without having to go through despair. If I just look around my body, I can almost always find somewhere that’s experiencing joy.

Smiling Through Tears

I have also observed that I need my Sangha to support my practice. It is so easy to practice at Plum Village, but so difficult to practice in the world, with the pressure of work, friends and the dominant western culture. My Sangha helps motivate me to be diligent.

My practice helps me transform my suffering into happiness. It gives me faith that there is a way out of suffering. It reminds me that my suffering is impermanent. With this awareness, I can smile through my tears.

mb48-OnLove2Laurie Arron, Faithful Embrace of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. He divides his time between Toronto and Ottawa and is a member of the Mindfulness Practice Centre of the University of Toronto and the Pine Gate Sangha.

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The Long Walk from War to Peace

By Larry Calloway

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Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam in May for several retreats followed by a United Nations conference was a triumph for his “engaged Buddhism.” Not only was his global influence evident at the conference, but he and four hundred retreat participants (most of us Westerners) were warmly received on a dramatic slow walk in the center of Hanoi.

Triumph perhaps is too military a term for the vindication of an eighty-two-year-old monk who teaches “peace is every step,” but his young life was defined by war, as was his ancient nation. Not until 2005 was he free to return after thirty-nine years — exiled first by the anti-communists, then by the communists.

Sponsoring this year’s UN Vesak Conference was a significant move for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which has been criticized for religious repression but is encouraging tourism and the recovery of ancient cultural traditions. The conference at Hanoi’s proud new National Convention Center included formal workshops on a variety of issues addressed by Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastic representatives. But because the world continues to suffer from “the scourge of war,” and perhaps because the conference was for the first time in Vietnam, the issues of war, conflict, and healing were foremost.

In his opening address, Phra Dharmakosajarn, one of the most prominent monks in Thailand, made the connection between world peace and Buddhism saying, “No doubt meditation and moral principles contribute to peace, since war begins in the minds of men.” Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh put it in his keynote address, “The roots of war and conflict are in us!”

Thay proposed “the idea of engagement,” he told us, in his first published article in 1954. It was “a time of great confusion” in Vietnam. (The French colonialists, defeated at Dien Bien Phu, were exiting and the Americans, covert sponsors of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, were entering.) As war formed in the minds of McNamara, Rusk, Bundy, the joint chiefs, the Kremlin, Mao, and others, the Vietnam Buddhists countered, in so many words: Leave Vietnam alone!

Perhaps because this was Vietnam, Thay’s Dharma talks in the eight-day retreat dwelt on the American war, as it is known there. The people of the small nation were

caught between foreign ideologies. “Everyone was willing to die for ideologies,” he said, but Buddhism teaches freedom from ideology. The fighting was with ideas and weapons from the outside. “How can you fight such a war? Brother against brother?”

In the early sixties Thay went often to the United States, where he would eventually study at Princeton, lecture at Cornell and teach at Columbia. He was a powerful multilingual anti-war speaker. But sometimes there was a problem. At a huge anti-war rally in 1966 a young man suddenly yelled, “Why are you here? You should be in Vietnam fighting the American imperialists!” In other words, Thay said, the man wanted him to fight, to kill Americans. He answered, “Well, I thought the root of the war was here — in Washington — and that’s why I have come.”

No Ordinary Protester

In Hanoi I met Paul Davis, who had a similar thought at an anti-war march in New York in the sixties. People started yelling, “Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh, you’re the one who’s gonna win.” That was never the point.

Paul was no ordinary protester. He had joined the United States Marines two weeks after his high school graduation in rural Ohio and landed at Da Nang in 1965, when the U.S. under President Johnson began direct combat operations. Davis was wounded in 1966, and while recovering in the U.S. appeared as a Marine on a panel at a college. Someone asked him if the Vietnamese wanted us there. He spun out a long response, and his interlocutor said, “You have not answered the question.” In a Zen-like, koan-like moment, Paul’s whole mental being suddenly dissolved. He held back tears. Somehow his life had changed forever.

More than ten years ago, after his son died in a car crash, Paul began attending Thich Nhat Hanh retreats. He now counsels Iraq war veterans and their families. In 2003, Paul obtained his Marine casualty report and followed the coordinates to the point where he was wounded. He recognized the distant horizon that he saw as he waited for evacuation. This was on Marble Mountain, near Da Nang, named for a pure white quarry. In the village below, dozens of shops now sell sculptures to tourists.

The War Remembered

The first morning in Hanoi I went walking around the lake (not the one John McCain dropped into) near the big government-built Kim Lien hotel that Plum Village had booked. I took photos of people walking, fishing, or just sitting by the pretty lake. There were young lovers. I was generally ignored except that some children were delighted to see their digital pictures and some old men stared at me coldly.

Later I told my discussion group that I felt the Vietnamese had forgotten the war, had moved on. Two Americans disagreed. But an expatriate Vietnamese man said the Vietnamese had not forgotten but they were used to war. The Americans were just another invader in a long history of warfare to which the nation is inured. This is a sentiment often heard in Vietnam.

One day I went to the National Fine Arts Museum and saw the artistic record of the war. There were a dozen impressions of Viet Cong guerrillas set in villages with women and often children looking on. The pictures carried a mood of grim determination and suffering. Americans were depicted as large and authoritative, including a captive pilot who was being beaten.

Hanoi also has a war museum that displays wreckage of American planes shot down, although it is not promoted for tourists. Near Saigon, however, a park called the Cu Chi Tunnels is on the tourist circuit. Here you can crawl forty feet in a dark, claustrophobic representation of the hundred miles of tunnels from which the Viet Cong attacked and vanished, unaffected by constant B52 bombardment and undiscovered by ground patrols. There are displays with mannequins representing the ingenious tricks of camouflage and cruel demonstrations of pitfalls and traps made from sharpened bamboo.

Once, our bus went through a crowded slum near the center of Hanoi and a Vietnamese woman who worked as a tour guide said, “I hate this neighborhood. It was destroyed in the Christmas bombing. There is a monument here to the dead.” The NixonKissinger bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong from December 18 to 30, 1972 was described by the Washington Post as “the most savage and senseless act of war ever visited … by one sovereign people over another.” Senate Leader Mike Mansfield called it “a stone age tactic.” Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator at the Paris peace talks, called it “barbarous and inhumane.” It was the last desperate U.S. air offensive in a war that had already been lost. Sixteen of the one hundred B-52s were shot down. The Paris Peace Accords would be signed January 27, 1973.

Morning at the Lake

Early one morning during the retreat, we boarded buses and took a walk along the shore of the central lake, Hoan Kiem, in downtown Hanoi. People were already out doing their morning jogging and aerobics. We left the buses and gathered at the tall statue of Ly Thai To, who moved the capital to Hanoi. There were the four hundred of us in gray robes, plus thirty or so monks and nuns in brown robes with conical reed hats. We walked along the old section of Hanoi and past the historic water puppet theater and turned around near the rock pile monument with the Chinese character for heaven and passed the red bow bridge that goes to an island shrine.

Funny thing, I thought. No police. No wise guys making nervous comments. No angry motorcycle drivers urging our slow-walking meditative line to clear an intersection. Just people watching, curious. Then, about half way through the demonstration, I noticed some of them were lining up along our way. And they were standing respectfully with their palms together at their hearts.

Back at the foot of Ly Thai To sat Thich Nhat Hanh, diminutive and smiling. Many of us sat around him, as if waiting for a lesson. Without comment, he took in the air and the morning sun and the trees and the birds and the lake, which was at our backs. He suggested that we all turn around, that the view was much better that way. He smiled. He was home.

Larry Calloway lives in the high mountains near Crestone, Colorado. A retired journalist, he recently received a Master’s degree in Eastern classics from St. John’s College of Santa Fe.

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Music & Mindfulness Network

Thay writes in No Death, No Fear: “The bodhisatthva of wonderful sound,

Gadgadashvara, can use music, writing and sound to awaken people… Among us are many writers, poets and composers who are using the wonderful ocean of sound to serve the way of understanding and love by making the Dharma doors, which the Buddha taught, more accessible … Your artistic creations are not just to help people forget their pain momentarily but to water the seeds of awakened understanding and compassion in others.”

The Music & Mindfulness Network is an initiative to create connections amongst mindfulness practitioners in whose lives music plays a big part: musicians of all genres & styles, music therapists, teachers and others who work with music professionally or engage in music privately. Through communication online and hopefully in person at future music retreats we aim:

  • to water our seeds of joy, creativity, inspiration, understanding, healing, and love
  • to create a space for sharing our visions and projects, experiences and questions, diffi culties and successes
  • to support each other by sharing information and resources, e.g., recommended reading and listening, funding bodies, practical knowledge,
  • to come together in the context of mindfulness practice to play music in its many varieties and share our work
  • to explore possibilities of collaboration
  • to find ways to nourish and deepen our collective practice
  • to make a positive contribution to society through music

At this year’s Summer Retreat in Plum Village eleven people from Argentina, Italy, Germany, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, Ecuador and the U.S. held a first informal gathering: guitar, cello, clarinet, tablas, and flute players, pianists and singers who want to keep in contact. The next step will be to create an interactive website for the purpose of communication & sharing.

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Media Reviews

mb65-MediaReviews1The Art of Communicating

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Hard cover, 166 pages
Harper One, 2013

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

The Art of Communicating contains a wealth of practical teachings and clear instructions about how to enhance relationships using thoughtful and intentional communication. In an era dominated by texting, emailing, tweeting, and posting, Thay suggests that many of us spend our time not actually communicating, and that the growing array of electronic devices (mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, etc.) is no assurance that effective or meaningful communication is taking place.

In a Dharma talk at Deer Park Monastery during the 2013 North America tour, Thay mentioned he hasn’t used a telephone for thirty years, and he happily reported that his communication with his friends and students is nonetheless rich and meaningful. Thay enjoys rich face-to-face contact and communicates through letters (not email), Dharma talks, and calligraphy. He explained that when his students are following their in-breath and out-breath and practicing mindfulness (sitting, walking, eating, deep listening, and loving speech), they are nonverbally connected to and communicating with him, because he is engaged in the very same activities.

Thay’s teachings in this book hone in on nourishing and healing communication and include specific instructions for how to reconcile with others using deep listening and loving speech when difficulties arise. My favorite chapter describes the Six Mantras of Loving Speech. These mantras “are six sentences that embody loving speech and let people know that you see them, you understand them, and you care for them. …They’re a kind of magic formula. When you pronounce them, you can bring about a miracle, because happiness becomes available right away.” Many of Thay’s students will be familiar with the fi four mantras: “Darling, I am here for you.” “I know you are there and I am very happy.” “I know you suffer and that is why I am here for you.” “I suffer, please help.” The two new mantras are: “This is a happy moment,” and “You are partially correct,” or as I’ve heard Thay say, “Yes, dear, you are right, but only fifty percent right.” In The Art of Communicating, Thay explains these new mantras and how to use them effectively.

Thay believes mindful compassion and loving communication have the power to heal us, heal our relationships, and heal the planet. He explains that love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive. He shows us how we can produce positive thoughts, speech, and actions that will feed our relationships and help them to thrive. The Art of Communicating will be a much referenced and extremely valuable how-to manual that readers can use to heal their relationships.

mb65-MediaReviews2Moments of Mindfulness
Daily Inspiration

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Paper over board, 160 pages
Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Gary Gach

Whenever I begin a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, I never know when I’ll be done. Sometimes years later. Sometimes never. Maybe you’ve had similar experience? You read a paragraph and––wow!––time to lay it down and ruminate. Digest. Contemplate. Understand. Make it real for yourself.

Moments of Mindfulness places Thay’s masterly way with words under a magnifying lens. It serves up fifty-two compact, fresh, nourishing, breath-sized Dharma morsels. Seven to seventy words, no two are alike. Peace is every word. All in all, they whisper, nudge, sparkle, startle, sing, embrace, liberate. Peace, too, is in the spaciousness surrounding the words.

On the cover and throughout, the book is illuminated by patterns of movement and growth drawn by Jenifer Kent. At the outset is a poem that’s also a guided meditation, nurturing the compassionate, correct view necessary at the beginning of the path. It’s followed by eleven pages by prolific Rumanian author Richard Reschika, outlining the rudiments of mindfulness. This preface includes a gatha by Thay, encapsulating the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. At the back, there’s a built-in notebook. In the center: Thay’s fifty-two gists and piths.

A single breathful of mindfulness can overcome the absentmindedness of 10,000 forgettable moments. It doesn’t take a wheelbarrow––sometimes just a thimbleful will do. Remember ancestor Hui Neng’s enlightenment, on the spot, hearing but one line from the Diamond Sutra. As contemporary, daily inspiration, such diamond-bright moments can provide the clarity that lends consistency to your conscious living and loving. As you approach a new obstacle or threshold, the reminders, landmarks, celebrations in this book can help see you through.

Mindfulness is more than calming: its compassion awakens insightful, transformative wisdom. Given the cynical and painfully dwindling attention span of our times, it’s an effective homeopathic remedy. Thay’s mindful moments are succinct postcards from our true home. We’re already in the divine kingdom, the pure land. Nirvana isn’t on the way. It is the way.

This book is a gift for the preservation of all beings, including adepts, those just setting out on the path, and those who don’t yet know it is available. The initials of the book spell MOM. These mindful moments give birth to us all.

mb65-MediaReviews3Everybody Present
Mindfulness in Education

By Nikolaj Flor Rotne and Didde Flor Rotne
Soft cover, 141 pages
Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Sandra Diaz

Everybody Present: Mindfulness in Education is a how-to manual designed for teachers who want to bring mindfulness into the classroom. It begins by briefl recounting the story of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the response of a monastic who lived near the school as a child. He explains: “As a community we need to sit down and learn how to cherish life, not with gun-checks and security, but by being fully present with one another, by being truly there for one another.”

Given the myriad challenges currently facing our educational system, how can educators create the conditions for a healthy classroom environment that can nourish our children and our society? The book aspires to answer the question of how teachers can fulfil “their ideals without being crushed by them” in order to “show the next generation a path toward a good future.”

Since experiencing mindfulness is key to understanding it and teaching it to others, the book contains basic practices for educators to become more mindful. Once educators begin to realize some of the benefit  themselves, they can begin to introduce the concepts in their classrooms. The book contains examples of practices for children, such as paying attention to their breath, walking meditation, and sharing gratitude. One of my favorite practices, called “eating the raisin,” encourages students to trace all the people involved in the making of a raisin, then draw a picture of one of the people in the cycle, and end by mindfully eating their raisin.

