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.


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.


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.


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.


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Cultivating Our Blue Sky Nature

Skillful Means for Emotional Healing

by John Bell

In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.

John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay specific attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.

Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.

Each year, more people attend.   In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.

This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difficult feelings.



There are some things we know about feelings.  They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.

Five Practices for Handling Feelings

In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the five are:

  • “Blue sky”: Ground ourselves in the ultimate The blue sky is a metaphor for the nature of things, ultimate reality, our home. It is always there behind the local, historical dimension that we get conditioned to think is reality. The blue sky is the is-ness, the ok-ness. To describe it, we use words like “spacious, free, happy, connected, oneness, well-being, no separation, no separate self ”. Each of us has experienced our blue sky nature many, many times. Perhaps in music, love-making, nature, a moment of being “awake.” In C.S. Lewis’s happy phrasing, “surprised by joy!”
  • “Noting:” Learn to observe feelings coming and going. After establishing ourselves solidly in the breath, we allow the different feelings to arise and fall away like waves on the We can use helpful phrases like “feeling sad” (or, “angry, jealous, fearful”, and so on), or “this feeling too” to whatever comes. Relating back to the “blue sky” practice, we can be aware of different feelings like clouds moving across the blue sky.
  • “Change the peg”: Move attention off suffering, onto something positive or interesting, or at least In older methods of carpentry, pieces of wood were attached with a peg. Sometimes a rotten peg would have to be replaced by pounding a new one into the same hole. Originally taught by the Buddha, Thay uses this metaphor to point to the many tools at our disposal for “watering the positive seeds.” When a negative feeling seems to dominate our awareness, we can deliberately choose to get our attention off our troubles by reading a poem, listening to music, taking a walk, reciting a sutra, caring for another person. This list is unlimited.
  • “Taking the hand of suffering”: Embracing what Accepting, befriending feelings. Thay urges us not to treat our sadness or unhappiness as an enemy. “Dear anger, I recognize you. Come, stay with me. I know you are suffering. I know how to care for you.” The practice is to just be with the feeling, not get overwhelmed or swept away, and not run away. This is a variation of “noting.” “So this is what sadness feels like. Hmm.  Very interesting.”  Kind and gentle.
  • “Look deeply”: Examine the roots of With persistent feelings that seem to have a deep hold on us and won’t go away, we can practice exploring the roots of distressed feelings. In my experience, the roots are either in repeated experiences of hurt beginning early in our lives, or in a severe incident of trauma or hurt at any vulnerable moment along the way. What is helpful is to have a friend listen warmly and attentively while we explore the past. Typically tears and fears and laughter and anger will accompany the release of deep and long-lasting hurts. The emotional release will allow understanding to arise. “Oh, that’s why I have always felt like that!” Insight.

Each of these five practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the five practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the first and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”

Blue Sky Practice

In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Blue birds singing a song
Nothing but blue birds from now on

We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.

To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.

After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.

We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.

In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of

the moment. For some, tears flowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.

Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering

Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.


Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:

There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the first truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”

There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.

There is a way out of suffering.  For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identifies with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of purification as a step towards liberation.

The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.

  • Cultivate a noble view of human beings. Know that every human being, by nature, is Buddha I use this description: By nature, human beings are
    • inherently valuable
    • deeply caring
    • enormously intelligent
    • immensely powerful
    • infinitely creative
    • naturally cooperative
    • innately joyful

Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the first set of words!

  • Listen deeply. What are the elements of deep listening? We practice these in our Sanghas.
    • Hold the person in high regard; visualize their Buddha nature.
    • Treat the person with complete respect.
    • Be present and
    • Assume the person knows best how to lead his or her life.
    • Communicate acceptance and lack of judgment.
    • Give your undivided attention, focused concentration, and mindful
    • Encourage awareness and recognition of feelings; recognize that release is a key component of healing.

