Dharma Talk: Everyone Can and Will Become a Buddha

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Exerpt from Lotus Sutra book, by Thich Nhat Hanh, recently published by Parallax Press.

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In Chapter Twenty of the Lotus Sutra we are introduced to a beautiful bodhisattva called Sadaparibhuta, “Never Disparaging.”The name of this bodhisattva can also be translated as “Never Despising.” This bodhisattva never disparages living beings, never underestimates them or doubts their capacity for Buddhahood. His message is, “I know you possess Buddha nature and you have the capacity to become a Buddha,” and this is exactly the message of the Lotus Sutra—you are already a Buddha in the ultimate dimension, and you can become a Buddha in the historical dimension. Buddha nature, the nature of enlightenment and love, is already within you; all you need do is get in touch with it and manifest it. If you know this, if you are able to see your true nature in the ultimate dimension, then you will be able to realize Buddhahood in the historical dimension. Never Disparaging Bodhisattva is there to remind us of the essence of our true nature.

The action of this bodhisattva is to remove the feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem in people. “How can I become a Buddha? How can I attain enlightenment? There is nothing in me except suffering, and I don’t know how to get free of my own suffering, much less help others. I am worthless.” Many people have these kinds of feelings, and they suffer more because of them. Never Despising Bodhisattva works to encourage and empower people who feel this way, to remind them that they too have Buddha nature, they too are a wonder of life, and they too can achieve what a Buddha achieves. This is a great message of hope and confidence. This is the practice of a bodhisattva in the action dimension.

Sadaparibhuta was actually Shakyamuni in one of his former lives, when the Buddha appeared as a bodhisattva in the world to perfect his practice of the Dharma. But this bodhisattva did not chant the sutras or practice in the usual way—he did not perform prostrations, or go on pilgrimages, or spend long hours in sitting meditation. Never Despising Bodhisattva had a specialty. Whenever he met someone he would address them very respectfully, saying, “You are someone of great value. You are a future Buddha. I see this potential in you.” There are passages in the Lotus Sutra that suggest that his message was not always well received. Because they have not yet gotten in touch with the ultimate dimension, many people could not believe what the bodhisattva was telling them about their inherent Buddha nature, and they thought he was mocking them. Often he was ridiculed, shouted at, and driven away. But even when people did not believe him and drove him away with insults and beatings,  Never

Despising did not become angry or abandon them. Standing at a distance he continued to shout out the truth:

“I do not hold you in contempt!
You are all treading the Path,
And shall all become Buddhas!” (1)

Never Despising is very sincere and has great equanimity. He never gives up on us. The meaning of his life, the fruition of his practice, is to bring this message of confidence and hope to everyone. This is the action of this great bodhisattva. We have to learn and practice this action if we want to follow the path of the bodhisattvas.

The sutra tells us that when Sadaparibhuta was near the end of his life he suddenly heard the voice of a Buddha called King of Imposing Sound (Bhishmagarjitasvararaja) teaching the Lotus Sutra. He could not see that Buddha but he clearly heard his voice delivering the sutra, and through the power of the teaching, Never Despising Bodhisattva suddenly found that his six sense organs were completely purified and he was no longer on the verge of death. Understanding deeply the message of the Lotus Sutra, he was able to touch his ultimate dimension and attain deathlessness.

We have already learned about the infinite life span of a Buddha in the ultimate dimension. In terms of the historical dimension, a Buddha may live 100 years or a little bit more or less; but in terms of the ultimate dimension a Buddha’s life span is limitless. Sadaparibhuta saw that his lifes pan was infinite, just like the life span of a Buddha. He saw that every leaf, every pebble, every flower, every cloud has an infinite life span also, because he was able to touch the ultimate dimension in everything. This is one of the essential aspects of the Lotus message. When his sense organs had been purified, he could see very deeply and understand how the six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind) produce the six kinds of consciousness. When his senses had been purified he was capable of touching reality-as-it-is, the ultimate dimension. There was no more confusion, no more delusion, in his perception of things.

This passage in the sutra may sound as if it is about something magical or supernatural, but in fact it describes a kind of transformation that we too can experience. When the ground of our consciousness is prepared, when our sense consciousnesses and our mind consciousness have been purified through the practice of mindfulness and looking deeply into the ultimate dimension of reality, we can hear in the sound of the wind in the trees or the singing of the birds the truth of the Lotus Sutra. While lying on the grass or walking in meditation in the garden we can get in touch with the truth of the Dharma that is all around us all the time. We know that we are practicing the Lotus samadhi and our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind are automatically transformed and purified.

