Dharma Talk: The Horse Is Technology

By Thich Nhat Hanh

November 10, 2013
Plum Village

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Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is the 10th of November, 2013, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall of the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village. The Winter Retreat will start in five days and will last ninety days. The Winter Retreat is the most beautiful retreat in Plum Village because we can go deep into the teaching, and we have plenty of time to build brotherhood and sisterhood and transform ourselves.

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During this Winter Retreat we should stay in the compound of Plum Village, in the Sangha. We do not have permission to go out, even with the Internet. So there will be no individual email addresses and no Facebook. Facebook is neither good nor evil, but how you use it can bring more negative things than positive and can waste a lot of time. With Facebook, we are looking for something outside of us, and we do not have time to go back to ourselves and to take care of ourselves. So there will be absolutely no Facebook during this retreat. If you have anything that is not the Dharma, including iPod, iTouch, iTablet, films, and music, you have to throw it out.

Teaching at Google

On the 23rd of October, we spent the day at Google. We were in three groups at different locations, with Thay in one group and sixty monastics spread through the groups. Thay’s talk was seen and heard by everyone simultaneously.

We began with breakfast, and then at 8:30 we gave instructions on walking meditation. The people in the Google complex––they call it Googleplex––did walking meditation very seriously. At one point during the walking, we sat down, and Thay invited the small bell three times and had a cup of tea. Those who came late saw the calm atmosphere; it was very rare.

Then a Google representative delivered a welcome speech, and Thay gave a talk followed by a session of questions and answers. Thay offered a guided meditation that was used the next day at a plenary session broadcast worldwide. There were gifts exchanged, and at noon after sharing instructions on how to eat mindfully, Thay ate lunch with everyone. At 1:45, Sister Chan Khong led a session of total relaxation. At 3:00, Thay and some of the monastics met with senior Google executives, including a number of engineers. We had a long and deep discussion on how to make good use of technology in order to help people suffer less.

Google offered the theme, “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” They wanted to know the interplay between intention, insight, and innovation, not only in terms of work, but also in all aspects of life. The basic question was: How can technology become a force for integration rather than destruction? Because so far, it is a force of destruction; it’s pulling us away from each other.

Before we went to Google, a number of monastics wrote to Thay, describing the situation there and suggesting some questions to address. The first question was, “How can we innovate in order to take good care of ourselves?” Second, “How can we take care of the health of our workforce and take care of Mother Earth?” There is enlightenment in this question: it shows that they see the negative aspects of technology. They have found that emotional health is decreasing and distress is increasing in the Google workforce. They want some teaching and practice to deal with that situation.

Another question was, “Given the high rate of burnout, is there a way that we as a corporation can assist employees to create a better work-life balance?” Many Googlers are addicted to their work, they have a hard time detaching from it, and it can take over their lives. Maybe each of us feels that way also. We are being taken over by our work, and we do not have the time and the capacity to live our life deeply. Life is a gift, and we are not able to enjoy it, to make the best of that gift.

Strangely, there is an eagerness to find a technological solution to technology addiction. There is a disease called technology addiction, and yet you want to use technology to heal. Can we heal drug addiction with drugs? Can we heal anger with anger? Can we heal violence with violence? That is a contradiction.

So that is the First Noble Truth, not only for Buddhists, but for everyone. We have to contemplate the First Noble Truth of ill-being. Technology is destructive. Technology is taking our time away. We do not have the time to take care of ourselves, our families, and nature. Our civilization is going in a wrong direction.

This question is the beginning of a kind of awakening. We recognize the ill-being, and we want to transform it. We are looking for the way, the path, to heal that ill-being. That is the Fourth Noble Truth: the noble path leading to the transformation of ill-being.

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Where Are We Going?

There is a Zen story about a person sitting on a horse, galloping very quickly. At a crossroads, a friend of his shouts, “Where are you going?” The man says, “I don’t know, ask the horse!”

This is our situation. The horse is technology. It carries us and we cannot control it. So we have to begin with intention, asking ourselves, what do we want? The unofficial slogan of Google is “Don’t be evil.” Can you make a lot of money without being evil? That’s what they try to do, but so far, not very successfully. You want to be wealthy. You want to be Number One, but that costs you your life, because you are carried away by work.

Searching for information on your computer becomes a way to distract you from your problems. In this way we run away from ourselves, from our family, from our Mother Earth. As a civilization, we are going in the wrong direction. Even if you don’t kill or rob anyone, you are losing your life. If you do not have time to take care of your family and nature, making money that way costs you your life, your happiness, and the life and happiness of your beloved ones and Mother Earth. So that way of making money is evil. But is there a way to make money without being evil?

People have suffering within themselves: loneliness, despair, anger, fear. Most people are afraid of going home to take care of themselves, because they think they will be overwhelmed by the suffering inside. Instead, we try to run away from ourselves or to cover up the suffering inside by consuming. Technology is helping us to do this, so in this way technology is evil.

The horse is supposed to carry us to a good destination, as is technology. But, so far, technology has mostly helped us to run away from ourselves at the cost of our own life and happiness, and the happiness of our beloved ones and the beauty of Mother Earth. So you cannot say that we are not evil, because while realizing your dream of being wealthy, you sacrifice your life, you sacrifice the happiness of your beloved ones, and you cause damage to Mother Earth. So it’s not so easy not to be evil.

But if technology can help you to go home to yourself and take care of your anger, take care of your despair, take care of your loneliness, if technology helps you to create joyful feelings, happy feelings for yourself and for your beloved ones, it’s going in a good way and you can make good use of technology. When you are happy, when you have time for yourself and your beloved ones, maybe you can be more successful in your business. Perhaps you will make more money if you are really happy, if you have good emotional health, if you reduce the amount of stress and despair within yourself.

