Dharma Talk: Loving the Unlovable

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Sangha, today is the 28th of January, 1996. We are in the Lower Hamlet (of Plum Village). It is the Winter Retreat. With us today are friends from the Lotus Bud Sangha in Australia. In France we are in the middle of winter. In Australia it is the middle of summer. Time and space have been brought together. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the beginning of 1996, Plum Village invented the Telecom Dharma talk. The first was directed to Vietnam. The Vietnamese monks and nuns here were very happy and moved to be able to “go back” to our ancestral temple. This is the second Telecom Dharma talk, directed to the Australian continent. 

Do you have someone to love? If you do not love anyone, your heart may dry up. Love brings happiness to ourselves and to those we love. We may want to love children who are hungry, disabled, or abused, to relieve them of their suffering. We carry that love in our heart and hope that someday we will be able to realize it. But when we actually contact these children, they may appear to be difficult to love. They may be rude, they may lie, they may steal. After a short time, our love for them may fade. We had the idea that loving children who need our help would be wonderful, but when confronted with the reality, we cannot sustain our love. When we discover that the object of our love is not lovable, we feel deep disappointment, shame, and regret, as though we have failed. If we cannot love a poor or disabled child, who can we love?

Everyone has an image of the Buddha. We think that if we meet the Buddha, he will be easy to love. He has so much compassion and understanding. But what if scientists were to find a way for us to see the faces of those who lived in the past? We see stars that perished thousands of light-years ago. Perhaps images do not travel in straight lines. When you fly from Paris to Los Angeles, the plane goes in a circular route. Maybe the image of the Buddha is also traveling in a circle. The sight of the Buddha teaching his disciples on Gridhrakuta Peak, the sound of his voice, those images went into space 2,500 years ago. With the right instruments, perhaps we could capture those images and sounds and see and hear the Buddha. Then we would be able to compare the Buddha’s teachings with the recorded sutras and discover mistakes that were made when the sutras were written down after being transmitted orally for several centuries.

A monk at Plum Village said to me, “My image of the Buddha is so beautiful. If I could see the real Buddha, I am afraid he might not be as beautiful. What do you think the Buddha looked like?”

I said, “He may have looked like Mahatma Gandhi.” The monk was disappointed. To him, Gandhi is not as handsome as his image of the Buddha. I have visited families in Lumbini and Kapilavasu, belonging to the same Shakya clan as the Buddha, and I got an idea what the Buddha may have looked like.

We have beautiful images of Buddha and Jesus. We love our images and hold them in our store consciousness. But if we were to meet the Buddha at the Sainte Foy la Grande station (near Plum Village), I am not sure if we would love him. If we met Jesus in the Leclerc Supermarket, I am not sure we would love him as much as our image. Our images of the Buddha and Jesus may be quite different from the real Buddha and the real Jesus.

There were people at the time of the Buddha who did not love him. Some of his own monks left the Buddha’s Sangha to start an opposing Sangha. Some people tried to murder the Buddha. Others brought the body of a young woman to the Jeta Grove and accused the monks of violating and killing her. Love is not merely about enjoyment. It has to do with understanding. If we don’t truly understand, our love will vanish.

mb16-dharma2

We think we love disabled and hungry children, but the truth might turn out to be different. A number of monks, nuns, and laypeople from Plum Village want to go back to Vietnam to help the children there and to bring about unity and faith among people. They want their country to have a future. The war created much division, hatred, suspicion and destruction in the hearts of people. These monks, nuns, and laypeople want to go home and walk on their native land. They want to embrace the people, relieve them of their suffering, and help them taste joy and peace.

But before they go back, they must prepare themselves. The people they want to help may not be easy to love. Real love must include those who are difficult, those who have been unkind. If we go back to Vietnam without first learning to love, when we find the people being unpleasant, we will suffer and we may even come to hate them.

When you lose your ability to love, you lose your life. We think we can change the world, but we should not be naïve. Don’t think that the moment you arrive in Vietnam, you will sit down with all the conflicting factions and establish communication immediately. You may be able to give beautiful talks about harmony, but if you are not prepared, you will not be able to put your words into practice.

In Plum Village, we live together 24 hours a day. Do we cooperate to bring each other happiness? Do we work together in harmony? Are we able to overcome our individual views in order to bring together the views of everyone? Or do we maintain our own view and think that it alone is correct? If you cannot practice “harmony of views,” bringing your views together with the views of others to arrive at a collective view that everyone can accept, if you cannot love and accept each other, if you do not use loving speech every day, what will you be able to offer our countrymen when you return to Vietnam?

In Vietnam there are people who can give very good Dharma talks, who can explain how to reconcile and live in harmony, but not everyone can do it. We should not only talk about it. If we do not actually practice what we preach, what can we offer anyone? If older sisters do not hold each other’s hands like children of the same mother, how can the younger children have faith in the future?

We must practice harmony of views and harmony of speech. We bring our views together to have a deeper understanding, and we use loving speech to inspire others and not hurt anyone. We practice walking together, eating together, discussing together, so we can realize love and understanding. If you are able to breathe and smile when your sister says something unkind, that is the beginning of love. You do not have to go someplace else to serve. You can serve right here by practicing walking meditation, smiling, and shining your eyes of love on others.

We want to go out and share what we have learned. But if we do not practice breathing to untie the knots of pain in ourselves – the knots of anger, sadness, jealousy, and irritation – what can we teach others? We must understand and practice the teachings in our daily lives. We can only teach from our experience. People need to hear how we have to be able to overcome our own suffering and the irritations in our own heart. When we talk about the Dharma, our words need to have energy. That is not possible if our words come only from ideas, theories, or even sutras. We can only teach what we have done ourselves.

When we practice the First Prostration, we have to be able to see our blood ancestors and our spiritual ancestors at the same time. Some of our ancestors have done beautiful things, and others have made big mistakes. But all of them are our ancestors, and we have to accept them all, those only 20 years older than us and those 2,000 years older, those who are wonderful, and those who are very difficult. Our parents and some of our ancestors may have made us suffer, but they are still our parents and our ancestors. Until we accept them, we cannot feel at peace. If we say, “That person is not worthy of being my ancestor,” we will suffer our whole life.

After that, we get in touch with our descendants – our younger sisters and brothers, our disciples, our grandchildren, and our students. Some of them are beautiful. Some may argue with us. Some may be rude to us. When we practice the First Prostration, we have to accept all our children, those who are good and those who are difficult. That is the only way to find peace. The Three Prostrations are not just a devotional practice. They are a practice of insight, of looking deeply. We see that we are part of a stream of life comprised of all our spiritual and blood ancestors. We transcend our personal self, which is a basic Buddhist practice, and see what is meant by “no self.” When we realize that we are our ancestors and our descendants, our “self” dissolves and we accept everyone, however wicked or wonderful they have been. If we do not have that insight when we prostrate, we are still caught in the individual self, a self apart from the Sangha. We think we are not our brother, our sister, or our teacher. If we think like that, we are not ready to go out and teach other people. We have a theory about no-self, but we do not yet have the insight.

At Plum Village we practice dwelling peacefully in the present moment. By abiding peacefully in the present moment, we avoid running around in circles and we begin to have happiness. When we breathe and walk on the meditation path, when we eat a meal together in mindfulness, we see that we have the capacity for happiness every day. If we do not know how to make use of these practices and enjoy them, if we look for happiness somewhere else, we will never find it.

In Vietnam we say, “Standing on the top of one mountain, you look with envy at the top of another mountain.” We don’t realize how beautiful our mountain is. We look at the other mountain and think, It is much more beautiful over there. If only I could go over there, I would be happy. We have a husband, but we look at another family and think, Her husband is much kinder than mine. We are a child and we say, His mother is much sweeter than my mother. I wish I could exchange mothers. If we stand on this mountain peak and want to be on the other, that is because we do not know how to have happiness in the present moment in this very place. We do not have the capacity to accept the conditions for happiness that are already within us and all around us. In our Sangha, there are people who have the capacity to live happily in the present moment. They do not have the attitude of standing on the top of one mountain wanting to be on the other. They can sit very still, without feeling as though they are sitting on hot coals, wanting to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

Those who cannot be happy may think, If I could be a Dharma teacher, or a monk or a nun, I would be happy. But those who have the capacity to dwell peacefully in the present moment say, I am not a Dharma teacher or a monk or a nun, but I am just as happy. If you are not happy, becoming a Dharma teacher, a monk, or a nun will not make you happier.

How high is this peak? It represents the year 2050. We have only four more years to get to the 21st century. I am advanced in years, and I don’t know if I am going to arrive at the foot of the 21st century hill. But I think about that hill every day. I think about my descendants who are going to climb it. I don’t know whether I am going to live two years. Some things we cannot know. But one thing is certain. I am going to climb this hill with my descendants. I don’t agree with being a teacher for just three or four more years. I want to be a teacher and a companion for thousands of years.

You may think that Brother Phap Canh will get to the top of the mountain in the year 2050. He is 20 now, so he will be 74 years old. When he stands there, what will he see? He will look down and see the Sangha climbing up together. At 74, he will probably have many disciples, both lay and monastic. They will call him “Grandfather Teacher.” What I want to say is we have to climb this hill together. We cannot go up as individuals. Our practice lies in doing it together. We cannot go up as individuals. If we go as a Sangha, we will reach our goal. If we go as individuals, we will never get anywhere. We must go up the hill of the 21st century together. That is how we will transcend our individual selves.

Your grandfather teacher is called Thanh Guy. He is present with us today in this Dharma Hall. He gave me the Dharma Lamp Transmission. He sent me out on the path with all his love and care. Now he is carrying me in his passing. I am carrying him in my passing, and I am transmitting him to you so you can carry him with you. If it were not for my teacher, how could I be here? We are just a stream called “life.” When we give Dharma Transmission, we are not giving it just to one person. We give it to many people at the same time. When your receive Dharma Transmission, you also receive it for many.

The Sangha body of the Buddha has never ceased to be. Today we bear in our heart the Sangha of the Buddha, which is more than 2,500 years old. We may still be young, but we are also very, very old. Our Sangha body is sitting in the Dharma Nectar Hall in France and in the Lotus Bud Sangha in Australia. But the Sangha is much greater and wider than this.

You have seen me teach the Dharma a little bit everywhere, and you have experienced the Sangha in many different parts of the world. Each part of the Sangha nourishes itself using different methods and different teachings, yet we are present in all these Sanghas, and our descendants will be present in them, also. To see this is the realization of no-self. You need this insight to be able to take stable steps on the path of life. We are not individuals suffering in isolation. When one horse in the stable is sick, none of the horses will eat hay. Our suffering is the suffering of others. Our smile is the smile of others. Our joy is the joy of others. Only when we live this way is the Buddha’s teaching of no-self a reality.

If you think you are standing outside, that is an illusion. You are standing on this mountain thinking you should be standing on that one. Everything depends on your way of looking. To have a cup of tea with Thay may be happiness. But not drinking tea with Thay is also happiness. Can you be at peace in the present moment? Can you accept the elements of happiness that are already here? If you don’t have happiness, it doesn’t matter whether you are a monk, a nun, a Dharma teacher, or a layperson.

During this winter retreat, we have been studying “The Living Tradition of Buddhist Meditation.” Today we are going to learn a little more about the poem by Nhan Tong, the Bamboo Forest Master, called “Living in the World of the Dust, but Enjoying the Path of Practice.”

If you understand,
All wrongdoings from the past are wiped away.
If you are able to understand,
Past wrongdoings will not be repeated.
Practicing in daily life,
Keep your true nature shining.
Realizing that Buddha is you mind,
You don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu.
When you are mindful, here and now,
When your light is shining,
Why ask about the methods of Ma Tsu?
Don’t even think about his methods.
When you realize that Buddha is your mind,
You will never ask again about Ma Tsu’s methods.  

If you understand, all wrongdoings from the past are wiped away. We misbehave because we do not really understand what we are doing. Once we understand, we will stop. How can we understand what we are doing? By looking deeply. That is called the “shining nature” in us.

At times we have to prostrate before six other people and ask them to shine light on our practice. When we do this, we will receive great benefit. We have wrong perceptions that imprison us. We need at least six people to shine their light on us. They will do this only if we prostrate before them, and, with all our sincerity, ask for their help. The Sangha’s wisdom is greater than that of any individual. I always take refuge in the Sangha. Six is the minimum. You can ask sixty people if you like. When you ask them to shine light on your practice, it can reveal the darkest places in yourself, the things that bring about your suffering.

If you are able to understand, past wrongdoings will not be repeated. Practicing in daily life, keep your true nature shining. You perfect yourself in the Three Trainings of precepts, concentration, and insight. Gin means protect, maintain, look after. Tinh sang means the essential nature that is shining and clear and resides in all of us. The energy of mindfulness is light. With mindfulness, we know what is happening. When we are angry and we know we are angry, we can transform it, because mindfulness is there. If we nourish our mindfulness for ten or fifteen minutes, our anger will be transformed. Keep your true nature shining. The shining nature is not a vague idea. It is mindfulness itself, and it helps us have concentration. With concentration, we look deeply, see, and understand. That is called prajna, wisdom or insight.

Keep your true nature shining so you do not enter the path of wrong practice. Ta is wrong or crooked. Dao is path. This is the path of suffering and self pity, the path that leads away from our teacher and our Sangha. The Sangha is a precious jewel, even with its weaknesses. It is essential for our practice. There are things you cannot accomplish without a Sangha. To lose your Sangha is like falling into the ocean without a life jacket. You might die. Keep your true nature shining so you do not venture onto the path of wrong practice. Keep the light of mindfulness shining so you develop the power of concentration and see the truth in your heart, in the environment, and in the Sangha. That will prevent you from falling into the path of suffering.

Always improve yourself by true practice. The word tu, “practice” in Vietnamese means, literally, “to make more beautiful or correct” or “to repair.” If you have a leaky roof, you repair it. If you have some jealousy, you have to transform it. To better yourself, to cultivate happiness, all these things are included in the Vietnamese word for “practice.”

Always improve yourself by true learning. Always follow the “right tradition,” which is the true teaching of the Buddha, not the things people added to the teachings later. The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, but there has always been a tendency to bring in other teachings that are more complicated. We have to be careful not to travel down paths of wrong teaching, or we will lose our way. The way of practice in the right tradition is the tradition of precepts, mindfulness, and living with the Sangha. To say that we can take drugs or drink alcohol while practicing meditation is an example of wrong teaching. To practice meditation without also practicing precepts, concentration, and insight is not following the right tradition. When Zen Buddhism first came to the West, people thought it had something to do with drugs, and they did not practice the precepts. That kind of practice always brings about suffering. Please follow the right tradition.

Realizing that Buddha is your mind, you don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu. Mind is Buddha. Buddha is your mind. Buddha is not some statue made of wood or jade. Buddha is not a god. Buddha cannot be found in heaven. The Buddha is in your heart and mind. When your mind has precepts, concentration, and wisdom, Buddha is present. The Buddha is not the mind of forgetfulness. He is the mind of mindfulness.

When you are mindful, here and now, when your light is shining, why ask about the methods of Ma Tsu? Don’t even think about his methods. You don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu, such as kung an, questioning, shouting, or using the stick. Yelling and hitting are tools that can help meditation students untie the knots of suffering in themselves. These kung an, questions and answers, are used by the Dhyana masters to undo the knots of the students. I prefer simpler methods, like asking “What are you doing?” Sometimes when Sr. Chan Khong is looking through her files, I ask her, “What are you doing?” Sometimes she says, “You’ve caught me. I wasn’t practicing mindfulness.”

When you are cooking, sweeping, or working in the garden, practice mindfulness. If not, it is a waste of time. When I ask, “What are you doing?” if you are present, you can just look at me and smile. But if you are not practicing, you have to say, “Thay, you’ve caught me. I’m not practicing.”

When you realize that Buddha is your mind, you will never ask again about Ma Tsu’s methods. Ma Tsu was a very famous Dhyana master from China. He was born in 707 and he lived to be 81 years old. There is a story about a conversation between Ma Tsu and one of his students. One day, the student was sitting diligently practicing sitting meditation. The teacher asked, “What are you doing?” and the monk answered, proudly, “I am practicing sitting meditation.” The teacher said, “Why are you doing that?” and the student replied, “To become Buddha.” Ma Tsu began polishing a tile, and the student asked, “Master, why are you doing that?” Ma Tsu replied, “To make a mirror.” The student said, “Polishing the tile will not make a mirror.” Ma Tsu replied, “Sitting in meditation will not make a Buddha.”

To become a Buddha, you have to know how to smile, how to speak, how to stand, how to walk, how to work, how to wash pots, and do all those things while you look deeply in the state of Samadhi (concentration). Meditation is not just sitting. Once a student came to Master Ma Tsu and asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Ma Tsu said nothing. He just beat him. You see how kind the teacher of Plum Village is.

The great Bamboo Forest Master, realizing that Buddha is mind, said that you do not have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu. If you are free from attachments, you will be happy. Wealth and sex, for example, are like worms on the end of a hook. If you don’t look deeply, you will get caught, and suffer a lot. If you see the dangers of wealth and sex, you can behave according to the precepts and keep your freedom. Without inner freedom, you can never be happy.

Thoi means the behavior or way of life that is pure. Layman P’ang lived at the time of Ma Tsu in 8th century China. He had a wife, a daughter, and a son, and the four of them practiced together. Although they came from a wealthy family, they gave up their luxurious ways when they tasted the Dharma. They were very pleased to live simple lives.

One day Layman P’ang’s daughter came to Master Ta Dao and asked, “If I don’t want to be friends with all dharmas, objects of mind, what can I do?” Master Ta Dao just put his hand over his mouth. The next time Layman P’ang met Master Ma Tsu, he asked the same question, “If I don’t want to be friends with all dharmas, how should I act?” Ma Tsu said, “Layman, if you can drink all the water in the Han River, I will answer your question.” Upon hearing that, he was awakened.

Layman P’ang and his family symbolize happiness with a simple life. This is the opposite of thinking you have to buy a lot of things to be happy. If you are not attached to wealth, it is because you have realized your shining nature of enlightenment.

You don’t have to go to a mountain to practice. If you follow the precepts, you will not be carried away by sounds and appearances. Some appearances infatuate us and we get carried away by them. Some sounds make us angry, others make us afraid. We practice mindfulness in order to stop – to stop our wrong perceptions, to stop being carried away by sounds and appearances, to stop our mind from running from place to place, unable to settle anywhere. We can do this because we have learned the art of mindful living.

The First Prostration

The Stream of Life

Contemplate while touching the earth with your knees and forehead:

Touching the earth, I connect with ancestors and descendants of both my spiritual and blood families. My spiritual ancestors include the Buddha, the bodhisattvas, the noble Sangha of Buddha’s disciples, and my own spiritual teachers still alive or already passed away. They are present in me, because they have transmitted to me seeds of peace, wisdom, love, and happiness. They have awakened in me my resource of understanding, and compassion. When I look at my spiritual ancestors, I see those who are perfect in the practice of the precepts, understanding, and compassion, and those who are still imperfect. I accept them all, because I also see shortcomings and weaknesses within myself. Aware that my practice of the precepts is not always perfect, that I am not always understanding and compassionate, I open my heart and accept all my spiritual descendants. Some of my descendants practice the precepts, understanding, and compassion in ways that invite confidence and respect, but there are others who come across many difficulties and are constantly subject to ups and downs in their practice. 

In the same way, I accept all my blood ancestors on my mother’s and father’s sides. I accept their good qualities and virtuous actions, and also their weaknesses. I open my heart and accept all my blood descendants with their good qualities, their talents, and also their weaknesses. 

My spiritual ancestors and my blood ancestors, my spiritual descendants and my blood descendants are all part of me. I am them and they are me. I do not have a separate self. All of us are part of a wonderful stream of life.

The Second Prostration

The Wonderful Pattern of Life 

Touching the earth, I connect with all people and species that are alive at this moment. I am one with the wonderful pattern of life that radiates out in all directions. I see the close connection between myself and others – how we share our happiness and our suffering. I am one with those who were born disabled or who become disabled because of war, accident, or illness. I am one with those who are caught in war or oppression. I am one with those who find no happiness in their families, who have no roots or peace of mind, who are hungry for understanding and love and who are looking for something beautiful, wholesome, and true to embrace and believe in. I am someone at the point of death who is very afraid, not knowing what will happen. I am a child who lives in poverty and disease, whose arms and legs are like sticks. I am the manufacturer of bombs that are sold to poor countries. I am the frog swimming in the pond, and I am also the snake that needs the body of the frog to nourish itself. I am the caterpillar or the ant that the bird is looking for to eat, but I am also the bird that is looking for the caterpillar or the ant. I am the forest that is being cut down. I am the river and air that are being polluted, and I am also the one who cuts down the forest and pollutes the river and the air. I see myself in all species, and I see all species in me. 

The Third Prostration

Limitless Time and Space 

Touching the earth, I let go of my idea that I am this body with a limited life span. I see that this body, made up of the four elements, is not me, and I am not limited by this body. I am part of a stream of life of spiritual and blood ancestors that for thousands of years has been flowing into the present and flows on for thousands of years into the future. I am one with my ancestors. I am one with all people and all species, whether they are peaceful and fearless or suffering and afraid. At this very moment, I am present everywhere on this planet. I am also present in the past and in the future. The disintegration of this body does not touch me, just as when the plum blossom falls, it is not the end of the plum tree. I see myself as a wave on the surface of the ocean. I am in all the other waves, and all the other waves are in me. My nature is water. The appearance and disappearance of my form as a wave does not affect the ocean. My Dharma body and wisdom life are not subject to birth and death. I see myself before my body manifested and after my body disintegrates. I see how I exist everywhere. Seventy or eighty years is not my life span. My life span, like that of a leaf or a Buddha, is limitless. I have gone beyond the idea that I am a body that is separated in space and time from all other forms of life.

Photos:
First photo by Sr. Jina van Hengel.
Second photo by Joseph Lam.

PDF of this article

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

Seasonal Family Practice

By Sister Fern Dorresteyn

Winter is a wonderful time to have family practices which bring us together. When I was younger, I lived in a community that celebrated the darkness of winter as a time to kindle the inner light. In December, every Sunday evening we gathered in a dark room. A child would light a candle placed in a beautiful wreath and then we would listen to two stories. One was a magical fairy tale about a poor soul lost in the cold winter night, who found the flame of truth, love, and goodness. The other was a true story of how someone like Nelson Mandela found light in the midst of suffering and darkness. After this, we sang songs about the beauty of winter. While in my community this season is called Advent and is based in Christian tradition, the practice can nourish people of any faith. Here are some ideas for family practice in the winter: Create a beautiful centerpiece, like a wreath made from pine boughs. Use treasures from nature gathered with your children which cultivate feelings of warmth and joy. Everyone can have their own candle in the centerpiece.

Begin your evening with
walking meditation. The clear,
crisp night sky in the winter is
wonderful and refreshing for the
spirit. When you come back,
each person can light a candle
from the center one and say a
special prayer:
Winter is here,
the time of night
we make our heart fire bright.
When we are kind and loving,
we give warmth
to the hearts of others.
Happiness is like
the candle flame
shining light into darkness.

Afterwards, share hot milk or tea by candlelight. Sing songs, tell stories, draw, read poetry, and express appreciation of each other. If you celebrate the Solstice, Christmas, or Chanukah, it might be a nice time to share the deeper meaning of these special times and talk about your own tradition. You may have a specific prayer each week to nourish the seed of loving kindness:

Week 1: Thinking of my family, I wish each one of them feels happy and loved by me.

Week 2: Thinking of the animals living outside, I hope they are warm and have found some food . May they be happy and safe through these winter days.

Week 3: Thinking of people who feel sad and lonely, may they be warmed by friendship and love.

Week 4: May all beings, people, animals, fish, birds, trees, and the whole earth be happy and peaceful.

You may like to take the prayers one step further by asking “What can we doT We often feel too busy for acts of generosity but doing them with our children gives us energy and helps us feel more connected with others. Bake a pie for a lonely neighbor. Invite some friends who need cheering to a tea party. Donate a blanket or food to a local shelter for people who are cold and hungry. Share with your children what happens to animals in the winter with picture books from the library, and then make a bird feeder or visit a local shelter. You can wish the whole world peace.

Sister Fern Dorresteyn, Ha Nghiem, pictured below with Bettina Schneider and Gaia Thurston-Shaine, lives at Plum Village. She was ordained as a novice nun in 1996.

mb18-Seasonal

PDF of this article

Ben’s Laces

By Peggy Mallette

Sitting contorted on the floor, eyes peering over bent knees, foot held firmly in place by fists clenched on two ends of a shoelace, the process begins. Forming a giant loop with two hands, grasping the loop in a fist  with the left hand, circling the loop, the fist is in the way. Opening the fist, the loop collapses. Concentration increasing, forming a giant loop again, circling the loop and tucking it into the fisted grasp, separating the fingers to allow the other hand to seek the tangled lace, the loop collapses.

Concentration increasing, forming a giant loop again, circling the loop and tucking it into the fisted grasp. But Ben has now pivoted his body in a circle pursuing the elusive lace ends, and I was unable to see the magic movement he made with his fingers that completed the knot.

I crane my neck to see the completed product and discover he is not yet done. Now he is grasping the flopping loops of the bow in two fists and crossing them over each other in the elaborate ritual of a second knot that would ensure not having to struggle with the first one again.Patiently he turns to the other shoe and with equal concentration accepts the repeated challenge. All completed very matter-of-factly, he stands and trots off. No expression of the injustice of shoes with laces, no self-criticism at taking so long at the task. When I am overwhelmed with a struggle and feel the need to demonstrate competence immediately, I will remember Ben and this shoelace gatha:

Struggles are a reflection of inexperience and maturation, not inadequacy.

Peggy Mallette is a mother, school counselor, and member of the Open Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana.

PDF of this article

Always Coming of Age

By Ariadne Thompson

I took the Five Precepts when I was 13 years old. I felt completely ready and knew that I wanted to live my life following these guidelines. Many people thought I was too young to make that big a commitment and wondered why I decided to do it.

The precepts are a basis for my spiritual life. They motivate me to be a better person, living my life in peace and harmony. I practice mindfulness and meditation wherever I can, incorporating the precepts into my life where I know they will be helpful. For instance, when working with the fifth precept, I refrain from watching movies or reading books that are based on senseless violence. When I have not followed this precept, I often get a frightening image stuck in my head which brings fear into my life. I learn from my experience that the precepts are worthwhile and make deep psychological sense to me.

One of Thich Nhat Hanh’ s most important teachings is the concept of interbeing, an interconnection and oneness among all beings. We are interdependent on each other. We would starve to death were it not for the farmers who grow our food, the earthworms who strengthen the soil, the truck driver who brings it to the store, and the store owner who sells us the food. Reminding myself each day that I am connected with everything else in the universe is refreshing to me. It reminds me to be aware of and grateful for my connection to the whole, and of the fact that we are all responsible for each other. I want to respond in an open, clear, healthy, compassionate way, no matter what the circumstances surrounding me may be.

Today is not the only day that I come of age. Every morning when I wake up I am coming of age. Every time I take action or responsibility, I am coming of age. At 26, 46, 66 years old, I will be coming of age with different tasks for different stages of my life. In our coming of age group, we have called ourselves “blooming adults.” I feel honored to grow into myself in the supportive presence of this congregation. I would like to close with a poem I wrote about the spirit of mindfulness in my everyday life:
May I develop the capacity to be alone;
to take time out from my day
and go places that I love
to speak with the earth,
reflecting on the beginning of the world
or talking about the weather.

Ariadne Thompson, Peacemaker of the Source, is 15 years old and lives in Santa Monica, California. This is an excerpt from a piece she wrote for her Coming of Age Ceremony in the Unitarian Church.

PDF of this article

Reflections

By Jack Lawlor

After returning from this year’s meeting in Plum Village, I was immersed in gratitude for the mindfulness practices we share, and for the efforts of Thay, Sister True Emptiness, and the growing community of monks and nuns. I am also in awe of the spiritual growth and maturity in the Order since its first international meeting in 1992.

This collective deepening of our practice may be due to the steady growth of healthy Sanghas in over 20 countries during the past four years. When we met in 1992, there were many lay Order members who were not closely connected with a Sangha-apart from Plum Village-which could nourish their practice. As a result, our practice may have been wobbly and intermittent. More and more of us have begun to hear Thay’s gentle and consistent reminders about the value of practice with our home Sangha, however small it may be. The fruits are obvious-regular practice of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and the use of gathas is resulting in more stability and peace in our lives. We have become better listeners and communicators, though there is always room for improvement. In our daily verses, we vow to “practice wholeheartedly so that understanding and compassion will flower.” The quality of dialogue in the small group discussions held during the meeting showed that members have been practicing in this way.

During the meeting, we shared a moment of silent gratitude for the support of members of the extended community. Even though many in the extended community may not be able to afford the time necessary to practice as a formal member of the Order or the expense of going to Plum Village, they practice mindfulness diligently and to the best of their ability, consistent with their family responsibilities. Thus, it makes little sense to pursue the creation of an organization based solely on the thin reeds of certificates and robes. Both members of the Order and the extended community aspire instead to create genuine networks of spiritual communities which enable us to learn from each other in a warm, tolerant, and open-hearted atmosphere. Those who choose to ordain in the Order simply commit to make extraordinary efforts to help these community-building efforts succeed. When we do so, we may find that our wisdom and compassion flourish simultaneously in ways we could not foresee, and that our ability to understand, love, and help others is much deeper and more resilient than we had suspected. If the Order is to act consistently with its lineage and manifest the Bodhisattva ideal of “working mindfully and joyfully” for the sake of others, we must have a deep commitment to service, not only for the Order, but also for the extended community, for our blood families, and for our communities and biosphere.

As we learn the value of community, fewer people view the one-year waiting period before joining the Order as a barrier. In many countries, this time is being transformed from a negative source of impatience and frustration to an immensely positive period of spiritual training and friendship in the company of Sangha members who have gone before. If we rush into the Order, there should be little surprise that we feel a bit disoriented once we are ordained. But if we join after a period of spiritual friendship with a fellow Dharma brother or sister in the company of an accessible Sangha, the value of the Order and the extended community has been experienced through our pores, and there is little need for further written explanation.

A remarkable degree of experimentation is taking place within the Sangha to meet the needs of local culture and temperament. At this meeting, it was agreed to retain the guidelines for initiation into the Order. (See Charter of the Order of Interbeing in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Interbeing.) However, it was also agreed to emphasize the mutual benefits of the one-year mentoring period for both the aspirant and the Sangha in each country or region, stressing the need to nourish the bodhichiua of each aspirant, and allowing local Sanghas to embellish the admission process to reflect local culture, geography, and circumstances.

This experimentation has already resulted in the creation of several resources: the Sangha in the United Kingdom has developed extensive written materials about the ordination process; I have written the book Sangha Building to encourage the growth of new Sanghas and maintain the health of existing ones in the face of challenges which sometimes arise from excessive weariness or zeal. A number of Dharma teachers and Sanghas are developing explanations of how one may join the Order, which we hope will suit the needs of people in our regions.

There is much more work to be done. The Order has organized itself into committees of monks, nuns, and laypeople to enhance Sangha building, social action, youth and adult education, the development of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and the Charter, and communication within the Sangha. Everyone is encouraged to incorporate these efforts into practice, to accept help offered by others, and to know how and when to ask for help when needed. We’ ll undoubtedly make mistakes, but even mistakes are a healthy part of the beautiful maturation process which makes both the Order and the extended community so relevant to the transformation of human society.