Having realized the truth of the ultimate, Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta continued to live for many millions of years, delivering his message of hope and confidence to countless beings. So we can see that the Lotus Sutra is a kind of medicine for long life. When we take this medicine we are able to live a very long time in order to be able to preserve and transmit the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to many others. We know that our true nature is unborn and undying, so we no longer fear death. Just like Never Despising Bodhisattva, we always dare to share the wonderful Dharma with all living beings. And all those who thought the bodhisattva was only making fun of them finally began to understand. Looking at Sadaparibhuta they were able to see the result of his practice, and so they began to have faith in it and to get in touch with their own ultimate nature.

This is the practice of this great bodhisattva—to regard others with a compassionate and wise gaze and hold up to them the insight of their ultimate nature, so that they can see themselves reflected there. So many people have the idea that they are not good at anything, that they are not able to be as successful as other people.

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They cannot be happy; they envy the accomplishments and social standing of others while regarding themselves as failures if they do not have the same level of worldly success. We have to try to help those who feel this way. Following the practice of Sadaparibhuta we must come to them and say, “You should not have an inferiority complex. I see in you some very good seeds that can be developed and make you into a great being. If you look more deeply within and get in touch with those wholesome seeds in you, you will be able to overcome your feelings of unworthiness and manifest your true nature.”

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The Chinese Master Guishan writes,

We should not look down on ourselves.
We should not see ourselves as worthless and always
withdraw into the background. (2)

These words are designed to wake us up. In modern society, psychotherapists report that many people suffer from low self-esteem. They feel that they are worthless and have nothing to offer, and many of them sink into depression and can no longer function well, take care of themselves or their families. Therapists, healers, and caregivers, teachers, religious leaders, and those who are close to someone who suffers in this way all have the duty to help them see their true nature more clearly so that they can free themselves from the delusion that they are worthless. If we know friends or family member who see themselves as worthless, powerless, and incapable of doing anything good or meaningful, and this negative self-image has taken away all their happiness, we have to try to help our friend, our sister or brother, our parent, spouse, or partner remove this complex. This is the action of the bodhisattva Never Despising.

We also have to practice so as not to add to others’ feelings of worthlessness. In our daily life when we become impatient or irritated we might say things that are harsh, judgmental, and critical, especially to our children. When they are under a great deal of pressure, working very hard to support and care for their family, parents frequently make the mistake of uttering unkind, punitive, or blaming words in moments of stress or irritation. The ground of a child’s consciousness is still very young, still very fresh, so when we sow such negative seeds in our children we are destroying their capacity to be happy. So parents and teachers, siblings, and friends all have to be very careful and practice mindfulness in order to avoid sowing negative seeds in the minds of our children, family members, friends, and students.

And when our students or loved ones have feelings of low self-esteem we have to find a way to help them transform those feelings so that they can live with greater freedom, peace, and joy. We have to practice just like Never Despising Bodhisattva, who did not give up on people or lose patience with them but continued always to hold up to others a mirror of their true Buddha nature.

I always try to practice this kind of action. One day there were two young brothers who came to spend the day with me. I took them both to show them a new printing press I had just gotten. The younger boy was very interested in the machine, and while he was playing with it the motor burned out. As I was pressing one button to show the boys how it worked, the little boy pressed another at the same time, and it overstressed the machine’s engine. The elder brother said angrily, “Thay, you just wanted to show us the machine. Why did he have to do that? He wrecks whatever he touches.” These were very harsh words from such a young boy. Perhaps he had been influenced by hearing his parents or other family members use blaming language like this, so he was just repeating what he had heard without realizing the effect on his little brother.

In order to help mitigate the possible effects of his brother’s criticism on the younger boy, I showed the boys another machine, a paper cutter, and this time I instructed the younger one how to use it. His brother warned me, “Thay, don’t let him touch it, he’ll destroy this one too.” Seeing that this was a moment when I could help both boys, I said to the older brother, “Don’t worry, I have faith in him. He is intelligent. We shouldn’t think otherwise.” Then I said to the younger boy, “Here, this is how it works—just push this button. Once you have released this button then you press that button. Do this very carefully and the machine will work properly.” The younger brother followed my instructions and operated the machine without harming it.