The book’s appendices will be helpful to those who like to know the science behind mindfulness. Topics include the physical symptoms of stress, how to manage heart rhythm in order to decrease stress, how different parts of the brain react to stress by releasing hormones, and how our neurons help to connect us to other beings.

mb65-MediaReviews4Everybody Present weaves children’s stories, neuroscience, social science, case studies, and practical exercises for educators and students. The authors emphasize the need for teachers to cultivate their own inner peace in order to manage their classrooms wisely and compassionately. As Thay has said, “Happy teachers will change the world.” Everybody Present provides tools that can assist those in the field of education to work through the daily and larger systemic challenges found in many classrooms and schools, and to cultivate stillness  and  grace  that can serve as an example to other teachers, principals, parents, and children.

mb65-MediaReviews5Room to Breathe

Produced and directed by Russell Long
Sacred Planet Films, 2012
DVD, color, 55 minutes

Reviewed by Ambrose Desmond

Room to Breathe is an inspiring new documentary about bringing mindfulness practice into schools. The fi follows Megan Cowan, a trainer and the Program Director of Mindful Schools, as she works with one San Francisco middle school class. Room to Breathe begins by exploring the classroom and the academic and behavioral challenges of the students in that class. Through interviews with the teacher, the students, and their parents, the film profiles the particular challenges of a few individual students.

At the beginning of the fi the portrait is not a hopeful one. Parents and teachers are trying unsuccessfully to motivate the students toward better behavior and engagement at school. The film clearly shows what a challenge it would be to make a significant impact in the lives of these students.

When Cowan arrives in the classroom, her first visit is nearly a failure. She is white, while most of the students are African-American and Latino, and the cultural distance is glaring. Many of her early struggles in connecting with the students seem to result from a lack of cultural competence. Yet over time, she builds authentic relationships with most of the children. One of the real strengths of the movie is that it presents a realistic picture of the challenges associated with trying to create change in a difficult classroom. During one scene, Cowan asks the students, “Who doesn’t want to participate in the mindfulness practice?” Most of the students raise their hands. However, through creative classroom management and truly admirable persistence, that dynamic undergoes a profound shift.

By the end of Cowan’s time with the class, most of the children seem engaged in the mindfulness practices. Some of them describe how they use mindfulness practice to control their impulses and make better choices. While this program is not portrayed as a panacea, it’s clear that some of the students have been profoundly affected by mindfulness practice and have integrated it into their lives. Because the film does not shy away from Cowan’s difficulties, it makes her obvious impact on the children even more inspiring. Room to Breathe is well made and highly engaging, and I believe that anyone interested in how mindfulness can transform society would enjoy watching this film.

Room to Breathe is available for community screenings and house party screenings. The filmmakers wish to encourage post-film discussions as a first step toward implementing mindfulness in schools. For information about hosting a screening, visit roomtobreathefilm.com.

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The Buddha’s Medicine

By Larry Ward

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Many of us understand the Buddha as a doctor who shared and continues to offer his medicine of the teachings and practice to us. This great offering is to help us in healing and transforming our individual and collective suffering. One can say the medicine of Buddhism is truly deep and lovely. It is the medicine of waking up the good within our hearts and minds.

Something today is different. And I’m kind of slow so it takes me a while to figure things out. What I finally realized is that for thousands of years the question of salvation has been “What must I do to be saved?” This is the central question of our spiritual traditions. But you and I live in the first moment in history in which this question is now expanded to “What must we do to be saved?” And by “we” I mean the whole planet. I mean every person, every race, every tribe, every nation, every organization and wholesome spiritual tradition. I am aware that this is a challenging way to describe the salvation question. However, it does not leave behind the question of individual liberation but dares us to remember our deep Bodhisattva vows.

It is not only humans and institutions who are asking this question of salvation. The snow-capped mountains and the deep blue oceans are asking the question. The trees and the land itself are calling to us: “What must we do to be saved?”

Opening Dharma Doors

We have been experimenting in the Plum Village Sangha with ways of opening Dharma doors in response to this question. I want to name a few of the doors for you so that you might get a fresh idea on a door you might open where you practice, where you live, and where you serve the Dharma.

Recently I was involved in leading a retreat for an organization in Canada that is committed to working with AIDS in Africa. The retreat was designed to help those involved in the aid work to be nourished and not to burn out or to be overwhelmed by the grief they experience every single day that they give their lives to the service of the children and the women and the men suffering from AIDS.

A few years ago we had a wonderful retreat for individuals involved in law enforcement and criminal justice — police officers, lawyers, parole officers, and social workers. We engaged that group of people in exploring what it means to be a Bodhisattva, what it means to engage mindfully in their work in the world. We offered the Five Mindfulness Trainings to many who desired to practice them in the context of their daily life and work.

I can tell you that the retreat, which was attended by several hundred people, was a transformational experience. I am sure that the communities and institutions they went back to serve found that the quality of kindness and thoughtfulness and compassion had been nourished and grown.

We’ve offered a retreat for individuals connected to the entertainment industry — filmmakers, artists, writers, and poets. It was held at Deer Park Monastery in Southern California, not far from Hollywood.

In the fall of last year we participated in a conference for people who are therapists and psychiatrists, called Mindfulness in Psychotherapy; 1800 people showed up at UCLA. Their capacity to embody mindfulness while they care for and serve their clients increased in wholesome ways.

We now offer annual family retreats for couples and for families with children. Young people are getting together for camps — songs, art, poetry, yoga, and meditation practice; this is a very successful annual gathering of young people. Students have had special retreats designed to introduce them to the benefits and principles of mindfulness practice.

Over the last few years we have offered “people of color” retreats in the United States for minorities to support these individuals and groups in the practice of mindfulness. This effort is enabling the teachings to go with people back to the neighborhoods, communities, and local institutions. I can report to you that there are schools in the United States where the classroom morning begins with the sound of the bell. I can report to you that there are young people in difficult situations who come to class and enjoy meditation and the tea ceremony.

Thay has already mentioned the work at Plum Village with Palestinians and Israelis, but you should also know that many of our colleagues are creating special initiatives on their own that are taking place every week, every day, to build peace and to foster reconciliation.

We have had gatherings of business people to talk about mindfulness and ethics and what it means to be a business person who practices mindfully. This includes mindfully developing products and mindfully managing their profit. The Buddha did not complain about business people, the Buddha only wanted to make sure that we made money the right way, without causing suffering, and that when we made it, we spent it the right way, without causing suffering.

We’ve had veterans’ retreats in the United States, for many years offered by Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. You may have already encountered the tremendous transformation and healing of some of the veterans of many wars, including the Vietnam War.

What We Are Learning

What we are learning through the process of offering so many different kinds of retreats and mindfulness days to so many different people and professions is three-fold. First, the post-modern mind or soul is seeking an experience of transformation and healing more than an explanation of transformation and healing. If an explanation comes along after I’m healed, or while I’m getting healed, it’s deeply appreciated.

The second thing we are learning is that offering the medicine of our tradition is not a matter of conversion. It is not a question of religious roots but rather a question of generating authentic aspiration. This is a matter of offering the Buddhist teaching with clarity and practical relevance through humble sincerity.

The third aspect is that this way of transmitting the teachings is about application and translation. Depth scholarship is certainly important but we must find new ways it can be applied to the suffering that is pervasive in our time and space. This is crucial if we are to untie the internal and social knots that block us from our best selves and best societies.

Seeds of a New Society

So the true value of the teaching is not trapped in the form of its delivery. Skillful means is one of the fundamental teachings the Buddha has given us to help living beings to relieve their suffering. The practices that we have been given by the Buddha and all of our teachers after him can be applied in every kind of situation — if we apply them without attachment to form.

In the midst of these very concrete retreats and mindfulness days we have found that sometimes the Dharma Gates of Liberation open wide. While sharing the practices of sitting, walking, eating meditation, deep relaxation, Dharma talks and discussion, deep listening, and loving speech, people find themselves not only healed but transformed.

If you look and listen closely, you will see that we are in the midst of a new kind of society. But the kind of society that you and I would be happy living in, and most people I know on this planet would be happy living in, is not yet here. The seeds of it are here. However, the new society that is just, democratic, and civilized can only take place on the ground of a new spiritual sensibility. And, brothers and sisters, we are that ground — the ground of that fresh spiritual sensibility of the post-modern age.

You may ask where the Buddha is in all of this. Master Lin Chi reminds us that the Buddha is not a statue. Other ancestral teachers remind us if we are going to find the Buddha we should look close, close to where we are, close to our heart, close to our own mind, or we will not find him, or we will not find her.

In closing I offer you a poem from this week’s experience:

We engage through our love,
opening 10,000 Dharma Doors
with a true mind and a true heart.
What do we call this urgency, this Buddhism?
It matters not.

The sun rises and the moon shines without confusion.
Listen to the frogs — do they remind you of anyone?
The bamboo chimes dance in the wind without clinging.
Our chants sing out beauty
like the birds greeting the morning sun.

We are here to be engaged, to remember the promise
we made, many lifetimes ago,
the promise not to leave anyone behind,
the promise not to ignore the suffering of any being.
The promise to remember our noble calling —
It has not changed.
It is still: Wake up, wake up, wake up.

Larry Ward is a Dharma Teacher in the Order of Interbeing and he is currently pursuing a doctorate in Religious Studies (Buddhism) from Claremont Graduate University in California. He is co-author with Peggy Rowe-Ward of  Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships (Parallax Press, 2008).

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Resurrection in the Present Moment

By Sr. Chau Nghiem

March 23, 2008, Cape Mountain Retreat Center, South Africa

Happy Easter to everyone! Easter is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection — resurrection is coming back to life, starting over. We each have a chance to come back to life in every moment. When we come back to our breath, when we really come back to our steps, to the food we are putting in our mouths, to what we are drinking, to what we are saying, we have a chance to come back to life. We can be there in that moment and not be dead to the reality in front of us — not lost in thoughts and worries. The only moment we have is the present moment. It’s the only place where we can really be alive and touch life.

So as we celebrate Easter and the renewing of life, we can touch the resurrection of each of our lives. This retreat is a kind of coming back to life, to touch what is really good and true and beautiful in each of us, in our lineage, our ancestors, and descendants.

We can always begin anew and return to the goodness in us. The present moment contains the past and also the future. What is the present moment but a continuation of the past? What is the future but a continuation of this present moment?

What we do in this present moment is extremely important.

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The past can be healed in the present moment; we don’t have to worry about the future if we know how to dwell solidly in each breath, in each step.

The past is not separate from the present. What happened in the past still exists in us — things we have done and said, things that we may not have had control over, things that other people have done or said. In fact our cells carry memories. By dwelling deeply in the present moment, we can massage those things in our body and consciousness and liberate ourselves from the wounds of the past — individually and collectively.

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Rediscovering Grandparents

I want to tell you a story of a time when I was able to heal wounds from my past. When I was not yet a nun, I went on a twenty-one-day retreat with my dad, led by Thay and the monastics in the U.S. He had been talking about the Five Touchings of the Earth and explained how we can heal our ancestors in us.

My father married my mother in the late nineteen-sixties. My mother is African-American. You know that my father [Dharma teacher Al Lingo] is European-American. My parents are black and white. My father’s parents were very upset. They never met my mother and they didn’t want to meet us when we were born (my brother is three and a half years older than me). When my parents divorced when I was seven or eight, my dad made contact again with my grandparents and we were able to visit them in Houston, Texas. I was eight when I first met them, and my brother was eleven. They were lovely and very warm to us. We were their only grandchildren. We visited them every year. Six years later, when I was fourteen, my granddad died. My grandmother passed away ten years after this so I got to be with her for another ten years. They were very kind to us. They helped my dad treat us to trips to amusement parks and they made sure we had all the foods we liked to eat.

I didn’t think too much about that experience growing up. I was at that retreat and one afternoon I went to the meditation hall to sit by myself and get in touch with my ancestors, as Thay had been teaching us. I just sat and began to breathe and think about my grandparents. A feeling of deep suffering came up towards my grandparents, a huge anger that they had excluded us from their life for eleven years. I felt a deep sense of rejection. I breathed with it as ) had been learning to do. ) embraced it; ) allowed it space to be there. I cried and cried, and I held it with tenderness.

Healing Ancient Wounds

As that emotion was being lullabied by my breathing and my mindfulness, it began to calm. I began to think, “Well, why were they like that? Why did they close their hearts to us?” I saw that they were raised in a completely segregated South, totally white. My grandfather was poor growing up and he made it into the upper middle class through his own intelligence and hard work and lots of help from a society that supported him. But he was a product of all the seeds that were watered in him in that time and place. I saw how much he loved my brother and me and how much excluding us from his life had hurt him. I saw that he was stuck, he didn’t want to be that way, but he didn’t know how to be different. I was also very grateful that he was able to break out of this trap to some extent before he died and have a genuine relationship with his grandchildren.

In that moment, the past was very available to me. I stayed with my breathing, and my grandfather was resurrected in me. I felt so much love for my grandfather. I knew he wasn’t gone to me and that we were still very connected. I’m so proud that I am my grandfather’s granddaughter! There were so many things he was talented at; there was a lot of gentleness, wisdom, and compassion in him. I benefit from that and I want to carry that on. And I know that’s what he wants me to do. I feel a great deal of support and love from and for him now, and my anger and resentment that was buried in me for all those years is completely transformed.

When we really take care of ourselves in the present moment and listen to our own pain and suffering, listen as a mother listens to her child — with tenderness, compassion, openness, acceptance — we can understand our suffering and we can heal our past.

Making Time for our Ancestors

The practice of Touching the Earth can help our ancestors be resurrected in us and help us start afresh, because we have a chance that they may not have had. So when we speak about collective healing — healing the suffering of our nation and our people — we can do that by being very mindful of how we live in this present moment. Our ancestors are us, so whatever we do our ancestors are doing.

One practice that we encourage everyone to do is to set up an ancestors’ altar in your home and spend time there every day.

In Vietnam people have an ancestors’ altar in their home; and anything of importance they report to their ancestors. When their child has his or her first day at school, the parents come before the altar, light a stick of incense, and let the ancestors know, “Today your grandchild or great-grandchild is going to school for the first time.” In many places throughout Africa, people do much the same thing.

It’s very healing to call upon our ancestors, because we are so much more than what we think; we are not this separate self.