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, is one of the founders of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, and a newly elected co-director of the Order of Interbeing.

PDF of this article

Deciding How to Decide

By Dennis Bohn

It took the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness about a year to develop the document on decision making (see below). Some people were suprised that it took so long. but in retrospect. it surprises me that it happened so quickly. I would like to share some of the issues and difficulties we faced. so that other groups grappling with the same issues may know they are not alone.

In the late spring of 1996. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine proposed increasing the structure of our Sangha. both to provide a way for the community to grow and to share the workload with more people. The result was a series of planning meetings to plot a course for the Sangha. After the second meeting. it became apparent that not only was there disagreement over the direction we should take. but that we needed a process for coming to decisions. Opinions differed on whether a decision-making process was necessary or even desirable. Many of us worried that a voting model of decision making would divide the community. and that a consensus model would open the possibility of a “negative tyranny” by a single individual. There was also concern about how people would feel when the group made a decision with which they strongly disagreed.

At each meeting, the bell-keeper, time-keeper. recorder, and “vibes-watcher” worked together to watch the mood and flow of the meeting. When Susan Spieler, a vibes watcher, sensed deep emotions surrounding the decision-making proposal, she suggested that we schedule a meeting to explore people’s feelings and past experiences with groups and decisions. This idea was warmly received and the meeting was larger than most. We learned a lot about one another, and ultimately, I believe this experience allowed us to move ahead with the proposal. As the group leaned toward a consensus style of decision making, we received guidance from Sangha member Ruth Lamborn. She taught us the guiding principle in the consensus model: no one person has all of the truth about an issue.

Instead, we each bring our own very individual lenses, grounded in past experience. Through discussion and listening to other people’s truths, we can obtain the clearest truth about an issue. This dovetails beautifully with the notion of Interbeing. While the consensus process can be slow and cumbersome, it is also pragmatic. If one person blocks a decision, others in the group can listen again to their concerns, either amending the proposal to satisfy the objections, clearing up some misunderstanding, or persuading the individual to stand aside. Very rarely will an impasse be reached. We also found two texts useful in our process an article titled “Consensus,” by Caroline Estes in The New Catalyst, Spring 1986, and Michael J. Sheeran’s book, Beyond Majority Rule.

Personally, I found the meetings difficult and I often had unpleasant feelings when someone disagreed with me. When I sat with them, I realized that I felt attacked by disagreement. I try to resolve these feelings by cultivating compassionate listening. When I look at the person speaking, I remember that they are speaking their truth.

This document has truly evolved with our group. The  process guides us back to Buddhist principles, which have been a bell of mindfulness amidst the hurly-burly of our passionate opinions. The openness of our meetings, in which each person has a voice, is balanced by the depth of commitment that someone must demonstrate to block a decision. This proposal also allows people to disagree and then spaciously stand aside, letting the group move ahead. I am grateful that we now have this document as a loving start in the decision-making process, helpill:g us to organize and plot our course without becoming fragmented.

Peace, and good luck if your group is traveling on a similar path.

Dennis Bohn is a member of the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Amy and their dog Lucy.


Proposal for Consensus Process

In our proposals for process and structure in the Community of Mindfulness/NY Metropolitan Area, we consistently return to the spirit of the teachings [of Thich Nhat Hanh].

Part of the process of decision making involves letting go of attachment and preferences.

The process of how we respond when we feel that a decision didn’t go “our way” and our relationship to the mental formations arising from such situations is precisely one of the points of our Sangha practice together.

The spirit of Beginning Anew be built into the planning meeting process as “part of the culture,” for example, at the end of each planning meeting we give time for “flower watering.”

A short quote from Thich Nhat Hanh or “Evoking the Boddhisattvas’ Names” may be read at the beginning of each planning meeting to set the tone.

Proposed:

  1. That for a trial period of six months, decisions of the Planning Committee be made by a consensus of those present at the Planning Committee meeting, with the exception of the Dharmacharya, who is to be considered if she is not present. Prior to the end of six months, a planning meeting will be called specifically to review and revise this proposal.
  2. That, given a range of disagreement is possible in the consensus model: a) an individual or individuals may express disagreement with a proposal and then stand aside so that the rest of the group may move ahead; b) an individual or individuals may wish to be noted in the minutes as disagreeing with the proposal and then stand aside so that the rest of the group may move ahead with the proposal; c) block: an individual or individuals may take a principled position opposed to a decisions and refuse to stand aside. In this case, the group may not proceed with the matter until consensus is reached. Discussion of the issue may and probably will continue.
  3. That any individual who wishes to attend a Planning Committee meeting is welcome to attend and participate. However, in order that decisions will be blocked only by people with a significant commitment to the community and by people who are well informed about issues under discussion, there shall be two prerequisites for a person to block a decision. The person who wishes to stand in the way of a decision must have practiced for at least one year with one of the Sanghas affiliated with the larger CMNY/Metro Sangha, and have been present at a minimum of the past four planning meetings.

The intention of this provision is that community decisions not be blocked by a person(s) who does not have significant “investment” in the community or by a person(s) who is not informed about the issues under discussion through their personal presence at recent meetings. In both these instances, the person(s) who does not meet the prerequisites and wishes to take a principled stand against a decision may seek, through compassionate dialogue, to persuade others to his/her point of view. If an individual or individuals who feel strongly about a proposal must be absent from a scheduled Planning Meeting, it is understood that they take responsibility for ensuring presentation of their point of view at the meeting or for finding another way to have decision making tabled on the proposal on which they feel strongly until they can be present.

PDF of this article

Order Aspirant Training

The following two proposals are offered by Minh Tran and Rowan Conrad on behalf of the Order of Interbeing Education and Training Committee.

When approached by an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing, Order members may wonder how to help. What will nourish and support the aspirant? What is expected? The Order Charter, found in Interbeing (third edition, Parallax Press, 1998), outlines the basic requirements for ordination into the Order.

In support of mentors and aspirants, the Education and Training Committee of the Order of Interbeing suggests using the first stage of the four-stage Education and Training Program proposed by Thay and Sister Annabel in 1996, with two basic differences. In this program, mentors need not be senior monastic Dharmacharyas (Dharma teachers), but may be lay Dharmacharyas or other Order members. The Committee suggests that Order mentors be senior Order members (members for at least five years) whenever possible. Secondly, aspirant training does not need to be in a retreat setting, although attending retreats is encouraged and expected.

The mentoring program is a guide for the study and practice of Buddhist teachings in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Its intent is to stimulate individual and collective transformation, increase happiness and stability, develop bodhichitta, and encourage a deepening mindfulness practice. We hope that practice with this program will support aspirants in their efforts to bring happiness to others and relieve suffering, and to build and support Sanghas. These are the real reasons for receiving Order ofInterbeing ordination.

All those involved in training-mentors, aspirants, and local Sanghas-should be aware that the program requires study and practice. Regular practice is essential to realize the depth of the teachings leading to transformation. Mindfulness is at the core of all efforts.

As the Charter explains, an aspirant must have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The aspirant then announces his or her desire to train for 01 ordination by written letter or application to the local Order members or to a Dharma teacher. One or more OI core community members then mentor the aspirant for a minimum of one year.

When the aspirant and mentors perceive that the aspirant is ready, the mentors write to Thay or to the ordaining Dharma teacher recommending ordination. The letter of recommendation indicates the aspirant is deeply engaged in active, daily practice that will allow him or her to achieve increasing stability, happiness, and transformation. Academic understanding alone would not support a recommendation. In addition, Order members and aspirants are expected to actively participate in and support their Sangha. As Thay said, “Only when you have the feeling that you have enough time, energy, and interest to take care of a community should you ask for formal ordination.” After careful consideration, Thay or a qualified Order Dharma teacher may issue a formal ordination invitation.

The Education and Training Committee would like to hear from everyone involved in aspirant mentoring. We invite you to tell us the names of mentors and aspirants, the mentoring plan, and the current stage. Please contact Chan Ruy (Minh Tran), 9089 Richmond, Brossard, PQ, Canada J4X-2S1, telephone: 514-591-8726, fax: 514-466-8958; email: chanhuy@prisco.net.

PDF of this article

Poem: Interrelationship

By Thich Nhat Hanh

mb22-InterrelationshipYou are me, and I am you.
Isn’t it obvious that we “inter-are”?
You cultivate the flower in yourself,
so that I will be beautiful.
I transform the garbage in myself,
so that you will not have to suffer.

I support you;
you support me.
I am in this world to offer you peace;
you are in this world to bring me joy.

PDF of this article

A Pilgrimage Tale

By Canyon Sam

Oi! I called to the cyclo driver, swinging my arm back towards two white columns he’d just cycled past. My companion and I had started off early that morning with rented bikes to find Thay’s home monastery, Tu Hieu. All I knew was its name and its location southwest of Hue. After getting lost for a few hours, we’d taken all manner of conveyances to find our way here. Now it was late afternoon. The two white columns were the one distinguishing feature that indicated its presence down a red foot path leading into a pine forest.

I was struck by the triple-arched ornate gate and lovely crescent-moon lake at the entrance, not unlike the imperial entrances we’d seen the last two days at the Forbidden City and Mausoleums of former emperors. The sound of chanting resonated in the air. Soon we saw saffron and grey-robed monks standing in a gorgeous, 19th century, ope-doored temple. We found our way to the abbot and a layman, who invited us to have tea with them on the rosewood outdoor patio. They were very pleased to hear we were students of Thay. In fact, they said, “You see?” and pointed at a poster-size photo of Thay on the wall. It was the photo from the cover of Being Peace.

mb23-APilgrimage1

It seems the abbot was ordained at the same time as Thay years ago, the same generation, but now Thay is higher, the highest, they told us. The layman said something about having been sent or gone with Thay to Princeton years ago. Every time they referred to him, they called him Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.

mb23-APilgrimage2

We talked for awhile, overlooking a courtyard of meticulously tended potted bonsai trees. I quickly realized that not only was Thay trained as a young monk at this temple, and revered as an alumnus and Sangha brother, but that the entire spiritual training and philosophy here was his. Sitting, walking, nourishing the seeds of enlightenment in each other-even lazy days.

Thich Minh Nguyen, an English-speaking monk, gave us a tour to the meditation hall. The long, light-filled hall in the forest had a large color-coded chart in one corner, showing seven generations of the ordained members of this order, dating back to the 1843 founding. I saw Thay’s name written on a green-lined nameplate among maybe three dozen others, preceded by the name Trung. On a red-lined nameplate below, among even more names, I found Sister Chan Khong’s name. Each generation had one family name that preceded the member’s own name. Thich Minh Nguyen asked my friend and me our Dharma names and when we told him, he told us we were the Tam generation, which meant heart. All the names in our generation were Bouquet of the Heart, or Lamp of the Heart, etc.

A poem handwritten in black-inked calligraphy on a lime green scroll hanging in the hall was written by Thay, Thich Minh Nguyen told us. We walked back through acres of fruit trees, past half finished brick buildings with stacks of red cinderblocks and wheelbarrows in front. New housing for monks, Thich Minh Nguyen said. How much like Plum Village it is, I thought, even down to the construction projects. The place had a sense of well-being, very grounded, and I sensed it was thriving. A schedule posted on the wall began at 3:30 in the morning and went till past 10:00 at night. Thich Minh Nguyen read it for us: sitting, walking, working, eating, Dharma study, prayers. The only surprising thing was the monks’ session of Kung Fu every evening! Suddenly I understood the model after which Plum Village had been established. And I understood the full meaning of bowing to our spiritual ancestors in the Five Prostrations.

mb23-APilgrimage3

We saw the altar to the monastery founder, his hand-drawn portrait framed in black lacquer, and walked among the graves of all the temple’s abbots in a cool, pine-shaded grove. I had been in Vietnam for two weeks, touring the main sites. It had taken days to get here from San Francisco, and though I loved being in Asia and seeing Vietnam, because of the language and the tourist groove we were in, I hadn’t made a strong connection. Out of this, and out of hours and hours of cycling around lost through the countryside we had arrived here and found these deep spiritual roots, this never-before-seen part of our spiritual lineage, and found a whole community practicing as we were taught to practice on the other side of the world.

Thay sometimes takes a pencil or a chopstick during a lecture and holds it horizontally to illustrate his point, and then turns it vertically and talks some more. I saw these lines again in my mind. I saw the vertical line. Below midpoint were all our ancestors who had come before us; above midpoint were all in the future who would follow us. Our responsibility to the generations who follow us is to do the same that has been done for us, or better, and our responsibility to the generations before us is to honor them for all they had done. We were no more and no less than part of this continuum of awakening. When I see the horizontal line, I see ground zero, that all of us on the earth now doing the practice are linked together. And then we are linked to the vertical line, at the midpoint. Therefore the place of the most energy and possibility is this center axis the here and now. The inhale and the exhale. The precious moment and the only moment. Here and now we inter-are across time and space from practitioners in pine forest temples in Asia, to traintrack-lined warehouses in Oakland, to hays tacked hills in France, and across the generations. I saw this, like this, as if for the first time.

Canyon Sam, Bouquet of the Heart, is a San Francisco writer and performance artist. Her nationally acclaimed solo show, “Taxi Karma and the Dissident, ” about her travels in Tibet and work with Buddhist nuns, plays in March at the Working Women’s Theater Festival. She is author of the forthcoming book, One Hundred Voices of Tara: Untold Stories of Tibetan Women.

PDF of this article

Coming Together to Realize Our True Home

By Karl and Helga Riedl

Sangha is some times defined as “the community that lives in harmony and awareness.” Community is one important aspect of a Sangha. Sangha can be a beautiful way to live with like-minded people, to share our responsibilities, happiness, and pains with friends in the Dharma. A Sangha supports our endeavor to live in awareness. We feel at home. We are nourished, and given the space and help to heal our wounds and transform our suffering.

mb24-Coming1

But when we look deeper into Sangha, when we are living in it for a longer time, we realize that the real aim of a Sangha is much more. It is the process-at times, quite demanding and challenging-of transforming our whole being. What looks like a lifestyle is actually the expression of a spiritual life. True Sangha offers an environment for spiritual growth-relaxed and gentle, but deep and thorough!

To build such a Sangha-and not just a community one needs to understand which “building blocks” are needed, look deeply into the ways a Sangha works, and be very aware which motivations the members ought to have. Out of our experience of living in the Plum Village Sangha for six years, we would like to share what we have found to be the main principles of a residential Sangha.

Commitment

True commitment reflects our deep aspiration to walk on the path of transformation and liberation, and to question the life we have led-with all our ideas, concepts, and desires- and the ways we secure our ego through wealth, fame, knowledge, and position. It is the heartfelt desire to submit ourselves to a life where “being” is more important than “having,” where the loneliness of egoism and its restrictive ways of seeing and experiencing are opened up to others and to life as it presents itself. Commitment is the joyful willingness to let go of our concepts, to expose ourselves in the process of dissolving our existential ignorance and coming back to our true home.

Commitment means to being involved, not holding back anything. This is often seen as “giving up oneself’ and accompanied with hesitation and fear. So it is safer, more familiar to us, to be a participant only, to basically keep our concepts and ideas and just add to that whatever feels “good” to us. Living in a Sangha is then seen as an opportunity to acquire new knowledge, to receive a training, and solve some personal psychological problems. We need to be aware of this pseudo-commitment.

Surrender

To let the process of transformation happen, we need to “surrender to the Sangha,” as Thay has often emphasized. This is to surrender to the practice-wholeheartedly, with all our conviction and joy-and to surrender to the activities of the Sangha. Surrender is easily misunderstood as obeying or letting other people run our life. It is amazing to watch the Hydra of the ego come up at every possible occasion! Angels turn into rebels. “I do it my way!” “I need … ” Soon the first enthusiasm fades and we are looking for every possibility to take a leave from the practice. Even minor details and changes on the schedule evoke angry discussion. Surrender is the spiritual practice of setting aside our ideas and goals, and opening to new experiences, to all aspects of life, to the unknown-without opposing them. Its religious form is the prostration: bowing down, opening our hands, not holding back anything.

Serving

Another expression of surrender is serving the Sangha. Serving means doing what needs to be done- setting aside likes and dislikes, me and you. To serve is to overcome our habitual attitudes towards work and responsibilities and develop our concern, care, and love for others.

Serving happens when our initial idea “I am living in a Sangha” has changed into “I am living for the Sangha.” But even then, there might be some selfish motivation; some personal hidden agendas may be the driving force for our actions. Serving then is misunderstood as taking on responsibilities.

Some people feel that they alone are able to do certain things, that they must take up the burden of a specific task or even of the whole community. In due time, they get burned-out and bitter. To rely on the Sangha, to step down from self-importance and accept one’s own limits does not come easily for “the doer.” When serving is misunderstood as assisting the Sangha with our skills, knowledge, and energy, then positions become fixed, and members of the community are judged by their “usefulness.” True serving is to experience the reality of interbeing. Everybody actually supports everybody; there is neither dependence nor independence. It is then that we realize, “I am the Sangha.”

Acceptance and Harmony

Another aspect of building a true Sangha is the willingness, even the heartfelt longing, to live in harmony with others. By cultivating our abilities to accept each other just as we are, we break through our spontaneous likes and dislikes, judgments and categorizing. We create an atmosphere of trust. Supported by the practice of deep listening and sharing, we develop a spirit of openness, where understanding grows into loving acceptance.

In our Western societies, where competition, jealousy, mistrust, and separateness prevail, their opposites-trust, acceptance, openness, and love-are deeply longed for, but it can be difficult to open to them. So it is easier to create a “pseudo-harmony”-where we are just “nice” to each other, where everybody seems to accept and love everybody-by not coming too close to each other, not touching anything that could disturb the peace and by closing off to those who do not “fit.”

Humility and Respect

To greet the Buddha in each other is possible only when we have dissolved separateness and tackled the threefold complex of comparing ourselves with others-“I am better-equal-lower.” Only then do we glimpse true humility-not putting ourselves down, but gracefully accepting that we need not be “somebody” or extraordinary. Ordinary is sufficient! We need not hold onto an image of ourselves or be caught in social status. If we give a Dharma talk, we sit on a platform, and if a driver is needed, we carry the luggage of a guest.

Now, from the depth of our being, we can show respect to ourselves and others. This respect is the foundation of a peaceful life. But, respect is not imposed on us as social hierarchy. We do not pay respect to a social position, but to a human being. We learn from others, follow their example, and listen to their advice, because we deeply honor and respect their having matured on the path. We accept others as “elders.”

mb24-Coming2
Again, in a society where competition and mistrust prevail, where everybody makes sure that nobody is  “higher,” even respect and trust are suspect. The “elder principle”-found in almost all spiritual traditions and at the core, a “maturity principle”-is rejected without any consideration. And that is an obstacle for building a spiritual community-a Sangha. Either a “pseudo-community” is created and maintained, or power games and “boss-hierarchy” consume all energy. Especially in Western societies we need to look deeply into this situation, and with the help of the Sangha, find ways to restore respect and based on that respect-the “elder-maturity-principle.”

Each of these principles is in itself a door for entering the Sangha. As all these principles are interrelated, if one is practiced deeply, the others are strengthened. But if a Sangha member has a problem or a misunderstanding in  even one area, the whole process of spiritual growth for the person-and to some extent for the whole Sangha-is disturbed, maybe even blocked. So it is important to be very clear about the working of a Sangha, to avoid disappointments and suffering and to build a harmonious and happy Sangha.

Dharma teachers Karl and Helga Riedl, True Communion and True Loving Kindness, recently moved to the newly established Intersein Zentrum in Germany. Please don’t hesitate to contact them. Please write to receive an Intersein Zentrum schedule. Intersein Zentrum fur Leben in Achtsamkeit, Haus Maitreya, Unterkashof 2 1/3, 94545 Hohenau, Germany. They are very happy to share their experiences and insight.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: New Century Message From Thich Nhat Hanh

Tu Hieu Temple and Plum Village December 7, 1999 

To All Venerable Monks, Nuns, Lay Men And Lay Women Of The Sangha In The Tu Hieu Lineage, Inside And Outside Of Vietnam:

Dear Friends,

The Twentieth Century has been marred by mass violence and enormous bloodshed. With the development of technology, humanity now has the power to “conquer” Nature. We have even begun to intervene in the chemistry of life, adapting it to our own ends. At the same time, despite new and faster ways to communicate, we have become very lonely. Many have no spiritual beliefs. With no spiritual ground, we live only with the desire to satisfy our private pleasures.

We no longer believe in any ideology or faith, and many proclaim that God is dead. Without an ideal and a direction for our lives, we have been uprooted from our spiritual traditions, our ancestors, our family, and our society. Many of us, particularly young people, are heading towards a life of consump­tion and self-destruction.

Ideological wars, AIDS, cancer, mental illness, and alcohol and drug addiction have become major burdens of this century. At the same time, progress in the fields of electronic and biological technology are creating new powers for mankind. In the 21st century, if humans cannot master themselves, these new powers will lead us and other living beings to mass destruction.

During the 20th century many seeds of wisdom have also sprouted. Science, especially physics and biology, has discovered the nature of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self. The fields of psychology and sociology have discovered much of these same truths. We know that this is, because that is, and this is like this, because that is like that. We know that we will live together or die together, and that without understanding, love is impossible.

From these insights, many positive efforts have recently been made. Many of us have worked to take care of the environment, to care for animals in a compassionate way, to reduce the consumption of meat, to abandon smoking and drinking alcohol, to do social relief work in underdeveloped countries, to campaign for peace and human rights, to promote simple living and consumption of health food, and to learn the practice of Buddhism as an art of living, aimed at transformation and healing. If we are able to recognize these positive developments of wisdom and action, they will become a bright torch of enlightenment, capable of showing mankind the right path to follow in the 21st century. Science and technology can then be reoriented to help build a new way of life moving in the direction of a living insight, as expressed in terms of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self.

If the 20th century was the century of humans conquering Nature, the 21st century should be one in which we conquer the root causes of the suffering in human beings our fears, ego, hatred, greed, etc. If  the 20th century was characterized by individualism and consumption, the 21st century can be character­ized by the insights of interbeing. In the 21st century, humans can live together in true harmony with each other and with nature, as bees live together in their bee hive or as cells live together in the same body, all in a real spirit of democracy and equality. Freedom will no longer be just a kind of liberty for self-destruction, or destruction of the environment, but the kind of freedom that protects us from being over­whelmed and carried away by craving, hatred, and pain.

The art of mindful living expressed in concrete terms, as found in the Five Mindfulness Trainings, can be the way for all of us. The Trainings point us in the right direction for the 21st century. Returning to one’s root spiritual tradition, we can find and restore the equivalent values and insights. This is a most urgent task for us all.

I respectfully propose to all Venerable Monks, Nuns, and Lay people within our Tu Hieu lineage, in Vietnam and outside of Vietnam, to carefully reflect upon the following recommendations, and to contrib­ute some part in helping to create the direction for mankind in the New Century:

1. We should continue to set up monasteries and practice centers. These centers can organize retreats—one day, three days, seven days, twenty-one days, ninety days, etc.—for monastics and for lay people, aimed at developing our capacity for transfor­mation and healing. Activities at these centers should cultivate understanding and compassion and teach the art of Sangha building. Temples and practice centers should embody a true spiritual life, and should be places where young people can get in touch with their spiritual roots. They should be centers where the practice of non-attachment to views according to the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing can be experienced. To cultivate tolerance according to these trainings will prevent our country and mankind from getting caught in future cycles of religious and ideological wars.

2. We should study and practice the Five Mind­fulness Trainings in the context of a family, and establish our family as the basic unit for a larger Sangha. Practicing deep listening and mindful speech, we will create harmony and happiness, and feel rooted in our own family. Each family should set up a home altar for spiritual and blood ancestors. On important days, the entire family should gather to cultivate the awareness and appreciation of their roots and origins, thus deepening their consciousness of these spiritual and blood ancestors. Accepting the stream of ancestors in our own beings, we draw on their strengths and recognize their weakness, in order to transform generations of suffering. Each family should recognize the importance of having one member of their family devote his or her life to the learning and practice of the Dharma, as a monastic or a lay person. The family should invest in, support, and encourage this family member.

3. We should give up our lives of feverish consumption, and transfer all merits of action created by thoughts, speech, and work to the Sangha. Our happiness should arise from understanding, compassion, and harmony, and not from consumption. We should see the happiness of the Sangha as our own happiness.

4. We should invest the time and energy of our daily life in the noble task of Sangha building. We should share material things that can be used collec­tively by the Sangha, such as houses, cars, television, computers, etc. We should give up alcohol, drugs, and smoking. We should learn to live simply, so that we may have more time to live our daily life deeply and with freedom. Living simply, we become capable of touching the wonders of life, of transformation and healing, and of realizing our ideal of compassion in the educational, cultural, spiritual, and social domains of our lives.

The 21st century is a green, beautiful hill with an immense space, having stars, moons, and all wonders of life. Let us climb the hill of the next century, not as separate individuals but as a Sangha.

Let us go together, hand in hand, with our spiritual and blood ancestors, and our children. Let us enjoy the climb together with our songs and our smiles, and allow each step to create freedom and joy and peace.

Wishing you and your Sangha a wonderful century full of faith and happiness,

mb25-dharma1Thich Nhat Hanh
Elder of the Tu Hieu Lineage

mb25-dharma2

PDF of this article

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

Poem: A Teacher Looking for His Disciple

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I have been looking for you, my child,
Since the time when rivers and mountains still lay in obscurity.
I was looking for you
When you were still in a deep sleep
Although the conch had many times echoed in the ten directions.
Without leaving our ancient mountain,
I looked at distant lands
And recognized your footprints on so many different paths.

Where are you going, my child?
There have been times when the mist has come and enveloped the remote village,
But you are still wandering in faraway lands.
I have called your name with each breath,
Confident that even though you have lost your way over there,
You will finally find a way back to me.
Sometimes I manifest myself right on the path you are treading
But you still look at me as if I were a stranger.
You cannot see the connection between us in our former lives,
You cannot remember the old vow you made.
You have not recognized me
Because your mind is caught up in images concerning a distant future.

In former lifetimes, you have often taken my hand and we have enjoyed walking together.
We have sat together for a long time at the foot of old pine trees.
We have stood side by side in silence for hours,
Listening to the sound of the wind softly calling us
And looking up at the white clouds floating by.
You have picked up and given to me the first red autumn leaf
And I have taken you through forests deep in snow.
But wherever we go, we always return to our ancient mountain
To be near to the moon and stars
To invite the big bell every morning to sound,
And help living beings to wake up.
We have sat quietly on the An Tu mountain (1) with the Great Bamboo Forest Master (2)
Alongside the frangipani trees in blossom.
We have taken boats out to sea to rescue the boat people as they drift.
We have helped Master Van Hanh (3) design the Thong Long capital.
We have built together a thatched hermitage,
And stretched out the net to rescue the nun Trac Tuyen (4)
When the sound of the rising tide was deafening
On the banks of the Tien Duong River.
Together we have opened the way and stepped into the immense space beyond space,
After many years of working to tear asunder the net of time.
We have saved up the light of shooting stars
And made it a torch helping those who want to go home
After decades of wandering in distant places.

But still there have been times when the seeds of a vagabond in you have come back to life.
You have left your teacher, your brothers and sisters.
Alone you go…
I look at you with compassion,
Although I know that this is not a true separation
(Because I am already in each cell of your body)

And that you may need once more to play the prodigal son.
That is why I promise I shall be there for you
Anytime you are in danger.
Sometimes you have lain unconscious on the hot sands of frontier deserts.
I have manifested myself as a cloud to bring you cool shade.
Late at night the cloud became dew
And the compassionate nectar falls drop by drop for you to drink.
Sometimes you sit in a deep abyss of darkness
Completely alienated from your true home.
I have manifested myself as a long ladder and lightly thrown myself down
So that you can climb up to the area where there is light
To discover again the blue of the sky and the sounds of the brook and the birds.
Sometimes I recognized you in Birmingham,
In the Do Link district (5) or New England.
I have sometimes met you in Hang Chou, Xiamen, or Shanghai.
I have sometimes found you in St. Petersburg or East Berlin.
Sometimes, though only five years old, I have seen you and recognized you,
Because of the seed of bodhichitta you carry in your tender heart.
Wherever I have seen you, I have always raised my hand and made a signal to you,
Whether it be in Bac Ninh,(6) Saigon, or the Thuan An seaport.
Sometimes you were the golden full moon hanging over the summit of the Kim Son Mountain,
Or the little bird flying over the Dai Lao forest (7) during a winter night.
Often I have seen you
But you have not seen me,
Though while walking in the evening mist, your clothes have been soaked.
But finally you have always come home.

You have come home and sat at my feet on our ancient mountain,
Listening to the birds calling and the monkeys screeching
And the mountain chanting, echoing from the Buddha Hall.
You have come back to me, determined not to be a vagabond any longer.

This morning the birds of the morning joyfully welcome the bright sun.
Do you know, my child, that the white clouds are still floating in the vault of the sky?
Where are you now? The ancient mountain is still there
In this place of the present moment,
Although the white-crested wave still wants to go in the other direction.
Look again, you will see me in you and in every leaf and flower bud.
If you call my name, you will see me right away.
Where are you going?
The oldfrangipani tree offers its fragrant flowers this morning.
You and I have never really been apart.
Spring has come. The pines have put out new shining green needles
And on the edge of the forest, the wild plum trees have burst into flower.

Translated from the Vietnamese by Sister Annabel Chan Duc.
1 A holy mountain in North Vietnam, where the Bamboo Forest meditation school was established.
2 The master who established the Bamboo Forest meditation school in the fourteenth century.
3 The meditation master who in the year 980, helped stabilize the political situation in Vietnam and prevent the Sung army from invading the country.
4 A reference to the poem “Kieu” by the poet Nguyen Du. Trac Tuyen is the Dharma name of Kieu who, when she could bear her suffering no more, threw herself into the Tien Duong River and was rescued by her elder sister and teacher in the Dharma.
5 A district in Central Vietnam.
6 The ancient capital of Vietnam in Bac Ninh province. It was a flourishing Buddhist center from the beginning of the Christian era.
7 In the hills near Dalat, where the author established the Fragrant Palm Leaves Practice Center.

PDF of this article

Cultivating Mindfulness on a Radioactive Path

By Michael Winnell

For years, I have worked to slow, if not end, the long-term threat of radioactive waste products created by nuclear weapons and power plants. Radioactive waste is likely to threaten life as long as humans inhabit this world, so it is important for me to speak clearly and firmly. Those who support the nuclear cycle are also very determined. In this atmosphere, it is paramount to know one’s grounding. I am learning to respond to this very difficult issue from my Buddhist understandings, largely revealed through the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh and the concept of interbeing.

Bringing mindfulness to an issue this large and difficult is challenging. It is very easy to take sides, point fingers, become a talking head of facts and statistics, forgetting that “This is like this, because that is like that.” Having read Thay’s talk, “Man is not our Enemy,” I am struck by the depth with which he, and each of us, can hold the whole of the reality without choosing sides. It is not helpful to view producers of radioactive waste as wrong or the enemy. Their motivation springs from the same place as my own. In fact, I benefit by being able to turn on the lights at night. But their actions, as well as my own, are creating very difficult problems. I must bring to their attention my understanding of the future we are creating, but I must also realize they may not respond. My attachment to their response, and my desire for a specific response, is a negative seed to hold in mindfulness. At the same time, I must continue to firmly state facts about these dangers, truthfully and without exaggeration.