He was very happy, and so was his older brother. And I was happy along with them.

Following the example of Sadaparibhuta Bodhisattva, I only needed three or four minutes to remove the complex of the younger brother and teach the older brother to learn to trust in the best of his younger brother and not just see him in terms of his mistakes. In truth, at that moment I was a bit concerned that the young boy would ruin the other machine. But if I had hesitated and not allowed him to try and follow my instructions, believing that he would destroy the machine, I could well have destroyed that little boy. Preserving the health and well-being of the mind of a child is much more important than preserving a machine, by a long way.

You only need to have faith in the action of Sadaparibhuta and very quickly you can help others overcome their negative self-image. Never Despising Bodhisattva shows everyone that they have the capacity for perfection within themselves, the capacity to become a Buddha, a fully enlightened one. The message of the Lotus Sutra is that everyone can and will become a Buddha. Sadaparibhuta is the ambassador of the Buddha and of the Lotus Sutra, and sometimes ambassadors are reviled or attacked. Never Despising Bodhisattva was also treated this way. He brought his message to everyone, but not everyone was happy to hear it because they could not believe in their own Buddha nature. So when they heard his message they felt they were being scorned or mocked, and, the sutra tells us, “throughout the passage of many years, he was constantly subjected to abuse…some in the multitude would beat him with sticks and staves, with tiles and stones.” (3) The mission of a Dharma teacher, of a bodhisattva, requires a great deal of love, equanimity, and inclusiveness.

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Sadaparibhuta Bodhisattva represents the action of inclusiveness, kshanti, one of the six paramitas, the bodhisattva practice of the perfections. Kshanti is also translated as “patience,” and we can see this great quality in Never Despising Bodhisattva and in one of the Shakyamuni’s disciples, Purna, who is praised by the Buddha in the eighth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. While the Lotus Sutra only mentions Purna in passing, he is the subject of another sutra, the Teaching Given to Maitrayaniputra. (4) In this sutra, after the Buddha had instructed Purna in the practice, he asked him, “Where will you go to share the Dharma and form a Sangha?” The monk said that he wanted to return to his native region, to the island of Sunaparanta in the Eastern Sea.

The Buddha said, “Bhikshu, that is a very difficult place. People there are very rough and violent. Do you think you have the capacity to go there to teach and help?”

“Yes, I think so, my Lord,” replied Purna. “What if they shout at you and insult you?”

Purna said, “If they only shout at me and insult me I think they are kind enough, because at least they aren’t throwing rocks or rotten vegetables at me. But even if they did, my Lord, I would still think that they are kind enough, because at least they are not using sticks to hit me.”

The Buddha continued, “And if they beat you with sticks?”

“I think they are still kind enough, since they are not using knives and swords to kill me.”

“And if they want to take your life? It’s possible that they would want to destroy you because you will be bringing a new kind of teaching, and they won’t understand at first and may be very suspicious and hostile,” the Buddha warned.

Purna replied, “Well, in that case I am ready to die. Because my dying will also be a kind of teaching and because I know that this body is not the only manifestation I have. I can manifest myself in many kinds of bodies. I don’t mind if they kill me, I don’t mind becoming the victim of their violence, because I believe that I can help them.”

The Buddha said, “Very good, my friend. I think that you are ready to go and help there.”

So Purna went to that land and he was able to gather a lay Sangha of 500 people practicing the mindfulness trainings, and also to establish a monastic community of around 500 practitioners. He was successful in his attempt to teach and transform the violent ways of the people in that country. Purna exemplifies the practice of kshanti, inclusiveness.

Never Despising Bodhisattva may have been a future or a former life of Purna. We are the same. If we know how to practice inclusiveness then we will also be the future life of this great bodhisattva. We know that Sadaparibhuta’s life span is infinite, and so we can be in touch with his action and aspiration at any moment. And when we follow the practice of inclusiveness of Never Despising Bodhisattva, he is reborn in us right in that very moment. We get in touch with the great faith and insight that everyone is a Buddha, the insight that is the very marrow of the Lotus Sutra. Then we can take up the career of the bodhisattva, carrying within our heart the deep confidence we have gained from this insight and sharing that confidence and insight with others.