When we can be in touch with this whole lineage of people who care about us, we have some energy. We don’t know where it comes from, but somehow we have energy to do things that we didn’t have energy to do before. We also have a sense of responsibility because we are aware of the expectations that our ancestors have of us and of the healing that they deeply need. So the choices that we make shift when that awareness deepens in us.

You could put a picture of your parents or your grandparents and just sit and breathe with your ancestors regularly. There is an illness in our society of isolation, loneliness, fear, the inability to connect to other people. When we can heal our connection to our ancestors, we’ll find more and more ways to make connections with people in our lives.

At times I can really touch my ancestors and I feel them very alive in me. They have a great sense of humor. They help me laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously. And they are full of love and compassion for me, too, when I am still enough to be available to them. They let me know that I will never be lost or abandoned, and they ask me to spend more time with them, to take more time to connect, to honor and remember them.

When we talk about healing collective suffering, collective trauma, it has to start with our own personal resurrection. To begin anew in history, to make a really different step as a human race, we start with being compassionate with our body, our mind, our ancestors, our family, our relationships.

The Pain of Exclusion

The experience on this retreat of exclusion, of feeling separate from the people in the village, I’m so grateful that it’s come up, painful and awkward and potentially volatile as it is. People have been coming here for some time and there wasn’t any event that brought the two groups together. Now this occasion of the village children being excluded from our bonfire last night has brought up the real suffering that exists, so we can’t go on with business as usual. It’s good that it’s painful, that this touches some deep suffering and confusion in us. It touches also a deep aspiration for things to change, for us to be able to connect and be free.

We have a chance to apply the practice — to take care of our own feelings, to speak mindfully with each other about it, and to look at how to respond with compassion. We don’t want to close our eyes before suffering, we don’t want to say “Well, that’s their business. We’re just here on retreat, why stir things up?”

Just as our own emotions need to be embraced, racism is a collective emotion that needs to be embraced — it is fear of the Other. We’re so used to thinking of discrimination as evil, so we don’t want to be associated with it. We know we are not like that! But we relate in the same way to our own difficult emotions — we push them away. Racism needs to be acknowledged and tenderly embraced as a collective. We have the compassion and wisdom, the Buddha seed in us, to look deeply at racism, classism, and all the various isms in us that tend to push others away.

We need to wake up together and look at it. People are already doing this in many places so it’s not something we have to create from scratch. The separation that exists in South Africa is no different from the separation that exists in other places. It may be felt quite acutely here, but it is everywhere. Our minds create the world. War and discrimination come from our minds. If we didn’t have violence in our minds, we wouldn’t create war.

The Grand Requiem Masses in Vietnam

I want to share about the Grand Requiem Masses that we did in Vietnam on our trip with Thay last year.

Thay returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2005. The Communist government thought he would cause an uprising against them, but he was so skillful and loving in his speech that they learned they didn’t need to fear him. Thay tenderly expressed the good qualities of the government and spoke very skillfully: “Why don’t you open up more? … You can do better and this will make people happier.” Because of his skillfulness, people listened. He gave talks to members of the Communist Party, and Thay said to them, “You know, the monks and nuns, we don’t have our own private cars, cell phones, or bank accounts. We’re the true Communists!” And they laughed, they weren’t angry. He was able in a very loving way to touch the need in the Communist Party to reduce corruption and materialism. So they allowed us to come back in 2007.

One of the main reasons we went was to engage in ceremonies to heal the suffering of the war. The pain had been suppressed, it was not allowed to come up and be expressed. They were three-day ceremonies of healing where people wrote down the names of their loved ones who had been killed in the war or who had been killed escaping by boat. We performed ceremonies in the South in Saigon, in the Center in Hue, and in the North in Hanoi. There were huge altars with food and fruit, and then pages and pages stapled to the altars with the names of thousands of people — where and how they died, some of starvation, some killed in the forest, some from a land mine.

We began our chanting, inviting all these souls who had died violently in the war to be a part of this healing. And they came; we felt their presence. I was crying tears that weren’t mine and many of us experienced something coming through us to be released — some pain that had been kept down and was able to be released on a collective level. We were encouraged to practice very uprightly, to really be mindful and kind, to be aware of our speech and actions, during those three days. Everyone had to make a special altar outside of their house, to pray for the healing of their family members who had died, and Thay gave talks every morning. I experienced the healing of my own blood and land ancestors in those ceremonies. On the third day of the ceremony, after quite a heat wave, it rained. It did that at each of the three ceremonies — on the last day it rained.

Transformation of the Collective

We can create spaces of healing and resurrection in our communities, by allowing pain to be expressed but held in a very tender, loving, compassionate container of mindfulness. When I first heard about these ceremonies in Vietnam, right away I thought, “Oh, we need these ceremonies in the U.S.” So much suffering is being passed on from one generation to the next. The absurdity of violence in the U.S., with ten-year-old children shooting classmates and teachers in school, is pain from ancestors that has not been healed. The brutality of this deep separation here in South Africa is pain that has not been addressed from our ancestors. If we can address and release that, our future generations will be free to live a very different kind of life.

mb50-Resurrection3I’m thinking about how to do some kind of a spiritual healing ceremony that is appropriate for Americans to address the wounds of Native American genocide, slavery, segregation, the witch hunts, and other deep, national wounds. We can also think about this here. I want to invite us all to meditate together, particularly on the situation that has arisen in this retreat. It is clear that whatever we want to suppress will come up some how, some way. We are asked to walk around the village, but we end up meeting some children from the village on the detour we take to the meditation hall. We are so naturally attracted to them! The urge to separate, it can never win! We want to connect; we want to love each other. It’s so natural, so human.

I was very happy to hear some of you share before the walking meditation about how important it is to be skillful and look deeply — not just act out of our goodwill and good intention — but to really think about the best response to this difficult situation.

It’s just not true that we aren’t connected to the colored people in the village. It’s just not true that it doesn’t matter what happens, that we can go about our retreat here and not be impacted by that kind of inequality. To see this, that’s the practice.

Maybe we can find a way as a community to make a true and deep response to this suffering. We know the farmer feels it, the retreat caretakers feel it, the villagers feel it. Everyone is victimized by this kind of separation. Everyone is crippled somehow by this narrow heart, the inability to include. I hope that out of this retreat, we will have a beautiful, strong Sangha that meets regularly in Cape Town. We have a meeting Monday night to be together and offer our support to creating a Sangha. So we can continue to look at how we can respond to this on Monday night.

I want to close by expressing my gratitude to all of you for being here, for having the courage to come on this retreat — for having the willingness to love, to open yourself up to transformation for yourself, your family, your society. All of us who have come here feel enriched and grateful for this time with you.

Sister Jewel, Chan Chau Nghiem, received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2007 in Vietnam. She currently resides at the new European Institute for Applied Buddhism in Waldbroel, Germany.

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Healing Separation

 By Sr. Thuan Nghiem and Sr. Chau Nghiem

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We held our retreat at the Cape Mountain Retreat Center, a two-hour drive from Cape Town. Thirty adults and eight children came and practiced for three days, many of them for the first time in our tradition. They were professionals, and most were white, though there were a few Indian South Africans, a Burmese woman, and a Xhosa boy, adopted by a white South African mom. The three Dharma Teachers took turns leading the adults’ activities as well as the children’s program.

We experienced very directly the painful residues of apartheid during the retreat. The retreat center was on land rented from a local farmer. On our way to the large meditation hall was a village of colored people* who worked for the white farmer. We met a number of colored children on our walks there who smiled at us with so much desire to connect. We invited the village children to the bonfire we had planned for Saturday night. They happily agreed to come. They were very poor and we heard there was always a lot of drinking in the village over the Easter holiday, so we wanted to provide them with a more wholesome atmosphere and give a chance for the village children and retreat children to enjoy playing together. When the retreat caretakers learned we’d invited the colored children, they informed the farmer and he insisted that the caretakers let the children know that they couldn’t attend the bonfire as there was a farm policy of no contact between retreatants and villagers. We were told that this policy was due to misunderstandings in the past between the Buddhist retreatants and largely Christian colored community, but we also knew it was quite common on South African farms to hold onto traditions of racial separation and inequality. The caretakers went to the village Saturday afternoon and told the children they were not allowed to come.
They either didn’t get the message or disobeyed, because at dinnertime, fifteen or so very nicely dressed children came down to the bonfire. We went to greet them and begged the caretakers to let them join us. They were insistent that the farmer’s rules be followed as after all, we were on his land, and we wouldn’t be there to receive the fallout of our actions, either on the caretakers or the villagers. While we didn’t want to be intimidated, we wanted to be respectful of our hosts, but we felt extremely upset and helpless in the face of such blatant exclusion and discrimination. We continued with the bonfire, without the village children, but there was definitely something missing and the energy was dampened.

The next morning, before we transmitted the precepts, I asked everyone to join hands and requested that we send the merit of our transmission ceremony to the village children who had been excluded from the bonfire, to the retreat center caretakers and to the farmer. I asked that we use the merit of the ceremony to water the seed of inclusiveness in each of us and help us to find better ways to create connections with those that are different from us.

One beautiful thing happened after the kids’ Easter egg hunt: we invited the village children to share in the bounty of Easter eggs. We got to take pictures all together and enjoy their delight in the Easter eggs. There was a meeting at the end of the retreat in which we decided to draft a letter to the retreat center owners sharing about the painful experience we had and asking that action be taken to remedy this policy of separation. The letter has been delivered and the newly formed Cape Town Sangha is following up with the retreat owners.

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* ‘Colored’ is the term used in South Africa for people of mixed Dutch and African ancestry. They speak Afrikaans and consider themselves distinct from both white and black South Africans.

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A Sangha With Heart

mb51-ASangha1By Jim Scott-Behrends, Natascha Bruckner, Miriam Goldberg

Three practitioners express — in very different voices — appreciation for the Heart Sangha in Santa Cruz, California.

The Beauty of Our Practice

In the cool of the evening, mindful steps cross the wooden deck. On the porch of the Zendo a sign invites Noble Silence. Every Monday evening members of the Heart Sangha gather at the Zen Center of Santa Cruz. Coming from a diversity of backgrounds we find our common thread in practice inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich Nhat Hanh has referred to Sangha building as the most important activity we can participate in. The Heart Sangha has made this proposition a priority by sharing a commitment to a sustainable practice rooted in emancipation and joy. As in architecture Sangha building relies on a strong foundation. We find this foundation in the Mindfulness Trainings and the basic principles of wisdom and compassion in our tradition.

According to Thay, “[t]he main purpose of a Sangha is to practice and support mindfulness, openness, and love. Organize in a way that is most enjoyable for everyone. You will never find a perfect Sangha. An imperfect Sangha is good enough. Rather than complaining too much about your Sangha, do your best to transform yourself into a good element of the Sangha. Accept the Sangha and build on it.”

The beauty of our practice is the generosity of spirit that is evident each time we meet. We are a family with a common purpose. With warmth, love and humor we pursue the way of awakening.

A recent experience in my life reinforced my gratitude for the Sangha. Last year my mother was having a string of medical issues after eighty-nine years of good health. Each time I drove to Southern California to visit her, the Heart Sangha was with me. Holding my mother’s hand and feeling the progressive weakness of her energy, I could feel the strength of the Sangha supporting me. When I returned and sat with the Sangha, my sadness was alleviated when it was held in the larger vessel of the Sangha body. I did not need to hold it within myself. In sharing stories of my Mom and her life of service to others I could feel the warmth and care of the Sangha. The unspoken power of their deep listening provided a space of healing for me. When my Mom died in November my Sangha brothers and sisters offered their true presence.

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Day by day, month by month, year by year we investigate and explore the breadth of our tradition. From the importance of mindfulness in our daily lives to our engagement in the wider world, we benefit from our Sangha practice. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Whether practicing together as a family, a Sangha, or a nation, we have so many opportunities to grow in our capacity to understand and to love. Each moment and each day is an opportunity to begin anew, to open the door of our hearts, and to practice together for our own transformation and healing and for the transformation and healing of our families and our world.” Practicing together in this way we are discovering the path of living peacefully in the present moment and living joyfully together.

— Jim Scott-Behrends,
True Recollection of  Compassion

Reaching Out from the Heart Sangha

Our Sangha reminds me of an octopus.

An octopus has many arms and hands, like Avalokiteshvara, whose hands each hold a unique tool to relieve suffering. Each person in our Sangha is like an arm reaching out from the Sangha body, from the heart.

One person volunteers at the food bank; one advocates for immigrants; one raises money to help children in Gaza; one organizes a Sangha beach cleanup. There are several psychotherapists, a farmer, a doctor, a T’ai Ch’i teacher, a Hospice caregiver, a counselor for veterans.

We come together on Monday evenings to rest in the heart of our practice. The heart is the circle where we sit in silence together, the circle we walk with mindful steps, the circle of our arms in hugging meditation. Like blood that circulates back to the heart, we are nourished and energized when we return to our center circle every week.

Strengthened by our return to the Heart Sangha, we extend out into the world again, putting mindfulness and compassion into action, building Sangha in our greater community with acts of kindness and love.

— Natascha Bruckner,
Benevolent Respect of the Heart

Branches and Roots

The Heart Sangha is a gentle, loving gathering of people who prefer guiding principles to set forms. We all value the Mindfulness Trainings, loving kindness, spaciousness, and the joy of practice.

Over many many months, I have learned that Sangha building has become a profound inner exploration of inclusion, a dynamic practice of my willingness to release the deep belief in my isolation into the acknowledgment of interbeing. It calls me to explore and heal that which is below the surface, close to the roots. If I find myself fearing isolation, exclusion, comparisons, competition, it calls me to hold myself present in mindfulness to discover what in me is so frightened … and how to receive that part and hold it in the light of deep understanding.

When I open with tender vulnerability and let myself receive the love and wisdom from Sangha, not blindly, but with the clear eyes and open heart born of mindfulness practice, and see the essential light, beauty, Buddha mind in each one of us, I know that we are all cherished. The tree of Sangha develops stronger roots.

Each person’s strong individuality strengthens the love and also offers challenges and richness to our commitment to safeguard the unique perspectives of each person present, and hold everyone within the tenderness of deep sharing. We stretch and drop down to hold the tension of daring to listen and include each other even when our opinions differ. It is a very special environment, cultivated by all of our efforts to receive each person deeply, and allow each one’s gifts to nourish us all.

We are encouraged by those who naturally build Sangha through tending the lush branches of the tree, extending, stretching and waving to many, and by those whose natural gesture is to drop inward towards the root. Together, we nourish the whole. Together, we gather under the tree, and smile. And that smile fills the universe.