The Buddha taught that reality is both historical and ultimate. The suffering generated by fear—particularly the fear of death or nonbeing—is enormous. Being and nonbeing are elements of suffering in the historical dimension, but in the ultimate dimension, understanding can transform fear, relieve suffering, and bring joy by opening the door of loving kindness. Remembering these teachings, I can better relate to the people directly involved in the decision-making and production process of the nuclear cycle, and to myself. It is a demanding practice. Many people involved in nuclear waste production and storage do not see the connection between what they are doing and all life. They do not seem to recognize that nuclear waste could sicken or end many life-forms, or that it brings suffering even to the elements split by nuclear fission. All atoms split by fission emit energy in an attempt to regain a stable state. The energy they emit in their quest for stability, however, threatens all life. My determination not to harm people, animals, plants, and minerals is directly challenged by the production of this energy, and by my benefiting from the energy when I turn on the lights, the washing machine, or the computer.

With mindfulness, it is easier to be aware of my tendency to move into fear and duality, to choose sides and create more suffering for myself and others. It is easier to understand those whose perspective differs from mine, and not to vilify them. As Thay taught, “they” are not our enemies, nor is fear, hatred, or even duality; all can be held and transformed by understanding. It is important for me to remember that behind each environmental concern or dispute, are people with varying degrees of suffering. Mahatma Gandhi used to say that if his adversary did not respond positively to his proposal, it was not the adversary’s fault, but his own, for not stating the truth clearly or simply enough. Each person contains seeds of goodness, truth, and beauty. When suffering is relieved through understanding, these seeds respond, joy is born, and there is no ability to continue to do things that harm others.

Leaping into the debate surrounding radioactive waste requires mindfulness and careful attention to motives. It is important to gather information, research the facts, and engage. The Buddha taught his followers to engage the Dharma in daily life, and in our engaged practice, the Buddha still lives. In the spirit of the teachings, I must engage first in my own heart, and then move into the communal arena with my concerns about nuclear waste, in order to help relieve suffering of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

As I breathe into my fear,
I breathe out hope that this life has made a difference
to at least one atom of radioactive waste and
perhaps one mind.
Reminded that nirvana is in this moment,
may I understand,
so as to relieve the suffering brought to matter and to
living beings alike,
actions are all we take with us.
May we know the joy of interbeing,
not grasping or judging,
just walking on the path with mindful breathing and
attention.

Michael Winnell, practices with Dancing Rabbit Sangha, in Elk Rapids, Michigan. If you would like more information about the radioactive waste issue in relationship to nuclear disarmament and the burning of MOX fuel in commercial reactors, please email him: mwinnell@onramp.freeway.net

PDF of this article

Buddha Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

mb27-Buddha

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

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

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

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

PDF of this article

Poem: Home, Only One Flower Away

A poem dedicated to all teachers and participants at the Mindfulness Retreat in San Diego, California, September 2000

mb28-HomeAmazing life of purple-blue
Morning Glory its true name
Vibrant sunny face beams
Elegant breezy arms sway

Deeply I look at the flower
Softly violet hue nods back
Becoming one
The flower and me at play

Whole suchness
Lineage from gentle powerful teachers
Interbeing with quiet nurturing friends
Strength in a delicate way

Present moment, wonderful moment
Coming home to timelessness
No more tears
In smiles of oneness I stay

When my heart wearies again
From traveling on the road
I will always remember
Home, only one flower away

E.E.Ho

PDF of this article

We All Belong Together

Sister Thuc Nghiem (Sister Susan)

Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Insight Gatha

Just one instant of the present moment and something knocks
so loudly at my heart;
The love that we all belong together.
A star at dawn above the darkened earth,
they talk together of this.
The blades of grass, the dew and the sunshine,
they talk together of this.
My in-breath, the apples and the soil,
they know this together.
The breeze, the flowers, the moon beams and my heart,
we interare.
My teacher, my sisters, brothers,
my children, ancestors and all people
did you know we talk of this all the time.
My out-breath and my smile, the rain and my tears, the trees
and my carbon,
they just can ‘t stop talking together of this.

Six birds flying overhead with the rising sun,
I suddenly wonder if any of them feel exhausted or have a
deep pain in their wings.
I see it must be so and I am shaken by compassion.
Who am I, if I am not these birds?
Who am I, if I am not all things?
We do this together, what happiness, what joy.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha given to Sister Thuc Nghiem

The full moon that looks like a ripe fruit,
is used as a mirror by a beautiful lady.
The autumn hills stand quietly and majestically around us.
As soon as you smile at someone’s footprints
on the Ben Duc harbor,
the Lord of Compassion ‘s boat of loving-kindness
will have already brought you to the other shore.

note: The Ben Duc harbor is the harbor you must use to go to the Perfume temple in North Vietnam. The water is a little muddy at that harbor.

Thay’s Words of encouragement

Avalokiteshvara is always there around us and inside of us. In a time of confusion and suffering we need the bodhisattva of deep listening and of great compassion to be with us . The bodhisattva may manifest herself in every step we make, in everything we say. Our daily life should embody the capacity of deep listening and compassionate action. The seeds of compassion should continue to be planted in our society. Whether that seed can sprout today or tomorrow depends on many conditions. But the bodhisattva does not worry about the outcome. The bodhisattva takes care of the action only. Every day we keep sowing the seeds of understanding and compassion and we have the conviction that alI these seeds planted today will sprout tomorrow or after tomorrow. That will bring enough happiness and peace. We try to do this together as a Sangha.

There are many seeds planted by Shakyamuni Buddha. Some seeds waited for 2600 years in order to sprout. The same thing is true with us. The essential thing is to plant the seeds of understanding and compassion. This is the meaning of the lamp transmission, the continuation of the practice. It is wonderful that the light of the Buddha has still come to us as bright and alive as ever. Now the light is being transmitted to you, Sister Susan.

Excerpt from Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Dharma Talk

A tool that Thay has given us is the ability to find healing in nature, to go sit in the middle of a field and do nothing. In the past two years I have found an apple tree out in front of the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Is it under it, near the fence, every morning. I see the same patch of earth, the same landscape in front of me and the same trees, in the springtime, in the summer, in the fall and in the winter. I think I began doing this because one morning I saw a bird watching the sun come up. I felt that that bird was more wholehearted than I was in being with the sunrise. About a month later I was taken by surprise and I really saw the sun come up. [t pierced me straight to my core.

I wanted to watch the sun come up and after a while I noticed the earth also. When it was cloudy, rainy or snowing I didn’t see the sun but the earth was very wonderful. I began to feel very close to the earth. It was so wonderful to go and sit cross-legged on the earth every morning. I began to appreciate the apples in the different seasons and the chipmunks and the squirrels who would run by me. One time a chipmunk landed on my head. One time a bird landed on my head. I think from this, on a deep level, I began to feel the interbeing of the earth and the sky and the chipmunks and the raindrops and I certainly saw them interbe with my happiness. It was this time I spent under the apple tree that really gave me a smile so easily. It gave me love in my heart so easily. I could see that everything was connected. The teachings on Buddhist psychology also helped me to see that everything is connected. In nature it is easy to see that everything is connected. I think that is why I can sit and stare at it for so long because something in me recognizes that I am looking at everything.

mb31-We1

I could see that my sisters and I were connected very deeply and we affect each other. Perhaps the greatest happiness is knowing that we live in a community. It doesn’t matter if sometimes the community has difficulties or I can’t get along with someone or a million other things that can happen in a community that lives together twenty-four hours a day. But the fact that we are living together, that we are trying to make the Sangha work and we are making it work, that we support each other by practicing the same guidelines (the mindfulness trainings) and we are really there for each other, to me that is one of the most beautiful things on earth. To me it makes all the difference when I recognize the fact that we all belong together, that you can’t take the father out of the son, you can’t take us out of each other, you can’t take anything out of us . We all belong together.

On our trip in China last fall on the last morning Thay woke up very early to see some of us off who were leaving for America, after a late night at a public talk. He was sitting outside with us. I was sitting at a table with another sister. She turned to Thay and said, “I want to thank you for allowing me to come to China and I want to apologize for any mistakes I have made.” She went on to say, you know I have many weaknesses and I am trying to overcome them and it is difficult. And Thay quietly stopped her and said, “We do it together.” To me that was the most incredible thing to say.

All our pain, all our difficulties, all our joy, we do it together. And when we do this we are following the truth of things and that brings about our greatest happiness. What if all the Sanghas we know have that idea, we do it together, for each other. If in a family something comes up, they can do it together, they work it out together. As a nation, we can all help each other to do it together. So when some group suffers, we do it together. We think about it, we look deeply into it. And as a world we do it  together. We have many ways of diplomacy and we know we are doing it together for all of us. We know we alI belong together as one family and so we will find the best ways to bring about happiness for all of us.

Sister Thuc Nghiem, True Adornment with Ripeness, lives in the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

PDF of this article

Entering the Stream of the Practice

Brother Phap Hien (Brother Michael)

Brother Phap Hien’s insight gatha

Remembering your peaceful steps along the ancient path,
the sound of the old bell carried me out into the night sky.
I return now with a bright message from faraway stars,
and Oh, how my weary feet adore the tender earth.
We have always known each other.
There are thousands of generations of tears,
smiles and laughter echoing through the great hall.
In this endless embrace with this unfathomable aspiration,
my teacher, my brother, my friend,
what have we possibly to fear?

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Br. Phap Hien

The Dharma handed down by wise ones from long ago
is like the sound of the rising tide,
echoing tens of thousands of songs and poems.
Having been brothers and sisters to each other
during innumerable past lives
we should hold firm to the door of the practice
so that the true vehicle can go vigorously far into the future.

Excerpt from Brother Phap Hien’s Dharma Talk

It’s hard to say anything to a community that is you. When I was six-years-old I went to the dentist and the dentist asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? I had never thought about that question before, but I remember I answered him very quickly. I said, I want to be a farmer. He looked at me and he said, a farmer? What about a doctor or a scientist? I said, no I want to be a farmer. The seed of the simple life and the family life living close to the land was very big in my ancestors.

And then when I was about twelve-years-old my parents separated. That was a great wound for me, a big wound in my heart. I lost all my trust and faith in my family. I remember also at that time someone asked me a question of what I wanted to do with my life and my answer was completely different. My answer was, I want to be alone. I wanted to live in a little house all by myself way up in the north of Canada with no one else around, with long, cold winters. Still a simple life, but with no more family. Actually what I really wanted was to be in the embrace of Mother Earth. But that dream to live alone didn’t last very long. When I was seventeen I fell in love. That gave me the incentive to open up a little bit, to try to learn to be honestly close to someone, to share my life with someone. It was a very good thing that that happened. The inspiration ofthe family life came back into my dream.

About a year later when I began college I did a solo retreat for three days all alone in a desert canyon. I didn’t eat anything. It was very hot. I barely wore anything. I just sat on a rock and did nothing for three days. I had never done anything like that before. During that time, without any kind of words or cognitive process, I understood something very deep about myself. When I tried to put it into words it didn’t work. But I knew deep inside I had found something that resonated deeply with a place, a home within.

When I was twenty-one I was living in Northern California in the redwood forest. On my twenty-first birthday I received a book, Peace is Every Step, from my next-door neighbor. I was very happy to receive the book and I asked her, what is it? She just said, it’s a lot like you. A few weeks later she moved away and I never saw her again. She is a kind of bodhisattva for me because giving me that book opened a big door for me. I read Thay’s teaching and I felt as if someone was speaking what was inside of me. But he was able to put it into words, to give clear examples of what it meant to have that inside of oneself and to live it. I tried my best to practice walking mediation right away, but I didn’t really understand it. But I did understand that my life had to be about what was going on in the here and now from that point on or it wasn’t life. That is what I wanted. I had met the Buddha and the Dharma and a little piece of the Sangha. Soon after that I found myself here in Plum Village.

When I was twenty-four I became a novice monk and I started my life all over again. I didn’t realize that I was doing that, but I did. I don’t think I have fully realized it yet actually.

Before I became a novice I had had a dream of going to India and Nepal. This was before I had fully met and experienced a Sangha body. I had the idea that I would go there and find a place to touch something ancient. When I arrived in Plum Village and I heard the monks and nuns chanting at a formal lunch in the summer retreat I felt that something ancient, something very powerful. It is strange, but I gave up that dream to travel to the East and then eight months after becoming a novice I went to India with Thay and the Sangha. That next fall I also traveled with Thay and the Sangha to America and I found myself doing walking meditation in the redwood forest in Northern California at Kim Son Monastery one morning. I suddenly realized it was only ten to fifteen miles from the spot where I had first received Peace is Every Step. I had also been very intent on having a family life before I became a monk. In giving up that dream I got the biggest family I could possibly imagine.

The Dharma is very powerful. To be in touch with the Dharma through the Vietnamese Buddhist culture and community has been very important for me. Through my life in the monastery I have learned a lot about place, relationships to others and to environment, which I never knew before; relationship to elder brothers and sisters, relationship to younger brothers and sisters and so on. Being born in Plum Village as a monk is to be born in a group of several brothers and sisters who ordain together on the same day, sometimes as a tree, sometimes as an animal , a fruit or a flower. I was born in the coconut tree family. There were five of us; Phap Kieu, Thuc Nghiem, Ha Nghiem, Phap Hien and Hy Nghiem. We had many elder brothers and sisters who ordained before us also in groups, like batches of children or batches of cookies. There are many ofthese batches in our community but we make up one family and we are all children of Thay, our teacher. Thay has also been in that same place. He has been a child of his teacher in a community of monks and nuns and so on and so on.

mb31-Entering1

It has been very important to experience that kind of connection as part of my life .  When I was growing up I only knew my mother, my father and my two sisters. I didn’t have much connection to other people around me. Then my parents divorced and my family broke up and I felt I had nothing. Living in the community of Plum Village I have learned roots. I learned to open my heart and to see my roots, both in my blood family and in my spiritual family. To experience a lineage, a transmission, a continuation has brought stability into my heart. It has brought non-fear into my heart.

This is a great medicine for westerners, wandering souls that we are. Many of us have not grown up, as many brothers and sisters from Vietnam have, with a lot of family members around and a culture that waters the seeds of being rooted, having a lineage, and being aware of one’s ancestors and descendants. We have not had that in America for a long time. Many of us wander around in a lot of pain, with a lot of loneliness because we don ‘t know who we are and we don ‘t know where we come from. It has been really important for me to enter into the awareness of being a part of a lineage and to experience it living all around me in the community of Plum Village and also in the culture of Vietnam.

I said to Thay several years ago that while practicing touching the earth I suddenly discovered who I was and because of that I was not afraid anymore. I knew who I was and where I had come from. Sometimes the seed of fear still comes up in me. But when I can remember my roots, through my brothers and sisters in my spiritual family and through the generations of my blood family, I can feel within me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

The gatha that I offered to Thay is about that. It is about entering into the stream of practice, discovering my afflictions and about getting grounded in the practice, down through my belly into my feet. I really love to walk on the earth now. It is about understanding, I am you and you are me. It has been that way for a long, long time.

Brother Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained in 1996 in Plum Village. He received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.

PDF of this article

Buddba Body

Larry Ward

mb31-Buddha1

Larry Ward’s Insight Gatha

The sound of the great bell has awakened
the Golden Buddha in my heart.
Grace arrives on the holy wings of a breath,
in the here and now.
I am at home without desire.
The cloud of forgetfulness fades away.
My eyes open wide to the wonders of life,
each a Buddha land.
Bright light shining in every direction,
healing and transforming me.
My happiness and freedom
overflow into the river of great compassion.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha

When the great Drum begins to play, we
hear the thunder
its sound vibrates even the golden moon light
Beams from the four directions are projecting in
witnessing to a mind that manifests
both purity and oneness
If one is attentive,
one will notice that both the cam and the sat are still playing
the harmonious song of great courage.

Cam and sat are ancient instruments that are always played together. They are associated with husband and wife, who compliment each other, creating a harmonious duet together.

Thay’s words of encouragement

The gatha I just chanted is about the moment when the Buddha attained Great Awakening at the foot of the bodhi tree after having defeated Mara, the energy of darkness, the energy of fear, the energy of ignorance, craving, and discrimination. The Buddha and many generations of practitioners have followed his example and succeeded in defeating the power of darkness. We need the light and courage of the Buddha especially in this time of distress and fear. We need a long process of education in order to transform fear and discrimination in our society and within ourselves. Through the light of the Buddha we can see habit energy deeply rooted in our society – the tendency to lose hope, to be overwhelmed, to be taken by despair, the tendency of craving, of fear, of discrimination. We have to be patient, we have to continue with our practice and our work of education in order to uproot this negative energy.

It’s wonderful not to have any desire in our heart. It means that we only have one desire, the desire to uproot evil, to uproot the negative energy within our society. This lamp transmitted to you today, Larry, is the symbol of love and trust from the Buddha and from our ancestral teachers that you will continue to do your best to improve the quality of life in our families, in our communities, in our societies and never lose hope. I have faith in you; the Buddha and the patriarchs have faith in you .

Larry’s Dharma Talk

To go with my whole life for refuge is to put my life in the Buddha’s life and to find my story in the Buddha’s story, to find the Buddha’s story in me. And to surrender having to be someone else other than the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To surrender to my Noble Teacher, the Venerables here and the Noble Sangha. To be willing to be taught by the ancestral teachers, to be willing to be taught by each breath, each step, each sigh, each star, each blade of grass, and each smile, each heartbreak and each disappointment. To surrender. To be willing to be taught. And so the transmission continues.

Finding the heart of the Buddha in my heart, finding my heart in the Buddha’s heart, my heart is as big as the whole world.

Finding my feet in the Buddha’s feet. Two years ago during our retreat in China we had wonderful walking meditations. One morning during one of our walking meditations I looked down and I didn’t recognize my feet. I could not find Larry ‘s feet, and realized they were becoming Buddha feet.

And my ears becoming Buddha ears. Hearing the cries of the world, the laughter, the tears, the unspoken dreams and hopes and the whispers of love quietly held in the night.

And my eyes becoming Buddha eyes. Seeing wonder everywhere I look, beholding a miracle in every moment.

And my mind, slowly, and forever becoming the Buddha’s mind, the mind of practice, the mind of coming back to the here and now, the mind of knowing when I’m not back in the here and now and the mind that gently brings myself back.

Our beloved teacher has been transmitting no less than 100% of himself to us, as his teacher did for him, and his teacher before him. And the Buddha has transmitted no less than 100% of himself to us. And so this coming summer I am preparing to receive the Buddha’s hands. And I surrender having to have Larry’s hands, I surrender having to be somebody so I can happily be nobody and so I can serve the world in that way. And so our bodies are becoming the bodies of the Buddha, our hands, our feet, our eyes, our ears, our smile. And so the transmission continues.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives in Clear View practice center.Peggy Rowe Ward also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

PDF of this article

A Tear FeU Into My Hand

By Lisi Ha Vinh

Lisi’s Insight Gatha

A tear from the ocean of suffering fell into my hand.
Looking deeply into this tear, I found a precious jewel.
Looking deeply into this jewel, I found an open heart.
Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path.
Walking this path, I found the ocean
Embracing it all.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Lisi

You have always embraced with all your heart the great cause.
That is why crossing so many paths and bridges
you are still able to walk with freedom and ease.
Since the beginning of time
clouds are always traveling, water is always flowing
And it could be lovely to learn to sing the song of the ultimate
every morning when the east gets rosy.

Excerpt from Lisi’s Dharma Talk

My husband and I decided to step out of our very busy lives and take a sabbatical. We spent part of this sabbatical in a Swiss mountain village on retreat. Every morning we read one of the fourteen mindfulness trainings and then during the day we went for long walks in the mountains, feeling the training that we read in the morning sinking into our consciousness. In the evening we would sit by the warm fireplace and share what feelings and thoughts had come up.

When we read the fourth mindfulness training about the reality of suffering, I remember sitting in meditation and suddenly feeling tears running down my cheeks, warm, wet tears. And one tear fell into my hand. Have you ever looked at a tear? It’s something really beautiful. If you have a chance to look at a child and a little tear is caught in the eyelashes, it’s like a dew drop in the heart of a lotus leaf. It reflects the whole universe, it’s shining bright like a jewel. Tears are truly a universal human language. A mother whose child has died – maybe in Israel, maybe in Germany, maybe in Afghanistan – has the same tears. She might express them differently, but the tears are the same, wet and warm and salty. I once had a tremendous privilege to hold a mother whose eighteen year old son had just died. I held her and cradled her for many, many hours and the tears were running down my shoulder and making my clothes wet. I had the feeling I was holding the most precious jewel in my arms.

Jewels are something that you take good care of. They are in the crowns of kings, they are on the engagement ring of your beloved. When you look at jewels, they are so pure and so transparent and so full at the same time. Human suffering is the same, it is extremely precious. You don’t throw jewels on the floor or put them where you keep your shoes; you keep them in a special place. And human suffering is the same, you have to take really good care of human suffering.

In my gatha, I said, “Looking deeply into this jewel l found an open heart.” I am Austrian, coming from a Catholic tradition. When my parents took me to church when I was small, you could buy pictures of Mary and Jesus. There was one picture that intrigued me immensely, the picture of Jesus with an open heart – he was standing there and his breast was torn open and you could see his heart. When I saw this picture I was always so worried, thinking how could you live like that, it’s so dangerous, somebody bumps into you and you get hurt. At the same time I was incredibly amazed at the look on the face of Jesus, which was somehow fearless. To me an open heart and fearlessness go together. A vulnerable fearlessness of an open heart.

Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. So I come back to the mountains where we walked every day. Every step was pure joy and pure gratefulness for this incredible beauty of nature. There was one little path that went through a forest with pine trees that lose their needles in autumn so they turn yellow and orange. One time we walked through this forest and all the golden yellow pine needles had fallen on the ground and it was like walking on pure gold. I can fee l right now the happiness of that moment. I can still hear the sound of the silence of our steps . Beauty is always available at every moment.

Walking this path I found the ocean embracing it all. The tears of pain and the tears of joy all contained in the ocean of life. And I wish us all a safe and joyful journey on this ocean.

mb31-ATear1

Lisi Ha Vinh, True Great Bridge, was born in Vienna, Austria. She has developed educational and humanitarian projects in Vietnam together with her husband Tho, True Great Wisdom, over the past twelve years. Lisi and Tho have been married for thirty years, have two grown up children, one grand child, and they consider their couple and family life as an important part of their spiritual path. Tho also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

PDF of this article

Inner Eyes

By Sister Dang Nghiem

Dear Sister,

Before we started our meditation this morning, our sister asked us to send the energy from our meditation and sutra chanting to you. You have been sick, and you have recently lost your vision. In the past, my monastic sister has shared with me about her friendship with you, and she told me of her most recent visit with you . Thus, I feel your presence is quite familiar in me. At the sitting meditation, I decided that I would keep my anatomical eyes completely closed and follow my breathing diligently. I prayed that my inner eyes would reveal to me what I should see, and that I may gain an understanding of you and of what you may be going through.

mb31-Inner1

I saw myself sitting by the vendor with my mother and younger brother. She took us there to celebrate my successful completion of the fifth grade. I do not remember what kind of sweet soup we ate, or if it was even sweet soup. It could have been a salty dish . However, I do remember how special I felt. My mother worked so hard to provide us with everything we needed. She was always outside of the home working. It was the first time she especially paid attention to my schooling, I felt so special.

I saw my grandmother sitting on the plank bed, silently sewing a pocket, the size of my palm, onto my mother’s black pair of underwear. I was to inherit that pair of underwear, and the next day I was to wear it to go to America with my brother. Grandmother put the U.S. five dollar bill in it, so that I could buy some extra food for my brother and me, while we were staying in the refuge camp in Thailand.

I saw myself the next day, when my brother and I crossed the threshold of our house to go to the airport. The palms of my hands were reddened with the juice of the chewed betel nut, which my grandmother had just spit and rubbed onto my palms, saying that it would help me, “not to miss Grandma too much.” It was drizzling outside, and the fine particles mixed in with my tears. I walked away, knowing that I would never see my grandma again in flesh and bones.

I saw myself as a college student, sitting alone at the desk on late nights . I studied diligently to be worthy of my grandmother’s trust. I studied diligently to prove that I was capable, that I was someone. My eyes were tired, my body was weary, but I would not stop. Raw energy pushed me onward.

I saw myself mesmerized by the mountain range before me. ” Purple mountains,” my partner said to me softly. They were indeed purple – myriad shades of purple. We stood there, completely present in that moment. I could feel the desert breathing, the mountains stretching, the quiet peace flowing through my partner.

I saw myself watching leaves falling with my loved one. Yellow leaves. Some twirled . Some spinned. Some zigzagged. Some held stillness in their movements. Some zoomed straight down to the ground. They were dancers, proceeding with their own dances as they all returned to Mother Earth.

I saw myself watching a video of Thay’s Dharma talk during the Francophone retreat 2000. The camera pointed at the stage, showing also the back of my upper body as I was sitting in the audience. My hair was in a bundle; I had not realized that it was so full and black. Light reflected on it and formed a half white circle around the hair bundle. I was wearing the brown robe of an aspirant – a nun to be. Who was that person? I asked myself, as I was watching the back of my own upper body in that video. Who is this person, whose hair now is completely shaven? Are they different from each other? What has she gone through? I saw the monastic sisters on stage. One looked just like me. I had thought before, how can someone else look like me? However, in that moment, I saw how I could mistake that sister for me. I also saw my face in the face of a Korean sister, in a fifteen year old, in a French sister, in short and tall, in thin and chubby sisters. l saw sadness. I saw faith. I saw a smile of pure joy. I saw restlessness. I saw my faces in their faces. Looking at them. Being them.

I felt warm tear drops rolling down my cheeks throughout this morning’s sitting meditation. My eyelids were closed, and light particles could not penetrate them. Yet, my inner eyes revealed to me all of these images, of my childhood, of my young adulthood, of my spirit path . My inner eyes have revealed to me the flow of my life. My inner eyes tell me that I no longer need to hide myself in shame or to show myself in pride. I have never been alone. My faces are the faces of my sisters, of my partners, of my mother, of my grandmother, of leaves, of mountains, of memories, of awakened moments.

My dear sister, may your inner eyes, too, guide you home, to everything that has always been with you, nourishing you, guiding you, carrying you, and uplifting you. May your inner eyes reveal to you the spaciousness of your true existence, where you touch peace and non-fear. Where you can help your loved ones to embrace all that is.

To you, I offer my most sincere faith and support.
Your sister, dang nghiem.

Sister Dang Nghiem, True Adornment with Non-Discrimination, ordained in 2000.

PDF of this article

Poem: petals of insight

in the morning, i breathe the cool air,
moist with dew
all around the earth is waking up,
soaking in the fresh warm light.
i too, turn to face the sun, sweet joy.

in the afternoon, i take gentle steps
on this precious soil of my mind.
i lay my body down,
in the shade of a healthy pine tree.
my arms crossed over my chest,
embracing myself

tenderly i hold the pain
of many lifetimes.
my precious companion,
teaching me the way of
acceptance, compassion.

written in my breath is a loving word,
a peaceful  smile.
i rise, following the rhythms of the sun.
i recall my teacher’s words,
“My child, we walk among stars. Can you see this is true?”
each flower, a cosmos
of sun and Earth,
ancestors and loving kindness.

in this moment, it is not an external notion,
i see i am the sunshine.
my suffering is not mine,
is not encased in this body alone,
is not caught in you and me,
is not separate from the sunshine.

to embrace is to include, to surround, to surrender.
i asked my teacher, please show me
how to transform my suffering,
how to bring peace to my heart and my mind.
my teacher said,
my child,
embrace yourself, include yourself.
do not cut yourself with fear and jealousy.
do not be ashamed of your pain .
it is precious,
it is the fertile soil of enlightenment.

that beautiful rose that touches your heart,
look closely,
you will see some petals are withering,
some are just beginning to bloom.
the beauty is not found in its perfection,
but in its wholehearted offering.
fragrant and fresh,
withering and worn.

breathing in and breathing out.
one action
lights up the mind of understanding and love.

21 may 2002

by Sister Steadiness

mb32-Petals

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine

By Thich Nhat Hanh on Poetry and Interbeing

Offered to Social Workers from Vietnam Visiting Plum Village in May, 2002

Sunshine rides on space and poetry on sunshine.
Poetry gives birth to sunshine, and sunshine to poetry.

Every time we use the expression armful it is usually used to refer to an armful of hay or an armful of logs but rarely do we say an armful of poetry.   When people speak about drops they speak of drops of rain or drops of dew or a drop of soy sauce but no one says a drop of sunshine.  This poem is an invitation to look deeply in an awakened way and to see poetry as an armful and sunshine as a drop.

Without sunshine how can we have poetry?  Without sunshine we would die.  How can we make poetry?  We feel sunshine also comes from poetry.  Poetry is not only pleasant and sweet, it can also be explosive, like thunder.  In sunshine there is not only the pleasant image, there is also a strong aspect.  Sometimes sunshine is also dry and burning.  When we read poetry we feel something sweet and it can also be like a shout denouncing  injustice.  In these two sentences we can see the interdependence of poetry and sunshine.

Sun treasured in the heart of the bitter melon,
poetry made of steam rising from a bowl of soup in Winter.

I wrote this poem during winter. In the previous summer we grew many bitter melons, more than we could eat. We put them in the freezer and in the midst of winter we took them out and made soup. The bitter melon stores so much sunshine within it. In the winter we could not see the sun at all, it was only gray and cloudy with a cold, sharp wind. We took a log of wood and put it into our stove. At that time in Plum Village we did not have any central heating. We only used wood stoves. We could not see the sunshine outside, but we could  touch the sun in the wood log and in the bitter melon in a hot bowl of soup.  Even in the depths of winter you know that the sun has never left you. In the warmth inside your home you see the sun in your bowl of soup; you feel the sunshine is still there.

We are eating but we don’t know that we are consuming sunshine. The sun is our father. Without the sunshine not a single being can survive on this planet. All the animals, vegetables and humans on this planet are children of the sunshine. When we eat the bitter melon we are also eating the sunshine. Our father is nourishing us.   Without  the sun our father we cannot have the Earth our mother and we cannot have food. The sun is our father and the Earth is our mother.

The wind is lurking outside, swirling.
Poetry is back to haunt the old hills and prairies.
Yet the poor thatched hut remains on the river shore, waiting.

When I heard the howling wind outside I thought of Vietnam with many poor thatched roofs. Of course there are also many good houses in Vietnam, but I thought of those families who are most destitute. I thought of the poor thatched roofed hut by the river shore waiting for our support. My mind is in touch with the wood log; my mind inter-is with the material things, the phenomenal world.  At the same time, when I heard the sound of the wind, it touches my store consciousness and I remembered the images of our country. When I left Vietnam, over thirty-five years ago, there were so many poor people living in huts like that. My mind is in touch with the bitter melon and then hearing the howling wind my mind touches the image of the day I left Vietnam, with many people suffering under the bombs and now they are still poor and waiting for help.

Spring carries poetry in its drizzle.
The fire sparkles poetry in its orange flame.
Sunshine stored in the heart of the fragrant wood,

Today it is May and we can see poetry everywhere. But in this poem it is not yet Spring, it is Winter and everything is dark, yet I am still in touch with sunshine and poetry in the bowl of bitter melon soup. There is poetry in each drop of rain in Springtime.  The poetry is stored in the fragrant wood. If you are practicing, you bring a piece of wood and put it in the fire and you are aware that you are putting sunshine into the stove. 

warm smoke leading poetry back to the pages
of an unofficial history book.

An unofficial history book is the book Hermitage Among the Clouds about the true story of Tran Nhan Tong, a Zen teacher in the fourteenth century. During that Winter I wrote that book and I ate the bitter melon soup. My poetry is what I have truly lived. You need to read that book; it is very beautiful. Poetry is everywhere.