Deep listening is a powerful tool for healing. Our listening can improve with practice. Invoking Avalokiteshvara’s name states: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice, without any judging or reacting. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”


  • Hold some understanding of the impact of distress. Hurts lead a person to develop self-defense patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Buddhist psychology calls them “kleshas”—powerful reactions that drive our  behavior.  Initially  developed as survival mechanisms to deal with the hurt, these patterns take on a life of their own and persist long after the hurtful experiences have passed. In other words, the negative seeds have received too much water! They tend to control our vital energies and obscure our inherent nature. The most persistent of these patterns are chronic—that is, they operate almost all the time and a person tends to identify with them. Think of someone who is chronically angry, or chronically depressed, or always ready to criticize any good idea, or can be counted on to be the center of attention, or is painfully shy.
  • Practice separating a person from his or her patterns. Always view that person as wholesome and worthwhile, deserving nothing less than complete Always view their patterns as a map of the ways they were mistreated or hurt; not an inherent part of their being, but an add-on. Nurturing compassion is another form of this practice. For example, Thay suggests we practice visualizing our father or our mother as a six-year-old child. Even if we have suffered greatly from our parents, seeing them as younger can open our hearts— we might see them as innocent and pure-hearted, or we might see them already hurt at an early age, and set up to pass that hurt on to us.
  • Welcome feelings. One level of healing happens as a person releases the emotional distresses that are the glue of the patterns. Crying, laughing, shivering, feeling hot with anger are outward signs of the release of distress feelings. This release is natural to all human beings, as can be observed most readily in small children: when hurt they cry. In my experience, most people can learn how to accept and express their pent up feelings appropriately rather than suppress them or act them out. Dealing with feelings with mindfulness is a learned practice. We can learn to feel them without getting overwhelmed by them or identifying ourselves with them.
  • Practice appreciation and validation. “Violence never ceases by violence, but only by love,” said the Buddha. Our hurts have caused us to direct huge amounts of internal violence towards ourselves in the form of self-criticisms, low expectations, lack of self-worth, and so on. Such internal negative chatter cannot withstand a steady dose of self-appreciation. Repeatedly telling yourself things like “I forgive myself,” or “You are fine just the way you are,” or “I’ll never give up on you,” done with mindfulness and persistence, can bring healing tears of release and joy. Loving kindness, or metta meditation points us to our inherent well-being: may I be filled with love and compassion; may my body be peaceful and at ease; may I be safe from fear and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy.  Directed towards oneself, metta is a form of self-appreciation that serves to counter the sometimes constant drone of negative self-talk. Directed towards others, it becomes an effective practice of appreciating others that also has a deep healing effect on oneself.
  • Hold a direction towards our inherent nature. Here is where we circle back to the Blue Sky Regular practice of noticing the presence of the good, the beautiful, the true builds our strength and can put us increasingly in touch with the reality of our inherent nature. In a Dharma talk (November 25, 1999, Plum Village), Thay said: “To allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative feeling when we touch what is wrong, is not a good thing to do. Therefore we should…recognize the positive elements for our nourishment and healing.”

Skillful Means

Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing.  All it takes is practice.

mb36-Cultivating4John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation.  He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.

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Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

By Karen Hilsberg

BRUCE L. HILSBERG, Strong Commitment of the Heart and True Courageous Inspiration, passed away on March 29, 2005. He was forty-five years old. Bruce and his wife Karen met in graduate school, where they both received doctorates in clinical psychology. Bruce’s most recent employment was as Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital, a locked psychiatric facility where he brought mindfulness training to the staff and individuals served.

Partners for eighteen years, Bruce and Karen have two children, Emily and Ben. The Hilsbergs began the thriving Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City in 2003.

Numerous beings have provided invaluable friendships and spiritual support along the path, sharing the gifts of love and non-fear. In lieu of flowers, please offer support to the Touching and Helping Program, c/o Deer Park Monastery, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026.


Many people use the word “lemon” to refer to something that is no good. For example, a car that frequently breaks down is called “a lemon.” But a lemon is a beautiful fruit. The blossoms of our lemon tree fill our garden this very morning with an indescribably sweet fragrance. People have said many things to us during this past year and half of our experience with illness: “This is a trag­edy;” “What is happening to your family is terrible;” and “I hate cancer.” Our response has been to see this time as a wonderful opportunity to develop spiritually, to practice mindfulness, and to learn about true love and non-fear. The depth of closeness and trust that we have nurtured and developed in our marriage and our family this past year has been priceless.