— Miriam Goldberg
True Recollection of Joy

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Letters

Dear Editor,

I know the suffering of bipolar illness and suicide, so reading Janice Rubin’s story (Winter/Spring 2010) touched deep chords in me. Having lost my father to suicide when he was 46, and I was 15, the pull to “follow my father into death” was so strong that in my 46th year, I had to be hospitalized. My younger brother took his own life at age 46 in 1986. My daughter was diagnosed bipolar after the birth of her first child—so I am familiar with the extraordinary suffering of the mother.

Thich Nhat Hanh arrived at San Francisco Zen Center in 1983 and his teachings saved my life. I took them to heart. I attended two retreats in Plum Village and others in California. Due to practicing his teachings, I have become a strong and healthy 72-year-old, delighted that my daughter is finding healing in therapy. Thay’s teachings that enabled deep healing for me are numerous; among them are walking meditation, understanding how transformation of the storehouse consciousness occurs, letting go of mental formations, and awareness of the Four Nutriments. When Thay read “Please Call Me by My True Names” at Green Gulch Farm, and named the suffering and consequences of rape, decades of deep suffering were released in me, as I cried and cried, hearing this suffering acknowledged by a man. I owe much of my present life, happy, healthy and strong, as well as that of my daughter, to Thay’s teachings.

— Katharine Cook, Flower Essence of the Heart

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Generation to Generation

By Judith Toy

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Faces of the children I work with—victims of great violence and injustice—file through my heart during meditation. What do these children and their families need in order to heal? Only loving attention.

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When fifteen-year-old Dee first came to us at the Strengthening Families Program (SFP) in Asheville, she brightened the room, chattering non-stop about her training in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and an after-school program. Dee’s family does not include a father. Because she was in the throes of alcoholism, her mother, Louise, left Dee with her grandmother, who routinely beat Dee with a yardstick. Louise, who had also been beaten, is now in recovery. When she came to us, Louise had only recently regained custody of her daughter and was desperate to re-bond with her child.

Two Dharma sisters, Susan Hales and I, share an office at the SFP, cherishing the opportunity to realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Our federally funded program is free to families. Over fourteen weeks, we teach families interaction skills based on a rich, award-winning curriculum. With several staff members on hand to model dinner table conversation, we share a mindful meal, a family ritual which seems to be lost to TV. After dinner—no highly processed food or sugar—children attend class with two youth facilitators. Susan and I begin each class with breathing and stretching exercises. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Inhalation and exhalation are a kind of prayer to invoke inner peace.

The children learn peer refusal skills, how to identify their feelings, problem solve, and empathize. Their parents—in a separate class with parent facilitators—learn how to better understand themselves and their children, set boundaries and consequences, stay calm, play with their children, problem solve, and empathize. Finally, they learn to help their kids build on their goals and dreams. An hour later, the two groups join a family class to practice what they have learned. Often we use games and artwork to convey deep truths.

Dee and her mother joined this program at a critical moment. There are two times in a child’s life when the brain is completely plastic: ages two and fifteen. This may account for the fact that fifteen-year-olds are often at odds with their parents, because they can see clearly that what their parents say does not mesh with what they do. It is time for them to individuate—to carve out their own values and ethics. This is difficult if the family’s values and ethics are unclear. So, we try to help parents name their family strengths by teaching good seed watering. “Catch your teen doing something good,” we say to parents. And to the teens, regarding their parents: “You can attract more butterflies with honey.”

Mindfulness helped me put myself in Dee’s shoes. What would it feel like to have no father, to lose your mother, to be abused by your grandmother? Through mindfulness, I could model a calm and patient authority for her newly sober mother. One of the ways we guide parents is to help them set boundaries. Time and again, I see kids respond favorably when their parents are able to set firm rules with reasonable consequences and stick to them. Kids interpret this attention as love.

When Louise began to set boundaries, and Dee fi y realized she would not be hit if she went outside the lines, Dee pushed them. One evening she arrived with a new piercing—a ring in her lip.

Louise had been away on business, and Dee pierced her own lip with a sterilized needle. What delusions needed to be punctured? Louise hit the ceiling when she returned home. She was new to her daughter, and didn’t know how to cope.

Dee was upset at her mother’s reaction, which she said was to throw a loud temper tantrum and lock her out of the house in the cold. I took Dee aside. In tears, and picking at her skin, she told me living with her mother was not working out. She wanted to leave the household and live with her aunt. She was afraid of her mother’s temper. I saw that part of Dee’s fear stemmed from mistreatment at the hands of her grandmother. This is, because that is! In families, we see the flower in the root of the plant. I could see the seeds of rage and dark mental formations that had been carried from generation to generation. Educator and visionary Rudolf Steiner expressed the larger implications of right livelihood with children well: “The way I work with every growing child has significance for the whole universe.”

At a staff meeting, we processed the family problems. To ensure that Louise would continue to attend class and that she did not feel cornered, we decided to set a meeting for her, Dee, and three staff members after graduation, a few weeks away. The happy ending to this story is that by the time graduation rolled around, mother and daughter were reconciled, Louise had learned ways to take care of her anger, Dee had learned that her mother cared enough to set boundaries, and both of them gave SFP an amazing testimonial at the ceremony.

Names and circumstances of SFP participants have been changed to protect the families.

mb55-Generation3Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, is a senior OI member who, with her husband Philip Toy, guides retreats around the U.S., and this summer, in Ireland and Scotland. They have founded three Sanghas, one in a medium security prison. Judith practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in North Carolina. She is former associate editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

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The Freedom of True Love

By Keri R. Hakan

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I believe that freedom can be found in true love. My husband and I dated for about ten years and then were married for eight. He passed on in July 2010 from pancreatic cancer. In our eighteen years together, we taught each other a great deal about life and love, without the intention of doing so, but by simply respecting, accepting, and caring for each other in good times and in “bad” times. Our connection was a bond that intertwined us and made us stronger as individuals and as a couple.

I was in my early twenties and in college when we met, and Paul was slightly older. The first time we ever saw each other, there was an instant attraction and connection. When we started dating, I was pleasantly surprised by how respectfully he treated me and how safe I felt with him.

A few years into our relationship, Paul got very sick and almost died from a rare, benign tumor in his intestines. This condition came on without warning in a man who had not had so much as a sniffle in the time we had been together. I would go to my classes and then head to the hospital to sit with him. Paul was my first serious relationship and I loved him, but I was not sure how to handle this situation. The beautiful, intelligent, talented musician that I knew was now lying in a hospital bed being prepped for surgery and waiting to find out if this tumor was cancerous. This was not the “happily ever after” future that I had romanticized, read about, and seen on television. This was messy, crazy life. Was I ready for this? Was he? Yes, as it turned out, we were.

At My Side

He recovered from that illness, but it was a precursor of what was to come. In February 2007, five years after we were married, I suffered a brain abscess that almost killed me and left me with serious side effects. My left leg, arm, hand, and foot were almost useless for several months, and I required a lot of therapy and assistance. Paul was at my side the entire time. The only time I felt confident that I would recover was when he was with me. He had to take care of everything, including me, as well as go to work each day. He did it. Every morning he got me out of bed, dressed me, took me downstairs, and made sure I took my medicines and ate breakfast. Then he went to work. He came home on his lunch break to check on me and eat with me. He did this for a year.

I felt very guilty that my young husband had to take care of me this way, but whenever I said anything about that, he would stop me and assure me that he knew I was getting better every day because he could see it in me. When he would tell me that, I believed it. He loved me in my weakest physical and emotional states. He did not see a woman who had lost all her hair, had a huge incision on her head from brain surgery, and was unable to do the simplest human tasks, like walk normally. He saw his wife, the woman he loved. For this love, respect, and compassion I am extremely grateful, because they are the reason I was able to recover.

The Love of My Life

When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2008, it seemed like a nightmare or a horrible joke that was being played on us. Were we being tested? Paul was my rock. How could this be happening? I questioned it all the time, not wanting it to be reality. One night, a dear friend said to me, “Keri, you know that you can handle this; you do know that, don’t you?” I did not know it at the time. My own health ordeal was one thing, but now the love of my life was being threatened. This was an entirely new ball game.

Paul and I sat down together and had several deep, meaningful conversations about what this meant for us and how to deal with it. We made the conscious decision together to be positive, no matter what happened, and to believe in each other. We set our compasses and moved forward into these new rough waters together. Paul entrusted his life to me. He allowed me to take care of him as I saw fit. I mustered everything I had learned about being seriously ill and recovering, and applied to Paul many of the same elements that he had used during my illness. He realized he had to take care of himself and deal with past situations that had festered in him emotionally. He began practicing Tai Chi and qigong and doing other self-awareness work that included being present, releasing the past, and not being concerned with the future. Meditation helped him attain the ability to live in the present moment.

A Sea of Freedom

I also began these practices, and the release that came from practicing mindfulness meditation was like a tidal wave washing away negative energies, worries, and fears. The sun shone brightly through any clouds at those times, as it does for me today. We both marveled at how in touch we were with our bodies and the energies that flowed through us, especially when we concentrated on our breathing.

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In the hospital during Paul’s last weeks on earth, I recited the guided meditation “In, out, deep, slow; calm, ease, smile, release; present moment, wonderful moment,” several times to help him relax and fall asleep. It was the only thing that worked. I believe that because of meditation practice, Paul lost the fear of cancer and death, and realized that there was more beyond his diseased body. We both made the connection between our emotional states of mind and our illnesses, and believed that our bodies and minds were one, as Thay says. Much freedom came to us from living and loving mindfully.

Our illnesses taught us that the love and happiness we shared for so many years was a special connection that not everyone experiences. We appreciated each other and the life we had in us every day, and living mindfully in the present moment helped us to do that. Paul taught me that no matter what is going on, there is room for opportunity, compassion, love of one’s self and others, gratitude, and joy.

We loved and lived these past two and a half years with gusto and with cancer, and it was brilliant. True love and the realization that we were living it allowed us to swim in a sea of freedom that can only be described as divine. Even now, after Paul’s passing, that gift continues to warm my heart and mind and enrich my being.

Keri R. Hakan is thirty-seven years old. In early 2010, she and her husband started meditating with The Heartland Community of  Mindful Living Sangha in Kansas City, MO. She recently relocated to Portland, OR.

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The Diamond Within

By Hans

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The Third Mindfulness Training is about integrity, about attacks and defense, and about sexual abuse. Sexual energy is a very strong force. It can be an extremely destructive fire if it is not embedded in the safety of love. If someone is sexually assaulted, the reaction is to protect oneself by raising a shield, like putting on an iron harness. It provides protection, but it also blocks communication. It is a prison … no openness, no space, no freedom, just loneliness and fear. If someone is abused, he or she is put into a prison from which it is very difficult to get out.

When I was nine years old, my parents were killed in a car accident. After losing them, I realized that I had to take care of a lot of things myself. One of these things was to join people who could help me. I met a family that matched very well with my own background. Gradually we grew toward each other until we considered each other as family. We shared many happy moments. Some years later, my foster father showed interest in a sexual relationship with me. He talked about it often and one time he tried to abuse me. At that time I was quite strong and quick and I prevented him from abusing me. From that time on, my feelings about the family were ambiguous. On the one hand I needed the family, and on the other hand there was danger in the family. I felt suspicious; the family had lost part of its safety and trust. I found myself playing a role rather than being spontaneous. Home seemed to be polluted. I felt less freedom, less expression, less growth. I was surrounded by an unseen prison.

I Had to Live

Much later, all of the family got to know my foster father’s abusive activities, because they were not limited to me. I saw the damage that was done within and outside the family. By that time I was a father myself. My wife and I realized that our child might be at risk. As often happens, the family tried to restore harmony by forgiving and forgetting. For me, it resulted in a moral conflict I could not live with. I chose to leave the foster family and saw them no more.

My decision had effects that were difficult to deal with. I was ill for almost a year. I experienced hell, mentally and physically, especially at night. I tried to cope in many ways, with help from my wife, from friends, from therapists and doctors. I studied, changed work, and tried my best to be a good father and husband. One day I found myself walking in nature beside a small forest stream, suddenly discovering that I had the wish to exist no more. I also realized that I had to live, because I did not want my kids to have the same pain I had myself: to be without a father. One month later I realized that an unhappy father will cause unhappy children and an unhappy wife. I decided that I had to become happy, even though I did not feel capable of change anymore.

I took a book, The Way to Happiness, by the Dalai Lama, from my wife’s bookshelf, and started doing exercises in our attic every day, meditating on emptiness and compassion. After most meditations I fell into a calm, deep sleep, without nightmares. After a few weeks my wife asked, “What are you doing in the attic? Whatever it is, it has a very positive effect on you.” The next summer we traveled to Plum Village for the first time. Since then, there is more and more space, freedom, and happiness in me and my family. Not all is easy, but a lot of things have changed for the better.

Look for the Diamond

Many women and men are damaged by abuse. They live in prisons. They may have defensive or aggressive communication. But this is not who they really are … it is only the expression of their pain. Within the hard walls of their prison is a diamond. We should always look for the diamond, because the diamond within is what we really are.

The Third Mindfulness Training provides a clear formula that can be used as a very practical tool to start discussions about the difficult subject of sexual abuse. It can be applied to start to repair damage caused by abuse and as a tool for prevention. In Plum Village, I shared my story with the audience, using the text of this training. It proved to be a very constructive and powerful vehicle to communicate my pain and for others to respond. For days, it opened discussion and gave space for many people’s pain to be liberated. This is what happened in Plum Village and this is what I hope will happen in many more places. The training should not only be contemplated; the words of the text can be used in many situations in practical life.

mb56-TheDiamond3Hans, Mindful Commitment of the Heart, teaches at a school for physical therapists. Recently, at a retreat in Plum Village, he enhanced his skills in teaching mindfulness. He trains his students to use mindfulness to transform any learning challenges into strengths.

mb56-TheDiamond4The Third Mindfulness Training: True Love

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

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Dharma Talk: Make a True Home of Your Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village Upper Hamlet

December 26, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

Every one of us is trying to find our true home. We know that our true home is inside, and with the energy of mindfulness, we can go back to our true home in the here and the now. Sangha is our true home.

In Vietnamese, the husband calls the wife “my home.” And the wife calls the husband her home. Nha toi means my house, my home. When a gentleman is asked “Where is your wife?” he will say, “My home is now at the post office.” And if a guest said to the wife, “Your home is beautiful; who decorated it?” she would answer, “It’s my home who decorated it,” meaning, “my husband.” When the husband calls his wife, he says, “Nha oi,” my home. And she says, “Here I am.” Nha oi. Nha toi.