The Four Nutriments

During his talk at Google, Thay spoke about the four nutriments. In Buddhist psychology there are five universal mental formations: contact, sparsa; attention, manaskara; feelings, vedana; perception, samjna; volition, cetana. They are always present, expressing themselves in our consciousness. The first one is contact, and the last one is volition. These two mental formations are considered to be the kind of food we don’t consume with our mouth.

Some of us use technology to consume in order to forget the suffering in us, in the same way that we sometimes use edible food. When we are lonely or fearful, we search in the refrigerator for something to eat, not because we need it, but we want to forget the suffering in us. Many of us are addicted to eating and become fat and suffer from many kinds of diseases, just because of this kind of consuming. Edible food is the first of the four nutriments.

The second nutriment the Buddha taught was sensory impressions. We pick up a book to read, hoping to have a sensation. We go to the Internet, looking for pictures and songs and music to have a certain feeling. When you listen to music or read a book or newspaper out of routine, you are doing it so you won’t encounter yourself. Many of us are afraid of going home to ourselves, because we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside of us. So we look for sensory impressions to consume. Technology, the Internet, is helping us to do this.

Many young people do this. A teenager confessed to us in a retreat that he spends at least eight hours each day with electronic games, and he cannot stop. At first he was playing games to forget, and now he’s addicted to it. In real life he does not feel any love or understanding in his family, school, or society. Many young people are trying to fill up the loneliness, the emptiness inside, by looking for sensory impressions. That is the second source of nutriment.

Now, as a Buddhist monk or nun, are we doing the same? If you go to the Internet and download a film and a song to enjoy, then you are doing the same. You have to do what the Buddha taught you to do: learn to go home to yourself without fear. Breathe and walk to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and insight, and go home and take care of the loneliness inside. We do not have time to look for sensory impressions to fill up the vacuum in us. If we do that, we are not really monastics, we are acting just like the people in the world. That is why in this Winter Retreat, we have to practice letting go from our own choice, not because Thay tells us to do it. We do it because there is an enlightenment, there is an awakening in this way of living, and you can help people in the world by choosing to live differently. We have to learn to go home to ourselves and take care of the suffering inside and get the peace, the joy that we need, so that we can help people.

That is why having no email address, no Internet, no Facebook, is not something that makes you suffer, but helps you to become a real practitioner. If you do it, if you wake up to that kind of truth, you will do it with joy, not with a sense of deprivation. There are many people who check their email several times a day and find nothing new. Because you are empty inside, you are looking for something new. You have to learn to generate something really new: a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness. That is possible with the practice of mindfulness.

What Is Your Intention?

Volition is the third nutriment, another source of food. Volition is intention. What do you want to do with your life? That is the question. Of course, you have the right to look for material and affective comforts, but that is not your deepest desire. Do you have an ultimate concern? Do you know the meaning of your life? That can be a tremendous source of energy.

If your volition is only to make money, to become the number one corporation, that’s not enough, because there are those who have a lot of money, a lot of power, and yet they are not happy. They feel quite lonely and they don’t have time to live their life. Nobody understands them and they don’t understand anyone. Happiness is not there because there is no understanding or love.

So your volition is not to have a lot of money, to have social recognition, to have a lot of power or fame. What you really want may be something more. Maybe you want to reverse the direction of civilization. You want to help people know how to handle the suffering in themselves, how to heal and transform, how to generate joy and happiness, how to live deeply every moment of their life, so that they can help their beloved ones to do the same and help the Earth to restore her beauty. That is a good desire, a good nutriment. As a corporate leader, if you have that kind of energy, you will become very strong. That is the first item they wanted Thay to speak about at Google: the intention, the motivation that pushes us to do what we are doing.

The Buddha had a strong desire to transform himself, to have the freedom and compassion to help people suffer less. That is a good desire; that is good food. Animated by that kind of energy, he spent forty-five years teaching and helping all kinds of people. He had very strong energy.

So those of us who have a good source of the nutriment of volition can be very happy. To generate understanding and compassion, to be truly happy and to be able to help many people: that is good volition, good intention. If a corporate leader has that kind of bodhicitta, he can reverse the trend of civilization. He can be himself, he can control the horse, and he can make good use of technology.

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With a knife, you can chop vegetables and peel potatoes. The knife is a helpful tool. But a terrorist can use a knife to kill people also. Technology is like that. If you have compassion and insight, you can come up with innovations that make good use of technology, that will help you and others go home to themselves, take care of themselves and their beloved ones.

The fourth nutriment is consciousness. Your individual consciousness is a source of food. There are many good things in your consciousness: you have the capacity to love, to forgive, to understand, to be compassionate. You need to know how to cultivate these elements in your consciousness. We all have the seed of compassion in us. If we know how to water the seed of compassion every day, it will grow. Every time we touch the seed of compassion, it becomes a mental formation, and with compassion alive in you, you don’t suffer anymore. That is good food.

But compassion is not the only good food you have. You have the seeds of joy, of happiness, of tenderness, of forgiveness, of nondiscrimination––many good things in yourself. You have to learn to cultivate more of these elements so that you have good food to nourish you and make the people you love happy. In you, there are also negative seeds, like a seed of anger, a seed of despair, a seed of loneliness. If you consume in a way that waters these negative seeds, then when you read a newspaper or play an electronic game or have a conversation, anger, despair, jealousy may arise in you, and you cultivate food that is not healthy for you.