Sunshine, though absent from space,
fills the now rose-colored stove.
Sunshine reaching out takes the color of smoke;
poetry in stillness, the color of the misty air.

It seems that sunshine is absent from space, outside it is so dark and gloomy, but sunshine fills the woodstove.  When you prepare the stove the heat that radiates out is poetry. The bitter melon soup is also poetry. That is the deep look that is not caught in the form. We have to learn to see things free from the form. When the person that you love is not there you think that he has died but when you look deeply you see that he or she is still there. We complain that there is no sunshine, but sunshine is there in the bowl of green vegetables, sunshine is there in piece of wood.

Spring rain holds poetry in its drops
which bends down to kiss the soil,
so that the seeds may sprout.
Following the rain, poetry comes to dwell on each leaf.

Every drop of rain in Spring enters into the leaf. In a drop of rain there is also sunshine.  During the Summer there is a lot of sunshine evaporating the water from all the ponds and lakes, forming clouds. Thanks to the cold air the clouds will become Spring rain.  We can say that the rain is kissing the Earth, but we can also say that the sunshine is kissing the soil because the sunshine is in each drop of rain. We see the deep connection between the sun and the Earth. In Plum Village there are so many stinging nettles. In winter you do not see this wild plant. But in spring all you need is the drops of rain and you will see it everywhere. Here in France they call them weeds but they are very good for eating.

Sunshine has a green color and poetry a pink one.
Bees deliver warmth to the flowers from the sunshine
they carry on their wings.
On sunshine footsteps to the deep forest,
poetry drinks the nectar with joy.
With the excitement of celebration,
butterflies and bees crowd the Earth.
Sunshine makes up the dance, and poetry the song.

Usually people  say  that  sunshine is golden yellow, but nobody says that sunshine has a green color. But with deep looking we can see that the sunshine is green. In the poem “Cuckoo telephone” I said that snow is also green. Why? When snow melts and becomes water it makes the plants very lush and green. If we see in a superficial way we only see that the snow is white. But if we look deeper we can see the snow is also green.

When we look at butterflies or bees you can see plenty of sunshine. What do they carry on their wings if not sunshine? Bees deliver warmth from the sunshine to the flowers.  The flower has plenty of sunshine. When the bees come and visit the flower the bees bring back honey. Bees deliver warmth to the flowers. If you look deeply you see poetry everywhere; it happens every second and every minute of our life. Things are happening in every moment in May.  If you have the time to lie down on the grass you will hear the excitement of spring. Every little being is inspired to sprout. The Earth is crowded with butterflies and bees and many other things. Don’t miss your appointment.

Drops of sweat fall on the hard ground.
Poems fly along the furrows.
The hoe handily on my shoulder,
poetry flows from my breath.
Sunshine wanes away down the river,
and the silhouette of the late afternoon lingers reluctantly.
Poetry is leaving for the horizon
where the King of Light is blanketing himself in clouds.

After being in touch with the beauty we are also invited to be in touch with the suffering.  We see the sweat of the farmer who works so hard to grow vegetables for us to eat and we see poetry in that beautiful act of the farmer. The King of light means the sun is going to sleep and he uses the clouds as a blanket. The sun going to sleep is a beautiful atmosphere.

A green sun found in a basketful of fresh vegetables,
a tasty and well-cooked sun smells delicious in a bowl of rice.

If you look at the basket of vegetables but you cannot see the sunshine you are not a good practitioner. Without the sunshine how can you have green, fragrant vegetables?  In Vietnam there is a variety of rice called, “eight fragrances rice.”  When you taste that delicious rice you know you are tasting the sun. You can see poetry everywhere.

Poetry looks with a child’s eyes.
Poetry feels with a weather-beaten face.
Poetry stays within each attentive look.
Poetry – the hands that work the poor and arid land somewhere far away.

When you are far away from your homeland and you eat some delicious rice you can see the hard work of the farmer; you can see the eyes of children, thin and malnourished. We have seen so many children without enough  food.  When we eat some delicious rice we see right away the hard work of the peasant and the poor children who don’t have enough to eat. While eating I can see the look of these children.

I remember one day when I was at Kim Son Monastery in San Jose, California there was a friend from the local newspaper, the Mercury News, who came to interview me about mindfulness.  The editor wanted to publish an article about mindfulness. This journalist was of Vietnamese origin but she was also very good in English.  She asked me, “How can I help you?  I am a journalist; maybe I can help you with my talent as a journalist.”  That day I was sitting under a redwood tree.  She sat next to me and I said, “Please do in such a way that every child in Vietnam will have one cup of soymilk to drink every day. That is my only wish.”  There are many of children in Vietnam who cannot grow up healthy and strong for lack of proper nourishment. This morning I received a photo of many toddlers from three to five-years-old taken in Do Linh village, the hometown of my mother which is in a very poor area. I see each child as my mother. My mother was a toddler, poor and undernourished like that. If these undernourished children can grow up properly, as my mother did because she had a good family, they can become a healthy person and give birth to someone like me. If I am a bit thin and small-boned it is because when I was a child I never had a cup of milk to drink. If you can help me every child will have a cup of milk.

Do Linh is just an illustration, but everywhere in Vietnam the poor hungry children could become good mothers if they have a chance like my mother had. Every child in every poor country could be my mother. If you give five dollars per month you can offer a child a cup of milk every day; cow’s milk or soymilk are both helpful. I look at every child in Do Linh as my mother, every child in Vietnam is my mother; every child in Thailand is my mother. I see that every child in Africa and everywhere could be my mother.  I wish that every child would have a cup of milk to drink.  When you look deeply you can see like that. That is what we call,  “attentive  look.”  Poetry stays within each attentive look.  With an attentive look you can see the toddler and you can also see the past and the future of that child.  hat child can become a strong mother who gives birth to a healthy child or a weak mother who gives birth to handicapped children.

mb33-dharma1

There are farmers that work so hard but it is not enough to feed their own children.  You dwell in the present moment but you see far away all over planet. You dwell in the present moment, but you can see the past and the future. Dwelling in the present moment doesn’t mean that you are limited to the present moment.

The smiling sun brightening up the sunflower;
the ripe and full sun hiding itself in an August peach;
poetry follows each meditative step,
poetry lines up the pages.

A person who walks mindfully and beautifully looks like a poem. When you write a compassionate line that is poetry.

Discreetly,
within closed food packages,
poetry nurtures love.

At the time that I wrote this poem it was impossible to send money to Vietnam. It was impossible to reach the poorest children, the elderly people. The government forbade our social work and charity work.  The work of the School of Youth for Social Service, that we had set up in Vietnam to help mend the wounds of war, was stopped and the director was in jail.  Many social workers were prevented from doing anything. Yet we found a way  to provide food to the poorest people  in Vietnam.  We bought ordinary French medicine.  At that moment all Western medicine was blocked from entering Vietnam. So we bought French medicine and each family received one kilogram that they could exchange into 300 kilos of rice to nourish the children. Sister Chan Khong and myself and others wrapped the medicine and sent it everywhere in Vietnam. If the person had the family name “Nguyen” for example, then we would give ourselves that name also. If we put our own names, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, the recipients would have been arrested.  So we addressed each package as if a family member had sent it. The communist government did not have the ability to check if that person was really in France.  We sent thousands of parcels like that to thousands of families. A parcel like that was like a gift from heaven; it could nourish the whole family. We did that work in the wintertime nineteen years ago.  We had to use many different handwritings or else the communist government would have been suspicious and arrested the recipients. We gathered twenty persons to write in twenty different handwritings. We included instructions on how to consume the medicine: like that is aspirin or multivitamins do not take more than a certain amount and also how many kilos you can exchange it with for rice. We did that work with a lot of love. We brought a hundred packages to the post office every day. The post office workers said, “You are Santa Claus. But why does Santa Claus come every day and not just at Christmas time?”

With the deep look of a practitioner every moment can be poetry, you can see very deeply and very far while dwelling in the present moment.

Today if I read that poem it is because there are a number of social workers who have come to Plum Village from Vietnam. They have helped me to transmit all of this to the poor people in Vietnam. They have worked in very difficult situations and they have encountered many dangers to be able to do that work.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong.

PDF of this article

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

A Life of Faith

An Interview with Sister Giac Nghiem, A Nun in Plum Village

By  Sister  Steadiness

You have said that you have two roots, Buddhism and Christianity. How do you integrate these in your life of practice as a Buddhist nun?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: I met the Buddha twenty-seven years ago. I was in Laos with my former husband. Early in the morning we woke up and my husband said, “My dear, do you want to see something beautiful, the sunrise over the Mekong River?” We went together and I was so happy. At the moment we arrived at the banks of the river the sun was just beginning to rise. Standing by the river we saw many Buddhist monks begging. They were walking very slowly in silence, very mindfully. They were walking on our right and on our left there were four ladies sitting on the ground with food in front of them. The monks came and opened their bowls and the ladies filled up their bowls. It is difficult to express how I felt at that moment.

mb33-ALife1

I felt that I was the lady who was filling up their bowls. I was a monk bowing in front of the women. I was the sun. I was the river.  I was a buffalo drinking the water.  I was a young child taking care of the buffalo. It was like meeting someone after a long time and suddenly he is here. It was something very deep; I cannot describe it. I met Thay a long time afterwards. Between meeting the Buddha in Laos and meeting Thay I practiced yoga.

I met Thay in 1987. Sister Chan Khong had long beautiful hair and Thay was young. When I met Thay I met the Buddha again and I also met St. Francis of Assisi because they are the same. The first time I met Thay was at a two-day retreat in Lyon where he taught in French. He spoke about the piece of paper and seeing the whole world in it. I felt the teaching was familiar and I thought, this is my master. When I returned home my family asked me what happened during the retreat. I smiled and I said, I found St. Francis of Assisi again and I am free from the fear of abandonment now.

My Christian roots are very old.  They are older than me because they flow in the blood of my family, very deeply. When I was a child knitting a small blanket for my doll and I didn’t want to go to bed before finishing it, my mother would come and say, “My dear child, you can go to bed and perhaps Mother Mary or an angel will come and finish your work.” Sometimes in the morning I would see that the row I was knitting had been finished for me. And I knew for sure that it was Mother Mary or an angel who had done that. Perhaps it seems like nonsense but this kind of faith is in me very deeply. I really have faith about the capacity of the spiritual ancestors to take care of us. Even if something happens that is very difficult they are always here.

I am a Buddhist nun and I am deeply Christian too. I found the key to Christianity in Buddhism. For example, Jesus said, “Forgive the people who make you unhappy.” I try my best all the time to do as Jesus tells us, to be generous and so on.  But I did not know how to put Jesus’ teaching into my daily life. Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gave me the key. The key is mindfulness, concentration, insight and understanding. When we have understanding we are free from our hatred, our guilt, and our worries. I am not free yet but I try. This key helps me.

One time Jesus came to a synagogue and there was a crowd who intended to stone a woman who had committed adultery. Before I encountered Thay’s teachings I thought Jesus said to the crowd, “If you look at yourself, you cannot throw stones at the woman because you have also made mistakes.” Now I see this story so differently. I can really see Jesus waiting for the man to come to ask his advice. He already knew what would happen. The young man told Jesus that they wanted to kill the woman and asked him what was the right thing to do. Jesus said, “The one who has never sinned can throw the first stone.” He said this lovingly. He did not speak out of anger; he did not want to teach them a lesson as we have the habit to do. He just loved them; he understood them and he wanted to put a clear mirror in front of them, a clear mirror full of love. This way of seeing more deeply comes from my encounter with Buddhist teachings. What I have learned here in Plum Village has enabled me to be closer to my Christian spiritual ancestors.

How was the transition from your family life to the monastic life?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha offered me the opportunity to become a nun even though I had a lot of difficulties. Before ordaining as a novice I lived at Plum Village for a year and a half as a lay person. Then I became an aspirant and began to enter the monastic life of the community. During my stay before ordination the Sangha allowed me to go back to my hone in St. Etienne and Lyon to see my family, my Sangha, and our center for homeless people four or five times a year. I would stay with my family for three or four weeks before returning to the monastery. It helped me to be gradually less attached to the projects in my home Sangha. But it was very difficult. At the beginning our Sangha and our association for social work had the feeling that I was abandoning them. But I realized that though my family and friends are not physically here, they are here in my body. I really found them in me. Their feelings and their lives are in me. I take care of them through my own life and my own body. That is why it became easy for me to make the transition from family life to monastic life. But it was more difficult for them to experience me within them. For my beloved ones it is very big sacrifice but because of their love they have accepted to offer me to my way.

The monastic life is wonderful. I chose it because Jesus and Mother Mary and angels are very close to me. When I was a child I went into a church in Casablanca where the sisters of St. Francis are. They sang so beautifully and I thought, I want to become a nun and sing as they do. Often when I felt an aspiration to become a nun during my life I said to my children, “My love, if in the future I lose your dear father, my beloved one, and you grow into adults I will become a nun.” But when I felt a calling, in my mind I said to Jesus, “Oh, my love, you know I am so busy. I have a wonderful husband. I have wonderful children; I am so happy with them. Perhaps if you call me later I will be free to come to you.” And I would say, “Oh, my love, do you know I have such wonderful work. There are so many people who need me. We have an association; we have a Sangha; we take care of homeless people. I do not have time to become a nun.” I felt I really could not become a nun because I love so much my wonderful family. I thought about becoming a grandma, making jam for my grandchildren and taking care of the babies coming from our daughter or our son. But Jesus is very persistent. He would knock at the door and in my heart I would hear him say, “My child, now are you free to become a nun.” And I kept saying, “No, I have a loving family, the association, my friends and so on.” But he kept knocking at the door and finally I said, “Yes, I am so happy to come.” And then I said, “Oh, what am I saying? That is not a possibility.” I was really in touch with this kind of conversation inside of me. At that moment I felt so deeply fulfilled by love that all my resistances fell down.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty that I have to overcome is my feeling of inferiority. I feel the teacher, the place and the Sangha are so wonderful.  But many times I have the feeling that I do something wrong, that is not beneficial for the Sangha. Often I feel difficulty because of my perception about what I did or what I thought. But because the Sangha has a big heart and accepts me even if I have this kind of difficulty, I have the opportunity to transform myself and to find clarity on my path. I can walk on the beautiful path taking the hand of Jesus on one side and taking the hand of the Buddha on the other side. Now I have lived in Plum Village for four and a half years. I became a nun on the 4th of December, 2000. I feel at home. I feel loved and happy. I love the Sangha a lot.

How do you stay in touch with your family?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning my suffering and that of my family was very strong, but now it is lighter and lighter. Some members of my family could accept my path and others could not. The best way for me to be in touch with my family is to telephone them once a week. When I hear their voices I can tell how they are and they know how I am. Recently, our mother, our daughter and her family and our son all came to Plum Village to visit me. Now they know that this is my home, it is our home. I hope they will take root in this home and come more often.

Did you ever think of leaving the monastic life and returning to your family?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning I felt the desire to return and help my family, my Sangha and our association, and to be in touch with them with my body and not only with my heart. But because I can really find my family in me, this kind of desire has become smaller and smaller. Sometimes I dream that I am at my family’s home and am living with my family. It is okay for me to go in my dream to my family. But I did not come here to hide myself or to protect myself from suffering or from my life before. I have the aim to really become someone who is awakened, to help more people.

We have many people coming to Plum Village who are full of anger and despair, burned by the fires of craving and suffering. One day Thay said we are like nurses or doctors who take care of the people who come from outside to help them relieve their suffering and become healthier. We give them the key to transform their suffering into something wonderful and to find more ease in their family life.

Society for me is sinking like a big boat. I know that if I were in society I would not have the energy to transform myself enough to become someone who can help. It is because I have this ambition to help the most people that I can that I go on this path. I start with my family, but I want to help many more people. I know if I return to my family I would not be able to transform because so many  people already need me outside and I would not have enough strength to do it. My life in our temple, close to our master, to Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gives me enough strength to  transform  myself,  to transform my difficulties. The loving-kindness of the sisters and the brothers is so wonderful. Often I make a mistake and I make someone unhappy. But they always find a way to accept and to help me to accept and to transform, and in that way we live together beautifully. I know that I have often made mistakes. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize in front of everyone. If I have made a mistake and hurt you, please forgive me.

mb33-ALife2

Tell us about your experience with the practice of Touching the Earth.

Sr. Giac Nghiem: In November 1996 Sister Chan Khong offered me the practice of the three Touchings of the Earth. Soon after that my husband left me. Sister Chan Khong asked me to use this practice as medicine for twenty-one days. One sentence in this practice touched me so much, “I accept you as you are with your strengths and weaknesses as I accept myself as I am with my strengths and weaknesses.” This helped me a lot when my husband left.

I first practiced the five Touchings of the Earth in June 1997 when I came to Plum Village for ten days. I came to learn how to be compassionate towards my former husband. Since then, Touching the Earth has been one of my basic practices. I used the five Touchings of the Earth almost every day for two years. We say that reciting the Diamond Sutra cuts through afflictions. For me practicing Touching the Earth cuts through my afflictions and helps me to transform. It is my second diamond. I practice Touching the Earth to nourish myself. At the beginning sometimes I practiced it for one or two hours.

Before I practice Touching the Earth I look deeply into my spiritual ancestors and into my society. I know I am made of all the input I receive from my ancestors and my society. The collective and the individual are together in me. I want to transform many things in me for the benefit of my descendants,  my  children,  my grandchild, and my parents. I don’t want to transmit the difficulties I have had.   When I found the blocks of suffering in me I took care of them even if I had to cry a lot.  I always had a handkerchief close to me to absorb my tears.  I would only stand up after I could see something beautiful coming from the earth.

At the beginning I did not want to lie down on the earth because the child in me was afraid of getting dirty. When I was a child I often had a pretty dress on and I heard, “No, don’t get mud on your dress; don’t get dirty.” But Sister Chan Khong told me that if I can open every cell in my body, the earth will be very happy and will eat and drink from me and will transform my suffering. The young child in me is very fond of sweet foods. So only when I could see beautiful, sweet foods like strawberries, little mushrooms, and blueberries coming from the earth could I stand up and smile.

One time I found a way to touch the earth with more ease. I was in the Buddha hall and I allowed my imagination to touch the earth with me. I imagined that I was lying on a beach. I was feeling dirty and the waves came and washed me of everything I didn’t like in myself from my family and my society and from myself. The waves washed away all the dust and it was transformed into beautiful fish and coral, into beautiful colored sand and the blue of the waves. I felt so happy because the sea is really my ground, more than the soil.

At the beginning when I practiced for twenty-one days I had so many things to put into the earth, but day by day it was transformed. At the end of the twenty-one days I was very surprised because for the fifth touching of the earth, when I send my love to the one who has destroyed my life, I no longer had an image of anyone. At first when I practiced this I had the image of different people in front of me, but then finally there was no one left. That was a big transformation. Now when I touch the earth I don’t have many negative things to put on the earth; sometimes I have nothing to put on the earth because my difficulties have been so transformed.  I can see the beauty of my family and my society. It is like the practice of total relaxation. At first we need to take a long time to feel the relaxation, but after we have practiced for a long time, we just lie down and breathe a little bit and we experience the relaxation.

One time my father told me that my brother was suffering. I said, I will take care of him even if I am in the monastery. My father has faith in this practice because I have shared it with him. I went in front of the Buddha and Jesus together, because they are my two spiritual roots. I said, I want to touch the earth in the name of my brother because he is in every cell of my body. We have the same blood ancestors, the same education and civilization. I am him and he is me. It was absolutely successful. After practicing for twenty-one days in the name of my brother, my brother’s situation improved a lot. He became lighter. I put his suffering on the earth for him because he did not know how to do that for himself. I have done that for other members of my family as well. It is very important to understand that I’m not trying to transform them, just to alleviate their suffering. This practice is the key for me to make life lighter so that is why I do it and offer it in the name of others.

mb33-ALife3

How did you begin helping hungry children in Vietnam?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: I was born in Morocco and I spent my childhood there. I lived with my family in Djema el Fina, the Medina, close to the marketplace in Marrakech. In the Medina there were a lot of handicapped people, without their legs or blind or diseased. One day when I was around four-years-old I went out and just outside our door I saw a very poor handicapped child. I asked my mom, “Why is this child like that?” She said, “My love, you were born on the other side of this door but if you had been born out here you might be like that too.” During my whole life I have had the desire to help because I know that that child could have been me.  All my life I have carried this thought. Helping people however I can is my way. Nearly ten years ago I had a dream, where I saw a beautiful young woman who was full of light. I remember with her left hand she showed me a young child, a very tiny, skinny child. I saw this child and my heart was filled with suffering. Then she showed me a candle and said, “One candle, ten days of life for a hungry child.” A few days before I had met a lady who decorated candles with the dried petals of flowers. They were very lovely and they seemed easy to make. When I woke up I was full of desire to help put an end to suffering in Vietnam and everywhere. That aspiration was already in me, but now I had a plan. I realized my dream could help me relieve suffering through my work. At that time I was a physical therapist working in the hospital and clinic with terminally ill patients.

I began making the candles as my  friend showed me. One day our son came into our kitchen and he saw me making the candles. He said, “What are you doing, my love?” He was very gentle. I said, “My love, for Mother’s Day I want to sell one thousand candles.” He said, “You are doing it alone?” I said, “Yes, but it is February and I have a lot of time to do it.” But I didn’t really because I had a lot of other work to do also. He laughed because he has faith in what I do even if it seems impossible. I tried to do a little bit every day. After one month four people came to our house and when they saw what I was doing they were so happy and they wanted to help me. For Mother’s Day we had one thousand candles and I was so happy. A lot of people came to help, but I didn’t think about anything but that the children need our help. That was ten years ago. I think the presence of Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha was a catalyst for my dream.

We gave Sister Chan Khong the money we raised to help the children in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong is a big master for me. After that she gave us information about needy children so that we could find sponsors for them. I also received inspiration and support from Sister Minh Tanh, the abbess of a big temple in Vietnam who takes care of many children there. Our Sangha in St. Etienne created an association called it “Le Coeur a Vivre,” or “The Heart to Live.” Two or three years later we began to help the homeless people and others in difficulty in our country, who were close to our homes. Our bodhicitta grew because we watered the seed of loving kindness in us. Mother Theresa was also always dear to me and an inspiration for our work.

How are you nourished by the social work now as a nun?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: Because of the desire I have to help I suffer a lot here. Why? Because I feel the world is so full of suffering. Everywhere someone is suffering. Not to help our children, parents, family and friends and to let go of my work at the hospital where all of my friends are dying slowly or not doing anything for the homeless people because I am here: all of this filled me with suffering. It was very difficult for me. One time I said to Thay, “My dear teacher you can imagine my suffering because you stay in France and you cannot return to your home monastery in Vietnam to give your support.” I know my dear Sister Chan Khong can understand me too, because she also knows the suffering of not being able to help at certain times. I did not know if I could stay in the monastery because my suffering of letting go of my children, my mother, my father, and my mother-in-law was so deep. I felt I have so many people to take care of and I suffered so much. But I became a nun to help, to become someone very solid who can really help everywhere, not to escape from my own suffering or the suffering of society and of the world.

Sister Chan Khong gave me children from Vietnam to take care of. She was watering my bodhicitta to help others. She let me know that when we spend a lot of energy to take care of children in Vietnam, we can release a part of our suffering in the world. That is why I accepted with great gratitude to take care of the hungry children projects for France, Belgium and a part of Switzerland. I enjoy very much taking care of these children, seeing their little faces with different expressions. I read the letters about the children. In December of 1999 there was a big flood in Vietnam and the city of Hue was under water. Sister Chan Khong came and gave me a lot of children to take care of who were crying and asking for help. Now we have many sponsors and we wait for more because we have so many children who need help. They are so in need. We really need help. For instance, a flood during August and September devastated so many homes.

Sometimes I stay up late working. But I feel close to the children. I take one child’s photo and I say to him or her, “You know, we have a sponsor for you now. My love, do you know you can sleep and dream very well now. Do you see me in your dream?” I smile to him and I enjoy sharing good news like that. Every time I find one sponsor I am happy for many days. I think about the family who has so much difficulty and the child who needs to go to school, to have something to eat and to learn. I think that one day that little child will become a strong, beautiful man or woman and he or she will already know the key of how to help other people.

Sister Giac Nghiem, Adornment with Awakening, ordained as a nun in 1999.  She is French and often goes out to lead Days of Mindfulness and retreats in France.

 

PDF of this article

Drinking Tea

Savitri  Tsering

There are times in my day that my actions are like ritual moments that help me remember to come back to the present moment. Some of those critical times are when I ride my bike to and from work, when I go for a walk at lunchtime and, most important to me, the time in the morning when I sit and drink tea with my partner, Tsering.

At our house we serve Indian sweet tea – now well known throughout the world as chai. Drinking chai became a habit of ours prior to our meeting. Tsering grew up in India and he has done this since childhood.

mb33-Drinking1

And I have had chai drinking come in and out of my life since my first trip to India in 1984. Most anyone you meet who has traveled a while in India will tell you of significant moments they have spent over a hot cup of chai. Most likely they were sitting inside a shop which resembled a large hole in the wall, sitting with locals, breathing in the steam and holding the hot cup as though for a moment one held in their hands the nectar of the gods.

When Tsering and I get ready to go to work in the morning, making the tea is an integral part of our preparation to leave the house. When I come to my cup of chai, often I am behind schedule and need to head off to work shortly after. Our time drinking together is very important to both of us. If one of us has the day off we still get up to drink tea together before the other has to leave. Sometimes when I have to leave very early in the morning to go to a meeting in Milwaukee, I will make the tea and then go up to our bed and sit and drink it while Tsering sleeps.

When the tea is ready, one of us brings it to the table – the location of where we sit varies with the season. And for some time the tea sits. Steaming hot, cooling and letting us know the moment to drink is coming soon. When I am able to take the tea in my hand, there is a shift in my consciousness. I become more present. I become more aligned.

I feel the treasured jewel of life and the present moment in my hand. I feel the warm cup and the heat of the hot liquid enter into my body through my hands. This warmth spreads and touches my whole being, bringing me in contact with the joy and realization that I am here again, another day. Lucky to have the chance to sit and drink tea, lucky to have this moment of quiet and rest before I head out into the world.

The knowledge of impermanence sits with me too, holding this warm cup. I become aware that time passes, that my dear Tsering sitting next to me won’t always be here as he is today. That thought makes me pause and look at him with the great love I have for him and appreciate the fact that for this moment, this day, he is here and I can touch that.

I know, holding the cup in my hand, that I cannot stop the pace of time – soon the cup will be empty and I will need to go.

That this moment, even though it is treasured, cannot be clung to and that circumstances in the future may prevent me from being able to enjoy this pleasure in the future.

In this cup, I can find the whole universe. The cup of tea puts me in contact with the world – tea plantations far away, spices grown in other countries, milk from cows in Wisconsin.

In the cup I hold are the friends and family I have shared  cups of tea with before; in the cup I hold are friends I have drunk tea with that have moved or passed away; in this cup there is sunshine, blue sky and earth.

When I drink the tea, I can know that I am not alone. Most times I am with my partner and that is dear to me. But there are countless people from countries all around the world drinking tea too, finding a moment to sit and drink. There are countless others coming in contact with a hot cup of warmth that soothes something deep inside of them, something that needs comfort and warmth, something that provides them with nurturing during a difficult moment or during a quiet time.

This tea drinking is so important to Tsering and me that when we travel to visit family, we take what we need to make our tea. We have purchased tea for other family members so they can drink it too. We have created a recipe so that it can be repeated in the same manner that we do each morning. When we traveled to Spain our tea and cups came with us. When we go camping our tea and cups join us. Perhaps it is symbolic of our intention to bring ourselves fully into our lives. I am not sure. It could just be a warm and cozy habit.

As I sip the tea, I feel the joining of my mind and body. I am here with the tea. The tea and I inter-are. The tea, Tsering and I inter-are. Our lives and the lives of others in that moment interare. We are touching the miracle of life in that moment.

mb33-Drinking2

We talk about our day ahead. We talk of friends and family. We talk of hopes and dreams. We sip our tea. We feel the warmth. We hold the present in our hands. We sit in silence. We sit with the slurping noise. The sound of blowing, cooling the hot liquid and the sip, sip, sip. We note the color of the leaves outside, the squirrel running up the tree.

When the cup is empty I feel satisfied and ready. I feel grateful and full. I have appreciated this encounter and can move into the next moment with peace and satisfaction. I vow not to leave myself behind. Body, mind and spirit are one, moving into my day.

Savitri Tsering shares, “I have been part of SnowFlower Sangha in Madison Wisconsin since its beginning. I work in the area of public health.  I greatly appreciate the deep feeling of connection and community that Sangha gives to our lives.”

Two Recipes for Chai

Savitri’s Chai:

We use tea that is available at most Indian food stores. Buy Brooks Red Label tea and Lipton’s Green Label tea. Mix together in 1 to 1 proportion. For the spices, we usually use cardamom but you can use also use ginger, cinnamon sticks or ground cloves, in any combination.

For 3 cups of chai:

5 green cardamom pods 1 1/3 cups of water,
teaspoons tea mixture<
green cardamom pods (ground with a mortar and pestle) Boil the tea and Add 1 2/3 cups of milk (at least 2% milk, for a real delight use whole milk organic milk is best).

Bring to a boil again. In Indian chai stalls they let it come to a boil, lower the heat, boil again three times.

Add sugar to taste. And drink with joy!

Helena’s Chai:

2 cups water
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon black tea
1/2 teaspoon descoriated cardomon seeds, or 10 green with skin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper corns 1 thin slice ginger root
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
optional: pinch garam masala, or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Add spices to the water in saucepan over a moderate heat until it comes to a boil. Allow this to slowly boil for about 5 minutes. Add the milk to the saucepan and bring back to a slow boil. When mixture begins to boil, lower the heat and allow it to simmer for a few minutes to reduce the volume by 1/3 and condense the milk. Remove from the heat and add the tea, let this steep 3-4 minutes and strain. Sweeten to taste.

PDF of this article

Education for the Present

Transforming a University Class with Mindfulness

Jana  Brooks,  Michelle  Leduc, Angeline  Timmerman

We, the students of Honors course 407, Exploring the Art of Mindful Living, included a football player, biologists, a newlywed, future teachers, a skeptic, a shaman, a comedian, Christians, a cancer survivor, mothers, a vegetarian, a future physician and a ballet dancer. To our surprise, as class began desks gave way to meditation cushions, shoes were given a rest from their owner’s harried strides, and an array of bells beckoned discussions rather than the voice of a professor demanding attention. Term papers were assigned with a twist: each student was to incorporate how mindfulness applied to his or her area of study. The usual PowerPoint presentations and scantrons were abandoned in favor of practicing mindful eating, tea ceremonies, guided meditations, and depicting the concept of interbeing through art. The traditional architecture of the classroom was abolished as we spilled out onto the lawn to practice walking meditation. As our class wound through the yard, our soft footprints became the trails of our transformation.

mb33-Education1

Through mindfulness we have begun to learn that we can change harmful emotions such as anger and frustration into positive energies. With the awareness that we possess these feelings, we can embrace them and know that emotions do not possess us. We can choose not to water harmful seeds and instead water the seeds that are positive and compassionate. Recognizing we can choose to do the work to transform our negative feelings, we have also become aware that while we were suffering, we failed to enjoy the pleasures life offers at this very moment.