When you are in such a relationship, the other person is your true home. And you should be a true home for him or for her. First you need to be your own true home so that you can be the home of your beloved. We should practice so we can be a true home for ourselves and for the one that we love. How? We need the practice of mindfulness.

In Plum Village, every time you hear the bell, you stop thinking, you stop talking, you stop doing things. You pay attention to your in-breath as you breathe in and you say, “I listen, I listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” My true home is inside. My true home is in the here and the now. So practicing going home is what we do all day long, because we are only comfortable in our true home. Our true home is available, and we can go home every moment. Our home should be safe, intimate, and cozy, and it is we who make it that way.

Last week I had tea with a couple who came from the United Kingdom. They spent two weeks in Plum Village, with the monks in the Upper Hamlet. The lady said, “It’s strange. It’s the first time that I’ve lived in a place where there are hundreds of men and no women, and I feel very safe in the Upper Hamlet. I have never felt safe like that.” In the Upper Hamlet she was the only woman, and she felt very safe. And if she feels safe, the place is her home, because home should provide that kind of safety. Are you a safe place for him or for her? Do you have enough stability, strength, protection for the one you love?

And the gentleman said, “The last two weeks may be the best weeks of my life.” That is because of the work of Sangha building. When you build a Sangha, you build a home for yourself. And in that place, you feel at home, you feel at ease, you feel safe. If you don’t feel safe within yourself, you are not a home for your own self, and you cannot provide your loved one a home. That is why it’s very important to go back to yourself and make it safe for you and for the ones you love.

If you feel lonely, if you feel cut off, if you suffer, if you need healing, you cannot expect to heal by having a sexual relationship with another person. That cannot heal you. You will create more suffering for him, for her, and for yourself. In the Third Mindfulness Training, we learn that sexual desire is not love. And without love, sexual activities can only bring suffering to you and to the other person. Loneliness cannot be dissipated by sexual activity; you cannot heal yourself by having sex. You have to learn how to heal yourself, to be comfortable within, and then you begin to create a home. Then you have something to offer to the other person. The other person also has to heal, so that she will feel at ease, and she can become your home. Otherwise, what she has to share is only her loneliness, her sickness, her suffering. That cannot help heal you at all.

Three Kinds of Intimacy

There are three kinds of intimacy. The first one is physical and sexual. The second is emotional. And the third one is spiritual. Sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy. They go together. And if spiritual intimacy is there, the physical, sexual intimacy will have meaning and will be healthy and healing. Otherwise it will be destructive.

Every one of us is seeking emotional intimacy. We want to have real communication, mutual understanding, communion. In the light of Buddhist practice, you have to listen to your own suffering. There is suffering inside of you, and there is suffering inside of the other person. If you do not listen to your own suffering, you will not understand it, and you will not have compassion for yourself; and compassion is the element that helps you heal.

The first thing the Buddha talked about is the suffering inside. Many of us are fearful. We don’t want to go back to ourselves, because we believe that we will encounter the block of suffering inside, and that we will be overwhelmed. Instead, we try to cover it up by means of consumption. We consume food, we consume music, we consume many other things, and we consume sex. But that does not help. That is why the Buddha proposed that we go home to ourselves with courage, in order to recognize and listen deeply to the suffering inside. We can use the energy of mindfulness, generated by conscious breathing and walking, to embrace it tenderly. “My suffering, I know you are there. I am home. And I will take care of you.”

There are times when we suffer but we don’t know the nature of the suffering. Our ancestors, our parents may not have been able to transform their suffering, and they have transmitted it to us. And now, because we have encountered the Buddhadharma, we have a chance to recognize it, embrace it, and transform it for ourselves and our ancestors, our parents. “Dear ancestors, dear father, dear mother, I have received this block of suffering from you. I know the Dharma, I know the practice. I will learn to recognize this block of suffering that has been transmitted to me, and with love I will try to accept and to transform it.” You can do it out of love. You do it for your parents, for your ancestors, because we are our ancestors.

According to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, unless you listen to your suffering, unless you look deeply into your suffering,and embrace it tenderly with your energy of mindfulness, you cannot understand the roots of your suffering. When you begin to understand the roots of your suffering, suddenly the energy of compassion, of understanding, arises. And understanding and compassion have the power to heal. By embracing and listening to your suffering, you bring about understanding and compassion. And when the nectar of compassion is born in you, you suffer less, you feel less lonely. You begin to feel the warmth within yourself; you are building a home inside yourself. The Buddha recommends that we build a home inside, an island within ourselves. Be an island unto yourself. You’ll feel comfortable, you’ll feel warm, and you can be a refuge for the other person too.

When you have understood your own suffering, your own loneliness, you feel lighter and you can listen to the suffering of the other person. Your suffering carries within itself the suffering of your ancestors, of the world, of society. Interbeing means that my suffering is in your suffering, and your suffering is in my suffering. That is why, when I have understood my suffering, it is easier for me to understand your suffering. When you understand someone’s suffering, that is a great gift that you can offer to him or to her. The other person feels for the first time that she is understood. To offer understanding means to offer love. And understanding another person is not possible without understanding self. Home-building begins with yourself. Your partner too builds a home within, and then you can call her your home, and she can call you her home.

In the Upper Hamlet, we build a Sangha as our home. You build your family as a Sangha too, because Sangha means simply “community.” The most noble task is to build a Sangha. After enlightenment, the first thing the Buddha taught us was to look for elements to build a Sangha. A Sangha is a refuge for ourselves and for many people.

So we go home to ourselves, we listen to the suffering inside of us. We embrace our pain, our sorrow, our loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. And that kind of understanding, that kind of insight will help transform the suffering inside us. We feel lighter, we begin to feel warmth and peace inside. And then when the other person joins you in building home, you have an ally. You are helping him and he is helping you. And together you have home. You have home in yourself, you have home in him, in her also. If that kind of intimacy does not exist, then a sexual relationship can cause a lot of damage. That is why  earlier I said that physical, sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy.

Between the spiritual and the emotional there is a link. Spirituality is not just a belief in a teaching; it is a practice. And the practice always brings  relief, communication, transformation. Everyone needs a spiritual dimension in his or her life. Without a spiritual dimension in our life, we cannot deal with the difficulties that we encounter. We should have a spiritual practice, a Dharma life. We learn how to put the Dharma into practice. With that kind of practice, we can deal with the difficulties we encounter in our daily life.

Your spiritual practice can help you a lot in dealing with your emotions, helping you to listen, to embrace your own suffering, and to recognize and embrace the suffering of the other person. That is why these two forms of intimacy inter-are. You know how to deal with a strong emotion, like fear, anger, despair. Because you know how to do that, you can feel more peaceful within yourself. That spiritual practice helps you build a home within yourself, for your sake and for the sake of the other person. That is why emotional intimacy cannot be separated from spiritual intimacy. The three kinds of intimacy inter-are.

Reverence for the Body

Sexual activity without love is empty sex. It is prevalent in our society and is causing a lot of suffering for our young people. If you are schoolteachers, if you are parents, you should help your children and your students to avoid empty sex. Empty sex is bringing a lot of damage to their minds and their bodies. Damage will emerge later on in the forms of depression, mental disorders, suicide. Many young people don’t see the connection between empty sex and these physical and mental disorders in themselves.

What happens in the body will have an effect on the mind and vice versa. Mind relies on the body to manifest and body relies on mind to be alive, to be possible. When you love someone, you have to respect not only her mind but also her body. You respect your own body, and you respect his body. True love should have the nature of reverence, respect. In the Asian tradition you have to treat your spouse with respect, like a guest. And in order to respect her, you have to respect yourself first. Reverence should be the nature of our love.

In my country, parents are proud to introduce their child to a guest. The guest will usually ask, “Do you love your father, your mother?” The child says, “Yes! I love my father, I love my mother.” The next question is: “Where do you put your love?” The child has been instructed to answer: “My love, I put it on my head.” Not “in my heart,” but “on my head.” When a monk is about to put on his sanghati, the saffron robe, for a ceremony, he’s holding his sanghati with reverence, the same as when handling a scripture. If you approach the monk and you bow to him, and if he does not find any decent place to put his sanghati, he will put it on his head because this is a noble place; it is like the altar. That is why in Vietnamese good manners, you should not touch the head of another person if you don’t know him or her well. This is one of the sacred places of the body, because the head is the altar to worship ancestors and the Buddha.

There are other parts of the body that are also sacred that you should not touch. It’s like inside the Imperial City, there is the Purple City* where the family of the king lives. And you are not supposed to go in that area. If you do, they will arrest you and cut off your head. In a person’s body there are areas that are forbidden to touch. And if you don’t show respect, if you touch that part of the body, you are penetrating the Purple City. When a child is sexually abused, she suffers, he suffers very deeply. Someone has violated her Purple City and she did not have the ability to protect herself. There are children who have been abused at the age of eight, nine, ten, and they suffer very deeply. They blame their parents for not having protected them, and their relationship with their parents becomes difficult. Then their relationship with their friends and their future lovers will also be very difficult. The wounds are always there.

Sexual abuse of children is overwhelming. It is said that in the U.S. from five to fifteen percent of young boys are abused sexually and from fifteen to thirty-five percent of little girls are abused sexually. That’s a lot. And when a child is abused like that, she or he will suffer all her life from many things, because her body hasn’t been respected.

In school, and in the family, we need to teach them to respect themselves, to respect their own body, and to respect the body of the other person. If you are religious leaders, if you are politicians, if you are parents or teachers, if you are educators, please think about it. We can learn from the teaching of the Buddha to organize our life in the family, in the school, in society in such a way that we can be protected and our child will be always protected.

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

We said earlier that sensual pleasure, sexual desire, is not love, but our society is organized in such a way that sensual pleasure becomes the most important thing. To sell their products, corporations create advertisements that water the seeds of craving in you. They want you to consume so that you will develop a craving for sensual pleasure. But sensual pleasures can destroy you. What we need is mutual understanding, trust, love, emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy. But we don’t have the opportunity to meet that kind of deep need in us.

There are women’s fashion magazines that tell us that in order to succeed, you have to look a certain way, and use a certain product. Many young people in our society want to have cosmetic surgery in order to meet that standard of beauty. They suffer very much, because they cannot accept their bodies. When you do not accept your body as it is, you are not your true home. Every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower. Your body is a kind of flower, and flowers differ from one another. Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. If you can accept your body, then you have a chance to see your body as home. If you don’t accept your body, you cannot have a home. If you cannot accept your mind, you cannot be a home to yourself. And there are many young people who do not accept their body, who do not accept who they are; they want to be someone else. We have to tell young people they are already beautiful as they are; they don’t have to be another person.

Thay has a calligraphy: “Be beautiful; be yourself.” That is a very important practice. You have to accept yourself as you are. And when you practice building a home in yourself, you’ll become more and more beautiful. You have peace, you have warmth, you have joy. You feel wonderful within yourself. And people will recognize the beauty of your flower.

Mindfulness is the kind of energy that can help you to go home to yourself, to be in the here and the now, so that you know what to do and what not to do, in order to preserve yourself, in order to build your true home, in order to transform your own afflictions, and to be a home for other people. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are a concrete way of practicing mindfulness. In the Buddhist tradition, holiness is made of mindfulness. And mindfulness brings within itself the energy of concentration and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight make you holy.

Holiness does not exist only with celibacy. There are those who are celibate but who are not holy, because they don’t have enough mindfulness, concentration, and insight. There are those who live a conjugal life, but if they have mindfulness and concentration and insight, they have the element of holiness in them. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful thing if there is mindfulness, concentration, insight, mutual understanding, and love. Otherwise it will be very  destructive. A sutra describes the moment when Queen Mahamaya was pregnant with the Buddha. Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant whose trunk was holding a lotus flower. The elephant touched her with the lotus flower and entered into her very, very softly, and she was pregnant with Siddhartha. That is the way they describe a sexual relationship, in the palace before Siddhartha was conceived: gentleness, beauty. Sexual intimacy should not occur before there is communion, understanding, sharing on the emotional and spiritual level. And then the physical, sexual intimacy can also become holy.

To practice Buddhism as a monk is always easier than to practice as a layperson. There is a Vietnamese saying: to practice as a monk is easiest; to practice as a layperson is much more difficult. So to refrain from all sexual activities is much easier than to have a sexual relationship. To have a sexual relationship in the context of mutual understanding and love, you need a lot of practice. Otherwise you create suffering for him, for you, for her.

There is a woman doctor in Switzerland who came to practice in Plum Village. She had suffered several times because of relationships. Since she was young, every time she was asked to have a sexual relationship with a man, she felt she had to say yes even if she did not feel ready, because she was afraid. Many teenagers in our time feel that way. They don’t like it, they don’t want it, they don’t feel ready for it, but they do not dare to say no, because they are afraid to be looked upon as weird, as abnormal. They don’t want to be rejected; they want to be accepted. That is a psychological fact parents and teachers have to be aware of. We have to tell the young people that they can learn to say no when they are not ready, when they are afraid. Otherwise they will destroy their body and their mind. Please listen to the young people, be compassionate, help them. We have to help them find skillful ways to say no.

When she came to Plum Village, the woman from Switzerland learned skillful ways to say no. In her last relationship, she was able to say no. She said, “I need you, my beloved. We need to understand each other. I need your presence. I need someone to help me when I have difficulties, to understand me.” They spent one year and a half together without having a sexual relationship. And when we went to her country for a Dharma talk, she proudly introduced her husband to us. Their relationship was wonderful, very successful, because she was able to say no until she was ready, and together they could build the kind of relationship that is lasting.

* In China and Vietnam, the Imperial City contained an enclosure called the Purple Forbidden City.

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Medication or Meditation?

Changing the Foundation of Being 

By Elenore Snow 

Like many psychotherapists, I have a trauma history that informed my career path. I lived the first twenty-seven years of my life with trauma so deep that I had a day self and a night self who did not know of each other’s existence. This kind of “dissociative identity disorder” happens when trauma begins very early, is long term, and is of a scale of horror beyond what most people can imagine.

When I discovered that there was more than one of “me,” I was crushed. I found that I was losing time and that the dissociated response to trauma had left me vulnerable to abuse. During time lapses, I was continuing to be abused by my father and his cohort as I had from my earliest years.