As a gardener, you grow things that are good for you to consume. We know that there are plants that can make us sick, like poison oak, so we don’t cultivate those. That is true with anger, despair, violence, discrimination. These are not good food.

All of us have the seeds of these negative things in us. The collective consciousness is also food. There are neighborhoods now full of violence, fear, anger, and despair. If you happen to live in that neighborhood, you consume the collective energy of anger and fear. You don’t want to be angry and fearful and violent like them, but if you continue to stay there for a few years, you consume that collective energy and you become like them. That is not good food.

When you come to a retreat, you see hundreds of people who know how to breathe, how to concentrate, how to release tension, how to generate compassion. They generate a powerful collective energy of mindfulness and compassion, and you consume it. You feel the peace, you feel the joy, you feel brotherhood, and you consume it. That is good food. Collective consciousness can be good food or can be poisonous. The collective consciousness nutriment is very important.

But at Google, we spoke more about volition, because understanding volition was the most direct response to their inquiry about intention. A corporate leader should have a clear volition, a desire to help people suffer less. If you have that kind of good food, you become a happy person and you can be a good leader. A corporate leader needs to learn how to go home to himself first, to listen and understand his own suffering, to have compassion and take care of himself. Then he can help people in his family to do that and his family will be his support. And then he can try to help his associates do the same, and they will practice helping all employees in the workforce to go home and take care of themselves and their families. You can inspire them to have that kind of volition, that kind of intention, that kind of motivation. You give them the third nutriment. As leader, you might say, “Dear friends, you come here not just to have a job and to feed your family. You come here to join us in helping people to suffer less. We work in a way that helps people go back to themselves and take care of themselves. In order to do that, we have to do it for ourselves.”

Making Good Use of Technology

Some of our brothers have proposed to Facebook and Google to create a website where people can come and learn how to breathe, how to walk, how to handle a strong emotion, how to generate a feeling of joy and happiness for themselves and for other people. Facebook has promised to help make that happen. If Google has a mindfulness website, all the employees of Google can go there and learn how to take care of themselves and their families. Then they will have insight into what kind of electronic gadget or device will help us to go in that direction.

Suppose you talk to your smartphone. “Dear friend, I suffer. What shall I do?” And your smartphone says, “Oh! The first thing you have to do is to breathe in mindfully and go back to yourself.” This is the advice of a good teacher. An electronic device can tell you, “Dear friend, you are not in a good situation to do something. You have anger in you. You have to go home and take care of your anger.” When you are driving a car while falling asleep, a sensor would detect that. It might invite the bell to sound and say, “Dear friend, you are sleepy. Wake up! It’s dangerous to drive in this condition.” That is the practice of mindfulness.

The electronic devices that you invent can do that kind of work. iReminder; iReminding; iReturning. Returning to yourself. We spent two hours consulting with Google executives and engineers to find ways to make good use of technology to help people take care of themselves and suffer less.

There are many new functions they can put in telephones to help us, like the bell of mindfulness every quarter of an hour so that you remember to go back to yourself and to take care of yourself. In Plum Village, every time we hear the bell, we stop our thinking, we stop our talking, we stop our action, bringing our mind back to our body, and having the insight, “Ah, we are alive! We are present, sitting, walking on this planet, how wonderful.” You enjoy breathing in and out three times in mindfulness in order to celebrate the fact that you are still alive. When you are confused, when you are angry, you can talk to your phone, and your phone can remind you what to do and what not to do.

There was a young engineer who said, “But if we do these things, it’s like we are imposing on others what they don’t need.” Thay said that there are real needs, and there are needs that are not real. When you look for something to eat when you are not hungry, but are trying to forget the suffering in yourself, that is not a real need. If technology is trying to satisfy these kinds of needs, you are not helping people, you are only giving them the kind of sense impressions that cover up their suffering. But they have real needs, like going home to themselves and taking care of themselves, taking care of their families. That is why you have to help people to identify the real needs, and needs that are not real.

I think we planted a lot of good seeds in the minds of these Googlers. Let us see what will come after a few months.

Enjoyment Is the Practice

Thinking that work is one thing and life is another thing is dualistic thinking. For example, after you park your car in the parking lot and begin to walk to your office, you can choose between mindful walking or walking just to arrive at your office. If you know how to walk mindfully, then every step from the parking lot to your office can bring you joy and happiness. You can release the tension in your body and touch the wonders of life with every step. Walking this way is a pleasure. On the one hand, you see walking as life; on the other hand, you see walking as labor, as work.

When you wash the dishes, there’s a way to do it that helps you to enjoy every moment of dishwashing, so washing the dishes is not work, it is life. If you want to know how to wash dishes, read my book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. If you know how to mop the floor and cook your breakfast in mindfulness, it becomes life, not work. When a doctor receives a patient, it is work. But with compassion, with joy, you can transform the meeting between you, the doctor, and the patient, into a beautiful relationship, and that’s life. So life and work are not two different things.

When Thay does calligraphy, he begins every session with a cup of tea. Tea was invented by monastics in the Zen tradition who found that by drinking it, they were more awake for sitting meditation. So tea and meditation have been together for thousands of years.

Then Thay mixes some of the tea with the ink, and when he draws half a circle, he follows his in-breath. When he draws the second half of the circle, he breathes out. So there is the breathing in the circle, there’s mindfulness in the circle. From time to time he invites his own teacher to do the circle with him. In his hand is the hand of the mother, of the father, of the ancestor, of the teacher, of the Buddha. To do the circle in mindfulness, there must be the hand of the Buddha in his hand. So during that practice of drawing the circle, there is mindfulness, there is concentration and insight. This insight is made not by a self, but by a collective of selves. The Buddha is there and helps to make the circle in mindfulness.