Therapists and others in the healing professions, Dharma teachers, schoolteachers, parents, family members, colleagues, and friends can all learn to practice like Never Despising Bodhisattva. Following the path of faith, confidence, and inclusiveness we can help free many people from the suffering of negative self-image, help them recognize their true Buddha nature, and lead them into the ultimate dimension.

Illustrations by Lien Buu Olsson. She lives and practices in San Diego, California.

1 Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, p. 283.

2 Quote from “Awakening Words of Master Quy Son,” in Stepping Into Freedom [PUB INFO].

3 Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, pp. 280–1.

4 Teaching Given to Maitrayaniputra , REF Pali/Skt and/or Chinese texts, translations

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Success 

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

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

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

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

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Thinking About the Future

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

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shoes in the Dharma Hall

By Carolyn White

Before I was a year old, I contracted polio. Now I am fifty-nine and wear two different-sized shoes, which are clunky, lace up, and have small heels. These shoes are my Dharma sisters. Without them I cannot walk.

Entering a Dharma hall requires skill. Amid the shoes left outside, I clear a space to balance while I change into indoor shoes, which are also clunky and must be laced up. Then I bow to the Buddha and, walking mindfully so as not to clomp on the wooden floor, I find a cushion. I slip my shoes into a Kuan Yin bag and I meditate.

The Practice of Receiving

Last summer I went to Plum Village for the Breath of the Buddha retreat. I let the monastics know of my need to wear shoes in the Dharma hall so no one would be offended. And I brought hiking poles because the slow pace of outdoor walking meditation can be tricky. I was very happy.

I’m not sure what my fellow retreatants saw, but bodhicitta was aroused in many. People offered me rides to the Dharma hall. Others wanted to help me walk. Baffled, I called my husband in the States: what do you do when people offer you too much help? He said: sometimes you have to be generous and accept it.

So I did. I put the poles away and let myself be helped. As frail older women and handsome young men took my arm, I watched my protesting: I’m perfectly fit, I’m a hiker, I know how to take care of myself; besides I am the one who helps, the one who cares for others. Unable to say what was too much or too little help, I kept silent and accepted what was given.

A young bodhisattva magically appeared at rough spots in the path, took my hand, and kept me stable. One day he walked me to the Dharma hall and seeing my shoelace untied, he kneeled.

No, stop! I wanted to protest, I can tie my own shoes! But I let him. Like Christ washing the feet of the leper, he tied my shoe. Never have I experienced such reverence. To be cared for by others — to yield to kindness — is not easy. But I am learning. I would like to thank my shoe-tying bodhisattva and all the other dear retreatants for three weeks of perfect care.

The Front of the Dharma Bus

Earlier this year I went to Deer Park for the end of the winter retreat. As usual, I told the monastics of my need to wear shoes in the Dharma hall. Because it was difficult to carry the indoor shoes upand downhill (and sometimes I forget), I left them in my Kuan Yin bag at the Dharma hall entry.

On my third day a sweet Vietnamese nun pointed at my shoes and asked me to sit in the back of the Dharma hall. She smiled and explained: This is our culture.

Not until I was sitting at a happiness meeting did her words sink in. I started to cry and left the Dharma hall.

I sat outside on a bench. This is my culture, too, I protested, thinking of Rosa Parks. I wanted to tell a monastic my suffering or to clomp loudly in the Dharma hall and sit in the front row.

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Instead I watched my mind. I watched it clamor, wanting to right injustice. I watched it a long time, until my heart cracked open for African-Americans and Native Americans and my own Jewish ancestors who were denied full access to our beautiful world.

For days I said nothing to others but made up walking gathas:

May all living beings walk freely on the earth.
May all walk gracefully.
May all practitioners —
frail or strong, tall or short, big or small —
sit in the front of the Dharma bus.

Deer Park is my home, as is Plum Village. They are where I belong — in a fourfold community of practitioners who are always learning, growing, and changing. I have not yet thanked the sister for helping me explore inclusiveness. Someday I will.

Carolyn White, Wise Speech of the Heart, practices in Michigan with the Lansing Area Mindfulness Community. She wrote this essay at the suggestion of some sisters at Deer Park in the hope that it will stimulate discussion on inclusiveness.

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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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Form Is Emptiness

The Umpqua Area Mindfulness Sangha

By Hope Lindsay

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Eleven years ago, our home-based Sangha in Roseburg, Oregon began with three friends. Each of us invited others and at our zenith, about twenty people were on our reminder list with as many as fourteen at any session. Because we came from various traditions, or none at all, we had no particular structure until one of us attended a retreat with Thay and registered our Sangha with the Order of Interbeing.