I was used to not sleeping because of nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and hyperarousal. My well-intentioned therapist did not seem comfortable with these occurrences. I think it wore on her to sit with me twice a week in this terrible state of anxiety. So she recommended that I see a psychiatrist for sedatory medication to induce sleep.

Thus began a seven-year de-evolution of a life in which my interiority, with its pain and wisdom and aliveness, was eclipsed by medical complications, such as seizures at bedtime, as the trauma was suppressed and suppressed and suppressed. My doctor’s counsel was to increase the dosage so that the dose increased one hundred times. Desperate to stop the cycle of dissociation, and the ways that losing time threatened my safety, I pushed and pushed myself to follow the dose adjustments.

I experienced, in due course, loss of short-term memory and, as written up in two consecutive years of neuropsychological testing, a diagnosis of “moderate cognitive impairment, multiple domains.” My days were spent in isolation, recovering from my nights. I had a new medication to add to the list, the Alzheimer’s medication Namenda, which the doctor prescribed to try to stop the seemingly inexplicable dementia onset.

Finally a neurologist advised me to get off everything and see what might change. It was not easy, but I was able to start over––not just with the practicalities of rebuilding a life but with the basic tools of feeling and grieving and being in relationship with my trauma history.

My Heart Could Love 

During this time of transition and loss, I spent hours in the library. Somehow I found my way to the Buddhist section in the back of the stacks. Running my thumb across the spines of books, I found You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh.

At age fifteen, I had heard an audio Dharma talk in which Thich Nhat Hanh told a story of an American soldier in Vietnam who had made bomb sandwiches, which he left on the edge of a village to avenge the death of his dear friend. Hiding behind a rock to watch the act of vindication, the soldier watched as children poured out of the village, delighted with the sandwiches until they began to writhe with pain. Many years later, he was still tortured by the horror of what he’d done. When Thay taught him to work with the breath and to practice service-oriented action, he began to experience some healing.

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Twenty-five years later in You Are Here, I came across the story again. The seeds that had been planted so many years before were watered and began to flower. I was living the daily reality of early dementia diagnosis because my brain had been injured by a toxic intolerance to medication. Despite or perhaps partially because of my severely diminished cognitive ability, it dawned on me that my heart could love even if my high IQ and ability to think were lost to me. Acceptance became a very intimate experience. I could do this––I could open my heart. I brought home a six-CD audio set of Thay’s, and his teachings bathed my essence in a way that was alive and true and transformative.

As Thay’s student, I strived to be as still and as present off the cushion as on, to water seeds of compassion, and to dampen the kindling of fear and reactivity. I learned to have tenderness and care for the “other me,” who saw the world as a trapped wild animal might. Those were brave and difficult days as she learned to integrate into me and I learned to hold space for all the ways terror informed her.

Thay’s counsel to practice with a Sangha prompted me to come out of my long season of loneliness. I walked into a room full of people that I sweetly felt I remembered. My “first conversations” were awkward as I allowed the slowest part of me to emerge into the world. Self-compassion and meditation practice were to be my mainstay in learning to move forward.

Woven Together 

I also researched everything I could get my hands on about helping a traumatized brain become a compassionate one. Eight minutes a day of loving-kindness practice could rewire the brain to a new, gentler worldview. Fifteen minutes a day of mindfulness practice could strengthen the parts of the brain that were most alive in advanced Buddhist practitioners with over ten thousand hours of meditation practice, whose world lens was that of true compassion.

Rewiring my brain into integration was, and still is, a humbling challenge. Many days I felt like Sisyphus, pushing a rock uphill only to have it roll back down, over and over.

I wasn’t just learning how to organize my own grocery list. I was learning how to feel, how to relate, how to grieve, how to resume the trauma healing that had been suspended by taking the many medications in my early days of recovery. Resilience, I learned, was not just getting back up again after being knocked down––it was also about making choices toward serving collective transformation that arose from the personal wound itself.

Two years into the healing process, through the most miraculous turn of events, I integrated my prior Hollywood career as a producer with my love for neuroplasticity and spirituality. I started to make a movie on transformation that offers a road map for all of us. The movie, Becoming Snow, is a documentary in which I interweave my own story of trauma and transformation with interviews with the key figures whose insights specific to healing trauma were seminal in my finding my way out of the darkness. In having let it all go, I was given back all of who I was and something more––an aspect of interconnectedness to what is good and beautiful and true, flowing beyond me and through me.

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One person I interviewed was a traumatologist, Dr. Robert Scaer (author of The Body Bears the Burden and Eight Keys to Body-Brain Balance). Dr. Scaer discusses the fallacies of trying to treat trauma victims with painkillers: “Pain in chronic trauma victims is phantom pain. And so, it is not due to tissue damage; it is due to memory. And so you are treating memory with a painkiller and that makes no sense whatsoever. You’re not treating the physical disability; you are treating the memory and further corrupting the memory. Medication will produce some analgesia, but it won’t effectively stop the pain and the emotional response to the pain, which is what keeps the kindling going.” He goes on to describe the thousands of patients he saw over twenty years, whose chronic pain was not helped by back surgeries and other intrusive treatments.

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Our most progressive researchers, such as founder of interpersonal neuorobiology Dr. Dan Siegel, have found that medications not only do not heal dissociation; they also suppress the integrative fibers in key places, such as between the right and left hemispheres (in the corpus callosum) and between the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain (reptilian/limbic and neocortex). A brain that is biochemically compartmentalized produces a consciousness cut off from itself.

Many of our war vets come home, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and are only prescribed medications. Society’s failure to recognize their terror and trauma adds the wound of invalidation and expresses something terrible in our culture: the willingness to avoid and suppress suffering instead of healing the root by meeting it fully and compassionately.

Practicing discernment with the use of medication is crucial. In moderate doses, medication can help people stabilize enough to engage their own abilities to bring healing to their trauma. With bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and other illnesses, medication can save lives.

For me, overmedication obstructed my ability to learn healthy attachment and compassionate relationship with the unbearable traumatic events of my life. Thay’s teachings of turning up the thermostat of warmth in the cold of the pain itself, of holding our fear or anger like a baby, of staying with the breath, were simple and direct ways to transform the trauma in my consciousness. As I opened my heart to the part of me that bore the pain––with the greatest tenderness, quietest acceptance, and trust that love heals––I opened the possibility of transformation.

Sometimes we think that heavy trauma needs to be hit heavy to transform. It goes against mainstream thinking to meet such suffering with subtlety and softness. But water, with its gentle flow, is the universal solvent that carves the deepest canyons. So too, the flow of compassion can carve healing into the hard wiring of the deepest pain when healing is our heart’s true desire. When we can be in a depth of presence, mindfulness, and compassion to ourselves and to others, we are a great resource to us all.

Editors’ note: If you are taking medications and are considering changing dosage, please consult your doctor to minimize risk of harm.

Elenore Snow received her MSW from Smith College. She has a private practice specific to transformation, working both with rewiring the brain through neurofeedback and with a depth/intersubjective approach to healing the wounds of trauma in consciousness. She is a teacherin-training in the field of Applied Existential Psychology and co-author, with Dr. Betty Cannon, of The Spirit of Play. She is the creator/producer of the documentary Becoming Snow and its companion memoir, Letters to Tenzin.

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Book Reviews

mb64-BookReviews1Love Letter to the Earth

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Softcover, 120 pages
Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

Love Letter to the Earth includes ten beautiful love letters that are poetic, deep, and inspirational. Thich Nhat Hanh explains how we can heal ourselves and the Earth. “We cannot wait any longer to restore our relationship with the Earth because right now the Earth and everyone on Earth is in real danger…. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.” According to Thay, by healing ourselves, we heal the Earth. He recommends walking meditation as a powerful tool for healing ourselves and the Earth simultaneously. Other practices for falling in love with the Earth include mindful breathing, deep listening, drinking and eating mindfully, and reciting the Five Contemplations before each meal.

Thay describes Mother Earth as a bodhisattva. “A bodhisattva is a living being who has happiness, awakening, understanding and love…. Anyone who cultivates love and offers a lot of happiness to others is a bodhisattva…. When we look at our planet, we know that the Earth is the most beautiful bodhisattva of all. She is the mother of many great beings. How could mere matter do all the wonderful things the Earth does? Don’t search for a bodhisattva in your imagination. The bodhisattva you are looking for is right at your feet.”

The calligraphy and writings in this book instill hope in the regenerative power of the Earth and in the potential Buddha nature in each living being. We all have the potential to take refuge in the Earth and to become awakened, Thay reminds us. As we practice mindfulness, “relaxation will come. When you are completely relaxed, healing will take place on its own. There is no healing without relaxation. And relaxation means doing nothing…. This is the practice of non-practice.”

Thay urges us to accept responsibility for what is happening to the Earth. “We need to realize that the conditions that will help to restore the necessary balance don’t come from outside us, they come from inside us, from our own mindfulness, our own level of awareness. Our own awakened consciousness is what can heal the Earth.” Thay invites us to join the revolution to “ease our suffering” and in turn to treat the Earth with love and respect.

mb64-BookReviews2Peace of Mind
Becoming Fully Present

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Softcover, 180 pages
Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

The thesis of Thich Nhat Hanh’s newly published book Peace of Mind: Becoming Fully Present is this: “The basis for healing is to be in touch with ourselves, with our bodies.” He explains how each of us can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, and shows that happiness is available to everyone in the present moment.

Thay returns to simple and poetic language reminiscent of his early books, The Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace Is Every Step, to guide the reader in the practices of Plum Village, including mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating, deep relaxation, touching the Earth, and body scan meditation. He introduces new metaphors, such as the following: “A mindful body is a body with awareness. The embodied mind is the mind that is fully present in the body. It’s like software and hardware. If your software and hardware aren’t communicating with each other, you can’t do anything.” There is a wonderful chapter on how to use the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing to create “peaceful, harmonious and pleasant” breathing, which in turn leads to harmony and peace.

Reading this book evoked a memory from the first Day of Mindfulness that I attended with Thay and Sister Chan Khong, when I received the Five Wonderful Precepts (as they were called at that time). On my application form, I indicated that my aspiration was to experience “inner peace.” At that time, I had rarely felt inner peace and doubted that practicing the precepts would help me, but I took a leap of faith. Looking back over the past twenty years, I see that the practices of Plum Village and the mindfulness trainings have in fact transformed my suffering and led me to more continuous experiences of inner peace. Thay’s latest offering, a clear and profound manual for becoming fully present and establishing peace of mind, will be appreciated by beginning and experienced practitioners alike.

Thank you dear Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and the fourfold Sangha for sharing these practices around the world at Days of Mindfulness, public talks, peace walks, retreats, and practice centers, on the Internet, and in print.

mb64-BookReviews3Unfinished Conversation
Grieving and Healing after a Loved One’s Suicide

By Robert Emile Lesoine and Marilynne Chöphel
Softcover, 160 pages
Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Elenore Snow

As a trauma psychotherapist, I so appreciate Unfinished Conversation: Grieving and Healing after a Loved One’s Suicide. This book offers itself not only as a resource but also as a companion, guiding the journey of loss from a loved one’s suicide. Written in short chapters that open with a personal narrative about author Robert Lesoine and the death of his best friend Larry, it is written in an accessible, engaging way that supports the reader in understanding some of the themes unique to this kind of loss. Each chapter walks the reader through journal exercises to help create meaningful closure and healing around the gaping wound of a sudden and devastating loss.

Although the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention documents twenty-five reported suicides a day in the U.S., we often feel isolated in the wake of a suicide loss. Early chapters of the book look at the ways in which a suicide leaves us with feelings of “unfinished business,” such as disregarded warnings and an incompleteness that comes from unanswered questions. Each chapter ends with a simple exercise to return to the present moment. We have a chance to write an uncensored eulogy, sit with the positive and negative influences of this person in our life, explore our loved one’s shadow (and our own), and reflect on dreams in which we are visited by the one we lost.

The book takes us beyond the initial shock and disbelief and into a richer way to know ourselves and our loved one, working with the suicide as an opportunity for post-traumatic growth. Perhaps my favorite chapter, “Discovering Interbeing,” touches on one of the most meaningful themes of Thay’s teaching. Lesoine writes, “What I am discovering is that the more I release him, the more I can connect with an affection and love for the Larry that transcends form.”

The way we choose to respond to suicide determines the quality of our consciousness as we make our way. Unfinished Conversation helps us see how to make choices that can heal us from the devastation of suicide with meaning and grace.

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There Is a Purpose

By Melissa Addison-Webster

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“The love of the Buddha is possible.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Youth Retreat at Plum Village, 2010

Even before my spinal cord injury, I had a history of driving irresponsibly. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, I put my parents’ car in the ditch twice and had my license suspended for twenty-four hours for driving under the influence of alcohol. I was young and arrogant and thought I was invincible.

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On June 9, 2000, my friend Lorena and I drove to a nearby town to buy groceries. We went out for lunch and drank some beer. Back at Lorena’s place, we smoked pot, and I invited her to my place for dinner. Before heading home, I drove to the liquor store and bought Old Milwaukee, just like my dad always drank. It was a rainy spring day. I turned onto a back road. The rear wheels of my truck skidded on the loose gravel, but I drove on. Then my mind went blank, and I have no memory of what happened next.

When I regained consciousness, I was in an emergency room. The first thing I asked was if my boyfriend Sam was there. He was. Then I asked the doctor, “What is my diagnosis?” He stated frankly, “You’ve broken your neck and you’ll never walk again.” I wept uncontrollably. Sam stood over me, unable to even hold my hand because of my critical condition.

My friend Lorena had saved my life. She was driving ahead of me, and when she noticed that I was no longer following her, she turned around to find out what had happened. She found my truck in the ditch, slammed up against a driveway, and me trapped inside with my leg caught in the steering wheel. I had smashed the driver’s side window with my head and pushed out the frame with my neck. I yelled, “I’m going to go, I’m going to die!” I felt I was about to leave my body and I was terrified. Lorena physically held my energy in my body and reassured me I would survive. The fire department arrived and extricated me from the truck, and I was airlifted to a hospital in Edmonton. I was twenty-two years old.

Learning to Survive

I had sustained a major burst fracture at the seventh cervical vertebra (C7), and the medical team decided the C7 needed to be fused to the neighboring vertebra to stabilize it. The only neurosurgeon qualified to perform the surgery was away at a conference, so I had to wait twelve days before undergoing surgery. I felt trapped in a horrible dream that wouldn’t end. What had I done to myself? Why had I not learned my lesson about impaired driving? How was I going to survive?