So if you say that Thay is working hard, you are not right, because he enjoys making the circle. That is also his life and his practice. Meditation, working, and practicing become one.

In the monastic life of Plum Village, we do four things in our daily life. We study the Dharma and we practice the Dharma. Third, we work: cleaning, cooking, organizing a retreat. And fourth, we play: having tea with each other, playing basketball, and things like that. These are the four aspects of monastic life.

These four aspects inter-are. You do not enjoy only the time of playing, because the time of playing is also learning, is also building brotherhood, sisterhood, and cultivating health. Enjoyment is the practice. So within the playing is the studying, the practice, and the work.

We learn and practice in a way that cultivates joy. We can do walking meditation and sitting meditation the same way we play a game. It can be very joyful, just sitting together and doing nothing, or walking together. When you listen to a Dharma talk, allow the seeds of joy in you to be watered. It’s not good practice if you suffer.

When we organize a retreat or a Day of Mindfulness, we do it with compassion. We have a chance to serve, and that gives us a lot of joy. That’s not work, that is practice. When people come and practice, we practice with them. So there is no distinction between working and living and practicing.

That is the meaning of monastic life. The four aspects of life: learning, practicing, working, and playing. Each of the four has the three others inside it. As a lay practitioner, you can do the same. That is why you have to transcend dualistic thinking about work and life. We have to train ourselves to do our work in such a way that every moment of work is a moment of life.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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An Explosion of Grace

The First Retreat for Young People at Plum Village

By Susan Rooke

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Thay has often spoken of the tragic situation in France, where thirty-three young people commit suicide every day. He has asked us, “What are we doing today for those who are going to kill themselves tomorrow or the day after?”

A year ago, Anne-Marie Ascencio, a French member of the Order of Interbeing, shared with Sister Chan Khong her dream of initiating a retreat for young people run by the fourfold Sangha at Plum Village. Her idea was received with enthusiasm, so a small group of young monastics and members of the French OI organized, over the Internet, the first young persons’ retreat in Plum Village. It was held during the last week of June 2005 at the Middle Hamlet and thirty-two young people came, ages thirteen to twenty-six. Of the twenty staff members, there were five monks, three lay Plum Village residents and seven members of the French OI. A group of young nuns and aspirants visited and offered daily support.

We divided into three families, one of which was English-speaking. We had planned to include only French speakers to avoid translation problems, but retreatants took turns translating for friends, and the international flavor was a bonus.

This was a typical day:
6:00  Wake up; exercise with bamboo poles, or yoga
7:30  Sitting meditation
8:00  Breakfast; working meditation; questions & answers with monks and nuns
11:00 Free time
12:00 Lunch
14:30 Sharing in families
16:30 Creative workshops (drawing, painting, writing, calligraphy, collage, dance, music…)
18:00 Dinner
20:00 Deep relaxation; evening activity 22:00 Noble silence
23:00 Lights out

The creative workshops were new for Plum Village. A nun gave a dance workshop under the trees, the music offered spontaneously by two young people. An array of paints, brushes, pencils, and paper was provided in the painting area, along with piles of old magazines for collages. On the dining veranda a large white wall displayed the creative works as they were made; before long the veranda was decorated with paintings, poems, and calligraphy. Retreatants were encouraged to create spontaneously, in a relaxed, non-academic way, working on pieces alone or in groups.

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One evening we participated in a percussion workshop, creating rhythms on drums, saucepans, wash bowls, bells, wooden spoons, and blocks of wood. Another evening, around a bonfire we enjoyed pancakes cooked by a group of young retreatants as a gift to the community.

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The practice was offered in formal and informal ways. Youngsters were taught sitting and walking meditation, stopping and listening to the bell, and eating in silence. The informal teaching was also important: a long conversation with a monk over a cup of hot chocolate; visiting together around a group painting; talking and really listening to each other. This atmosphere of freedom and peace was created with a minimum of structure so the young people had a safe space to talk, be creative, make music, or just be together.

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During the week, Thay gave two teachings that were attended by the Plum Village community and a question and answer session for the young people. Appreciative of this special opportunity, the young people asked good questions about violence, anger, and monastic life. Thay finished the session asking the young people to continue the spirit of the retreat by forming a “committee of the heart.” This new committee will operate over the Internet. For information about future retreats, keep an eye on the Plum Village Web site.

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The ultimate expression of gratitude for this wonderful retreat came on the last evening, when fifty of us practiced Beginning Anew. Seated under the oak trees, with the evening light fading, we shared the transformations of the past six days. A younger and elder brother reconciled with deep, loving words and a hug. Many shared long-hidden, hurt feelings, brought into this compassionate space to be held gently, listened to, and respected. Finding understanding, forgiveness, and healing. Heard over and over: “This has been the best week of my life.”

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On the first day, the young people arrived anxious, fearful, and stressed from school exams and the pace of city life. They were noisy and talked a lot. It was a joy to watch their faces transform; to see their shy smiles and hear their laughter; to enjoy the noble silence becoming more silent; to hear their language become more gentle. For the sake of the young people, and for our sake, I hope others will organize young persons’ retreats all over the world.

Susan Rooke, True Joyful Stream, lives in the foothills of the French Alps.