Realizing that happiness exists in the present moment, our definition of “time” began to take a new form: “time” is simply moments that come and go, but it is what we chose to do with these moments that count. For example, one of the mothers in our class said: “I have two children, ages eleven and two, and through this practice I have realized that my children teach me about being in the moment. When walking to get the mail with my children, they both walk with a meditative stride, studying all that there is to see under their feet. Without their slow pace beside me, I would not have taken the time to stop, breathe, and notice that moss has begun to grow under the red leaves that have fallen from the trees.” One classmate pointed out, “By watering positive seeds in young minds, children will learn to think positively, and those seeds cannot be over-watered in today’s society.” Making the most of the moments that come and go in our lives, we discover the pleasures that exist in the here and the now.

The textbook for the class, Essential Writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, introduced us to the concept of “historical dimension” and “ultimate dimension.” We learned that the historical dimension contains our daily stressors: course load, work schedule, and family commitments. By learning to deeply touch our stressors in the present moment, we became aware of the possibility of touching the ultimate dimension.  The awareness of liberation that came with this understanding was one of most meaningful lessons we took from the class.

The pre-med student in our class said, “My mindful practices of breathing, eating and walking have been my remedies for stressful days. It wasn’t until I began to look deeply that I realized these methods are a means of stress prevention.” When students learn that success in life is not about where they are going, it is about how they are getting there, it is the experiences that we have along the way that become important. With the study of the historical and ultimate dimensions, we have begun to realize that by living fully and deeply in the historical, one is able to make contact with the ultimate dimension.

Challenging the typical course offerings that provide students with an education solely for the future, our professor has focused on education for the present. He has given us the opportunity to be heard, exuded the quality of compassion, and shared the concepts every college student needs in order to enjoy the path of life, not the destination.

Enrolling in a Mindfulness course provides an opportunity to find community or as we now call some of ourselves, “Sangha Sisters.” A foundation of intimacy needed for building relationships can quickly be developed when students come to realize that by listening to each other instead of merely the professor, they are able to bond in ways that are not typical in a university setting. Students truly realize the nature of “interbeing” and recognize that their choices and behaviors affect the entire community. Our search for happiness and success that was previously satisfied by achieving an end, has been transformed by the recognition that “happiness is in the here and now.” At the start of the term, our professor led a group of individuals down a single path guided by mindfulness. Now that the term has ended, our single path has diverged into many. What began as a random group of students transformed into an interconnected community unified through the Art of Mindful Living. We breathe, realizing that this is a wonderful moment!

The Art of Mindful Living was an experimental course developed specifically for the Honors Program at Western Oregon University, where Dharma teacher Jerry Braza is a professor of Health Education. Twenty students from various disciplines attended the class, which met twice a week for ten weeks. The course will now be offered regularly within the Health Education curriculum.

The course’s theme was the integration of mindfulness into daily life. Each session began with sitting practice, followed by exploration of such practices as walking, eating, and tea meditation. Students read and shared insights from the book, Essential Writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, discussing how mindfulness can be applied to education, sports, medicine, and psychology. A journal assignment required students to reflect on how their “moment by moment” actions impacted themselves, family, friends, and the planet. For additional information on mindfulness and a copy of the course outline see: http://www.wou.edu/mindful

Jana Brooks, Michelle Leduc, and Angeline Timmerman are students at Western Oregon University where they recently completed an Honor’s Course on Mindfulness taught by Jerry Braza, Professor of Health Education at Western Oregon University. Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is also an Order of Interbeing member and Dharma teacher.

PDF of this article

Peanut Butter Balls

Children’s Exercise on Interbeing

By Terry Masters

mb39-Peanut1

This activity can take one or two days, depending on the ages and interests of the children and how much time you have. Note: What you might say is in boldface. The answers to questions in parenthesis are the answers our children gave us.

Materials
Peanut butter
Dried Oatmeal
Honey
Sunflower seeds
Any or all of these: cinnamon, raisins, dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, chocolate chips, coconut flakes, dried date pieces, chopped almonds
Big bowl
Cookie sheets and/or trays
Napkin for each person being served
Refrigerator (optional)

Wash Your Hands

Our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has taught us two little poems to say when we wash our hands.

If children can read, one might read the gatha as the other turns on the water and washes her hands. If children cannot read, the guide can read the gatha while the children wash their hands.

Turning on the Water
Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
And sustains all life.
Washing your Hands
Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.

Prepare the Peanut Butter Balls

Combine all ingredients—the amounts are determined by the number of balls you want to make, how much of the various ingredients you have and how much you like each of the ingredi­ents. Add the dry oatmeal to thicken, the honey to make it thinner.

Taste to see if they’re delicious. Add more ingredients if you like.

When the dough is just right, pinch off a piece and roll it between your hands until it forms a ball about one half inch in diameter. (Wet hands to keep the dough from sticking.) Children might like to invent a gatha for doing this!

Place Each Ball on a Cookie Sheet

When all of the dough has been formed into balls, put the cookie sheet in the refrigerator to chill until served. The snacks can sit for a week in the refrigerator if covered.

Discussion

Can you see a cloud in our peanut butter balls? Can you see a big truck? If you look deeply, you can see them both…. and everything else as well! Let me help you look. What is peanut butter made of?

(peanuts)

Where do peanuts come from?

(plants)

What do peanut plants need to grow?

(air, water, soil, light)

Where does the peanut plant get the water it needs to grow?

(rain)

Where does rain come from?

(clouds)

Aha! So that means there are clouds in our peanut butter balls, right? We could not have peanut butter balls if we did not have clouds, could we? I can also see a big truck in our peanut butter balls. Do you see it, now, too?

Can you explain how it got there?

(Accept all responses that show interbeing, e.g., “Trucks have to bring the nuts from the farm to the grocery store”.)

What else do you see in our peanut butter balls?

(This should be a very lively discussion! There is, of course, nothing that is not in the peanut butter balls, so all answers are “right”! Our children said, “I see Brazil because the cocoa that our chocolate chips are made from comes from there.” “I see the sunshine because sunflowers need sun.” Continue the discussion until someone realizes that everything is in everything; that the all is in the one.)

We saw a cloud and a big truck and a lot of other things in our peanut butter balls. Can we see ourselves in our peanut butter balls?

(Invite children to explain. “I’m in the peanut butter balls because I made them.” “I’m in the peanut butter balls because I’m in the sun and the sun is in them!”)

Can we also see the cloud and big truck in ourselves? Why? (“Yes, because they are in the peanut butter balls, and I am in the peanut butter balls; we are all in each other!” “I looked up at a cloud, so it is in me.” “I saw a truck once!”)

Why is it important to know that everything is a part of everything else? Why do we need to be able to see the cloud and big truck and all those other things, including ourselves, in our peanut butter balls and in ourselves?

(“So that we will remember to take care of all things.” “So we don’t feel lonely.”)

NOTE: You may want to complete this activity the next time you meet with the children. If so, cover and store the peanut butter balls in the refrigerator until you meet again. (They’ll be less sticky when they’re chilled.) You might want to review the previous discussion, using different examples, as a way of introducing the second day’s activity.

After the discussion, the children might like to practice serving each other before offering the snacks to the adult Sangha. They will need to know how and why to bow. A suggested way of serving follows.

Serve the Peanut Butter Balls

To serve the snacks, either place the peanut butter balls on pretty trays, or use the cookie sheets. Here is how we served our adult Sangha: Our grown-up friends are sitting in a big circle. There are places for us to sit, too. We enter the circle with our trays of peanut butter balls. We each go to a grown-up and kneel, placing our tray on the floor before him. We smile, put our hands together in the form of a flower and bow to the grown-up. The grown-up returns our bow, then chooses a snack and puts it on his napkin. We smile and bow to each other again. Then we stand and go to another grown-up until all the grown-ups have been served. We put a snack in front of the places where we kids will sit, too. Then we join the grown-ups sitting in the circle. The bell master invites the bell and we all enjoy our snacks together.

PDF of this article

“Mitakuye Oyasin”

Monks’ Experiences of the Ancient Stone People Lodge Ceremony

mb37-Mitakuye1

Immediately after the Colors of Compassion retreat, on the first of April, fifteen monks participated in an ancient ceremony of the Indigenous Peoples of this land—a Stone People Lodge ceremony. It was a historic event, in that we had the opportunity to experience firsthand the joining of Buddhist and Native spiritual traditions, from Vietnamese and Lakota lineages. Plus, it was a sacred meeting of representatives from several cultures: Vietnamese, French, English, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, Swedish, Filipino, African American, Canadian, American, Chinese, and Lakota. Truly, a United Nations meeting of the heart, a meeting of spirit.

Built on Kumeyaay land on the Viejas Reservation (east of San Diego), the lodge is a simple structure made from willow saplings. The Inipi (from the Lakota language) / Stone People Lodge ceremony is a means for purifying and renewing our mind, body, and spirit. This sacred Indigenous spiritual practice allows us to shed manifestations of ego as we sit inside the lodge—the womb of our Earth Mother, Maka Tizi—and pray for all beings. The prayer “Mitakuye Oyasin”—To All Relations/We Are All Related—encompasses this understanding of inter-being, inter-dependence and inter-connectedness with all life. Through all the preparations––covering the lodge, selecting the stones, building the fire, making the prayer bundle offerings––every step, every action is part of the prayer of the ceremony.

The experience in the Stone People Lodge is an immersion into another realm of reality, into a realm beyond time and space, where our prayers for health, peace, and the planet have a particular potency. This ceremony feels as ancient as the red hot Stone People who are sitting with us in the center of the lodge. Sitting in the lodge, touching the Earth, we begin anew with our Earth Mother and with all our sisters and brothers of the Earth. The lodge ceremony reaffirms and strengthens our connection to the sacred hoop of life, to the Sacred Mystery, to all our ancestors, and to the ancestors of this land, Turtle Island (the American continents).

Once inside the lodge, embraced by the steam—the breath of Earth Mother—and enveloped in the sacred black light, we dissolve into the black light and the stillness, as ego, distinctions, definitions, discriminations, and thoughts fade. A shift from the visible to the invisible takes place. The sacredness all around us and within us, inter-connectedness, nondiscrimination, and non-separation are experienced very directly.

It was a great honor to facilitate this lodge ceremony for our brother monks. It was an amazing and deep experience which affected each of us profoundly, and sent ripples into the world and into the cosmos. In the days following the ceremony, the participants wrote about their experiences. With deep respect and gratitude we offer some of these writings to you.

Mitakuye Oyasin / To All Relations / We Are All Related,
—Chan Tue Nang, Joseph Lam Medicine Robe

mb37-Mitakuye2

Hello to grandmother earth
Hello to the stone people, my ancestors
Hello to father sun
Hello to the fire, my ancestor
Hello to the air that I breathe
Hello to the steam and water I drink
All of you are my relations
I bow to you
We are one
Sitting in the beginning
Looking at the black light
I am in the womb of the earth
Mother’s breath penetrating into me
Spirit radiating out into the cosmos
—Chan Phap Ngo

Stone People Lodge

Four hours cooking in a willow branch hut. Too small to stand, sitting close, no room to move, next to each other, sixteen brothers, in a circle, around the red hot stone people, embraced by the steam, breath of the earth, grandmother earth, mother’s love in this womb. Together in the heat, in love, in water, with brotherhood and grandfather spirit, in blackness—there we sat to renew, to purify, rebirthing, allowing ourselves to burn, to die, but not to sleep, not to dream.

Touching the Earth, we sat on the ground—a circle of brothers, a circle of life, a cycle of ages—heritage passed down to keep us in touch with all our relations—Mitakuye Oyasin. Offering our prayers for peace, for transformation, for healing. In preparation we gathered wood and placed so mindfully the stones one by one—one to the west, one to the north, then east, then south, in line with the colors black, red, yellow, white on poles on this ceremonial site, this land within a land within a land. An expanse of flat land, with bare black burned trees, a circle of mountains made our horizon, and blue for above, green for below.

Lighting the fire, a line of energy now alive between the fire, altar and into the door through which we crouched to go inside a blacked out space—the willow branch lodge. In preparation we generated mindfulness, brotherhood, and more and more concentration. Aware, sensing, in touch with each other. Strings of prayer bundles for all beings in the entire cosmos and one for our own family and close ones. Circumambulating the lodge and the fire with my string of seven prayer bundles, I brought to mind all those who have made me, shaped me, nurtured me, neglected me, hurt me, loved and supported me, taught and guided me—with my breath I brought them into my body and those ancestors I do not know and children of cousins and children not yet born—I took them all with me into this so small space.

And so this lodge becomes a house with many mansions containing past, present, and future. We all shared deeply of our aspirations and fear and suffering—we gave thanks for this ceremony and expressed regret for past wrongs of peoples to peoples. I shared of being in touch with the suffering of my father and his brothers when one of them took his own life, and of a brother or sister who was lost before birth. We chanted in the intense heat and in the blackness. I saw a nothingness to my personality and life—what did my fear mean in that black?—and yet a sense of trust was also there.

In gratitude, Mitakuye Oyasin
—Chan Phap Lai

mb37-Mitakuye3

Black Light Night

It was a night in which the sun disappeared and, then, reappeared in the blazing wood people who transmitted their red hot energy into the stone people so that the earth men could be purified.

It was a night in which mother earth embraced all her sons, collecting them into the half sphere lodge, all her sons from all around the globe.

It was a night in which brothers huddled together, bundled their prayers for all beings in the universe as well their own individual blood families, sharing their aspirations and gratitude.

It was a night in which brothers from all over mother earth gathered to chant and send energy of the Native American and Buddhist bodhisattvas to all beings.

It was a night in which the Lakota Shaman guided his young bald headed brothers, plus one not so young, through their anxiety, uncertainty, unknowing—in the Black Light Heat—to a deeper realization and consciousness of their oneness, their interbeing with each other and all beings.

It was a night that ended with the brothers being soaked with the blessings of the cosmos, sopping wet and dripping gratitude.

—Chan Phap De

mb37-Mitakuye4

A Hut

A hut made of willow branches,
like a mother’s belly
directed to each planet,
in the center, a hole in the ground.
An altar, made of soil and stones, the moon.
The sun of fire embraced by a half-circle,
a wall protecting from the winds.
Simple blankets cover us up,
the brothers sitting in the hut are listening
to the fire, the air, the steam.
In the belly of our Mother Earth,
listening to the Mystery.
Dear Grandfather,
in gratitude for that love
that surrounds us,
for this opening and the little more abandoning,
I thank you for teaching me the confidence
of being in the here and in the now,
enriched by love and at the same time even more poor.
I thank you for being more conscious too.
On the path of celebration
in gratitude for our teacher Thay.
Discovering the Eye who sees
simple joy of being together.
Time has disappeared.
The rain is blessing the earth.
The stars are joining us.
Fire, master fire, Thay fire,
who shows us how to love,
how to respect the right distance,
without fear.
The red stones in the center of the earth
filled with the light of the stars.
The clear water perfumed with sage,
the steam which envelopes us and penetrates us.
A chant from the Buddhist tradition,
A chant from the Native Indian tradition,
one breath, one heart.
A deeper and more subtle release.
Joy of being here and now,
in the Mother’s arms, in the Father’s arms.
Mystery of an invisible Presence,
Free hands offered,
each cell offered as flowers.
In gratitude —Chan Phap Tap
The hot air brought me close to my fear, my panic of losing it totally.
Let me meet with courage the most difficult state of mind, so I can live freely, without shadows of doubt and fear.
May we all be free from our mind shadows.
May we come out to the light and stand freely there.
May compassion embrace the whole of our minds and hearts.
—Chan Phap Son

mb37-Mitakuye5

Stone Presence Lodge

There is a grace to stone that weathers centuries.
Infused with the heat of joy fire
we offer this stone to the womb of the willow.
Imbued with the tumult of sky
we offer this grace to the womb of our body.
The moon at the zenith, waxing our limbs
we offer what is to the womb of the awakened.
In time unborn we rest here
Enfolded by vapors
The sweat runs unchecked off the bulk of our baggage
To flay bare the unspoken
To fuel this still yearning
To release the stuck remnants of past altercations
For the call of the eagle,
The caress of the soil,
For the presence of stone heat enlodged in our membranes.
For the space where all going and coming is done for
and rest poised in vision subdues all desire.
Mitakuye oyasin.
For the current which guides us from known to unknowing
and blesses the soil it carries with laughter.
Mitakuye oyasin.
For the clan of the spirit that moves us as one mind
and perfumes our abode with fragrance of silence.
Mitakuye oyasin.
Let the oceans bring rain.
Let the charred stems bear branches
to bear witness to rumor, this fine simple offer.
Let this kinship of blood, sweat and steam forge a vision
of the exotic here, of unprecedented now
Casting down what with measure would ream the unbroken
And take him to the view we of old have forecasted.
Let the holy find ground
In the temple of the wishless.
—Chan Phap Luu

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: The Power of Visualization

By Thich Nhat Hanh

From talks given June 11 and June 14, 2004, at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat, Plum Village

Thich Nhat Hanh

mb38-dharma3In June, 2004, Thich Nhat Hanh offered teachings on the nature of consciousness at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village. Expounding on the material published in Transformation at the Base, Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness (Parallax Press, 2001) Thay offered methods of practice that will deepen our understanding of ourselves and of reality. 

Here, Thay speaks about the practice of visualization, explaining how it can enhance our mindfulness through such diverse examples as recent information from nuclear science and a marvelous story about the mother of the Buddha. 

Also included in this section is Learning to Speak the Truth, an excerpt of a talk given at the same retreat by senior student and Dharma teacher, Thay Phap An, who shares stories of some of his difficulties as a young monk in the early days at Plum Village. 

The practice of visualization is very important in Buddhism, but practitioners of other disciplines need imagination and visualization too. In order to learn, in order to create, we need the capacity to imagine and to visualize. For example, studying mathematics takes a lot of visualization. If your power of visualization is weak you cannot learn a kind of mathematics called projective geometry. If you are an architect, you have to visualize in order to create new forms of architecture. Many scientists have to visualize a lot, because they have to see molecules and atoms with their mind, since they cannot see them with their eyes. Theories concerning the elementary particles of the cosmos come from visualization.

While scientists use instruments and tools to empower their vision, practitioners use visualization to purify their minds so they can look deeply at the nature of reality.

Visualization While Walking 

Using the techniques of visualization during walking meditation can bring us love, wisdom, and joy. When we study the levels of consciousness, we see that the sixth––mind consciousness, also called the gardener––has the power to imagine, to visualize.

When you make a step, you might visualize that your mother is taking the step with you. This is not difficult to do, since you know that your feet are a continuation of the feet of your mother. As we practice looking deeply, we see the presence of our mother in every cell of our body. Our body is a continuation of our mother’s body. When you make a step you might say, “Mother, walk with me,” and suddenly you feel your mother walking with you. Perhaps during her lifetime she did not have a chance to walk in the here and the now, and to enjoy touching the earth like you have. So, suddenly compassion is born in you, because you can see your mother walking with you. Not in your imagination, but as a reality. You can invite your father and other people you love to walk with you, and you feel they are present in the here and the now. You don’t have to be with them physically in order to touch their presence.

If we know that all our ancestors are fully present in every cell of our body, then when we make a step, we know that they are all taking that step with us. Your mind can see the feet of all your ancestors, millions of feet, making a step with you. Using visualization in that way will shatter the idea that you are a separate self. You walk, and they walk too.

Our Perceptions are Mental Constructions 

There are many incorrect things on the screen of our consciousness, and if we know how to focus we can erase them. We bring our wisdom to that view of illusion projected on our screen, and we recognize it as an illusion. Then we press on the mouse, and it is erased from our screen.

When illusion is erased, something appears. The disappearance of ignorance (avidiya) helps the light, the wisdom to arise. So when you use your mind to erase the illusion, the truth appears. Thanks to our practice of looking deeply, we know that what appears in our consciousness is the collective construction of our mind. With practice, we are no longer sure of our perceptions. We become more careful. We know that what is perceived is very much the collective construction of our consciousness.

mb38-dharma4

Parakalpita means collective mental construction. In the past, when we did not practice, we believed that the world of mental construction is a solid, objective world. But now as we begin to practice, we learn that what we touch, what we see, what we hear, is only a collective mental construction. We begin to understand that what we perceive is very much the construct of our consciousness. To recognize parakalpita as a mental construction is a step toward wisdom. And our practice will help us to see that the nature of the world as we see it is the nature of parakalpita, the nature of mental construction.

So with the practice of mindfulness you become more alert. Anything you hear, you touch, you see––you know that it has the nature of mental construction, and you do not consider it as reality. The world of representations may carry some substance of the world, of things in itself, but it mostly consists of representations. And it is collective in nature; for example, the person sitting next to you will see and hear almost the same things that you see and hear. Because you are made similarly, you perceive in the same way.

The Process of Seeing and Hearing 

We know that the images we see are projected onto our retina, and our brain translates them into electrical impulses, which forward them to the center of sensation in the occipital lobe. We don’t see with our eyes; our eyes only receive images which are translated into the language of electrical signals. And an image does not come as a whole; it comes as millions of dots, received and processed by more than thirty different regions of the cortex.

mb38-dharma5

The same happens with sounds. A sound is received and translated into electrical signals, then goes to an area just below the occipital lobe, and then is transferred to many areas of the cortex, and finally sent to the parietal lobe. Then we become aware of it.

Whether it is sound or image or touch or smell, all are translated into electrical signals so that the mind can receive and process. It is very, very complicated. That is why the teacher Vasubandhu said that the processing of store consciousness is not something that mind consciousness can access. And that is why we agree with what the Buddha said in the Diamond Sutra: All conditioned dharmas are like a dream, are like magical performances, are like water bubbles, are like reflected images, are like a drop of dew, are like lightning. The Buddha said, “Dear one, you have to train to look at them like that.”

Because of what we know, we don’t believe that what we perceive is objective reality. It is the mental construction of our consciousness, and we know that is the nature of our perceptions. What we conceive to be personalities, people, atman––what we conceive to be entities, dharmas––are just mental constructions. They are evolving in many ways, but they are all manifestations from consciousness. That is the first verse of The Thirty Verses on consciousness, offered by Vasubandhu.

Touching Interbeing

Knowing that we live in the world of parakalpita, we should practice looking deeply in order to discover the nature of interbeing, because if we look deeply into the world of mental construction, we can touch the nature of interbeing, the nature of paratantra. Paratantra means “leaning on each other,” depending on each other in order to manifest. You cannot be by yourself. You have to inter-be with everything else.

For example, a flower has to rely on many non-flower elements in order to manifest. That is why when we look at a flower we don’t see a separate entity. If we see a flower as an entity, then we are still in the parakalpita world. And when we see another person as an atman, a separate self, then we are still in the world of parakalpita. That is why using mind consciousness, we are not focused on these so-called selves and dharmas in order to discover the nature of paratantra. Empty inside, empty as a self, empty as an entity: for that you need the energy of mindfulness and concentration. You live your day mindfully. You look deeply at anything you come in touch with, and you are not fooled by appearance. You are not caught in a world of parakalpita; you are capable of seeing that those you meet are devoid of any solid entity, any solid selves.

Looking into the son, you see the father and the mother and the ancestors; you see the son is not a separate entity. Looking into yourself––your suffering, your happiness––you don’t see you as a separate self, you see a continuation. This is to learn how to see everything in the light of interdependence, interbeing. Everything is based on everything else in order to manifest. Slowly the notion of one and of many vanish.

Training to See the True Nature of Reality 

The nuclear scientist David Bohm practiced looking deeply, and he said that an electron is not a separate entity; one electron is made of all the other electrons. He seemed to understand that the one is made of the all, and just touching the one deeply, you touch everything.

So touching the nature of paratantra, we understand that there are no separate entities. There are only manifestations that rely on each other to be possible, like the left and the right. The right is not an entity that can be by itself. Without the left, the right cannot be. Everything is like that.

The first verse of Vasubandhu’s thirty verses is that the metaphor of selves and dharmas are evolving in several ways. They are creations of consciousness, mental creations. The sixth, the seventh, and the eighth levels of consciousness create.

The Buddha offered us the insight of impermanence and the insight of no-self, as tools for us to touch the world of parakalpita so that we can discover the nature of interbeing, the nature of interdependence, which is devoid of any solid, separate self. One day the Buddha told his beloved disciple, Ananda: “Whoever sees interbeing, that person sees the Buddha.” If we touch the nature of interdependence, of interbeing, we touch the truth, we touch wisdom. We touch the Buddha.

During the day, while walking or sitting, eating or cleaning, you dwell in the concentration of paratantra, so that you can see things as they are, not as selves, not as entities, but as mental constructions that rely on each other in order to manifest. This is the process of training. And finally, when the training is complete, the nature of parinispanna will appear, will reveal itself entirely, and what you touch is no longer a world of illusion, but the world of thing-in-itself. These are the principles of the practice.

First of all, we should be aware that the world in which we live is being constructed by us, by our mind, collectively. That if we look deeply, if we know how to use mindfulness and concentration, we can begin to touch the nature of interdependence. And when our practice is deep, we can erase the illusion of parakalpita so the true nature of reality can be revealed: the nature of parinispanna.

mb38-dharma7

Visualizing Before Touching the Earth 

Visualization can be very helpful. When I was a young novice in Asia, this practice was taught to us, but most of us could not do it. We memorized very well, we chanted very beautifully, but we could not do this visualization for the first ten or fifteen years. The moment you can do it, you feel wonderful. You can erase the notion of self through this practice.

mb38-dharma6If you are an intelligent practitioner, you do not touch the Earth with the intention of begging the Buddha to give you something, or to forgive you for having done something. That practice is still based on the notion of separate selves: the belief that you and the Buddha are different; that you are almost nothing, and the Buddha is everything; that you need him to give you a little bit of wisdom or happiness. With that kind of intention, you still live in the world of parakalpita. So before touching the Earth before the Buddha, you have to visualize that you are empty of a separate self, and also that the Buddha is empty of a self. The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty. It’s difficult to find another tradition with a similar practice. For instance, you cannot stand in front of the deity you worship, and say, “You, my God, you are empty!”

Before you bow, you say something like this: “Dear Buddha, I am bowing to you, but I know deeply that I am empty and you are also empty, because you are in me and I am in you. When I am touching the Earth before you, it may look ridiculous. But looking deeply, I see that I bow like this in order to touch you in me, and so that you can touch me in you also.

Then you visualize countless Buddhas appearing, like the image of Indra’s net. This is a net made of jewels, and in each jewel you see reflected all the other jewels. Looking into the one you see the all. Suppose you build a hall made of mirrors, and then you enter holding a candle. Looking into a mirror you see you and the candle, and when you turn around you see that each mirror reflects you and the candle in the mirror too. You just need to look into one mirror to see all the reflections of you and the candle. Countless yous and countless candles are reflected in just one mirror.

So you are standing there, about to touch the Earth and get in touch with the Buddha. And you have to visualize countless Buddhas appearing around you, and in front of each Buddha there is one you who is touching the Earth. You touch the Earth in such a way that the barrier between you and Buddha is no longer there. You use the tool of your mind to erase the distinction between you and the Buddha, so that you can touch the nature of interbeing, and you can be free of the notions of one and many, the same and different. And that is the purpose of visualization––to erase the duality between you and Buddha. Before you can wipe out that kind of separation, the practice of bowing is not deep. You have to see the nature of interbeing between you and Buddha before the bowing can bring a deeper result.

So touching the Earth before a Buddha is not an act of superstition. You develop your wisdom by doing so, and you realize freedom. You transform your suffering, your loneliness, by this kind of practice.

The Mother of the Buddha

In the Avatamsaka Sutra there is a delicious portion describing the young man Sudhana looking for the mother of the Buddha. Sudhana’s teacher is the great boddhisattva Manjushri, who encouraged his disciple to go and learn from many people. Not only old teachers, but also young teachers; not only Buddhist teachers but also non-Buddhist teachers. And then one day he was told that he should go and meet the mother of the Buddha, that he would learn a lot from her. So he looked hard for her, but he couldn’t find her.

Then someone told him, “You don’t have to go searching, you just sit down and practice mindful breathing and visualization, and then she will come.” So he stopped searching. He sat down and he practiced. Suddenly he saw a lotus with one thousand petals come up from deep in the Earth. And sitting on one of these petals he saw the mother of the Buddha, Lady Mahamaya, so he bowed to her! And suddenly he realized that he was sitting on one of the petals of the same lotus, and then each petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals.

You see? The one contains the all. The lotus has one thousand petals, and Lady Mahamaya was sitting on one petal when suddenly that petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he saw himself sitting on one petal. And suddenly he saw that is petal had become a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he was so happy. He joined his palms and looked up, and a very nice conversation began between the mother of the Buddha and the young man Sudhana. Lady Mahamaya said, “Young man, do you know something? The moment I conceived Siddhartha was a very wonderful moment! There was a kind of bliss that made my whole body and mind feel wonderful. The presence of a Buddha within yourself is a wonderful thing! You cannot be happier than that.

mb38-dharma8

“You know something, young man? After Siddhartha came to my womb, countless boddhisattvas coming from many directions came and asked my permission to pay a visit to my son in my womb, to make sure their friend was comfortable in there. And before I had a chance to say yes, they all entered my womb. Millions of them. And yet I had the impression that if there were more boddhisattvas who wanted to come into my womb, there was still plenty of room for them to enter.

“Young man, do you know something? I am the mother of all Buddhas in the past. I am the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And I shall be the mother of all Buddhas in the future.”

That is what she said. Beautiful, very deep. And that is the work of visualization: to show you the nature of interbeing, to show you the truth that one contains the all. The smallest atom can contain the whole cosmos.

mb38-dharma9

We all Carry Buddhas Within 

You know that the human body is made of cells, and now science has declared that cloning is possible. From one cell they can duplicate the whole body. How is it possible? Because one cell contains the totality of the genetic heritage of that person. If not, how could we, from one cell, bring the whole body into full manifestation? So current science has proved not only in theory but in practice that, in the one you touch the all.

And we all have all our ancestors fully present in every one of our cells. We carry all of them while we walk, while we eat, while we do things. Without visualization you cannot see it. That is the power of the sixth consciousness, called the gardener.

Who is Mahamaya, the mother of the Buddha? Is that someone outside of you? Or is she you? Because all of us carry in our womb a Buddha. Mahamaya is very careful because she knows that she carries a Buddha within. Everything she eats, everything she drinks, everything she does, every film she watches––she knows that it will have an effect on her child. The Buddha Shakyamuni said, “You are a Buddha. There is a baby Buddha in each of you. Whether you are a lady or a gentleman, you carry within yourself a Buddha.” We also carry a Buddha but we are not as careful as Mahamaya in our way of eating, drinking, smoking, worrying, projecting and so on. We are not responsible mothers of the Buddha.

Like Mahamaya, there is plenty of room inside of us, not only for one Buddha but for countless Buddhas. We can declare, like Mahamaya, that we were the mother of all Buddhas in the past. We can be the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And we shall be able to be the mother of all Buddhas in the future. Mahamaya is hope. Is she outside in objective reality or is she inside ourselves?

So if you visualize like that, all negative feelings, all complexes will vanish. All doubt that you can behave with the responsibility of a Buddha’s mother will disappear and the Buddha in you will have a chance to manifest for yourself and for the world. And that is why visualization is a very important tool of meditation, of transformation. With a mind that is polluted by greed, by anger, you cannot do it well; that is why the purification of our thinking, of our mind, is very important. The practice of the Mindfulness Trainings, the practice of mindfulness of walking and sitting, the practice of samadhi to help purify the mind and to bring the fire of concentration to burn away the ignorance, the delusion. Through these practices, we erase all the wrong perceptions in us so that reality can reveal itself very clearly to us.