A wonderful nurse named Irena helped me get through those weeks in the hospital. She was a Buddhist, and she kept telling me, “Change is constant.” I had been intrigued by Buddhism since learning about it in my eleventh grade religion class, so I gladly accepted her prayer beads and wisdom. She also wrote out the mantra “Om mani padme hum” for me. She told me that by chanting this mantra, I was invoking the name of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Irena was the first of many people whose gifts helped me begin to wade through my suffering.

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After close to a month in acute care, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where I spent four months learning how to feed and dress myself, how to catheterize myself, and how to slide my body from my wheelchair to my bed and back again. My mental outlook on life was extremely bleak, and I started taking antidepressants to get through the darkness.

One day I was sitting alone in the physiotherapy room asking myself, “What is all this about? How can I be experiencing so much loss?” I heard a gentle, quiet voice telling me, “There is a purpose. There is a purpose.” I didn’t mention this experience to anyone because I was already having enough problems coping with reality.

My relationship with Sam was getting worse, so I made the difficult decision to leave him. I felt so much shame and self-blame for how everything had turned out. I told people I was leaving to go to university in Ontario, and I moved in with my parents.

Healing Trauma

Going to university was good for my mind, and it spurred me to become an activist. I began protesting for proper accessible parking signage at the university. The protests made the local papers, and soon after that, the university put up some signs. I was so happy! I began to see how nonviolent forms of direct action could create social change. At the same time I began organizing with antipoverty groups in the city.

As I worked for external social change, I also began exploring internal personal transformation. I started sessions with an energy worker named Lilli Swanson, who practices Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, which helps to heal past trauma, and she encouraged me to join her meditation group. Although my mind raced constantly in the beginning, I began to notice and wonder about the peace I felt within my body. Every morning when I woke up, I lit a candle and sat for fifteen minutes, and slowly I began to learn how to calm my mind.

In 2006 I entered a graduate program in Disability Studies in Toronto. On October 11, I was rushing to a talk by Stephen Lewis, a Canadian diplomat and social justice activist. I quickly changed lanes on a one-way street, and another driver crashed into the front of my van. The driver’s side window was smashed, I was covered in glass, and it was raining. Fortunately I was near Lilli’s house, and she came to help me. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, went through medical tests, and relived much of the trauma of my earlier accident, except this time I had a talented healer to help me get through much of the suffering. I realized that I carried deep unresolved trauma from the first accident; in a strange way, the second accident created an opening to release some of that trauma.

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I tried to go back to graduate school but was feeling extremely anxious and unwell. Due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I was not able to sleep. Soon I was trapped in enormous fear and constant paranoia. At Christmas I decided to withdraw from the program, and I moved back in with my parents again. I needed to take time to heal and mourn my spinal cord injury.

A Purposeful Life

For some time, I had been longing to practice with Thich Nhat Hanh. I deeply revered his work as an activist and peacemaker. I had been given some of his books and had found them wise and accessible. In October 2007, I drove to a retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery and received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which have become my roadmap for living a more purposeful life.

On the drive home, my moods were up and down. One moment I was overjoyed to have practiced with a teacher who worked so diligently for social justice and peace. The next minute I swung back to my old thinking patterns. I felt I could not love myself after I had received and ignored so many warnings about drinking and driving. Because of my recklessness, I had lost the use of 85% of my body. I hated myself.

I began practicing with True Peace Sangha in Toronto in 2009. The Sangha has supported my healing by being a place of refuge. I have been able to cultivate a stronger foundation of mindfulness by meditating with other people, and this has allowed me to handle my difficult emotions with more compassion. Whatever emotion I share, whether joy or sorrow or even despair, I always feel loved and held by the Sangha. With the help of a fellow Sangha member, I went to Plum Village for three weeks in 2010. This pilgrimage was a wondrous gift, and I returned to Canada with much less fear in my body and more joy in my heart.

I am learning forgiveness because I can feel it radiating from the hearts of Thay and the monastics. Thay says we cannot just have a willingness to forgive. We have to begin to see and understand the suffering within ourselves and other people. Only then is true forgiveness obtainable.

To nurture self-forgiveness, I have found guidance from Avalokiteshvara. Chanting to her and asking her to come into my heart, I have been able to cultivate more self-compassion. Through mindfulness I have learned to witness my inner narrative. For a long time, my very first thought every morning was that I had destroyed my life and didn’t deserve love. Through my meditation practice I have learned to calm these thoughts and work through my self-hatred. Meditation has increased my ability to be present. Cultivating happiness by dancing and going to the dog park is part of my practice. Making art and journaling also relieves a great amount of pain. Living according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and practicing Touching the Earth nurture my self-forgiveness, as well.

I deeply understand that suffering is purposeful. I had to give up the ability to walk to finally be able to look at my attachments, begin to find true love, and work toward the path of liberation. Even if I could change what happened to me, I wouldn’t, because I carried enormous sorrow within me and was unfulfilled in my existence. My injury has been a wonderful catalyst. Through my transition I have learned to be tremendously thankful for what I had previously taken for granted: mobility, living in a peaceful country, just being alive.

Walking Melissa, as well as inner child Melissa, is still within me, with her wholesome seeds of love, compassion, and joy. I am slowly learning that self-love comes through forgiveness and that I am worthy of love.

The biggest gift I give to myself is to deeply embrace and make friends with my grief. Although it may feel as though I have a vast ocean of sorrow to paddle across, I know mindfulness will keep me afloat and eventually carry me across to the shore.

mb63-ThereIs5Melissa Addison-Webster, Boundless Light of the Heart, practices with the True Peace Sangha in Toronto, and is a social worker, activist, and performance artist. Presently, she is completing her studies to become a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist, and enjoys spending time with her cat, Nina, and gardening.

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Book Reviews

mb59-BookReviews3The Novice
A Story of True Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperCollins, 2011
Hardcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Chau Yoder

Edited by Lyn Fine and Natascha Bruckner

I felt really touched by the new English version of The Novice: A Story of True Love. When I read this story of the novice Kinh Tam in English, and then reread the original Vietnamese version (Su Tich Quan Am Thi Kinh), I felt strongly that many readers would benefit from the tale of injustice, patience, and the four immeasurable minds of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of this ancient Vietnamese story has many deep teachings to transform our suffering.

When I was about fifteen years old, I went with my mom to the Vietnamese opera (Cai Luong) and saw many touching stories. This one penetrated deep into my subconscious, planting seeds about Buddhism, patience, and realizing the great vow to live a free life. I used to hate the character Mau, who falsely stated that Thi Kinh was the parent of her baby. Now, reading Thay’s novel, I feel more compassionate toward Mau. As I read this book, I felt my heart opening—especially toward the end, when I read Thi Kinh’s compassionate letters to her parents, teacher, husband, and Mau. Thi Kinh wrote these love letters at the time she knew she was dying, and I felt she was passing her generosity on to us. Her letter to her parents inspired me to think about my parents. They sacrificed so much for me, and at times I wonder if I was good enough for them. I created suffering for them when I decided to marry my husband Jim and live far away from them. Yet when we became engaged, they generously opened their hearts to Jim, and we all happily lived near each other when Jim and I sponsored them, my grandmother, and my siblings to come the U.S. in 1981.

I felt touched by Thi Kinh’s letter to the abbot, who had accepted Thi Kinh as his student, thinking she was a man. Thi Kinh wrote that in order to go to the pagoda to study, she had to pretend to be a man because there was no nunnery. She asked for forgiveness for the deception. She begged her teacher to build a nunnery so that young women could be students of the Buddha’s teachings. She was thinking about the future, “paying it forward” on her deathbed!

A key teaching in the novel relates to the question of how to be magnanimous without being a victim. Why do people have to be tolerant of injustice in the world? Why do we have to live in the patient way that Thi Kinh lived? Thay writes that being patient does not mean suppressing suffering. We have to be patient in order to understand with loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

Near the end of Thay’s retelling of this ancient tale, the abbot visualizes that Thi Kinh is really a bodhisattva. Her loving kindness is not only for human beings, but for all beings—a grand aspiration. This is the ultimate goal of the true awakened person; how can we live it in our lifetime? This story offers a lot for us to think about: the meaning of equanimity, letting go, nondiscrimination, non-self, patience, and magnanimous living.

In the English edition, a chapter by Sister Chan Khong offers an interesting comparison of the life stories of Thi Kinh and Thich Nhat Hanh, who both have a grand patience and an inclusive heart. Additional chapters describe the activities of the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) founded by Thay in 1964, and the situation in Bat Nha (Prajna), a monastery in Vietnam that was offered to Thay in 2005 by the abbot of a temple in Lam Dong Province, but ousted by the Vietnamese authorities in 2008.

I’m thankful that Thay published The Novice in English, so that young generations in the United States will get to read it and understand their Vietnamese roots a little better. My hope is that when people read this novel, the nectar of compassion in Thi Kinh will drop into their mind, body, and spirit to help them become more compassionate, ethical, loving people who will, in turn, help us live a more harmonious life.

mb59-BookReviews1The Seeds of Love
Growing Mindful Relationships

By Jerry Braza
Tuttle, 2011
Soft cover, 192 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

The foundation for developing mindful and healthy relation- ships begins with ourselves. Three practices—Seeing, Renewing, and Being—will support you as you become the master gardener of your life and your relationships.” This opening passage from The Seeds of Love, by Jerry Braza, reflects the accessible yet deep lessons shared by the seasoned Dharma teacher in his new book. Braza emphasizes teachings and practices that help us nurture positive seeds in ourselves and our loved ones. He writes about how to transform seeds of fear, anger, jealousy, and doubt into love, compassion, and understanding.

While many of the teachings in The Seeds of Love reflect the wisdom of the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh, Braza brings a unique, modern, and American perspective to his presentations. He offers the insights of an experienced lay practitioner and college professor who has practiced with a Sangha for many years. The practices explored are not only for the pur pose of individual self-healing, but also for promoting healthy relationships with our families, friends, and co-practitioners. As the Buddha teaches, we inter-are with each other, so heal- ing within and without cannot be separated.

This book is both simply presented and dense in content. Braza includes beautiful poetry and illustrations that make the book an excellent practice companion. Furthermore, the teachings are accessible to people of all faiths, and Braza incorporates the lessons of many wisdom traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism. Appropriate for beginners and experienced practitioners alike, this is a wonderful continuation of the author’s first book, Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness.

As a gardener, I find the book’s gardening metaphors and themes beautiful. They bring to mind the fact that one translation of an ancient word for “one who meditates or practices mindfulness” is “a cultivator.” The Seeds of Love would be a great book for Sanghas or book groups to read together and use as a basis for meaningful sharing and discussion.

mb59-BookReviews2Walking the Tiger’s Path
A Soldier’s Spiritual Journey in Iraq

By Paul M. Kendel
Tendril Press, 2011
Soft cover, 247 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

“As the gardener, such is the garden.”
— Hebrew Proverb

Until reading Sergeant Kendel’s book, I’d only heard news accounts of the war in Iraq. Although my two nephews have each done two tours in Iraq, they don’t talk about their experiences. Kendel describes the precise type of hell realm this war has been. The “enemy” is both everywhere and nowhere, and compassion is considered a weakness. In the course of serving with the Georgia National Guard, Kendel became a student of the Shambhala Buddhist teachings. He learned that the mind of a tiger, according to Sakyong Mipham, is a “mind of discernment,” allowing us to “stop and think and make a decision based on wisdom and compassion, rather than on hate and fear.”

With story after hair-raising story, Kendel outlines his gradual battlefield enlightenment through correspondence with Buddhist teachers, and through reading Pema Chodron’s Awakening Loving Kindness while on patrol. He came within a fraction of an inch of blowing away a father and his little girl, but made split-second eye contact with the child. Instead of seeing the enemy, he “saw something positive. I saw hope in that little girl’s eyes. Hope…even when the world around her seemed to be in total chaos.”

When Kendel came home, his wife was having an affair and not only ended their marriage, but changed his close relationship with his two sons. And then his mother died. These events, along with haunting incidents in Iraq, constituted for Kendel both a crisis and an opportunity.

His saving grace was the Shambhala practice, along with Margot Neuman, a senior student who reached out and gave Kendel a peaceful place to take refuge. His subsequent visits to the Shambhala Mountain Center, and meeting Pema Cho- dron and Sakyong Mipham as well as Shambhala President Richard Roech, cemented Kendel’s inner peace and gave him a Sangha. The Shambhala warrior, he learned, does not create war at all. The tiger sees with clarity how to act.

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Dharma Talk: Take Refuge in Mother Earth

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Lower Hamlet, Plum Village November 29, 2012

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Editors’ note: This is Part I of the Dharma talk from November 29, 2012.

Good morning, dear Sangha. We are in the Assembly of Stars Meditation Hall of the Dharma Nectar Temple, Lower Hamlet, in our winter retreat.

Our society is not very healthy. Therefore, many of us are sick, and we need healing and nourishment. We have intoxicated ourselves with poisons. Our mind has a lot of poisons, like craving, hate, anger, and despair. Our body also has a lot of poisons because we don’t know how to consume.

mb63-dharma2Mother Earth has the capacity to heal herself and has the capacity to help us heal if we know how to take refuge in her. When the Buddha was teaching his son, Rahula, he talked about the Earth as having the virtues of patience and equanimity. Patience and equanimity are the two great virtues of the planet Earth. If needed, Mother Earth can spend one million years or ten million years to heal herself. She is not in a hurry. She has the power to renew herself. We have to see that. If we study the history of the Earth, we know that she has had a lot of patience, and now she is a very beautiful star.

When we walk, we are aware that the Earth is holding our steps. But Mother Earth is not just below us, under our feet; Mother Earth is inside of us. To think that Mother Earth is only the environment outside of us, around us, is wrong. Mother Earth is inside of us. We don’t need to die to go back to Mother Earth. We are already in Mother Earth. That is why we have to learn how to take refuge in her. That is the best way to heal and to nourish ourselves.

Walking meditation is one of the ways to heal. Walking meditation is successful when we know how to allow the Earth to be in us and around us. Just to be aware that we are the Earth. We don’t have to do much, we don’t have to do anything at all, to get healing and nourishment. Just like when we were in our mother’s womb, we did not have to breathe, we did not have to eat, because our mother breathed for us and ate for us. We did not have to worry about anything. It is possible to behave like that now.

When you sit, allow Mother Earth to sit for you. When you breathe, allow Mother Earth to breathe for you. When you walk, allow Mother Earth to walk for you. Don’t make any effort. Allow her to do it. She knows how to do it.