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Sangha Dot Com

A twenty-first century phenomenon is the “virtual community” — a gathering of people who share a common interest and develop personal relationships, without ever meeting face to face — thanks to the Internet. For practitioners who don’t have easy access to a live Sangha, these virtual solutions can be a blessing — an electronic raft that keeps their practice afloat. (The cyber-universe evolves rapidly, so some of the technical information here may be out of date by the time you read this. But you might be inspired to start something on your own!)

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Plumline Online Sangha

In March 2006, Allan LaCroix took Thay’s words to heart — “without Sangha, practitioners quickly lose their practice.” Allan, Peaceful Commitment of the Heart, of Ontario, Canada, sent out an e-mail looking for people interested in helping to set up an online Sangha for practitioners who are physically challenged. Because of Allan’s own difficulties accessing Sangha face to face, he thought this might be a viable way for him to keep in contact with the greater Sangha and at the same time maintain his practice.

In Colorado, I was having similar difficulties and I thought this was a great idea, so I contacted Allan. Plumline Sangha was born. We began meeting weekly and over time set up a workable online meeting format using Yahoo IM.

While in Plum Village in June 2006, I met people who lived in remote places with no Sangha nearby. I saw the potential for use of online Sangha by people who are geographically limited as well as physically limited. I posted signs, put out a sign-up sheet during the Sangha Fair, and spoke with people about Plumline. Comments ranged from “a great idea” to “this will be huge over time.”

Allan’s goal was to ultimately set up a website where people could connect with one another. Eventually we created a website that is easy to navigate through and simple to use: www.plumline. org. It is designed to be a support center for those wishing to establish, build, and maintain an online Sangha — a place to share ideas and resources as online Sangha develops.

After the first few months I found myself facilitating Plumline alone, twice a day on Mondays, trying to accommodate people from around the world at 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Mountain Time. We have had requests from twenty-four countries. By December of 2008 I was not able to continue as meeting facilitator by myself. I had received over 175 requests from people and could only serve twenty or twenty-five due to time zone and language constraints. These are some of the places we have heard from so far, outside of the U.S. and Canada: Australia, Austria, South America, Africa, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Syria, Senegal, Thailand, UK, United Arab Emirates.

Fortunately some volunteer facilitators came forward. Bill from Canada took over the evening meeting and now facilitates on Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Lorraine facilitates on Mondays at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time. I still operate behind the scenes, answering the many e-mails that come in.

As our mission statement says, online Sangha is not a replacement for face-to-face Sangha, but a viable alternative for those that cannot regularly attend a traditional Sangha and wish to maintain their practice. Plumline has been established to enhance the Sangha experience for practitioners and enable people to connect with others in similar situations.

A Plumline member from Oregon writes: “Plumline has given me a real frame of reference for the term ‘taking refuge in the Sangha’. Because of my geographical isolation I would have no other way to experience a Sangha and be able to practice and receive loving and compassionate speech.” A member in Australia says, “Thank you to everyone who has kept the Dharma alive in Plumline. A lotus to you, a Buddha to be.”

Plumline has already become more than Allan and I imagined. It has become a vital worldwide Sangha connection — a connection we hope will continue and flourish for years to come.

We are in need of volunteers to make this happen. We need background technical support for the website and the Plumline message board. And we need people to facilitate meetings in other countries to accommodate time zones. Clearly we don’t need someone from every country, yet. We need folks from time zones for Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America.

Please check us out at www.plumline.org or e-mail us at plumline@elitemail.org.

— Elaine Sparrow, True Lotus Heart, lives in Idaho Springs, Colorado where she co-founded Full Moon Sangha. A former educator, Elaine has focused on building Sangha for children and providing children’s programs at Days of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness Anywhere Sangha

A couple of years ago I was listening to The Hand of the Buddha retreat on CD and the phrase “global Sangha” stayed with me. At the same time, I was working on an idea that I call Communities Without Borders, but I didn’t know what the next step was for me. In 1996, my wife and I had started Peace House, in Phoenix, Arizona, part of which was leading a Sangha practice. I would get calls from people asking where and when we met. Their reply was often, “Is there any place closer or on a different day?” The response to all this has come in the shape of a virtual practice center — Mindfulness Anywhere Sangha.

We meet every Monday night, technology permitting, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. (Arizona time, Mountain Standard Time year round), over the Internet or by phone.

We sit and walk together each in our own homes. We have a Dharma talk and discussion. We are able to play talks by Thich Nhat Hanh; I look forward to having other teachers share with us live on the Internet.

The great thing is that distance is no longer a problem, nor are the day and time because the practice is recorded and people can listen and sit when they want. One of the obvious advantages is that we are able to observe a no-car commitment.

Some of the comments have been:

  • “I think this is going to be a valuable resource and I will absolutely circulate it at every opportunity.”
  • “I felt connected to others; I didn’t feel alone at all. I really enjoyed it and it felt like I was with a group.”
  • “This is very comfortable. It really appeals to me since I travel mostly by bicycle; this makes it really easy and allows me to connect with ”

To join the Sangha, go to the website www.mindfulnessanywhere.com and select “Phone-In Sangha” at the top of the page; follow the instructions to join either by telephone or by Internet. The phone lines and Internet connection open every Monday at 6:55 p.m. AZ MST.

We also have an Internet network at mindfulnesspractice.ning. com where one can blog, join forum discussions, share pictures, videos, and music, and send messages to others.

— Rev. Marvin Brown, True Good Energy, is an ordained inter-denominational minister who teaches mindfulness practice and religious thought.