When mind has become true mind, when mind has become beautified in true mind, the world parakalpita is no longer there. Instead, the world parinispanna reveals itself completely. There is no longer any fear, any craving, any sorrow, any anger, because all these have been created by our wrong perceptions and our complexes.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Barbara Casey.

PDF of this article

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

Nothing is Lost

A Response to the Recent U.S. Election from Thich Nhat Hanh

November 7th, 2004

For those of you who voted for John Kerry, we must look deeply to see the John Kerry elements in George Bush. In this long and difficult campaign, Bush has learned many things from Kerry and those who voted for him. We have to see that they inter-are. If there had been no election, Bush wouldn’t have questioned his positions or his approach. He would have been able to assume that his way is best. But he almost lost the election, and he is aware that at least half of the American people don’t believe in him. Now, because he almost lost, he is more humble and must realize that if he doesn’t listen to the other half of the American people, there will be a big disturbance in the country. So we have to see that now all of us are in him. Those of you who didn’t vote for him are in him, are a part of him after this very close presidential race.

We have to help our government so that a president elected by fifty-one percent of the population will not serve just that fifty-one percent but the whole country. We need to keep speaking out, daily letting our government know what we want, expressing our insight and understanding. We need to be very present, very firm, and constantly let the government know we are here. We can support them in our own way, through being present, calm, lucid, and compassionate. Being compassionate doesn’t mean we surrender and give up. It means we see clearly that our country, our government is us and it needs our help. Compassion means acting with courage and deep love to help manifest what we know our country is capable of.

Historically it has happened that the agenda of the left has been realized by the right. We have to speak out and keep speaking out, and it is possible that the Republicans will accomplish what the Democrats, what the left, had hoped to realize had they won. We also need to remember that even if Kerry had been elected, he would also have had to partly realize the wish of those who voted for Bush, and it is not certain that he would have been able to stop the war in Iraq.

Nothing is lost because we are in President Bush. There is a loss only if we respond with anger and despair. We have to continue on, to continue our practice, and remain strong in our role as bodhisattvas, helping the other half of our country by our firm, clear, and compassionate action for peace—the kind of peace in which both sides win because there is mutual understanding.

PDF of this article

Towards a Mindful Politics

For the past year, citizens of the United States and people throughout the world have been deeply involved in and affected by the Presidential election. How do we “take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and … strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts?” (from the Tenth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing). How do we keep from falling into the mindset of “us and them?”

Fortunately, our teacher, and several brothers and sisters offer comfort and help us understand through their articulate and compassionate sharing. The message from Thay lifts us from the small view of events and helps us to see that both the wonders and the difficulties are as present today as they were before the election. Our call to practice is more vital than ever.

In this section we are also invited to meditate on America’s karma and to practice deep inquiry; we are offered suggestions on how to practice the Tenth Mindfulness Training; we gain insight from a story of the Buddha’s life as a plumeria tree; and we are offered a deep practice of letting go. We are invited to nourish ourselves through watering seeds of love and understanding in us, and to step forth as a healing force in our wounded world.

Nothing is Lost: A Response to the Recent U.S. Election from Thich Nhat Hanh

November 7th, 2004

For those of you who voted for John Kerry, we must look deeply to see the John Kerry elements in George Bush. In this long and difficult campaign, Bush has learned many things from Kerry and those who voted for him. We have to see that they inter-are. If there had been no election, Bush wouldn’t have questioned his positions or his approach. He would have been able to assume that his way is best. But he almost lost the election, and he is aware that at least half of the American people don’t believe in him. Now, because he almost lost, he is more humble and must realize that if he doesn’t listen to the other half of the American people, there will be a big disturbance in the country. So we have to see that now all of us are in him. Those of you who didn’t vote for him are in him, are a part of him after this very close presidential race.

We have to help our government so that a president elected by fifty-one percent of the population will not serve just that fifty-one percent but the whole country. We need to keep speaking out, daily letting our government know what we want, expressing our insight and understanding. We need to be very present, very firm, and constantly let the government know we are here. We can support them in our own way, through being present, calm, lucid, and compassionate. Being compassionate doesn’t mean we surrender and give up. It means we see clearly that our country, our government is us and it needs our help. Compassion means acting with courage and deep love to help manifest what we know our country is capable of.

Historically it has happened that the agenda of the left has been realized by the right. We have to speak out and keep speaking out, and it is possible that the Republicans will accomplish what the Democrats, what the left, had hoped to realize had they won. We also need to remember that even if Kerry had been elected, he would also have had to partly realize the wish of those who voted for Bush, and it is not certain that he would have been able to stop the war in Iraq.

Nothing is lost because we are in President Bush. There is a loss only if we respond with anger and despair. We have to continue on, to continue our practice, and remain strong in our role as bodhisattvas, helping the other half of our country by our firm, clear, and compassionate action for peace—the kind of peace in which both sides win because there is mutual understanding.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: True Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha, today is the twenty-third of June, 2005 and we are in the Lovingkindness Temple in the New Hamlet.  

Happiness is a practice. We should distinguish between happiness and excitement, and even joy. Many people in the West, especially in North America, think of excitement as happiness. They are thinking of something, or expecting something that they consider to be happiness, and, for them, that is already happiness. But when you are excited you are not really peaceful. True happiness should be based on peace, and in true happiness there is no longer any excitement.

mb40-dharma2Suppose you are walking in a desert and you are dying of thirst. Suddenly you see an oasis and you know that once you get there, there will be a stream of water and you can drink so you will survive. Although you have not actually seen or drunk the water you feel something: that is excitement, that is hope, that is joy, but not happiness yet. In Buddhist psychology we distinguish clearly between excitement, joy, and happiness. True happiness must be founded on peace. Therefore, if you don’t have peace in yourself you have not experienced true happiness.

Training Yourself to Be Happy 

You have to cultivate happiness; you cannot buy it in the supermarket. It is like playing tennis: you cannot buy the joy of playing tennis in the supermarket. You can buy the ball and the racket, but you cannot buy the joy of playing. In order to experience the joy of tennis you have to learn, to train yourself to play. In the same way, you have to cultivate happiness.

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to train yourself to be happy. You are here, and you look in the distance and see a pine tree. You make the determination that while walking to the pine tree, you will enjoy every step, that every step will provide you with peace and happiness. Peace and happiness that have the power to nourish, to heal, to satisfy.

mb40-dharma3

There are those of us who are capable of going from here to the pine tree in that way, enjoying every step we make. We are not disturbed by anything: not by the past, not by the future; not by projects, not by excitement. Not even by joy, because in joy there is still excitement and not enough peace. And if you are well-trained in walking meditation, with each step you can experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment. You are capable of truly touching the earth with each step. You see that being alive, being established fully in the present moment and taking one step and touching the wonders of life in that step can be a wonder, and you live that wonder every moment of walking. If you have the capacity to walk like that, you are walking in the Kingdom of God or in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

So you may challenge yourself: I will do walking meditation from here to the pine tree. I vow that I will succeed. If you are not free, your steps will not bring you happiness and peace. So cultivating happiness is also cultivating freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the things that upset you, that keep you from being peaceful, that prevent you from being fully present in the here and the now.

One nun wrote to Thay that she has a friend visiting Plum Village. Her friend did not take the monastic path; instead she married, and now has a family, a job, a house, a car, and everything she needs for her life. She’s lucky because her husband is a good man; he does not create too many problems. Her job is enjoyable, with a salary above average. Her house is beautiful. She thinks of her relationship as a good one although it is not as she expected; sure, you can never have exactly what you expect.

And yet, she does not feel happy and she is depressed. Intellectually she knows that in terms of comfort, she has everything. Many of us think of happiness in these terms, as having material and emotional comforts. Not many people are as successful as that friend, and she knows that she is fortunate. And yet she is not happy.

We Are Immune to Happiness 

We have the tendency to think of happiness as something we will obtain in the future. We expect happiness. We think that now we don’t have the conditions we think we need to be happy, but that once we have them, happiness will be there. For example, you want to have a diploma because you think that without that diploma you cannot be happy. So you think of the diploma day and night and you do everything to get that diploma because you believe that diploma will bring you happiness. And you forecast that happiness will be there tomorrow, when you get the diploma. There may be joy and satisfaction in the days and weeks that follow the moment you receive your diploma, but you adapt to that new condition very quickly, and in just a few weeks you don’t feel happy anymore. You become used to having a diploma. So that kind of excitement, that kind of happiness is very short-lived. We are immune to happiness; we get used to our happiness, and after a while we don’t feel happy any longer.

mb40-dharma4

People have made studies of poor people who have won lotteries and have become millionaires. The studies found that after two or three months the person returns to the emotional state they were in before winning the lottery. From two to three months. And during the three months there is not exactly happiness; there is a lot of thinking, a lot of excitement, a lot of planning and so on––not exactly happiness. But three months later, he falls back to exactly the same emotional level as he was before winning the lottery. So having a lot of money does not mean you will be happy.

Perhaps you want to marry someone, thinking that if you can’t marry him or her, then you cannot be happy. You believe that happiness will be great after you marry that person. After you marry, you may have a time of happiness, but eventually happiness vanishes. There is no longer any excitement, any joy, and of course, no happiness. What you get is not what you expected. Then perhaps you know that what you have attained will not continue for a long time. Even if you have a good job, you are not sure you can keep it for a long time. You may be laid off, so underneath there is fear and uncertainty. This type of happiness, without peace, has the element of fear and cannot be true happiness. The person you are living with may betray you one day; you cannot be sure that person will be faithful to you for a long time. So fear and uncertainty is present also. To preserve these so-called conditions of happiness you have to be busy all day long. And with these worries, uncertainties, and busyness, you don’t feel happy and you become depressed.

So we learn that happiness is not something we get after we obtain the so-called conditions of happiness: namely, the material and emotional comforts. True happiness does not depend on these comforts; nothing can remove it from you. When we come to a practice center, we are looking to learn how to cultivate true happiness.

The Buddha’s Teaching on Happiness 

When I was a young monk people told me that the teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in four short sentences. I was not impressed when I read these four sentences. People asked the Buddha how to be happy and he said that all the Buddhas teach the same thing:

Refrain from doing bad things
Try to do good things
And learn to subdue, purify your mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas. (1)  

Very simple; and because of that, I was not impressed. I said, “Everyone agrees that you have to do good things and refrain from doing bad things. To subdue and purify your mind is too vague.” But after sixty years of practice I have another idea of the teaching. I see now it is very deep, and that it is a real teaching of happiness.

Let us consider together. The gatha I learned is in Chinese, in four lines, and each line contains four words.

The bad things, don’t do it.
The good things, try to do it.

It does not seem to be very deep: nothing spectacular about it. Everyone knows, the good things you should do and the bad things you should not do. You don’t need to be a Buddha to give such a teaching. So I was not impressed. The third line and fourth lines are:

Try to purify, subdue your own mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas.

Now I understand that the bad things you should refrain from are those that create suffering for you and for other people, including other living beings and the environment. But how can you recognize something as good to do, or as bad to do? Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you to know that this is a good thing to do and this is a bad thing to do; to know that if you do these bad things you bring suffering to you and to the people around you. So the bad things bring suffering to you and others. This is a very simple and yet precise definition of good and bad. And of course, the good things are the things that bring you joy and true happiness. Anything that is good, try to do it. That means anything that can bring peace, stability, and joy to you and to other people. It is easy to say, it is easy to understand, but it is not easy to do or to refrain from doing. The first two things depend entirely on the third thing: to purify, subdue your mind. The mind is the ground of everything.

The Most Special Thing in Buddhism 

If there is confusion in your mind, if there is anger and craving in your mind, then your mind is not pure, your mind is not subdued, and even if you want to do good things you cannot do them, and even if you want to refrain from doing bad things you cannot. And that is why the ground, the root, is your mind.

When you refrain from doing bad things you are practicing compassion, because refraining from doing bad things means not bringing suffering to you or to other people. Practicing compassion is practicing happiness, because happiness is the absence of suffering. And then:

Try to do good things: karuna, maitri. This teaching is the practice of love, of compassion, and of lovingkindness. When you understand, the first two sentences have a lot of meaning. You practice love, you practice compassion, you practice lovingkindness and you know that practicing love brings happiness. Happiness cannot be without love. The Buddhas recommend us to love, and the concrete way is to refrain from causing suffering and to offer happiness.

You can do this easily and beautifully only when you know how to subdue your mind, how to purify your mind. This is very special. If you ask the question, “What is the most special thing in Buddhism?” the answer is that it is the art of subduing your mind, of purifying your mind. Because Buddhism gives us the concrete teaching so that we can purify, subdue, and transform our mind. And once our mind is purified, subdued, and transformed, then happiness becomes possible. With a mind that still has a lot of confusion, anger, craving, and misunderstanding, there can be no love and no happiness for oneself and for the world. So the most important thing you should learn is the art of subduing and purifying your mind. If you have not got that, you have not got anything from Buddhism.

T.S. Eliot was a poet, playwright, and critic, born in Boston in 1888. When he grew up he went to Europe and he liked it there so he became a British citizen. His poetry is a kind of meditation; he tries to look deeply and many of his poems are like gathas presenting his understanding. He said that he always tried to look deeply; those are the words he used: to look deeply, to understand the roots of suffering. He found out that the mind is the root of all suffering; our own mind is the foundation of all the suffering we have. That is exactly what the Buddha said. The suffering we have to bear and undergo all comes from within our mind, a mind that is not purified, that is not transformed and subdued. But T.S. Eliot only said half of what the Buddha said. The Buddha said that all suffering comes from the mind, but also that all happiness comes from the mind. All happiness too. So the mind that remains unsubdued, untransformed, confused with hatred and discrimination, brings a lot of unhappiness and suffering; but the purified and subdued mind can bring a lot of happiness to yourself and the people around you.

When you walk from here to the pine tree you begin with one step, and you train yourself in such a way that that step has within it the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you really practice walking meditation, you will find out that every step you make can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, bringing you a lot of happiness. Because the three elements–– mindfulness, concentration, and insight–– purify and subdue your mind and bring out all the goodness of your mind. When you walk like this, you are first aware that you are making a step: that is the energy of mindfulness. I am here. I am alive. I am making a step. You step and you know you are making a step. That is mindfulness of walking. The mindfulness helps you to be in the here and the now, fully present, fully alive so that you can make the step. Master Linji said, “The miracle is not to walk on air, or on water, or on fire. The real miracle is to walk on earth.” And walking like that––with mindfulness, concentration, and insight––is performing a miracle. You are truly alive. You are truly present, touching the wonders of life within you and around you. That is a miracle.

mb40-dharma5

Most of us walk like sleepwalkers. We walk, but we are not there. We don’t experience life, or the wonders of life. There is no joy. We are sleepwalking through our own life and our life is a dream. Buddhism is about waking up from your dream. Awakening. One mindful step can be a factor of awakening that brings you to life, that brings you the miracle of being alive. And when mindfulness is there, concentration is there, because mindfulness contains concentration. You can be less or more concentrated. You may be fifty, sixty, or ninety percent concentrated on your step, but the more concentrated the more you have a chance to break through into insight. Mindfulness, concentration, insight: smirti, samadhi, prajna. Every step you make can generate these three powers, these three energies. And if you are a strong practitioner then these three energies are very powerful and every step can bring you a lot of happiness, the happiness of a Buddha.

Mindfulness and concentration bring insight. Insight is a product of the practice. It is like the flower or fruit of the practice. Like an orange tree offers blossoms and oranges. What kind of insight? The insight of impermanence, of no-self, and interbeing.

Happiness Is Impermanent 

Impermanence means that everything is changing, including the happiness that you are experiencing. The step you are making allows you to get in touch with the Kingdom of God, with the Pure Land of the Buddha, with all the wonders of life that bring happiness. But that happiness is also impermanent. It lasts only for one step; if the next step does not have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then happiness will die. However, you know that you are capable of making a second step which also generates the three powers of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so you have the power to make happiness last longer. Happiness is impermanent; we know the law of impermanence, and that is why we know that we can continue to generate the next moment of happiness. Just as when we ride a bicycle, we continue to pedal so that the movement can continue.

Happiness is impermanent but it can be renewed, and that is insight. You are also impermanent and renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. Although it is impermanent, happiness is possible; the same with you. And if happiness can be renewed, so can you; because you in the next moment is the renewal of you. You are always changing, so you are experiencing impermanence in your happiness and in yourself. It’s wonderful to know that happiness can last only one in-breath or one step, because we know that we can renew it in another step or another breath, provided we know the art of generating mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

The Insight of Interbeing

Happiness is no-self, because the nature of happiness is interbeing. That is why you are not looking for happiness as an individual. You are making happiness with the insight of interbeing. The father knows that if the son is not happy then he cannot be truly happy, so while the father seeks his own happiness, he also seeks happiness for his son. And that is why the first two sentences have a wonderful meaning. Your mindful steps are not for you alone, they are for your partner and friends as well. Because the moment you stop suffering, the other person profits. You are not cultivating your individual happiness. You are walking for him, for her, you are walking for all of us. Because if you have some peace in you, that is not only good for you but good for all of us.

With that mindful step, it might look as though you are practicing as an individual. You are trying to do something for yourself. You are trying to find some peace, some stability, some happiness. It looks egoistic, when you have not touched the nature of no-self. But, with insight, you see that everything good that you are doing for yourself you are doing for all of us. You don’t have a self-complex anymore. And that is the insight of interbeing.

If, in a family of four, only one person practices, that practice will benefit all four, not only the practitioner. When that person practices correctly, she gets the insight of no-self and she knows that she’s doing it for everyone. Just as when she cleans the toilet, she cleans the toilet for everyone, not just herself.

When a feeling of anger or discrimination manifests, the practitioner recognizes that to allow such an energy to continue is not healthy for oneself or for others in the world. The practitioner practices mindfulness of breathing, of walking, in order to recognize the feeling of anger, to embrace the anger, to look deeply into the nature of the anger, and to know that practicing in order to transform your anger is to practice happiness for yourself and other people. If you don’t practice like that, anger will push you to do things or say things that will make you and others suffer. That is not something to do, but something not to do. And when you practice looking deeply into the nature of your anger, you are doing it for yourself and you are doing it for the world and you have the insight of no-self.

With the insight of no-self you no longer seek the kind of happiness that will make other people suffer. The insight of impermanence will help bring the insight of no-self. And no-self means interdependence, interconnectedness, interbeing. This is the kind of insight that can liberate you and can liberate the world. With that kind of practice you subdue your mind, you purify your mind. A mind that is not purified or subdued contains a lot of delusion. And that is why practicing looking deeply to see the nature of impermanence and no-self means to take away the element of ignorance and delusion within yourself. That is to purify yourself. When the element of ignorance is no longer there, the element of anger will be transformed. You get angry at him or her or them because you still have the mind of discrimination. He is your enemy. He makes you suffer. He is to be punished. All these thoughts are no longer there because you have already touched the nature of no-self.

Purify Your Mind 

To purify your mind is to transform your way of perceiving things, to remove wrong perceptions. When you are able to remove your wrong perceptions you are also able to remove your anger, your hate, your discrimination, and your craving. Because if you crave something, it means you have not seen the true nature of that thing. If you think of happiness in terms of fame, profit, power, and sex, it is not a correct idea of happiness, because you have seen people who have plenty of these things but suffer so much from depression and want to kill themselves. Understanding that you have wisdom within you frees you from craving. In the teachings of the Buddha, our mind can be intoxicated by many kinds of poison: the first is craving, the second is hate or violence, and the third is delusion. The three poisons. To purify your mind is to neutralize and transform these poisons in you. You neutralize these poisons by the three powers: mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

When your mind is purified, it is so easy to do good things and to refrain from doing bad things. But if your mind is still unpurified––filled with hatred, anger, delusion, and craving––you have a hard time doing good things and refraining from doing bad things. That is why this is the ground of every kind of action that benefits you and benefits the world.

We have invented many types of machines that save a lot of time. We can do wonders with a computer. A computer can work a hundred, a thousand times faster than a typewriter. In farming, it used to take several weeks to plough the fields; now you can do it in a few days. You don’t have to wash your clothes by hand anymore, there’s a washing machine. You don’t have to go fetch the water, the water comes to your kitchen. We have found many ways to save labor, and yet we are much busier than our ancestors were. Everyone is busy; that is a contradiction. Why is that? Because we have acquired so much and we are afraid of losing these things, so we have to work so hard to keep and maintain them. That is why even if you have a lot, you still suffer and become depressed.

Manufacturers of medicine will tell you that the kinds of medicine we consume the most in our society now —tons and tons––are tranquilizers and antidepressants, sedatives. The whole world is under sedation. We need a lot of tranquilizers because we have created a world that has invaded us. We can no longer be peaceful and happy, and that is why we want to forget ourselves. You want to protect yourself from the world, you want to protect yourself from yourself, and that is why you take tranquilizers, antidepressants, sedatives. We are not capable of touching the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, the wonders of life that have all the powers of healing and nourishing. We have brought into ourselves so many toxins, poisons. The world we have created has come into us. We cannot escape anymore. Not even in our dreams, in our sleep. And the drugs we take are to help us forget the world we have created for a few hours or a few days. When we go in this direction we are no longer civilized, because we are not going in the direction of peace, of solidity, of awakening. The drugs help us not to be awake to reality, because we want to forget reality–– the reality of the world, and the reality of the confusion, the craving, and the violence in us.

Peace and happiness are still available, once you are capable of seeing that the conditions we think are essential to our happiness may bring us the opposite of happiness—depression, despair, forgetfulness. And that is why we have to listen to the Buddha. We have to begin with our breath. We have to breathe in mindfully to know that we are alive, that there are still wonders of life around us and in us that we have to touch every minute for our transformation and healing. We have to use our feet to learn how to walk in the Kingdom of God, because each step like that will be transforming, healing, and nourishing. It is still possible.

So from here to the pine tree, I wish you good luck. Make a step in such a way that mindfulness, concentration, and insight can be generated, so that you are capable of being in touch with the here and the now, of touching the wonders of life. Forget about the conditions of happiness that you have been running after for a long time, because you know that once you get them, you will still be unhappy, and then you will have to use the drugs that other people are using. Buddhism is about awakening. We should be awakened to the fact that the situation of the world is like that, and we don’t want to go in that direction. We want true life, true happiness.

Translated from Vietnamese by Chan Phap Tue; edited by Barbara Casey. 

(1) This translation is from the Chinese version of the Dhammapada.

PDF of this article

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

The Maidens and the Crone

By Janey Gieber

We traveled with Sister Chan Khong and the monastic brothers and sisters in Quang Tri province to visit schools and projects supported by the Order of Interbeing.

mb40-TheMaidens1

Turning off the main highway, the driver took us down a small country road as the sun was just beginning to rise. He pulled over and parked. “Where are we going?” I wondered. “There is only jungle here.” We filed off the bus and began to stride mindfully down a narrow, muddy trail, dutifully following Sister Chan Khong. It was raining torrentially. The blue plastic raincoat I’d bought in Hue at an outdoor market was keeping the wet off my clothes but not out of my shoes. I looked down at my trudging feet, ensconced in mud. At that moment I understood the meaning of, “Present moment, wonderful moment.” I felt completely alive in every cell of my body, and understood more fully the unifying energy of going as a Sangha.

Gongs and drums began to sing loudly, and we were drawn into a clearing where a beautiful temple and schoolhouse stood. Villagers greeted us with huge smiles. We entered the little schoolhouse and the children sang “Breathing In, Breathing Out” with angelic voices, their hands making the accompanying gestures. As Sister Chan Khong explained that we were in the village of Thay’s mother, tears came to my eyes as I remembered my own mother, who had died only a few months before.

I remembered the jewelry made by a Sangha sister, Carrie, from our Braided Way Sangha in Battle Ground, Washington. “Maybe I should get it out now to give to the children,” I thought. I noticed a dozen young ladies standing beside me. I tapped one girl on the shoulder and motioned for her to step toward me. I handed her a bauble of green and pink beads with a dragonfly pendant. She giggled and gasped as I attached the pin to her blouse.

After I had handed out the last one, I noticed a flurry of energy at the back of the crowd. An old woman pushed to the front to join the circle of maidens. Dark eyes boring into me, she unfolded her hands toward me, placing them inches from my chest. This four-foot ten-inch, hundred-pound crone commanded my attention!

Deep-set, wizened eyes with a glint of wildness were set in a tiny wrinkled face. Her hair, surprisingly brown with just a touch of gray at the temples, was tied in a peasant scarf. She smiled at me, her mouth filled with blackened teeth, some missing. “I don’t have any more. I gave the last one away,” I said regretfully, knowing she couldn’t understand English. Once more she poked a girl’s jeweled chest with her finger, then my chest, and finally her own. I panicked. Then I caught a glimpse of the mala bracelet of amber-colored beads on my right wrist, the one I’d received during the ceremony in which I’d expressed my aspirations to join the Order of Interbeing. Receiving the mala had touched me so deeply that I hadn’t taken it off since. Taking her hand in mine, I rolled the mala from my wrist and gently placed it on hers.

She lifted her hand, looking at the mala, looking at me, looking at the maidens. Then she stretched out her arm, bent her wrist and displayed her bracelet to the maidens and villagers watching. Spiraling playfully in a circle like a princess revealing royal jewels to her audience, she embodied both the maiden and the crone.

As we prepared to leave, the crone followed me to the bus, standing at the door to hug me and kiss my hand. I looked into her eyes and saw her love and gratitude. I kissed her hand in return, grateful that she had helped me transform a piece of my grief from my mother’s passing and led me to a deeper understanding of the nature of interbeing.

mb40-TheMaidens2

Janey Gieber, Inclusive Intention of the Heart, practices with the Braided Way Sangha in Battle Ground, Washington.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Karma, Continuation, and the Noble Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear friends. Today is August 5, 2005. We’re in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village on the last day of our summer session.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Today I would like to speak about reincarnation, rebirth, and continuation. If we look at an orange tree we can see that it makes an effort every day to have a long continuation. Every day the orange tree makes leaves, and in the spring it makes orange flowers, which become tiny oranges. In those oranges are seeds, and that is how the orange tree assures its continuation. The orange tree has to continue.

And we do, too. We are humans and it is a natural tendency to prepare ourselves to continue. So continuation, rebirth, reincarnation is normal. How do we continue ourselves? This question begins our meditation together. Every time you produce a thought, that thought is a continuation. That thought will have effects on us, on our body, our mind, and on the world. The effect of that thought is our continuation. Producing a thought is the cause; the effect is how that thought impacts us and the world.

mb41-dharma2

To think is an action. Because the thought may be very strong, it may be painful, it can modify our body, it can change our mind, it can change the world. So thought is a form of action.

In Buddhism we use the word karma. Karma is action, action as cause and action as fruit. When action is a cause, we call it karmahetu. The Chinese word for karmahetu contains the character for karma and a character that means “seed.” When we produce a thought, the production of the thought is a karmahetu, karma-cause. That thought will have an effect on our mental and physical health and on the health of the world. And that health, good or bad, is the fruit of the karma, the fruit of the thought. Karmaphala is the karma-fruit. So karma is action, action in the cause and action in the fruit.

Right Thinking

When we produce a thought, we have to ensure that the thought is a good thought, a right thought, because if it is, it will bring us physical and mental health, and it will help the world to heal itself. Our practice is to try to live in such a way that every day we produce only good thoughts, thoughts in the direction of right thinking. We have to train ourselves to do that. A bad thought can destroy the physical and moral health of ourselves and of the world. So we have to be careful to produce only good thoughts.

Right thinking is recommended to all of us by the Buddha. It’s action in the form of thought. Each time we produce a thought, that thought carries our signature. You cannot say, “No, I didn’t produce that thought.” That is karma. Karma-cause, karma-fruit. If it is a cause, it will lead to a fruit—the fruit will be bitter or the fruit will be sweet, depending on the nature of the karma.

Right Speech

First, we have to understand that thinking is action. When we say some thing, that speech will have an effect on our body, on our mind, and on the world. Good speech will give us joy and health — physical and moral health — and it will change the world in the direction of goodness. We should produce right speech, which inspires understanding, joy, hope, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Your speech is the seed, it is the cause. And what it produces in you and in the world is the karmaphala, the karma-fruit. Action as cause and action as fruit.

mb41-dharma3

Sometimes action-fruit manifests immediately after the action-cause. Sometimes it takes months or years before it leads to a result, but sooner or later the cause must become the effect.

Right Action

The third kind of action is the physical act, the act carried out by the body. With the body you can do things. You can kill a person, you can kill an animal, you can kill a tree. You can save a person, you can save an animal, you can save a tree. The Buddha recommends right action because the action will have an effect on your physical and moral health as well as the world’s. We have to ensure that our actions are in the direction of right action.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher in the existential tradition. He said that man is the sum of his actions. When a child is born, he hasn’t acted yet, so he cannot be defined. But as the man begins to act, we can look at his actions and see the man. Man is defined by his acts. What Jean-Paul Sartre said is very close to Buddhism.

But Sartre’s declaration was not detailed enough, because we need to include thoughts. Our speech comes from what we are thinking; thinking is at the base of all speech and of all action. We may say that man is the sum of his thoughts, his words, and his acts. I think that Jean-Paul Sartre would agree, because in using the word “acts” he meant to include thinking and speech. Thinking as action, speech as action.

Thoughts, speech, and action create karma, and we produce this energy every moment of our daily life. You continue to say things, you continue to do things, and every thought, every word, every act of yours carries your signature. And that is your continuation. It is never lost.

The scientist Lavoisier, said, “Nothing is lost.” He’s a Buddhist, essentially. Nothing is created, nothing is lost. What you have produced as thoughts, as speech, as acts, continues to influence the world, and that is your continuation. Your continuation is your rebirth and your reincarnation. Nothing is lost. So you have to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

We want to continue in beauty. And we know that in order to continue in beauty we have to ensure that our thoughts are right thoughts, our speech is right speech, and our acts are right action. These are three branches of the Noble Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.

Right View

What is right view? Right view is our way of understanding the world; it brings insight into the ultimate reality. We are so often the victims of wrong views, and based on wrong views we create suffering for ourselves and others. So we have to avoid wrong views, wrong perceptions. If we continue to suffer because of violence and terrorism, it is because we need right view. The terrorists have a wrong view of themselves and of others, and the anti-terrorists also have wrong views about themselves and about the terrorists. Based on wrong views, we keep killing each other, so we have to look more deeply to obtain right view. With right view we will be able to stop the violence and terrorism. Right view is the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action, and that is why the Buddha began with right view.

The Buddha describes right view in a precise, deep, and clear way. A right view reflects wisdom, the nature of existence.

Impermanence

For example, the Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, of phenomena, and other wise men have also spoken of this. For example, Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly changing. It is a fact that everything changes. Right view goes in tandem with the insight of impermanence. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have right view we don’t suffer, and we can create happiness.

mb41-dharma4

This is not just philosophy, it is life. For example, when you have difficulties with your partner, and you are about to argue with each other, the Buddha would say to you, “Dear friends, close your eyes. Imagine your beloved in three hundred years. What will she become?” When you can see what happens three hundred years from now, you see that it’s not wise to argue, because life is impermanent. If you can touch impermanence, when you open your eyes you will no longer be angry. You’re saved, because of the insight of impermanence.

Intellectually, maybe you agree that things are impermanent, but in your practical life, you act as if things are permanent. The Buddha does not speak of impermanence as a philosophy, but as a practice. We should practice concentration on impermanence. For example, all day, when you look, when you listen to something, you should get in touch with the insight on impermanence.