When you are sitting, allow the air to enter your lungs. Allow the air to go out of your lungs. We don’t need to try to breathe in. We don’t need to try to breathe out. We just allow nature, allow the Earth to breathe in and out for us. We just sit there and enjoy the breathing in and the breathing out. There is no “you” who is breathing in and breathing out. The breathing in and the breathing out happen by themselves. Try it.

We allow our body to relax totally, without striving or even making an effort. Behave like the fetus in the womb of the mother. Allow your mother to do everything for you, to breathe, to eat, to drink. This is possible if you know how to take refuge in Mother Earth. She’s a great bodhisattva; she’s the mother of all the buddhas, all bodhisattvas, all saints. Shakyamuni is her son. Jesus Christ is also her son. We are also her sons and daughters, and we have to learn how to take refuge in her and to allow her to continue to do everything for us.

Healing Is Taking Place 

We don’t need to do anything at all. Just allow yourself to be seated; let the sitting take place. If you don’t strive to sit, relaxation will come. And you know something? When there is relaxation, healing begins to take place. There is no healing without relaxation. Relaxation means doing nothing, not trying.

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So while there is breathing in, it’s not you who is breathing in. While there is breathing out, you just enjoy it. You say, “Healing is taking place; healing is taking place.” Allow your body to renew herself, to heal herself, to be nourished. This is the practice of non-practice.

If we observe, we see that Mother Earth has the power, the capacity to heal herself and to heal us. You believe in that power, which comes from your own observation, your own experience, not something people tell you and ask you to believe in. Mother Earth can renew herself, can transform herself, can heal herself, and can heal us. That is a fact. If we recognize that fact, faith is there, and we can take refuge. We allow ourselves to be healed by Mother Earth. While sitting, we get the healing. While walking, we get the healing. While breathing, we get the healing. We do not have to do anything at all. Just surrender ourselves to Mother Earth and she will do everything.

When breathing in is taking place—I don’t want to say when you are breathing in—you say, “Nourishment is taking place; nourishment; nourishment.” Allow yourself to be nourished. You are nourished by the air, you are nourished by the sunshine, because the air is breathing you, penetrating you. And the sunshine also penetrates you. Father Sun and Mother Earth are there twenty-four hours a day for us. Even during the night, the sun is present; otherwise, we would freeze. Like Mother Earth, Father Sun is also in us, not only up there, outside us. When I wrote The Sun My Heart, I had the insight, the vision, that the sun is my heart outside of me.

If we know the practice of non-practice, we don’t have to strive or fight in order to practice. You may believe that you need a lot of medicine, a lot of exercise, to heal. But the only exercise that can heal you is the exercise of non-exercise. Allow yourself to relax and release all the tension in your body, and all the worries and the fear in your mind, because these things are preventing you from healing. Let go, release, take full refuge in the Earth and in the sun, and allow yourself to be healed. Do this in the four positions: sitting, lying down, walking, standing. Allow Mother Earth and Father Sun to penetrate you, to act for you so you can heal.

It is our experience that no healing is possible without releasing, relaxing. So when you sit, sit in such a way that you don’t have to try, you just enjoy deeply your sitting. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. I just enjoy my sitting. With a half an hour of sitting like that, you have a half an hour of healing. You enjoy every in-breath. It’s not you who are making the in-breath and out-breath. You don’t have to make an in-breath and an out-breath. It will happen by itself.

The in-breath does not need a self in order to happen. I don’t have to breathe; the breathing just happens by itself. I just enjoy. If I know how to enjoy the breathing, the breathing will become more pleasant. The quality of breathing will increase, because I don’t try to interfere and to force it.

So the sitting should be natural, without effort. The breathing also, and walking also. Don’t try to walk; just allow yourself to walk. The walking will take place without you. Only be there and enjoy, because if there is letting go and relaxation, every step is healing, every step is nourishing. No healing is possible without relaxation and letting go.

We should practice this simple thing in order to get healed and to help heal our society and the world. If you do it for one hour, you have one hour of healing. If you do it for one day, there is one day of healing. This is possible. Make it pleasant; make it healing and nourishing. Everything you do, don’t try; don’t make any effort. Take refuge in Mother Earth. She knows how to do it. She continues to do it for you, just like during the time you were in the womb of your mother.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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

Letter from the Editor

Editor-NBDear Thay, dear Sangha,

At Deer Park Monastery on a dark spring morning, the great bell echoed through the valley, rippling against the songs of frogs and dawn birds. A monk chanted:

I entrust myself to the Buddha, and he entrusts himself to me.
I entrust myself to the Sangha, and she entrusts herself to me.
I entrust myself to the Earth, and she entrusts herself to me.

As I stood outside the meditation hall, absorbing the valley’s sweet fragrances and the loveliness of clouds and mountain, the chant sank in. I had been thinking about this issue of the Mindfulness Bell, themed “Mother Earth.” Hearing chant and bell, frogs and birds, I sensed what it meant to entrust myself to the Earth and to be her trustee. Even now, the idea brings tears to my eyes. Within this trust the tender love is unsurpassed.

In this issue, Thich Nhat Hanh generously gives us a guide for the radical surrender and gentle openness of such mutual trust. His beautiful Dharma talk invites us into the healing embrace of the Earth: “Let go, release, take full refuge in the Earth and in the sun, and allow yourself to be healed…. Allow Mother Earth and Father Sun to penetrate you, to act for you so you can heal.”

This issue contains tools to help us realize and honor our interdependence with the Earth. “Touching the Earth for Ecological Regeneration,” by T. Ambrose Desmond, offers a ceremony for opening ourselves to the beauty, suffering, and capacity for healing in the Earth (our body). The Earth Peace Treaty gives us a chance to commit to steps that will lighten our ecological footprint. May these tools be useful for you and your Sangha, and may you be inspired by the stories of farmers, gardeners, and others who lovingly tend the soil and protect life on Earth.

May you also find the connection and nourishment in the wonderful articles on the Wake-Up movement in Bhutan, India, and the United Kingdom. Waves of young people are rising, joining together, and taking refuge in mindfulness and compassion. In collaboration with the monastic community, youth are organizing peaceful gatherings in cities all over the world. Brother Phap Lai reflects about London’s “Sit in Peace” event: “No one who was there will likely walk by Trafalgar Square again without recalling that, with Thay’s presence, a peace was generated here and offered to the city and the world by thousands of people.”

This offering comes from the heart of our practice as children of Mother Earth. In a time of dire environmental circumstances, when our survival depends on how we treat our Mother, may we allow our love for her, for the Buddha, and for the Sangha to lead us.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

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Mindfulness Garden

By Candace Henshaw-Osias

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As a child, I was known as the “Barefoot Contessa.” You could always find me outside in the grass, climbing a tree or playing hopscotch, but always barefoot. I hated shoes! I loved the feel of the cool, wet grass, the warm cement, the Earth below my feet. The Earth and I shared a connection that persists even today.

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One of my fondest memories of childhood was working side by side with my father in the family garden: planting, weeding, and harvesting the vegetables. My most important job was “bug detective”—hunting down the green cutworms that could devour a large portion of a tomato plant overnight.

A Sangha Garden 

For many years, I lived without a garden. My property is mostly shade and not conducive to growing vegetables. So you can imagine my delight when the last remaining farm in my county was bought by the county government as protected space and given to Cornell Cooperative Extension as a demonstration and community garden. I immediately put in an application and was awarded a 5’ x 20’ plot for organic gardening.

I announced to my Sangha during Dharma sharing that I planned to start a garden and asked if anyone would like to join me in this venture. Two of my Sangha sisters eagerly became co-gardeners with me in our Sangha garden.

We planted the garden, looked at our work, and smiled—knowing soon we would have beautiful organic homegrown produce, planted with mindfulness and love. We placed a laminated sign at the front of the garden, sharing that this was a mindfulness garden and offering an explanation of mindfulness, including one of Thay’s calligraphies: “I am in love with Mother Earth.” We also stapled gathas about gardening to the wood edgings around the exterior of the garden.

Calamity hit when both of my Sangha sisters were struck with serious illnesses and could not work in the garden. The task of maintaining the garden was left to me. At the same time, I became unemployed and was devastated.

For almost the entire month of July, I became a hermit, rarely leaving the confines of my home. I meditated and did chores but hardly left my property except to run needed errands and tend the garden. Every morning I left the house with two old spackle pails, one filled with the necessary tools and supplies and the other empty. I walked to the garden in meditation.

As I worked in the garden, I repeated the gathas and breathed in mindfulness. My hands worked the soil, trimmed the plants, tied up drooping limbs to support the heavy fruit, and watered the garden. I took off my shoes to walk in the dirt and grass, which made me smile and remember my childhood. I had become that “Barefoot Contessa” again and I was happy.

The garden flourished under my caring hands and produced an abundance of beautiful vegetables that I shared with my friends, who were too ill to work there. I visited them and shared stories about the garden and the vegetables that were starting to come into season. When the garden started to produce more vegetables than we could eat, I canned tomatoes, made pickles, froze pesto, and shared them with others.

Through the community garden, I also made new friends. We shared ideas on how to control pests and cure plant diseases. We showed our gardens to one another and celebrated the food we had grown. Curious about the sayings posted around my garden, the other gardeners asked questions and I shared my practice and explained how my gardening in itself was a practice in mindfulness. This was something they all related to, and they realized how working in their gardens was a form of meditation.

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I began to understand that, as I cared for the “Sangha Garden,” I was healing myself and my friends. I had planted seeds within me, and now, new fruit had begun to sprout. I realized that while I was in the garden, I was truly happy—happier that I had been that entire year. I was no longer a hermit; the garden I was tending had also tended to me. I was healed.

I give thanks to Mother Earth and dedicate this story to her.

mb63-Mindfulness4Wife, mother, and grandmother,  Candace Henshaw-Osias, Awareness Path of the Heart, is an educator involved in the mindfulness in education movement. She is a member of the Green Island Sangha in Mahasset, New York, and a pre-aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. She wrote this story during an arts retreat at Blue Cliff  Monastery.

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Touching the Earth for Ecological Regeneration

By T. Ambrose Desmond

mb63-TouchingEarth1Touching the Earth, I open myself to this beautiful planet and all of the life that is here.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see that there is no separation between my body and the body of the Earth. Every mineral in this flesh and bone has been stone and soil and it will be again. Looking into one calcium molecule in my bone, I can see that it used to be part of the body of a green leaf. Before that, it was part of the living soil in a garden. Long before that, it was a shell in the sea. I see the continuation of this calcium molecule in so many forms and now in my bone. I can see that the Earth element in me will return to the soil and manifest as other forms of life in the future.

I know that every drop of my blood has been the rain, rivers, and ocean, and it will be again. I can see the life of a water molecule in my blood extending back to before the non-beginning. I can see the water I drink becoming part of my body. Looking back further, I can see that water has been part of every river and every ocean since the beginning of the Earth. I can see that the hydrogen and oxygen that make up this water have been in existence long before the Earth formed. Although my blood feels so much like a part of “me,” I know it will continue in many forms forever.

The air that gives life to every cell in my body has lived in trees and other animals and in the vast sky, and it will again. I see the air element in me—the air that I can feel going in and out of my lungs and the air that is carried throughout my body, keeping me alive. I know this air is part of the vast ocean of the atmosphere moving in and out of all people, animals, plants, and microorganisms. I see we are all breathing together.

The warmth of my body is the warmth of the sun. I see the sun’s warmth radiating through space to the Earth and connecting with a green leaf. That leaf miraculously transforms the energy into sugar. As I take that leaf into my body, I transform the sugar back into warmth. I can see that the sun is alive in me.

I can see clearly that the Earth is not my environment. It is my body and there is no separation.

[THREE BREATHS]

[BELL]

[ALL STAND UP]

Touching the Earth, I open myself to all of the suffering that is present in the Earth.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see clearly that the Earth and I are one body. With tenderness and love, I bring my awareness to the suffering that is present in this collective body. I see the mineral element that is stone becoming soil, becoming vegetation, becoming flesh and bone, becoming soil again. I also see the suffering that is present in the mineral element. I see the toxins we have made creating sickness and cancer in living beings, and the pesticides and fertilizers poisoning the soil. I know that the suffering of the mineral element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the water element. I see the ocean becoming cloud, becoming rain, becoming drinking water, becoming blood, and returning. I also see the suffering in the water element. I see thousands of children without clean water to drink, and the toxins we have allowed to be released in streams, aquifers and oceans, and all of the suffering they cause. I know the suffering of the water element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the air element. I see the one ocean of air circulating through all life and through the vast sky. I also see the suffering in the air element. I see pollution in the air and the sickness it causes. I know the suffering of the air element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the fire element. I see the energy of the sun warming the Earth, turning into sugars when it touches green leaves, and those leaves becoming my body. I see that the heat in my body is the heat of the sun. I also see the suffering in the fire element. I see the ocean levels rising, the polar ice caps melting, and all of the destruction caused by global climate change. I know the suffering of the fire element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

[THREE BREATHS]

[BELL]

[ALL STAND UP]

Touching the Earth, I open myself to the enormous capacity for healing that is present in the ancestors and in the Earth.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see the Earth herself as a living body. I see her capacity to adapt and heal herself. I know that she is strong and that she has a miraculous capacity to transform a toxin into a resource in the same way I can transform suffering into compassion.

I can see the Earth billions of years ago, when she was covered with single-celled organisms that could breathe only carbon dioxide. These single-celled organisms produced oxygen as a waste, and the increasing amount of oxygen in the atmosphere threatened to end life on Earth. I see that in that moment, the Earth began to manifest new single-celled organisms that breathed oxygen and restored the balance in the atmosphere.

I see that this creativity is still alive in the Earth and in human beings. I know all of the solutions to our environmental problems already exist. I know my ancestors have discovered ways of harnessing the power of the wind and sun and water to provide for all of our needs. I see intentional communities, permaculture food forests, electric trains, and compassionate conflict resolution. I also see my own capacity to embrace suffering with mindfulness and love, transforming it into compassion.

Looking deeply, I see that all that is needed for global healing is present within me and all around me. I feel immense gratitude for this miraculous power of transformation.

[THREE BREATHS]

[TWO BELLS]

[ALL STAND UP]

mb63-TouchingEarth2T. Ambrose Desmond is a psychotherapist, student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and member of the Order of Interbeing. He offers therapy and consultation through honecounseling.net.

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