Virtual Sangha

Do you ever wish you had other Sangha members joining you in sitting practice every morning? How about having them join you in your living room so you don’t even have to get up and go anywhere? And they don’t have to get up and go anywhere either! That’s what several of us have been doing for the past few months. We have developed what we are calling Virtual Sangha. Through the wonderful technology of free conference calling, we are able to dial into a common number and be connected with each other via our telephones. We take turns leading — which involves inviting intentions or prayers for the first minute, then doing a short reading for another minute, followed by inviting the bell and sitting in silence together for the next half-hour. We put our phones on speaker so we are free to put our hands in whatever position we wish and enjoy our breathing and meditation. At the end of the half-hour, the bell is rung again, and people hang up and go about their day.

It is very sweet to start the day meditating with others. I have known this from retreats, and I have longed to have it be a part of my daily life for some time now. I have found myself being envious of those who live in community or have a practice center where this opportunity is readily accessible. While our virtual sitting practice is not quite the same as being present in person, it is quite lovely and has made a big difference for me. It has helped me to be more regular in my morning practice, as I know there are others who will be sitting with me. I find it easier to wake up early, knowing that my Sangha sisters and brothers will be there. And it’s not limited to those we know. Although we are in Colorado, by word of mouth, we have people joining us from Iowa and Canada on some mornings. I feel like I’m making new friends with people I haven’t even met!

Feel free to join us. Here’s how it works. We “meet” at 6:15

a.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. on weekends and holidays (Mountain Time). Simply dial 1-218-339-3600. You will be prompted to enter a code. Our group’s code is 934902#. Feel free to identify yourself, but if it’s after 6:20 or 8:05, please remain silent, as the meditation will have begun. (We take the first five minutes to greet each other before the reading and silence begins). Once the meditation has begun, we ask people to mute their phones (by entering *6 on the conference call service) in order to avoid the sounds of rustling clothes, coughs, sneezes, inquiring spouses and children, etc. (Note: The conference call is free, but the long distance call isn’t, so use your free minutes for this. Many people’s long distance charges don’t begin until 7 a.m. on weekdays and don’t apply at all on weekends.)

If you live in another time zone, you may want to start your own Virtual Sangha. Just go to www.freeconferencecall.com and sign up. Happy meditating!

— Val Stepien, Liberating Essence of the Heart, lives in Denver, Colorado where she participates in a real live Sangha, Eyes of Compassion.

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On the Fifth Mindfulness Training

Nourishment and Healing 

By Nguyen Khoa Duc (Tam Thuong Son) 

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Her words punctured the still air and rippled through what had been a very calm Dharma discussion. She said repeatedly to the Dharma group, “There is no way I can do that, no way, I am not ready…not now.” I turned to her, somewhat taken aback by the raw emotion in her voice. The middle-aged lady from Brooklyn who had been mostly silent throughout several Dharma discussions was now full of life and expressing herself in ways only New Yorkers can.

The focus of the Dharma sharing had been on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, as several of us were preparing to participate in the ceremony to be presided over by Thay the next morning. The sharing had been somewhat subdued and uneventful until the last training became the topic of discussion. The lady disclosed to the group that she enjoyed red wine, sometimes lots of it. It had been as much a staple of her diet as food itself. She felt that receiving the Fifth Mindfulness Training would present a conflict with her continuing this habit—one that she was not prepared to give up.

It was October 2009, my first-ever visit to Blue Cliff Monastery. My family had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to participate in the retreat led by Thay. People had come from everywhere to this quiet town surrounded by picturesque rolling hills. I still vividly remember our short time together, the tranquility and the bonding. Moreover, I was looking forward to the Five Mindfulness Trainings ceremony. Now this lady’s candor made me pause and reflect upon my own situation. I began to mull over what the Fifth Mindfulness Training meant to me; I found myself no longer present in the circle of my Sangha brothers and sisters. My mind started to drift away…to another time and to another place.

Foundation of Suffering 

Those of us who grew up in Vietnam during and immediately after the Vietnam War remember that millions of families had to struggle to cope with the physical and emotional hardships of the aftermath. Families were broken apart. Freedom was taken away. Fathers, husbands, brothers, and other loved ones were separated; those left behind did their best to carry on under a dark cloud of doubts, uncertainty, fear, and suppression.

Our family was no different. My father, just like hundreds of thousands of other men and women who were part of the South Vietnamese government, was sent to a concentration camp. I was nine at the time and had no idea why I suddenly had become fatherless. My mother found herself in the unfamiliar role of providing and caring for her four children while trying to keep track of my father’s well-being from afar. I missed him very much. I saw him once, one year after his imprisonment, and not again until our family was reunited here in Virginia in the early 1990s, fifteen years later. I remember many moments when I was alone, crying from missing him. I couldn’t understand why we were apart. Worse, I didn’t know if I’d see him again.

As the years passed, my friends who were in similar situations began to see their family members; one by one they trickled home. Our family was hopeful but was repeatedly devastated as the sparse news of my father seemed to indicate that he was actually being transferred farther and farther from home. My mother did her best to be the father figure to the four of us. She encouraged us to stay active with school and community events so we wouldn’t feel like outsiders, and continued to instill Buddhism in whatever form practicable amidst her own challenges. I sensed that she was overwhelmed with the many responsibilities that fell on her shoulders. Her health suffered from the great burden placed upon her.

In the late 1970s my mother began planning for me to leave Vietnam in search of a better future. I was in my early teens and keenly aware of her intent, but felt the sadness deepen inside me as I was about to be separated from another parent. I prayed that my attempts to flee Vietnam would fail, just so I could see her again. Then I’d regret the prayers when I saw the pain and disappointment on her face after each attempt failed. I finally made it out of Vietnam in 1980.