As time will do, the years drew us in different directions. Changes in jobs, relationships, and family needs took many of us away. For me, a painful transition took place. During our third year I joined the Order of Interbeing, but others wanted different Buddhist orientations. Some had attended Ruth Denison’s Dhamma Dena and felt deep loyalty to that tradition. One person was a devotee of Jack Kornfield and vipassana; one dismissed our tradition as “just mindfulness”; still others found that Tibetan traditions suited them best. Finally, two formed a pre-session study hour for pondering the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and made a decision that our Sangha should be closed to new attendees unless they had an established history of Buddhist practice.

To myself, I repeated the refrain, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” It felt like a power struggle was taking place in a Sangha that had begun in tranquility. The closer we came to a purist form, the further away from openness, inclusiveness, and time for discussion. Our numbers began to dwindle.

Luckily, the minister of Umpqua Unitarian church suggested that I hold a mindful meditation session at the church. The only time available for the space was Wednesday noon. The time of day limits us, perhaps, but we are mostly retirees. A small subgroup comes from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and our Sangha takes on a bit of that flavor. Rather than attention to form, we focus on contemplation, spiritual growth, and insight. Our numbers are growing.

Most of the attendees have a keen sense of social justice and participate in activities such as Women in Black, hospice volunteering, or community action committees; some members sponsor seasonal giving to homeless, animal shelters, third world countries, and so on. When I was drawn to Thay’s teachings many years ago, it was a similar combination of social outreach and contemplation, meditation and daily dedication to the precepts that attracted me. I like this Sangha very much.

Whether it is my shortcoming or my memory of the former Sangha’s struggle, we are not fully structured in the style of Order of Interbeing. We do read the Five Mindfulness Trainings — one Training each week. This seems popular. We open with a bell, lighting incense, a brief reading, silent meditation for twenty minutes, followed by one of the Trainings and a reading that reflects the precept. Most of us sit in chairs. Some of us are ailing, so we do not do walking meditation except at occasional Saturday retreats. And heaven forbid that we sing! No one knows the OI songs but me and I can’t hold a tune. Also, we are rural and out of the way for other OI members to visit us and refresh our practice.

I feel at home in this Sangha. But I do not wear my beloved brown jacket. It would set me apart too much. Instead, I put it on for meditation at home, my private sacred moment.

mb51-Form2Hope Lindsay, True Recollection of the Dharma, worked as a social worker and counselor in hospitals, school districts, and community mental health settings. Now that she has retired she is fulfilling her dream of being a writer.

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Fertile Ground

Indonesia Teaching Tour

By Brother Phap Lai

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Thay and the Sangha touched down in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, on September 27, 2010, having just said a wistful goodbye to our hosts in Malaysia, where we enjoyed a successful two weeks offering retreats and public talks. In Jakarta, we were greeted by warm smiles from a team of lay friends and monastics eager to take good care of us, introduce us to their homeland, and help us plant seeds of Thay’s teaching and practice.

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Indonesia is densely populated with 238 million people. Onehundred-twenty-million are concentrated on Java—the political hub of this archipelago of some 17,500 islands—where we stayed for two weeks. We were taken first to Ekayana Temple, our base in Jakarta and the home of Brother Phap Tu and Venerable Dharma Vimala, both of whom have spent long stays in Plum Village. We were then escorted by police for the three-hour journey to Kinasih resort near Bogor, where we were to offer a five-day retreat. Phap Tu said without the escort, he was not sure how we could have made our way through the thick traffic of Jakarta.

It is impossible not to be affected by the squalid conditions of the poor majority of this overpopulated city. However, we were lucky to have some time in more rural mountain areas. Evident on people’s faces and in their interactions was the simple reality that, even though people may be poor, happiness is possible once the wholesome conditions of having enough space to live, clean air, water, and nature are present. We saw families and communities living simply but happily together. Wherever we went, the majority Muslim population was friendly and courteous, happy to return the beautiful Islamic greeting “As-Salamu ‘Alaykum” (“peace be upon you”) with “Wa Alaykum As-Salam” (“and on you be peace”).