Looking at a flower, you see that it is impermanent. Looking at a person, you see that he or she is impermanent. So the insight on impermanence stays with us all the time, and that is why it is not a theory, but a concentration. It is the concentration on impermanence that will save you, and not the idea of impermanence.

With mindfulness we can keep the insight on impermanence alive and that will protect us from producing wrong thinking or wrong speech. So right view is the view that contains the nature of impermanence.

Non-self

We imagine that every person has a separate soul that remains the same forever, even as the body ages and decomposes. This is a wrong view, because it goes against the truth of impermanence. Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. So if we accept the reality of impermanence, we have to also accept the truth of non-self.

Impermanence is seen from the perspective of time. The same thing viewed from the perspective of space is non-self. Non-self and impermanence are the same thing.

When the son sees the father as a different person, as someone who has caused a lot of suffering and difficulty for him, he wants to punish his father with his words and actions. He doesn’t know that to make his dad suffer is to make himself suffer at the same time. You need to understand that you and your dad share the same reality. You are the continuation of your dad. If your dad suffers, you will also suffer, and if you can help your dad not to suffer, then your happiness will be possible. With the insight of non-self we can avoid many mistakes, because non-self translates into right view.

Terrorists and anti-terrorists think of themselves as two different entities. The anti-terrorist says, “We must punish the terrorist, we have to eliminate him.” And the terrorist also thinks that the other person is the cause of the suffering in the world, and in order to survive, he has to be eliminated. They don’t know that they are the same.

All the parties in a conflict have to understand the insight of non-self. If the other side continues to suffer, if there’s no safety, peace, or understanding on the other side, there won’t be safety, peace, or understanding on our side. When both sides realize that they inter-are, when they touch the nature of non-self, then there will be right view. With right view we will think, speak, and act in the right way, and then safety can become a reality. Right view is a view of reality that translates into impermanence, non-self, and interbeing.

Interbeing

When we look deeply into a flower we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds, manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. So when I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud, touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. With the eye of the Buddha, we see the clouds and the rain in the flower. And we can touch the sun, without burning our fingers. Without the sun nothing can grow, so we cannot take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be separate; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.

The same is true for me, for you, and for the Buddha. The Buddha has to inter-be with everything. Interbeing and non-self are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily life we can touch the truth of interbeing, of non-self in every moment. You are in touch with the clouds, with the rain, with the children, with the trees, with the rivers, and that contact reveals the true nature of reality, the nature of impermanence, the nature of interbeing, of non-self, of interdependence. If you can touch reality like that, you will have right view. And when you have right view, all your thoughts will be right, all your words will be right, and all your actions will be right.

This is why cultivating right view is the basis of the practice of Buddhism. And we can practice as an individual, as a community, as a city, as a nation. If we are shut in the prison of permanence, of self, we cannot obtain right view. In order to cultivate right view, we have to have concentration. We have plenty of intelligence to understand the notions of impermanence and non-self but the notions do not help us. That’s why we have to train ourselves to see things in their true nature. We have to keep this insight alive in every moment. That is why concentration is very important.

Right Concentration

The Sanskrit word for right concentration is samadhi. The notions of impermanence and non-self are useful, but they are not powerful enough to liberate you, to give you a right view. So you have to have concentration. Samadhi prajna is right view, insight, which is at the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action. But to cultivate prajna we have to practice concentration. We have to live in concentration, to touch deeply into things in every moment. We live deeply when we can see the nature of impermanence, of non-self, and of interbeing in the flower, and we can do this thanks to the practice of concentration. Without samadhi there is no prajna, there is no insight. So concentration is a door that opens onto the ultimate reality. It gives us right view.

Right Mindfulness

But before we can have concentration, we have to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is smrti.

Mindfulness is the energy that can help us bring the mind back to the body so that we can establish ourselves in the present moment. In that way we can look at the blue sky. We can look at the clouds. We can look at the child who is sitting in front of us. And we touch deeply the wonders of life. That’s mindfulness.

mb41-dharma5

Mindfulness is the capacity of recognizing what is happening in the present moment. When pain manifests, we will be able to embrace that pain, in order to transform it. With strong mindfulness, we can realize the Kingdom of God is available, and the joy of living is possible.

Andre Gide said that God is happiness. I like that. And he said, “God is available twenty-four hours a day.” I also agree with him on that. If God is available twenty-four hours a day, then His kingdom is also available. The only question is whether we are available for the Kingdom of God, available for happiness. Mindfulness makes us available to the Kingdom of God, to the wonders of life that are here, in the present moment. I know there are many Buddhists in France, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Andre Gide, and the scientist Lavoisier.

Mindfulness is what we practice in Plum Village. We walk in such a way that every step produces mindfulness. When we breathe, when we wash our hands, when we cook, we do all that in mindfulness. Generating the energy of mindfulness is the basic practice because mindfulness is the carrier, the bringer of concentration.

When you are mindful of something, you are concentrated. The energy of concentration is in the mindfulness. As you continue, that concentration will become stronger and stronger. With vigorous concentration you can make a breakthrough into reality, and then you can touch impermanence as a reality. You can touch interbeing, non-self.

The Buddha began with right view, but I would like to begin with mindfulness.

Right Livelihood

Then we have right livelihood, our work, our job. The Five Mindfulness Trainings instruct us to choose a livelihood that will help us produce right thoughts, right words, and right actions. Unfortunately, there are kinds of work that harm us, that harm the environment, that bring violence. We have to look with mindfulness, to see what kind of work to have, so that we will be able to practice right thinking, right speech, and right action in our work.

Schoolteachers can practice in such a way that their thoughts, their words, and their actions nourish their students every moment of the day. The children in their class may have a lot of suffering. Perhaps their parents have not offered them enough of the appropriate kinds of food. They have not had the chance to receive right thinking, right speech, and right actions, and they’ve been wounded.

As a teacher, you look at the child and you see the suffering. And you know with right thinking, right speech, and right action you will be able to heal the child’s wounds. You have the ability to give that child a second chance by playing the role of the dad, the mom, for the child. The class can become a family. If you’re a doctor or a therapist, you can do the same thing. If you have understanding and compassion, you have a lot of power because when people come to you, your right thoughts will help heal people. You can help them because you have healed yourself by developing the energy of understanding and compassion.

The Buddha spoke of right livelihood, not only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Right livelihood helps you produce right thinking and right speech. We need to take the time to look at our work, to see whether it supports us in producing right thinking and right speech every day.

Good thoughts always go with understanding and love. An occupation that causes you to produce thoughts of anger and of discrimination is not good for your health or for the health of the world. You may have to accept another form of work with a lower salary that will give you the chance to generate good thoughts and good speech. It’s possible to live in a healthier, happier way. If you have right view, you will have enough courage to stop the course of violence and of attachment. So right livelihood is very important, and we can define this in terms of right thinking, right speech, and right action.

Right Effort

The eighth is right diligence, right effort. The Buddha taught how to cultivate and take care of our energy, and he also taught how to practice conserving energy. In Buddhist psychology, we see our consciousness as having two layers. The lower layer is called the store. It’s always operating, even in our sleep. The store receives information and classifies it, and it makes a lot of decisions without the intervention of the mind consciousness, which is the upper layer.

When you drive a car you think it’s the mind consciousness that is driving, but actually a large part of the work is done by the store, without our conscious thinking. When you do your everyday work, the store plays an important role.

When the store operates, it takes less metabolic energy than the mind does. The mind consciousness takes a lot more sugar, glycogen, and protein to work. At the level of the store things are done very quickly and inexpensively, so most things are handled by the store and the mind consciousness does just the final part. In the store many seeds are buried, good seeds and bad seeds. The seed of anger is there. The seed of despair is there. The seed of meanness, the seed of compassion, are there. The seed of joy is there. So to cultivate right effort the Buddha proposed four practices.

Four Practices for Cultivating Right Effort

The first practice is, don’t water the bad seeds. You know that there are negative seeds in you, and if they manifest, you will suffer. So let them sleep peacefully. When you watch a film, when you read a newspaper, when you listen to music, there is a chance that a seed will be watered and will manifest. We have to consume in mindfulness so that the bad seeds are not watered. When we love each other we have to sign a peace treaty. “Darling, I promise never to water the bad seeds in you or in me, and you have to do the same. You have those seeds. You must not water them in you, and don’t water them in me.”

The second practice is that every time a bad mental formation manifests, we have to make it go back to sleep, because if we keep it here too long, then it strengthens down in the base. If we leave it up in the mind for an hour, then that seed has an hour of strengthening. It’s dangerous.

The third practice is to allow the good seeds to be watered so they have a chance to manifest in the mind. For example, a Dharma talk is a kind of rain that can water the good seeds in you. When they manifest in the mind consciousness, the landscape will be much more beautiful.

The fourth practice is when the good seed has already manifested, we help it to stay in the mind consciousness as long as possible. Like when you have a friend who comes to visit bringing good news, you try to keep that friend with you as long as possible.

That is the teaching of the Buddha on right effort, diligence, and conserving energy. It’s very concrete and practical and is done in a natural, relaxed way. We don’t need to fight or struggle; we don’t have to make exhausting efforts. Naturally and with a lot of pleasure, we can enjoy the practice.

These are the eight right practices representing the Noble Eightfold Path proposed by the Buddha to all of us. If a teaching can reveal the Noble Path, it is an authentic teaching of the Buddha.

The Right View of Reincarnation

Continuation is happening now, because every day you continue to produce thoughts, words, and actions that carry your signature. We don’t have to wait until this body decomposes to continue.

Most people think of reincarnation in terms of a permanent soul. This is popular Buddhism. But we have to rise to the level of right view. Continuation is a necessity, it is a truth. But this continuation must be seen in the light of non-self, of impermanence.

If, for example, you want to recognize my continuation, do not look in this direction. [Thay points to himself.] There is a part of my continuation in this direction, but when you look all around you, you will see other forms of the continuation. So don’t wait for the body to decompose. We’ve already begun our continuation. You know that you have the power to change. You can ensure a beautiful continuation. Let’s suppose that yesterday you produced a thought that was not worthy of you, and today you’re sorry. You think, “I don’t want to be continued in that way.” You can correct it, you can transform that continuation.

If you have touched right view, you will be able to produce a different thought, a thought that is worthy of you today, a thought that carries within it understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. The moment you produce this wonderful thought, it will go out and catch the other thought that you produced yesterday. And in the space of half a second it will be able to transform that thought.

So you have the chance to correct the past; this is wonderful. We say that the past is already gone, but the past is always returning with its new manifestations, and with those manifestations we can correct it.

If you have said something that’s not worthy of you, say something else today, and that will transform everything. Do something different today based on right view and transform the whole situation. That is possible.

If you have a Sangha that supports you, if you are supported by the collective right view, then it’s very easy to produce such thoughts, such words, such actions, to transform everything right now, today, to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

The teaching of the Buddha is very deep, and at the same time very practical. This teaching has the capacity to heal us, to transform our pain, our fear. It’s good to have enough time to learn more about these teachings and put them into practice in our daily life.

Translated from the French by Sr. Pine Tree.
Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Janelle Combelic.

PDF of this article

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

Poem: The Woman, Planting

mb41-TheWoman1Shaded
by her conical
palm leaf hat,
she squats beside the road,
oblivious to traffic
and me,
digging the dry dirt
with bare hands—
no shovel, no spade,
no tool of any kind
in evidence—
just skin and fingernails
and fierce determination.
I pass her,
walking,
aware of my incongruity—
a red-haired American Buddhist
in Hanoi,
dressed in traditional
temple robe,
placing each step mindfully
on the rutted path,
alert to maniacal motorcyclists
emerging from morning mist.
No smile,
no glance
flickers between us,
each intent
on our appointed tasks.
mb41-TheWoman2How then to explain
or describe
the shock of recognition,
the explosion of insight?
I do not see her
as someone like me,
or myself
as someone like her.
I see her AS me.
We merge into one.
Showing no outer indication
of the cataclysmic event,
I walk on,
shaded
by my palm leaf hat,
tool-less,
save for deft hands
and the determined vow
to plant
a garden of peace
in the war-torn country
of my heart.

Emily Whittle

PDF of this article

Poem: Gratitude to the Sangha

mb41-Gratitude1

I remember your feet that April day—
Barefoot, sandaled—
Slowly, tenderly touching that sweet portion of prairie.
Someone said later that we must have kissed
A hundred varieties of sprouting grasses
And tiny blooms, and clover, and colorful weeds that day—
Kissed the prairie with our feet.

The wind blew hard that day, too—remember?
It wore us out and charged us up all at the same time.
We came inside breathless and needing to settle,
And we did.
We breathed, feeling a quiet prairie wind move through our bones.

Gratitude to the Sangha.
I remember bits and pieces of that day
And many other days and nights—
Sweet walks inside on the mat of the dojo.
And I remember your faces—
Animated in sharing, tranquil in meditation.

Gratitude to the Sangha.
You are always here—when I see you and when I don’t.
You are my groundedness in place and time,
My home, my boat in flood waters.

And the most wondrous thing about you
Is that you are growing.
You now include the sky, the wind, the water,
Beings large and small, beautiful and ugly,
Healthy and suffering.
Something in your generosity opens my heart.
I can embrace more. I see the same in you.

Gratitude to the Sangha.
Each of you has something to teach me—
Learnings so treasured, so useful.
Gratitude to the Sangha.
The Eternal Mystery has given us to each other—rare gift.
And in our gratitude we give this gift again and again
Wherever we show up in the world.
The gift multiplies and the sum is past figuring.
Its power is beyond measure.
Every human needs this kind of community.
So, our joy-filled work will never end.
There will be no unemployment for the Sangha.

And even on those days
When we might feel our role is small
Or our efforts feeble,
We can always stop, breathe,
Watch our feet touch prairie grass,
Feel prairie wind move through our bones,
And say with a whole heart
“Gratitude to the Sangha.”

Pat Webb, True Mountain of Action

PDF of this article

Joyful Purpose of the Heart

By Annie Mahon

mb42-Joyful1

When I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha many years ago, I was given the dharma name “Joyful Purpose of the Heart.” At the time I didn’t think much about it. Frankly, the name didn’t mean much to me. Joyful Purpose? I had no idea what my joyful purpose might be. I had been practicing mindfulness in a personal way, meditating by myself and reading books on mindfulness. As a result, my life had been changing slowly. For example, I found myself having more patience for my kids and a sense of calm inside myself. But I did not feel there was any purpose to my life. I was living life aimlessly.

After the events of September 11, everything changed. As I listened to the coverage of the crashes, I felt a sense of compassion and courage growing inside of me. Suddenly, interbeing—the idea that every one of us is intimately connected to one another—was a concrete reality rather than an abstract concept.

mb42-Joyful2

My own need for Sangha surfaced as I sought the support of other people who could see the interbeing in this event and find the connection between the victims and the terrorists. I began to sit regularly with the Stillwater Mindfulness Group in Maryland. I needed the support of other people for my growing mindfulness and to be in an emotionally safe place. By joining fully in the Sangha, I made the decision that mindfulness was my life path, and I began to live from this foundation.

Around the same time I began to understand that living life aimlessly was not about living with no aim, but rather about living without attachment to the outcome of our actions. In the

Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “Do thy work in the peace of yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure… In the bonds of works I am free, because in them I am free from desires.” I began to think that it might be okay to express my creativity through my work and even to do it with joy.

Teaching Peace

I knew there was something I could do to transform the growing anger and mutual misunderstanding that led to the events of September 11. I had a talent for teaching children, and my study and practice of mindfulness and my relationship with Thay gave me insights into peace and conflict resolution.

On September 14, I sent an e-mail to Coleman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist turned peace activist, asking how I could get involved in teaching peace and conflict resolution in the Washington, D.C. public schools. His organization got me in touch with Marsha Blakeway who works with the public schools’ peer mediation and conflict resolution programs. Marsha happily became my peace mentor, and I immediately began to assist her with peer mediation meetings at Alice Deal Junior High.

I also contacted my son’s third grade teacher and asked if she would be interested in having me teach a weekly conflict resolution class. I had no experience in this area, but I had books and I had my new mentor and I had my mindfulness practice. With these tools I was able to fabricate a wonderful class in which I used games, literature, discussion, and dramatization to help third graders learn how to resolve disputes peacefully.

At the end of my first month of teaching, I was approached by another third grade teacher to teach in her classroom. During the first year, I often wondered whether the kids were getting anything out of the class. Then one day, my son had a friend over to visit. Both of them were in my conflict class at the time. When my son did something that irritated me, I began to scold him. His friend said, “Annie, use your ‘I’ language.” I had taught them to do this in our conflict class, and he not only remembered it, but also applied it to real life. After that, I worried much less about the impact of my teaching.

Making Little Yoginis

In the fall of 2002, I saw a notice for a program training people how to teach yoga to kids. I had long been a yogini and had experience in the connection between the mind and the body. Kids especially live in and through their bodies and their ability to stay centered depends on this connection. As we teach children how to think rationally, they begin to lose this grounding, and I think this can cause children—and adults—to become physically and mentally ill.

During the last day of the training, I was asked to teach a free yoga class for children with two of my fellow students. We gave a forty-five minute class to seven kids, ages eight to twelve. What surprised me was that the students liked the relaxation part of class best. These kids really needed the time and space to relax. They are often busy all day at school and afterwards with activities, and then they usually watch TV or use the computer.

After the training, I approached the owner of a small exercise studio where I took classes and asked if I could teach a yoga class for kids. They were happy to try it. I also decided to offer an after-school class at the local elementary school. That class was so popular I ended up offering two classes after school, each class filled with twelve students.

After a while I realized that part of the experience for kids was having a kid-friendly, aesthetically pleasing space. So I decided to open a yoga studio for kids. In March, 2003 I opened Budding Yogis, Mindful Yoga Studio for Kids.

A Mindful Business

My practice is to stay open to what the world, my students, and coworkers need; to express my creativity without becoming attached to the outcome; to create a space for myself and the community; and to remember that the connections—interbeing—are what matter. The business supports the vision.

At long last my dharma name begins to make sense. Now I understand what it means to have—to be—Joyful Purpose of the Heart.

Annie Mahon, Joyful Purpose of the Heart, practices with the Stillwater Mindfulness Practice Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. She has four wonderful and sometimes stressed-out children of her own.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

PDF of this article

Heart to Heart

 

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on the Second Mindfulness Training (of the Five). For the Autumn 2007 issue, we invite you to write on the Third; please send your submissions, under 500 words, to editor@mindfulnessbell.org by July 1, 2007.

mb45-Heart1

The Second Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

mb45-Heart2

Aware of the realities of today’s global economy, I realize that as a U.S. citizen it is impossible for me to live without stealing from and exploiting someone else somewhere in the world. Though I try to live and consume mindfully, I know that my own lifestyle rests on the exploitation of others. It is, for instance, almost impossible to buy clothes not made in sweatshops, where the workers (mostly young women of color) are treated mercilessly — forced to work twelve-to sixteen-hour days, six to seven days a week; paid a pittance that is sometimes not even enough to live on; sometimes forced to work unpaid overtime; subject to sexual harassment by their bosses; and forbidden to form labor unions that might empower them to work for better conditions. Most likely, the computer on which I write this was also made under such conditions, as were many of the other things I use in my daily life. In order to cultivate mindfulness of these grim realities, when I put on my clothes in the morning, I look at the tags on my clothing to see where they were made. Then I try to visualize the workers, while reciting this gatha: “As I get dressed, I remember with gratitude those who made my clothes, and with compassion, the conditions under which they work.”

I do try to consume mindfully and ethically where I can–buying recycled paper goods, ecologically friendly cleaning products, cage-free eggs, leather-free shoes — but there are limits to what I can do as an individual. Understanding interbeing, I see that many of my choices are conditioned by the larger global society of which we are all a part. I cannot buy products that were not made in sweatshops if they are not available to me when I go shopping — unavailable, because our economy is built on the principle of maximizing profits ahead of human and ecological needs. It is a race to the bottom, where corporations compete with each other, scouring the world for ever cheaper labor, and thirdworld governments compete with each other to attract business by providing this ever cheaper labor. Even my ability to buy those ethically sound products that I can rests on my own economic privilege, the fact that I can afford to spend a little extra money and such economic privilege inevitably rests on a system where others lack such privilege, living lives of poverty and exploitation. Understanding interbeing, I see that however mindful my actions, I still participate in a society based on theft and exploitation.

Understanding interbeing, I see that if I wish to live a life where I and others do not steal from and exploit others, it is not enough to look at my own individual choices when I go shopping. We must work together, collectively, to change the shape of our global society — to create an economy where, at the very least, everyone has a job where they are paid a living wage, treated with dignity, and allowed to form unions that can give collective voice to their concerns. The public good must be given greater priority than private profit. Only then will we all be able to live in a way that we do not have to steal from and exploit others.

Matthew S. Williams
Reverent Joy of the Heart
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

mb45-Heart2

Thay often says that if you have never gone hungry, you won’t appreciate the value of food. You take your safety, your freedom to move around, for granted. When you live behind locked doors, and don’t feel safe on the streets or walking in the countryside alone, then you know how valuable is the freedom to move around safely. This is not a freedom that we enjoy in our country, South Africa.

I live in a country where it is not safe to leave your doors open. You normally lock your doors when you go out, but we have to keep them locked even when we are at home, because this is the best time for criminals — they don’t have to break and enter –they just enter. This is not a nice way to live — behind bars in a kind of private prison to keep you safe in your own home.

mb45-Heart3

We have one of the highest crime rates in the world, and much of it is violent crime. The situation in South Africa has come to be because of the past history and collective karma that we have created. Everybody knows the story of Apartheid. The past is past, but it is still with us in the present moment. We have to work very hard to change it and to create a better future. We have undergone major transformation in our country under the bodhisattva Nelson Mandela, but social change takes much longer than political change.

We live in a hard country, and it can make you a hard person, or it can soften you and make you more compassionate. I used to be hard and uncaring before I encountered the Dharma. Since then I am constantly trying to increase my compassion, open my heart wider, and become a bodhisattva. I think of the bodhisattvas who go to the darkest places in order to help, and sometimes it feels like this path was given to me by default. “Darkest Africa” is my home, and many bodhisattvas are needed on this continent, which is plagued by tribal wars, famine, AIDS, poverty, and crime.

As aspiring bodhisattvas, there are many teachings to help us cultivate our capacity to love:

  • The teaching on Buddha nature: All beings are the same, we all have the same potential, we all want happiness and don’t want suffering.
  • The teaching on cause and effect: We take responsibility for what we are experiencing without blaming others. It is our own karma; we are reaping what we sowed. Even if we personally did nothing in this particular lifetime, we may have contributed through our non-action, our apathy.
  • The teaching on dependent origination: Everything depends on causes and conditions. Nobody is inherently “bad” — people act in certain ways because of causes and conditions that are often beyond their control. This understanding helps us to cultivate compassion, to open the door of our heart so that we can love instead of hate. Thay’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names” about the sea pirate, helped me a lot. Here is an excerpt:

I am the 12 year< old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open
the door of compassion.

These wonderful teachings help us to transform our minds, our emotions, our ways of being. We do this for ourselves and for the world, to relieve ourselves of suffering and to create a better world in the future because happiness and suffering are universal. I know that if you suffer, you will make me suffer. We know that if we exploit people or take unfair advantage of them, oppress them, discriminate against them on grounds of race, culture, religion, gender, we are committing a kind of theft — we are stealing their dignity to be who they are. This will make them suffer and it will make us suffer, because one day their suffering will impact on our lives and become our suffering as well.

We are all creators. We are creating all the time. We are responsible for creating the kind of world that we live in, and this is why the Mindfulness Trainings are so important. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can create a better future based on love not fear, on giving not getting, on helping not harming, on supporting not exploiting, on building up not breaking down, on creating the conditions for happiness not suffering. Then we can all live in the Pure Land. The Buddha said:

If you want to know your past lives,
Look into your present condition.
If you want to know your future,
Look into your present actions.

Carol Leela Verity
True Stream of Light
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

PDF of this article

Poem: Rising Steam

mb46-Rising1Steam rises from the water
On a cold winter day.
The past is past,
But always in the present.
This moment contains:
My grandfather mining for coal,
My father in the War,
My son’s life,
My son’s death,
The birth of Jesus.
And yet I am just breathing
And sitting here.
This moment contains the future
From now on
Determining its way.
And yet I am just breathing
And walking here.
As I breathe
The steam,
Once the snow,
Once the ocean,
Rises, now on its way
On a cold winter day.

—Stan Voreyer

PDF of this article

The Leaves of One Tree

By Le Thu Thuy

mb48-TheLeaves1

When we arrived, the hallway in the Claymont Court building was filled with light. It was a cold, windy, winter night and the retreatants came in wearing heavy winter jackets. We hugged each other with deep breaths and beaming smiles. At dinner time, the sound of a gentle bell rang, subduing all noise and motion. The whole room became a completely quiet place. We had our first meal in silence.

Before long, [Dharma teacher] Anh Huong appeared and sat in front of my husband and me. She gave us a gentle, motherly smile, and expressed her appreciation to my husband for driving me here. Anh Huong suggested that, as soon as we finished dinner, he should head home to be with our three teenagers, and assured him that I would be safe during my stay.

Being Nurtured in Body and Soul

As Anh Huong promised, I was safe and well taken care of. I was pampered with fresh country air, well fed with organic vegetarian food, and accompanied by gentle friendship. I noticed that the head cook often joined us in the sitting and indoor walking meditation. This time, she also joined us for the Touching the Earth meditation and sat next to me. At the end, Anh Huong carefully guided us through Hugging Meditation. We hugged each other in three long breaths of respect, appreciation, and love. The cook hugged the person on her right, then me, and by that time her eyes and mine were filled with tears. She carried the aromas of the foods that she had prepared. This fragrance touched my heart and carried my memory back to the cozy days in Vietnam, when I was awakened by the smell of the wonderful foods that my mother cooked for the Vietnamese New Year festival. In silence, I thanked the cook for all her tasteful and nourishing food. She was not just a cook, but a dear sister making meals for us. Some of her desserts were incredibly delicious. She baked the best brownies that I have ever tasted; I swallowed them slowly and savored each small bite.

On this three-day weekend retreat, I could do what I could not find the opportunity to do in my busy life — my mind and heart were with the food and drink in each meal. I loved to hold a cup of tea with both hands and let its heat warm my cold hands. I slowly drank one sip at a time. I felt the tea being absorbed gently by the tiny cells of my whole body. As the night came, and in the silence of the warm companionship of my two roommates, I quickly fell asleep. It was more like a vacation than a religious retreat as I actually had the time and space to rest.

A Daughter in a Confucian Home

Within the Sangha’s cradle, I allowed myself to be fragile. The little wounded girl inside of me had a chance to breathe, to sob, and to ask for compassion and acceptance. In her Dharma talks Anh Huong showed us how to practice no-self by looking at our hands. Using mindful and compassionate breathing, we looked deeply at our ancestors’ traits that exist in each vessel of our hands. Joining her invitation, I found my own suffering intertwined with my ancestors’ torments. By deeply contemplating the past, I recognized my mother, the only daughter of a well-established family that was deeply influenced by the teachings of Confucius.

My mother grew up with her voice being ignored and her presence considered irrelevant. In that culture, a daughter was worth nothing because her father believed that she would soon belong to another family when she married; he would invest very little in her education. My mother had a fifth-grade education — her younger brothers went to college abroad and later became a doctor, a professor, and a law enforcement officer.

I was more fortunate. My parents worked very hard to give me the best education in Saigon. Witnessing the lack of education and mistreatment that his only sister endured, my father offered me the same opportunities, attention, affection, and love that my brothers received.

Because we did not carry my mother’s family name, my siblings and I were often treated as outsiders by her father. Sadly, no one was aware of the seeds of unworthiness that played a big part in my mother’s identity and were quietly being passed on to her children. I often felt insecure and left out, while my siblings set ambitious goals to establish their own identities and reputation, perhaps as a way to mask their feelings of being rejected. We may achieve wealth and certain positions in our society, but we are often lost in coping with our frustration and resentment toward the maternal family.

I learned that the collective karma is much more powerful than I realized. As I consider my own past and my present way of living, I realize that I fill my days with activities to expand my intellect, to make acquaintances, to earn a comfortable living, and to help others, without realizing that the deep seeds in my consciousness are controlling my thoughts, my speech, and my actions. My knowledge of Buddhism and Christianity, including the satisfaction of doing good deeds, was not effective in reducing the potentially destructive effects of negative emotions. But in calmness and mindfulness, the Buddha’s wisdom and the Sangha’s compassion helped to shed light on this dark corner of mine.

My Grandfather’s Secret Love

I remembered spending many summer nights at my grandfather’s home. He had shown his care and love for me in private. He boiled hot water for me to bathe, told me stories of his childhood with his younger sister, his love for the first wife who died young while giving birth to their first son, read books, and instilled in me a love for literature and history. I no longer blame him for not being able to display that soft, gentle part of himself in public. I now understand that many men of his generation, living in such a culture, would not have known how to behave any differently. My resentment was melting away as my heart filled with his love for me and mine for him.

Walking on this path of understanding and love makes my soul soft and cleansed. Mistakes and regrets are a part of the past, while hope and happiness are right here under my steps.

Healing the Past

We live six hundred miles away from where my grandfather was buried twenty years ago. I never went to visit his grave. Modern transportation offered many opportunities to do so, but for many years, I have down-played the importance of such a visit and often found good excuses for not doing so.

Since I got back from this retreat, the newly found understanding and love for my grandfather made me, for the first time, want to visit his resting place. My husband drove my mom and me to Canada to visit his family and my uncle, who liked the idea that all of us would visit my grandfather. My uncle drove his wife, my first cousin, my mother, my husband, and me to the cemetery. He and my husband had a bonding talk in the front seat while my mom and I caught up on the stories of our lives with my aunt and my cousin in the back. We had a lovely time during the ride. It was a cold, windy day at the graveyard, but I dressed properly for the weather and felt warmed by the family love and reconnection. I stood in front of my grandfather’s grave and lit the incense. With mindful breaths, I first expressed my gratitude and respect for all the ancestors and then offered my wholesome feelings to my grandfather.

As we left the cemetery, a new chapter in the account of my maternal family tree was being written. It would record the fact that my grandfather has always been in me and will always be in my descendants. The DNA will always support this and nobody can deny or alter this fact. Gender, last name, and success will not signify how we relate to each other; real blood, true love, and a deep understanding will. Each individual has their own place in the universe. My experience proves that by deeply understanding the past and mindfully living in the present moment, it is possible to transform past mistakes and change the course of the present and future.

To Live as One

We’re all the leaves of one tree,
We’re all the leaves of one tree,
The time has come for all to live as one
We’re all the leaves of one tree

Lately, each time I sing that song with the Sangha, I see that my grandfather is joyfully singing it with me and we let each word sink deeply into each vessel of our body. Nothing could take us apart! I am a leaf of one tree just like my grandfather is and we are “falling gracefully without regrets” into the cradle of the Three Jewels.

Le Tmb48-TheLeaves2hu Thuy, Opening of the Awakening Heart, has been practicing for many years with the Boat of Compassion Sangha and the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia (MPCF) Sangha.

PDF of this article

To Draw a Zen Circle

By Maureen Chen

mb65-ToDraw1

“Calligraphy is a deep practice,” says Thay. To do calligraphy as a meditation practice, you do not need the ink, brushes, and rice paper that Thay uses. Any pen, pencil, or marker and any paper, such as the paper in your computer printer, will do.