These experiences became the foundation of my teenage years and adulthood. The trauma and sorrows that peppered my childhood hardened me. I developed a fear of intimacy and trust, feeling that their fragile nature inevitably would create disappointment and sorrow. I began to feel detached from relationships. I yearned for love and envisioned my happiness in the presence of a companion, but I turned away when relationships became real. I feared that the emotional investment would let me down and hurt me, as it did when I lost my family during my earlier years. I struggled to sustain relationships; my insecurity, and as a result, erratic behavior, fractured relationships and ultimately drove those close to me away. I sought loneliness, reasoning that it was a safe haven free from suffering.

To substitute for substantive, meaningful feelings, I developed an insatiable appetite to consume information from the Internet, newspapers, books, magazines, and other sources. I became an avid sports fan; burying myself in somebody else’s world, real or fictional, provided me with with an outlet of comfort. My self-worth was no longer based on my internal being, but rather was dependent on artificial perceptions of the outside world.

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Without solidity, I felt a lack of purpose in my life and it was easy for me to develop negative habits as I grew older. I drank several cups of coffee a day to keep me alert; I also consumed large amounts of soda after exercising, which provided momentary relief from stress. I also became a workaholic, a habit I continue to try to transform today. These practices became the food I needed to survive emotionally, and I needed to continue consuming them in order to survive. I simply didn’t realize that I was sustaining myself on the wrong nutrients. I found my source of happiness everywhere but within.

Wake Up Bell 

In spite of the constant struggles with relationships, in my early twenties I met a wonderful lady whose enormous tolerance and boundless compassion has led me in a healing process. Twenty-one years later, she continues to walk beside me along the path. I remember that right after we had our first child, I became so submerged in work that one day my wife sent a calendar invite to my Outlook email; she merely wanted to request an appointment with me so we could catch up with each other. That was the wake up bell that, unfortunately only much later, I realized I needed.

I came to mindfulness practice about five years ago, through Days of Mindfulness with the Thuyen Tu Sangha. I began to slow down and learned the importance of healing. I learned how it’s okay to face and take care of pain, as that is the only way to transform suffering. While I embraced the concept of mindfulness, I initially found many activities within the practice—such as mindful eating, walking meditation, and deep relaxation—awkward and counterintuitive. I realized a key component of the practice was the support of the Sangha that provides me the strength and energy to help me recognize, embrace, and take care of my negative energies.

Even today, I find it difficult to invite in the sadness, despair, and regrets of my inner child so that I can touch them. I still don’t feel completely safe with intimacy but have begun to recognize the seeds of suffering within me. I realize that I have not reached the end of my journey on the path to healing; in fact, I feel as if it has barely begun. I also realize that the journey may take more than this lifetime. But now I don’t worry about the future or expectations, for I am resting comfortably in the present and in the presence of my Sangha friends. I continue to move forward in their arms.

Recently I reduced my coffee consumption to one cup a day, and that hasn’t affected my alertness or how I function at work and at home. I no longer depend on a pain reliever to get me through my daily runs; in fact, I’ve discovered that my dependence on the pain reliever was all mental. I still find myself eating lunch with one hand on the computer mouse, feverishly clicking, or with both eyes fixed on my iPhone, but that has lessened as I’ve become more aware of this unwholesome habit energy. Most importantly, the practice of bringing my mind and my breath back into the present has helped me restore my consciousness and the clarity with which I now look at life. The transformation is slow and some days I feel like it does not progress at all; however, I have begun to find—however temporarily—peace and joy sprouting from these seeds. I become more present with my wife and children, and our collective energy has begun to permeate the relationships among us and deepen our appreciation of each other.

The sound of the bell from the monastic leading the discussion brought me back to the present and to the circle of Dharma brothers and sisters. The sharing was about to end, and as everyone was slowly walking away, I caught up to the lady from Brooklyn. I smiled, “Dear sister, I, too, have had the same struggle, for different reasons, and although I am not completely sure, I think that as long as you are mindful in your alcohol consumption, and continue to practice mindfulness with your local Sangha, you will be fine. Taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings doesn’t mean our lives are 100% reflective of them. Being aware of them is a start. I hope to see you tomorrow morning.” She smiled at me, as if she appreciated my advice. Little did she know that my reassurance was directed as much to myself as to her.

This article was also published in the Spring 2013 Newsletter of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax (www.mpcf.org). 

mb64-OnTheFifth3Nguyen Khoa Duc is a member of the Boat of Compassion Sangha in the Washington, D.C., area. He began the practice in 2008. This article was his presentation of the Fifth Mindfulness Training on a Day of Mindfulness, which was led by the Blue Cliff Monastery monastics in Virginia in March of 2013. Duc has been married to Lanh Nguyen for twentyone years. They have two children, Joey (14) and Sydney (12), and live in Vienna, Virginia. 

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Together Online

By Thuy Cu and Alipasha Razzaghipour

Thuy: The idea of having an online Sangha came to me when visiting Plum Village in April, 2011. I was lucky to have a one-hour consultation with Brother Phap Ung during my stay in the upper Hamlet. I shared about Sangha building, the problems we were facing in our local group, and how to stay connected with people who couldn’t practice with our Sangha due to travel distances or family circumstances. Brother Phap Ung suggested using the Internet to bring the Sangha to the people, adding that it had been done before. A seed was planted.

Ali: In early 2011, I had a strong desire to practice with a Sangha. Our local group was meeting once a month, but this wasn’t enough for me. My mind focused on finding others in this tradition. One option was to sit online. I wasn’t sure if the energy of brotherhood and sister- hood could be cultivated online, but I had an idea that it might work.