In Indonesia, the ethnic Chinese are generally Buddhist by way of family tradition. However, the Plum Village tradition is new and this was Thay’s first visit to Indonesia. We were touched by the openness of Ekayana Temple, and its associated temples outside Jakarta, to our tradition; they made the Sangha’s visit possible. Brother Phap Tu was the main organiser, and the fourfold Sangha of Ekayana Temple worked wholeheartedly with him to make this visit a huge success. In addition, previous Sangha building efforts made Indonesia a fertile ground for Thay’s teaching to take root. Thay Phap Kham made a number of visits, and in May 2009, Sister Chan Khong, along with a group of brothers and sisters, led a four-day retreat in Kinasih Resort for 400 people and offered Days of Mindfulness in Java and Sumatra.

Interfaith Understanding

With conditions so ripe, we should not have been surprised by how well the retreat was attended and how immediately the energy of practice established itself. There were nine hundred retreatants, of which a record three hundred were young adults. Such an inspiring number of youth wouldn’t have manifested without the outreach work of Brother Phap Tu, who offered a series of weekend retreats at universities in the months leading up to the tour. This outreach paid a wonderful dividend. (We hope to emulate this kind of outreach in the UK before Thay’s visit in 2012). Thay gave a talk on True Love especially dedicated to the young people, and they had lots of sincere questions to ask the monastics. The retreat went well for everyone, and over two-thirds of the people attending received the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Some thirty Muslim practitioners attended the retreat. They formed a family for Dharma discussion, led by Sister Jina. Thay shared teachings of Buddhism that highlighted nondualistic thinking, nondiscrimination, and inclusiveness as central to Buddhist wisdom and insight. Thay talked on “the wisdom of nondiscrimination” as the fourth ingredient of True Love—upeksha, often translated as equanimity. Thay said Buddhists and Muslims can say to each other, “Because I love you and your God is Allah, I also love Allah as my God,” and “because I love you and your teacher is Lord Buddha, Buddha is also my teacher.” Thay shared that as Buddhists, we can very well understand Islamic proclamations from the Koran such as “Allah is God, there is only one God,” in the light of the Buddhist insight that the one contains the all. Thay said, “As Buddhists we should study Islam. Thay has studied and sees the five pillars of Islam can be compared with the Five Mindfulness Trainings.”

On the last day, Thay invited the Muslim Dharma discussion group to share with the whole Sangha about their experience and the initiative, following Thay’s request, to establish an interfaith group in Indonesia. One young Muslim lady shared that sadly, the country’s motto, “Unity in Diversity,” does not reflect the real situation. She shared that this retreat gave her hope and a way to contribute to making the motto something to believe in. Separately from this sharing to the whole Sangha, a Muslim lady shared with me about a transformation she experienced. “The ethnic Chinese, although a minority of twenty to twenty-five percent, use economic dominance to discriminate and this causes bad feelings among the Muslim community. But here it is clear everyone is good-hearted and I can relate them to as brothers and sisters on the path. I feel very at ease here.”

I had numerous conversations with our hosts, Chinese Indonesians and Malaysian Chinese, during the stay in these countries and discovered there is a lot of resentment regarding the many ways in which they suffer discrimination by the governments, which favour the Muslim majority. Underneath the occasional eruptions of violence that make the news, there is a pervasive tension among different ethnicities and religions of the Indonesian people. Poverty and overpopulation exacerbate the situation. Misperceptions and discriminatory behaviour fuel more resentment. It seems all the more important to find ways for the two communities to find common ground from which to build mutual respect and love. Conditions seem more favourable in Indonesia compared with Malaysia, where Muslims are barred by law from attending any Buddhist events. Under these kinds of restrictions it is hard to see how interfaith groups can form openly. Yet during the retreat it seemed everything was possible; indeed, understanding, love, and unity manifested palpably.

Back in Plum Village, Brother Phap Tu informed me that the interfaith group in Jakarta is meeting regularly, and Plum Village is to sponsor a Muslim practitioner from this group for a long-term stay in Plum Village.

Thay wrote to his children on the tour, “The Southeast Asia Tour is blooming as a beautiful flower. The flower has five petals. The first three petals are Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and they have manifested elegantly. The happiness of the Sangha has been nourished by the happiness of the local Buddhist practitioners. As teachers and students, we have learned many wonderful things on this trip, being able to drop many of our preconceived notions about these countries.”

Brother Phap Lai is from the United Kingdom and is currently residing in Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, France.

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