To draw a Zen circle, first set the point of your pen, pencil, or marker on your paper where you want the bottom of your circle to be. As you breathe in, draw the first half of the circle. As you breathe out, draw the other half.

In this meditation practice, you can coordinate your drawing with your breathing so that you draw a complete circle in the duration of one in-breath and one out-breath. Whether your circle is perfectly round or not is unimportant, as long as you practice with mindfulness and concentration. Those who do Thay’s mindful movements will recognize this practice as similar to movement #4, making circles in the air with the arms, except that the circles are smaller and are made on paper.

You can choose to write a meaningful word or phrase in your circle. Still being aware of your breathing, write in your normal handwriting, mindfully taking the time and effort needed to make each letter beautiful.

While Thay’s exhibition is part of history, he has given us this new practice. Says Thay, “When you practice calligraphy, you can touch the insight of no-self, of interbeing, because you cannot be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with the whole cosmos. And that is why calligraphy can be a deep practice and why you do calligraphy. You get concentration, you get mindfulness, you get the insight of interbeing, the insight of no-self. It has the power to liberate us from fear, anger, suffering, separation, discrimination.”

For inspiration, see Thay’s video demonstration at www.thichnhathanhcalligraphy.org.

PDF of this article

Letter from the Editor

mb50-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

Today is Martin Luther King Day here in the United States. Tomorrow we inaugurate a new president, the first black man to serve in that post. Along with what seems to be the whole world, I rejoice in the dawning of a new era.

Perhaps we are truly approaching what Thay mentions in his New Year’s letter (see the Mindfulness Bell website), what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” At least I dare to hope so, though I know that much will be required of each one of us for it to become a reality.

In my own life the political excitement of the last few months has been overshadowed by the illness of my sister-in-law, dying of ovarian cancer. For much of that time she lived in our home and we were blessed with the presence of many

angels, including hospice staff and volunteers and friends. Now she has moved to a nursing home where she receives better care. By the time you read this, I suppose, her body will be ashes.

How can it be that the person I know and love will no longer be here? Of course, in the ultimate dimension, she’s not going anywhere. As Thay says in this issue’s Dharma talk, “We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean the end — we always continue!” I have been with other loved ones as they died, and a palpable energy is released that fills the room with love and enters the heart like grace. Still, the wrenching away, the physical loss of a loved one is ever so painful and the grief is as sharp as a sword.

In this issue Lauren Thompson shares her transformation as she journeyed with a Sangha sister during a terminal illness. She writes that “through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing.”

Glimpses of interbeing can not only guide us through personal loss but may be critical in solving global issues. “Unless we are aware,” said Angela Tam in a powerful talk at the Vesak Conference, “of the connection between our habits and the planetary problems we have, nothing will change.” Her solution: interbeing, mindfulness, Sangha. Brother Phap Lai similarly points to a spiritual solution for the complex problem of overpopulation: “We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community.”

As Martin Luther King wrote fifty years ago, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

May the vision that Martin Luther King lived and died for become reality here on earth. May the Buddha-to-be that Thay has foreseen be born in each of our hearts. May we practice with diligence, wisdom, and compassion so as to bring about the beloved community of all living beings.

Blessings to you all,

mb50-Editor2

PDF of this article

War, Conflict and Healing

A Buddhist Perspective

By Ha Vinh Tho

mb50-War1

According to the first of the five precepts (panca sila) given by the Buddha to his lay disciples (upasaka):

“Lay students of the Buddha refrain from killing, put an end to killing, rid themselves of all weapons, learn humility before others, learn humility in themselves, practice love and compassion, and protect all living beings, even the smallest insect. They uproot from within themselves any intention to kill. In this way, lay students of the Buddha study and practice the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.” (1)

Even though all religious and spiritual traditions agree to condemn the destruction of life, and although the precept “do not kill” is one of the most universally recognized ethical rules, war and violent conflicts remain an ever-present reality in the history of mankind. For this very reason, it is of utmost importance to reflect on ways to prevent conflicts, to alleviate suffering once conflicts have occurred, and to facilitate reconciliation and healing in post-conflict situations.

The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

The objective of this presentation is to show how the practice of Engaged Buddhism can contribute to the construction of the defenses of peace in the mind.

Developing the Great Compassion

I work in the field of humanitarian action; I train young people to help civil populations, war prisoners, the wounded and the sick in situations of war, armed conflict, and natural catastrophe.

Although neutrality and impartiality are the very guiding principles of true humanitarian action, it is often difficult to maintain this attitude when confronted with the harsh reality of violent conflict. To refuse to take a stand and to maintain an attitude of neutrality can be perceived as a lack of courage or lucidity. Indeed, how not to take sides for the weak against the strong, for the victim against the perpetrator?

I will argue that meditation on the universal law of interdependence, on non-self and on the nature of suffering, is the foundation of the Great Compassion which allows us to develop an attitude of neutrality which is not cowardice and of impartiality which is not indifference.

In the current world situation, characterized by the confrontation of cultures, religions and civilizations, it is more than ever necessary to develop non-attachment to opinions and to wrong perceptions. The Buddha teaches skillful means allowing lifelong learning, and an attitude of tolerance and authentic opening.

I recently acted as a mediator in a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and one of the participants explained:

“Our problem is that there are two competing narratives for one and the same situation.”

Not only is there a competition over land and resources, but there is a competition over the interpretation of reality. Each party is convinced, and wants to convince the world, that his story is the true story.

Each time one is confronted with violent conflicts, one can observe this phenomenon — the two sides have competing narratives, competing stories. And each side sees itself as the “the good guys” versus the other side perceived as “the bad guys.” Most armies are called “Defense Forces”; for instance the German army during the Second World War was called “Wehrmacht,” German for “Defense Force,” and on the buckle of the belts of the soldiers was written “Gott mit uns”: “God with us”, or “God on our side.”

I don’t know of any state that calls its army “Aggression Forces” — the aggressor is always the other side. The demonizing of the other side is a recurring phenomenon in any conflict; otherwise, how would it be possible to kill and maim the so-called enemy, if each one was fully aware that the other is just like oneself?

To give another example, during the Rwandan genocide, the actual physical violence had been prepared through intense radio propaganda by the “Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines” (RTLM) that was broadcasting slogans like: “Kill all the cockroaches,” referring thus to the moderate Hutus and to the Tutsis.

These few examples show clearly that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

But how can we build these defenses?

The Reality of Suffering

In his first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” Lord Buddha began by explaining the Four Noble Truths, and the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering (dukkha). Because of this, some people who do not understand the deeper meaning of the Dharma think that Buddhism is a pessimistic world view that emphasizes suffering over joy, and only sees life as a burden best gotten rid of. But this is a very superficial view; the Buddha acknowledges suffering in the same way a doctor acknowledges illness: in order to cure it.

mb50-War2

Suffering can be a powerful way to develop compassion and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, the Fourth Training addresses this reality:

Awareness of Suffering— Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help me develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, I am determined not to avoid or close my eyes before suffering. I am committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so I can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace and joy. (2)

I would like to share an experience that I had some years ago, and that helped me understand in a more concrete way the reality of this Mindfulness Training. During a peace conference, I heard a lady from Northern Ireland tell how her sister had lost her son in a terrorist attack, and how, soon after, the man who had killed her nephew had also been shot dead. The mother of the young man who had been killed decided to visit the mother of the one who had killed her son, not in order to seek revenge, but to console her. She said:

“Only a mother who has lost a child can understand another mother who has had the same experience.”

These two women started a powerful peace movement in Northern Ireland that was instrumental in bringing about the Good Friday Peace Agreement that stopped a violent conflict that had been raging for decades.

In the same way, in Israel and Palestine there is a movement called the Parents’ Circle; all members of this circle have lost a son or a daughter in the conflict. I have had the privilege to facilitate meetings of the Parents’ Circle. It is a deeply moving experience to see how these people have transformed suffering into compassion. They have been able to overcome the natural striving for retaliation and revenge and to come together, united by their common experience of a terrible loss, to share a message of peace and reconciliation. When they meet, they share their stories, the memories of their lost children, but out of this grief they draw strength, energy of love and compassion, and a strong will to bring an end to war and to violence. Whoever listens to them can only be deeply moved because they speak from the depth of an experience that no theory or abstract ideal can match. They have discovered through their own suffering the reality of the Buddha’s saying:

“Hate is not overcome by hate; by love (metta) alone is hate appeased. This is an eternal law.”

The Realization of Interdependence and Non-Self

From the point of view of conflict prevention and peace building, interdependence and non-self are the most important tools that Buddhism has to offer. What I have called the problem of competing narratives is always based on the false assumption of a radical, unbridgeable difference between me and you, between my community and your community.

At first sight, good and evil, right and wrong, victim and perpetrator seem to be completely separated realities; we may think that if we get rid of the negative, only the positive will remain. But interdependence or, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, interbeing, is the realization of the interconnectedness of all life. The more we become aware of the reality of interbeing, the more we realize our shared responsibility for the state of the world. On one hand, this can seem like a burden; on the other, it makes us conscious that we are not passive onlookers, but that we can do something to bring about transformation and healing. I would like to quote venerable Thich Nhat Hanh who shared a powerful example of this insight:

“One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years.”3

If we awaken to the reality of interbeing and non-self, we awaken to the wisdom of non-discrimination. This is the wisdom that can break the barrier of individualism; with this wisdom we see that we are the other person and the other person is ourself. The happiness of the other person is our own happiness, and our own happiness is the happiness of the other people, plants, animals, and even minerals.

This is not only true on a personal level; it is also true for communities, countries, religions, and civilizations.

“Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhism elements. If we look deeply we can see that the elements of non-Buddhism have made Buddhism… It’s exactly the same as a flower. A flower is made from non-flower elements; the sun, the clouds are not flower, soil is not flower, water is not flower. The self is made of non-self elements. It is the same with the other religions.” (4)

The more this insight can become not a mere theory, but an actual experience, the more we can realize that the so-called enemies are always part of a common interdependent reality. And if we strive for the freedom, the peace and the happiness of our own community, the only way to achieve it is by protecting the freedom, the peace and the happiness of the other community. This is true between Israelis and Palestinians, between Americans and Iraqis, between Tutsis and Hutus, between Tibetans and Han Chinese.

This is also the key insight that helps us to be neutral and impartial without being indifferent. I have personally struggled with this dilemma more than once, and I would like to share an experience that had a transformative effect on me.

The first time I visited a detention center, I went to meet with security detainees in a military prison. I spent most of the day having interviews with the detainees and met with dozens of men. I was listening to one story after the other, stories of violence, of fear, of injustice, of hatred, of despair. Taking all these stories in my heart, it was easy to feel a lot of compassion with them and, on the other side, to feel anger arising against the soldiers who had all the power, the weapons, the authority. At some point, I was taking a short break in the courtyard, resting from the intensity of the encounters, from the stench and the claustrophobic atmosphere in the prison cells, when a young soldier came to sit next to me. I felt he wanted to talk to me. He was very young — most soldiers are very young, war is always about elder men sending out young men to do things that they would not do themselves. I asked his age and he was several years younger than my own son. He began to tell me about his life before the military, he told me about journeys he had taken, countries he had visited, and he also said that he was active in his community, helping teenagers who had problems with their families. He told me that after the army, he wanted to study education and do something useful for the youths. I felt he wanted to show me another side of himself, he needed me to see beyond the uniform he wore and the machine gun he carried. After we had talked for a while, he suddenly asked me: “Do you think I am a bad person?”

The question touched me deeply. I realized how easy it is to perceive only the soldier, the one having the power and oppressing the prisoners. In a flash, I realized that if the causes and conditions had been different, I could have been the one with the machine gun and he could have been the humanitarian worker. And I could not be absolutely sure that if I had been the one with the weapon, I would have not been more cruel and harsher on the prisoners than he was. So I told him very sincerely: “No, I don’t think you are a bad person, I understand that you are in a situation that is not easy, just try to do the best you can. ”

Meditation and Mindfulness

True insight into the nature of suffering, interdependence, and non-self can bring about peace, reconciliation, and healing, but it cannot come from intellectual reasoning alone. It needs to be nourished by life experience, by mindfulness in everyday life, by meditation.

Meditation is not about turning away from reality and dwelling in an illusionary inner peace, ignoring the suffering that so many people and other living beings experience day after day.

Meditation is looking deeply into reality as it is, both in us and around us. It is training ourselves not to react immediately with sympathy or antipathy: I like, I dislike, I want, I don’t want, I grasp, I reject.

But rather to create an open space, free of judgment, free of notions and preconceived ideas, allowing reality to unfold and reveal itself in our heart and mind. By doing this, insight and compassion arise naturally, effortlessly, for they are the very nature of our deeper being.

  1. Upasaka Sutra, Madhyama Agama 128
  2. Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press
  3. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bantam, 1992
  4. Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village, France

mb50-War3Ha Vinh Tho, Chan Dai Tue, is half-Vietnamese, half-French. With his wife of thirty-eight  years, Lisi (both Dharma teachers ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh), he founded the Eurasia Foundation for the development of  special education in Vietnam. Tho is the head of training, learning, and development in a humanitarian organization whose mission is to protect the lives and dignity of  victims of  war and internal violence.

PDF of this article

Sangha as Refuge

The Dharma of Caring for Alison K.

By Lauren Thompson

mb50-Sangha1

I never knew Alison K. when she was well. By the time both she and I were regularly attending the Rock Blossom Sangha, in Brooklyn, New York, she was a few months into a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Her tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst kind. According to the statistics, she had a year, at most two years to live. She was forty-one.

This would be my first intimate encounter with the reality of death, with the reality of someone I knew dying. For the Sangha, it would be our time to experience most poignantly what it means to take refuge in Sangha.

Having brain cancer is difficult enough. For Alison, the difficulty was compounded by her family situation. She was living alone; her parents had both died years earlier; she had two sisters, but one was unable to help, and the other was able to visit only periodically. For reasons known best to Alison, she had decided to grant three close friends the medical, financial, and legal powers of attorney. They all loved her and were deeply committed to her care, but even as a group they couldn’t meet all of her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. And so the degree of refuge that Alison sought in Sangha was profound. As her illness progressed and her needs grew more intense, the compassion that arose within the Sangha, both as individuals and as a body, was just as profound. For me, the experience was one of watching a miracle unfold, as beautiful and poignant as a lotus flower.

Like a flower, this bud of compassion unfurled in stages. At first, only one or two members were involved in her life outside of Sangha. For most of us, our involvement consisted of listening deeply to her words during Dharma sharing. She shared all of her pain and confusion, her fear and occasional joy and ease, and for me, as for many, her need was sometimes overwhelming. I felt a strong impulse to close her out, to guard myself from her pain. I felt the discomfort of strong aversion, and also the discomfort of disapproving of my own aversion. Was I really so selfish and weak that I would turn away from a Sangha sister who was dying of cancer? At times I felt such distress that I could barely sit still.

But the practice of deep listening helped me through these storms. Week after week, the instructions for Dharma sharing reminded me to observe my reactions without judgment, to simply bear witness to her truth, to listen for what may not be said in words, and to attend to everything with great gentleness. After some time, I found that my response had changed. As Alison spoke at length about her life’s present conditions, I heard the heart message beneath her words: “I suffer. Please help.” And the bud of compassion began to open.

It was then that I was able to reach out personally to Alison, and it was then that our brief but intense friendship began. One fall afternoon we met for tea, and we spent hours in conversation that dispensed with the usual preliminaries and small talk. We connected very deeply. Within weeks, Alison’s condition worsened, and through the winter and spring she spent more time in hospitals and hospice than out. Her capacity for language began to deteriorate, so that at times conversation was not possible. Yet our connection remained strong; in fact, it became only stronger.

What she needed was for me to be fully present to her, and during my brief visits, often no more than an hour once or twice a week, I found I was able to offer this. Whether that meant laughing over a movie with her, staying with her through times of confusion or distress, or holding her hand as she slept, it was tremendously rewarding to be with her in this way. It could also be draining and upsetting. I learned I had to take care of myself, as well, in order to take care of her. Layer by layer, the petals opened.

Blessed… Blessed… Blessed

As Alison’s condition worsened, many others in the Sangha were also drawn to be personally involved. Some offered regular companionship. Others helped to move her belongings into storage when she had to leave her apartment. Some visited as they could, or provided occasional transportation; others offered support to Alison’s closest caregivers. Some simply held her in their thoughts.

And Alison expressed her gratitude for it all. A precious memory for the Sangha is a tea ceremony which Alison attended in the fall. Alison began by sharing how thankful she felt for the support she had received, the friendship, the love. Then she sang a song for us all. It was a setting of the Beatitudes, which she sang beautifully in a low, warm, alto voice. “Blessed … blessed … blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall be comforted ….” She sang with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over her chest, as if her heart could not contain all that it must hold.

As the months went on, Alison would at times be able only to whisper “Thank you” or “So sweet,” or smile her luminous smile. Even if the most she could do was gaze into our eyes with warm intensity, she found a way to convey her gratitude.

Living in the Moment

We found that, even if we were only marginally involved, caring for Alison required that we shed expectations. Her condition would worsen and then dramatically improve, so we never knew what to expect from any visit. One day, she may be quite talkative. The next, she may be almost comatose, as her heavily medicated body stabilized after a major seizure.

Our sense of how much longer she might live was in constant flux. She moved back and forth between supported independence and hospice, between functioning and incapacity. Each transition felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another, but how long that era might last was anyone’s guess, even the experts’. “Don’t-know mind” was the only frame of mind that could contain this fluid reality. There was no definite future to plan for together – the customary illusion of “the future” could find no fixed mooring under circumstances like these. There was only the present moment.

We in the Sangha all contended with the feeling of helplessness, of having to accept that we could not give Alison what she really wanted, a reprieve from early death. And much as we might wish to offer our comfort, we couldn’t know how she would receive it. She might greet us warmly and ask about ourselves. Or she might barely waken. Or, for others more than for me, Alison might display the impulsive fury of a frustrated child, straining every fiber of her caregivers’ patience. We consoled each other, in person, by phone, and through an e-mail care circle, that our loving presence could be only helpful. We also encouraged each other to take breaks, to give only as much as we could without feeling resentful.

The challenges were many, but the gifts were many, too. I know that for myself, time I spent with Sangha sisters and brothers whose visits happened to coincide with mine often led to long, intimate conversations. Being with Alison awakened in many of us the sense of how precious every moment with another being truly is. Knowing this, how could we be anything but completely authentic and kind? For me, these encounters provided moments of deep healing of the terrible loneliness that had always left me feeling set apart and unknown. Through Alison’s dying, I had fleeting glimpses of interconnectedness with all of life, of true interbeing.

The Most Beautiful Gift

Certainly the clearest experiences I had of interbeing were with Alison herself. During one visit in early spring, she was alert and eager to communicate, but her speech was confused. Still, her heart intent was very clear. She insisted that I not leave until I had some “Christmas.” She knew that wasn’t what she meant, and after a few moments she landed on the right words: ice cream. An aide brought us each a cup of ice cream, and when she couldn’t finish hers, she offered it to me. I told her that more ice cream would probably upset my stomach. She held her cup out to me, saying, “Then eat it carefully. I’m giving it to you carefully. So you eat it carefully.”

mb50-Sangha2

As I took the cup, I was moved almost beyond words by her offer, which was indeed full of caring. She seemed to be passing to me, not just ice cream, but her life, asking me to enjoy for her the portion that she would not be able to enjoy herself.

“Alison,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

“Yes, but no,” she said. “You don’t understand. I really like you. No, not like. I mean, I don’t want to be …”

She started gesturing broadly with her hands, and I suggested, “You don’t want to be all lovey-dovey?”

“Right,” she said. “But I love you. I really do.” “I love you, too,” I said, “I do.”

And for many moments there was only silence between us. There was a communication then that was not really between “Lauren,” with one personal history, and “Alison,” with another. We barely knew each other on that level. It was a connection of our very being. It was a moment of such joy and sadness. It was the most beautiful gift. A “Christmas” gift indeed.

When I was ready to leave, she patted her bald scalp and said, “Next time we have class, I’ll wear my hat.”

I smiled. “You mean next time I visit?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“You look lovely just like this,” I said. I kissed her forehead, said good-bye, and left. That was our last conversation. Within a week, she passed away.

To the Other Shore

I knew Alison well for only six months. I knew very little about her family or her relationship history, or what kind of music she liked. But through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing. Along with others in the Sangha, I felt that I was able to step, now and then, in the footprints of the bodhisattvas, responding with compassion to Alison’s condition, which was, ultimately, the human condition. I sensed, moments at a time, how precious life is. I saw how Sangha can be a boat that carries us safely to the other shore — it carried Alison, and it carries me still.

mb50-Sangha4

Alison K. passed from this life on March 27, 2007, at the age of forty-two.

mb50-Sangha3Lauren Thompson, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, NY. She is a children’s book author, presently working on an adult memoir of her experiences with Alison K.

PDF of this article

The Question of Overpopulation

By Brother Phap Lai

mb50-TheQuestion1

Question to PV Listening Website — 15 December 2007

Teacher, One of the five precepts asks us not to kill. I am concerned about the effects of overpopulation and historical outcomes such as war. Global warming proponents indicate that the human population is to blame. Some suggest that to achieve a sustainable earth our population must be reduced by as much as four-fifths. The entire earth may be in the balance. If the scientific evidence is accurate what guidance can you give us in avoiding the unthinkable? — Steve

mb50-TheQuestion2

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your stimulating question and for having the courage to ask it. Many of us keep “unthinkable” thoughts hidden away, or we immediately believe in them without questioning their validity. History provides evidence that these thoughts — whether kept in a vault of shame or expressed philosophically to others — will one day be acted out at the collective level.

Overpopulation is indeed one factor that can build pressure for this to happen. The genocide in Rwanda was fueled by tensions that had built up due to pressure on common land and water resources caused by a combination of increasing population and environmental effects of global warming. The situation in Darfur is similar. Sadly there are people willing to exploit tensions to create division, hatred and fear in the desire for personal power and wealth or to impose an ideology. What can be done?

The environmental pressures our planet faces, of which overpopulation is an integral part, are tearing at the very fabric of the complex and diverse life that makes our experience so rich and beautiful today. Life on Earth is in trouble not in the future but now. It seems we are setting up conditions for a sixth mass extinction event on this planet. In Heat by environmentalist George Monbiot we read that foreseeable rises in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are comparable with those that helped trigger the biggest-ever extinction event, at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago — a period as ecologically diverse as today’s. Computer modeling tells us that with a ninety percent reduction of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2030 we have a two-out-of-three chance to prevent runaway global warming and avert this destiny.

Monbiot then sets about demonstrating, by picking on some key areas such as transportation, household energy use, electricity supply, and some example industries that these cuts could realistically be made while maintaining a good standard of living. Of course the affluent minority would have to change their ways. For example we would need to severely restrain our long distance travel habits but this is surely more palatable than an eighty percent reduction in population. Are we willing to change?

Call for a Collective Awakening

Like you I am deeply concerned about the tendency of humankind to resort to war as a solution to our problems. War is the deepest expression of human suffering and represents a failure to face our difficulties and seek healing in us and between us. What is needed is compassion and brotherhood — a “war-like” effort in which we pull together as one people. Al Gore recently said what is most crucial is a change in the collective consciousness to see the interdependence of all things. Similarly Thay says: “We need a collective awakening; enlightenment can no longer be considered an individual matter.”

mb50-TheQuestion3

It seems clear that we are already suffering the unstoppable consequences of global warming and many of us will perish. Remaining in denial is not an option. Thay encourages us to accept our situation in such a way that we make peace with it in our hearts. Action taken from this place of peace will then be effective — right action — and is our best hope. But in taking on board the reality of what is happening we need to be careful. There is a tendency to fall into despair and become paralyzed. Unable to hold the situation mentally we try to forget what we know and take refuge in our own busy lives again. Once again we simply hand over responsibility to politicians and experts. However, without an informed and active public, politicians of selfish interest will take advantage. Eventually they will force upon us desperate schemes (backed up by “experts”) that will have more to do with seizing power and will undoubtedly make the situation far worse.

mb50-TheQuestion4

Dying a Spiritual Death

In your question you refer to a perceived need among some experts to reduce the world’s population by four-fifths in order for humanity to have a chance to survive. Your reference to the “unthinkable” suggests that war and genocide may actually form part of the solution. This thought if not unthinkable should be unconscionable.

At the intellectual level we can get lost in a maze of complex moral questions and believe we have to do the unthinkable for the greater good. More frequently I hear people, sometimes timidly, sometimes boldly, voice opinions that wars and pandemics such as HIV and TB are necessary because we need to reduce the population of people. If we are to think like this then we must be prepared to die and see our children die in the same manner. We all are brothers and sisters sharing this planet. Perhaps we see disease as mother Earth’s mechanism to balance things. It is true, we cannot predict or necessarily control the course of nature but how sad if we think letting or making it all happen over there will help our plight. Disease, famine, and war cause misery and chaos and that will affect us all. Their stability and happiness is our stability and happiness. We inter-are. As soon as there is an “us and them,” an “over there,” in our minds we have lost touch with this truth — the truth of interbeing.

No one would deny that overpopulation is a major issue we face as a global community. However, the idea that reducing the population by four-fifths will necessarily solve anything needs to be examined.

Suppose that we achieved that goal, either by actively killing people or passively turning a blind eye to genocides, the ravages of civil wars, or disease and famine in other countries. Thinking that this would favor the physical survival of the remaining one-fifth is to forget something of fundamental importance — namely that in the process we will all have died spiritually. In Buddhism it is clear that the means cannot be separated from the ends. The so-called ends are defined by the means. Thay makes this clear when he says, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

Staying Connected

The First Mindfulness Training, as well as asking us not to kill, also asks us to “cultivate compassion.” Compassion here is not simply an emotion but is rooted in the Sanskrit word karuna. Thay teaches us that karuna, to be translated properly, needs to convey the meaning of “the capacity to relieve suffering.” Compassion in this sense implies an understanding of the situation, knowing what to do and what not to do to help, along with the willingness and ability to act. Understanding is more than intellectual or practical knowledge.

Ravi Ravindra, Prof. Emeritus of Canada’s Dalhousie University warns us on this point:

The search for truth — when it becomes more and more mental and divorced from deeper and higher feelings such as compassion, a sense of the oneness and the like — leads to feelings of isolation and accompanying anxiety … Then one wants to control others and conquer nature. Much of our predicament arises from this very dedication to truth in an exclusively mental manner.

True insight is always in line with compassion and the truth of the interdependence of all things. This perspective can only be found when one is stable, peaceful, and connected with the heart.

When ideas to control population come up that at first seem abhorrent I suggest taking a long walk and sitting in nature. After calming the mind and enjoying the connection to life, then we are qualified to look into the situation. First we can see the real consequences of our idea if put into action. And in time insight into the situation will allow solutions not seen before to arise. There are always more creative less violent ways of helping.

Collapse of the American Dream

Looking more closely into the problem of overpopulation we might start by reminding ourselves that the U.S.A. population, although only four percent of the world’s, consumes twenty-five percent of the world’s oil supply. Its per-capita consumption of the rest of the Earth’s material resources similarly outstrips that of other countries. It is clear from this fact alone that how we consume is just as important as how many people there are. China’s and India’s consumption is growing fast, a growth that will soon require more than one planet Earth to sustain us. And yet in the vast majority of countries people are poor and not responsible for these phenomena. Ironically when we think of overpopulation we think of the poor in the so-called third world and yet these people’s ecological footprint is virtually zero. If one’s goal is to create a sustainable planet, then one must address consumption as well as population  stabilization.

As a global society we need to turn in a different direction. We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community — sharing resources as opposed to the individual suburban utopia. In our small monastic community in New York, for instance, the cost of food per person is $2 a day. We eat vegan and try to eat local produce. Trips out to shop are also reduced because of communal living.

Collective awakening can gain momentum only with individual actions. To this end, Thay, in his public talks, often takes time to encourage us to reduce our consumption of meat. Thay quotes figures that point out the environmental cost of meat consumption. (See Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindfulness in the Marketplace, page 72, and the Mindfulness Bell, WInter/Spring 2008). ) If everyone in the U.S. were to reduce their meat consumption by half that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than if everyone were to drive hybrid cars. Seeing vegetarianism as a way out is not new. Albert Einstein said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

Collectively of course we can do a lot more — for instance,

By morally supporting, inspiring and educating each other; making collective commitments (see the environmental initiative sign-up sheet on the Deer Park website), pooling ideas and resources; and speaking as one voice to industry, the media, and politicians. Ultimately we need the political will to implement national and international legislation that will meaningfully reduce our impact and move us into sustainable living. This requires the people’s deep understanding of the situation; politicians of integrity must have a support base.

Sustainable Compassion

Stabilizing human population is one aspect, albeit an important aspect, of the challenge to restore our ecosystem’s stability. In his book Plan B 2.0, Lester Brown presents a comprehensive and budgeted plan to literally “rescue the planet” under five main categories: (1) eradicating poverty and stabilizing population, (2) restoring the Earth, (3) feeding seven billion people well, (4) stabilizing climate, and (5) designing sustainable cities. He argues that to achieve a stabilized population of a well-fed seven billion is possible; his overall budget for 0lan ” implementation is $161 billion. Compare this to the money spent on the Iraq war, estimated to surpass $2 trillion (Harvard Magazine).

Linking the stabilization of population to the eradication of poverty as Lester Brown does is important. Adequate nutrition, good health care, and parental support especially for women, access to family planning services, readily available contraception along with education, these are all affordable and essential to creating the necessary conditions to empower people to make choices about the size of their family. Interestingly much research (e.g., UNICEF) shows that the most effective way to reduce the number of children born is to educate girls and keep them in school. This is a goal we can all help to achieve.

Draconian methods may achieve short-term results but also have unforeseen adverse consequences. For instance, I do not advocate enforcing fertility control measures as in China. It has caused a huge suffering which will be passed on for generations and has arguably not achieved a reduced impact on the Earth (see Collapse by Jared Diamond).

Lasting solutions respond compassionately to the real needs of the people. They come from those who are involved in the actual situation and grounded in love, which cannot be said of either Communist party policy implemented by a police state or IMF capitalist ideology enforced by economic leverage. Lasting solutions usually come from grassroots organizations — from the people themselves. They often require modest funding and only need to be supported by understanding authorities and not be obstructed by them.

Offering Our Gifts

Getting involved in our local community is therefore key. In this way we do not fall once again into forgetfulness or despair but can help inspire hope, especially in the younger generation who inherit our legacy. Finding and building a community of likeminded individuals to work towards this can alleviate our feelings of isolation and fear. In community we find a way to contribute our own special gifts to this cause.

Some reading is helpful. I can recommend the work of environmentalists and social activists Lester Brown, George Monbiot, and Jared Diamond (books cited above), Joanna Macy (World as Lover, World as Self), John Seed, and Paul Hawkens (Blessed Unrest). They help us understand the situation in all its complexity and offer us practical and humane ways to respond to the crisis. Thich Nhat Hanh himself has a wonderful new book on the subject, The World We Have.

Ultimately, the crisis we face is a spiritual one. Developing our own practice of meditation and mindfulness, finding and building Sangha — a community practicing the path of understanding and love. These are the important things to do. Personal practice gives us an inner refuge, a place of stability to go back to. The Sangha becomes a boat on which we can navigate the storm together. Practicing together we cultivate the much-needed insight, inner strength, and spirit of non-fear that we need to respond compassionately to our situation.

Thank you again for bringing up this topic for all of us to reflect on and please know that your practice and deepening insight is important to us all.

Brother Phap Lai currently resides in Blue Cliff Monastery, New York.

PDF of this article