Thuy: Six months later I met my Dharma friend Ali during a retreat in Sydney. We had known each other for a few years, but hadn’t had much contact, as we practiced with different Sanghas. On the last day of the retreat, Ali and I went for a short walk, sat atop a big rock above a waterfall, and enjoyed the beautiful view overlooking the forest. We shared our experiences with Sangha, our visions and ideas of how things could be, and what the tradition meant to us. It turned out that Ali also had been thinking about establishing an online Sangha.

Ali: When I spoke with Thuy at the October retreat, I felt very uplifted. I knew if there were two of us, probably more people would be interested. In the meantime, I set up a site (peacefulpresence.org) to support people looking to establish a local Sangha. We could use the material (songs, talks, guided meditations, etc.) from this site to get started.

Thuy: At the beginning, it was hard. Our first meeting online didn’t go so well, as Skype was unstable and we found it unnatural. We switched to Google+ and worked out a Sangha program of sitting, singing, watching a teaching, and sharing.

Ali: After the first few attempts, I noticed the experience was very transformative—not too dissimilar to a local group. This was encouraging, but not many people were joining. Dozens of people were following the group in Google+, but no one actually had a regular practice. Fortunately, Thuy assured me that if we continued practicing, others would come.

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Thuy: Before long, Chi Tri and Uncle Les came along. Suddenly our group became whole. We actually knew them already, having attended retreats together, but as we began to meditate together online, a strong bond formed. Now it feels like we are siblings, coming from different branches, but actually from the same tree. We are able to sit together, listen to Thay’s talks, share from our hearts, practice touching the earth, and sing songs. We have laughter and deep sharing, and silly times as well. Together, we feel we are walking the right path, as so much happiness and joy come in these online meetings. Others have joined us—Dharma friends from Blue Mountain and Paris, and others from Poland and Germany. We now have two online Sanghas, Heart Sangha and Stillness Sangha.

Ali: As part of the journey, I came across an online group, Plumline, in Thay’s tradition. I spoke with the founder, Elaine, and realised it was probably better to receive the support of Plumline than to go it alone. When we first met, the Plumline family had two groups; now there are nine.

Thuy: Ali suggested we extend our online practice to thirty minutes of silent meditation, daily. When you sit in a meditation hall with a Sangha, within the silence you can feel the collective energy supporting you. The same is true online. I didn’t realize this until Ali went away for a work trip. It was lonely sitting by myself, but whenever Ali had time to join me (even if it was at 3:00 a.m. in the U.S. or 3:00 p.m. in London), I felt his presence and the energy he brought to the sitting.

Ali: Practicing online will never be the same as being there in person. However, it does have some advantages. I tend to travel quite a bit and the online Sangha allows me to stay connected with the group. Yesterday I sat with our group while in London; next week I’ll be joining from Hong Kong. We have yet to discover all of the ways we can connect online. One day, for example, we might be able to sit with the monastics as they practice morning and evening meditation.

Thuy: I think about this online group quite often. Ali is moving to London next year and you never know what’s going to happen. But I have high hopes for this group, knowing it’s a little branch of a huge plum tree, and each of us is a flower blossoming; when the conditions are right, the fruits will appear. Thanks to Thay, a line of plums is growing online.

mb62-Together3Alipasha  Razzaghipour, True Fluent Energy, co-founded Plumline Heart Sangha with Chan Tru Lac (Thuy) in January 2012.

 

 

mb62-Together4Thuy Cu, Chan Tru Lac, member of the Lotus Bud Sangha since 2001, co-founded Plumline Heart Sangha with True Fluent Energy (Ali).

 

 

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How to Join Our Online Sanghas

Below you will find steps to join us online. However, please remember that no matter how wonderfully we connect through social media, Sangha is not about the mechanics. We are there to meet and to learn from each other. We hope the mechanics will fade into the background over time, so we can focus our attention on the Sangha practice. We hope online Sanghas can lead to the formation of many new spiritual friendships, a very precious gift.

Mechanics

The technology our online Sangha uses is Google+ Hangouts. It’s free, and up to nine people can join simultaneously. It has some useful features, such as being able to watch a talk by Thay while still seeing everyone else in Hangout. Since it’s a Google product, many people already have a login. They can talk with one another between Sangha meetings. Moreover, Google+ Hangouts is available on mobile devices, so people without computers can join, too.

You need an invitation to join one or both of our online Sanghas. You obtain one by joining the Plumline group on Google+.

Once every four to five weeks, we open our Sanghas to those who have joined Plumline. We ask that you follow our guidelines, explained below.

Joining Plumline

Follow these steps to join us:

  • Install Chrome as your Internet browser (google.com/chrome).
  • Go to plus.google.com.
  • Search for “Plumline.”
  • Click “Follow” on the Plumline page.
  • Accept the invitation when you receive it (this may take two weeks or so).
  • Click “Join” (big blue button at the top) to log on to plus.google.com
  • Give Google permission to install the software (you only need to do this once).

Guidelines for Joining Our Sangha Meetings

We hope that our Sangha meetings will be an important place for us to support each other, no matter where we live. To do this, we request that people engage fully with us, refraining from other activities (e.g., eating, browsing the net, etc.), while in Hangout. We ask that people stay for the entire Hangout meeting. When we are practicing together, small noises can get amplified; therefore, please mute your audio (unless you’d like to speak).

Keep your video switched on. We look forward to meeting you in Hangout.

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