It is one thing to study the teachings in the abstract, philosoph­ically, but quite another to live them day in and day out. For Bruce, that meant facing his own inescapable death; for me, it meant facing the inescapable death of my partner of eighteen years; and for our children, it meant facing the illness and loss of their daddy.

We have been taking refuge in the three jewels, practicing weekly with our Sangha, frequently visiting our teachers and broth­ers and sisters at Deer Park, and practicing with each other, with our family, and with friends. In the process, we have experienced letting go—letting go of our careers and professional personas, of our attachment to Bruce’s physical health, of our possessions, of our so-called independence, even of eating and drinking, and most important, of many long-held notions and beliefs.

In the letting go, remarkable things have been happening. We have touched deeply experiences we had only dreamed of—giving freely of ourselves to our loved ones, receiving the generosity of others, openly communicating with one another. For us, the real­ization that our spirit truly continues on, healthy and vital, even after our body has de-manifested “like a worn out, old shoe,” has been liberating.

Together, as a family, we have been able to transcend feelings of fear and despair and to touch the ultimate dimension when we enjoy simple pleasures like the garden, the flowers, the wind, the birds, the full moon, the laughter and tears of each other and our children, hugging, touching, breathing, moving our bodies sleeping peacefully. Simple pleasures mean everything when we realize that we are all “on death row.”

Just as we enjoy picking lemons from our lemon tree, squeezing them, adding sugar, then water, and tasting the fresh and delicious lemonade, we have taken this experience of cancer that has manifest­ed in our family and added our practice of mindfulness in order to touch the beautiful and refreshing truths taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago. In doing this, we transcend our suffering and touch peace, solidity, freedom, love, and non-fear in our everyday lives.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives with her children in southern California, near Deer Park Monastery


Letter to Bruce and Karen Hilsberg

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hilsberg,

Whether Easterners or Westerners, young or old, we are always very fearful when we are facing death. Even when we are so ill that our breath is irregular, we still don’t believe that we are facing death. We don’t accept that this physical body is disintegrating because of beliefs that lie deep in our consciousness.

But there is an ultimate truth, which you can understand with deep awareness. Life is a cycle of manifestation, and death is a cycle of de-manifestation. We are the awareness that is no birth, no death.

In the winter, the leaves fall from the trees and the branches are bare. But during that time the trees are not dead, because the living energy still exists. We know that in springtime the young shoots and new leaves will return and develop very fast. Our human life is a thousand times more miraculous than the cycle of the trees. As the trees use the cycle of rest to grow, human beings should look at the life and death of this physical body as a cycle, in which they can mature spiritually. When you look deeply into your own mind you won’t have any worry, fear, or despair.

I am not a good practitioner, and I have much suffering when I see that my loved ones are very sick and I cannot help them; when I have to face many of my friends leaving, and I do not have the power to hold them back. But because of the practice, eventually I can transform the fear and suffering in my heart. I have a strong faith that the life and death of this physical body is only a cycle of the manifestation and de-manifestation, while the nature of our true self, is no birth, no death.

Bodhisattvas and Zen masters come to this world and leave this world very peacefully and freely. They can say goodbye to this life with joy because they know that they are not truly gone. We are no different than these bodhisattvas and Zen masters, if we have a strong belief that our true self is never gone.

I sincerely hope that you have strong faith in your Buddha nature that is no birth no death, so you can overcome despair, worry, sadness, and suffering. And I pray that the Three Jewels in the Ten Direcitons will always protect you so that you will have strong faith in yourself.

Venerable Phouc Tinh

The Venerable Phouc Tinh of Deer Park, wrote this letter shortly before Bruce Hilsberg’s death. Translated by Van Khanh Ha.

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Soymilk Sangha

by Susan Hadler


After dinner I walk to the kitchen to check on the soymilk we’ve made today. It should be cooling by now. Later, after evening meditation we’ll put it in the refrigerator, so we can have fresh soymilk for breakfast. The clean-up crew fills the kitchen with activity carrying racks of dishes, washing pots, and mopping the floor. I am surprised to see my soymilk teammate Gary standing at the stove spooning okara, the thick soybean residue, from the huge pot of soymilk into a basin. Normally the okara is filtered out by a machine. What happened to the soymilk?

Phap Do taught the seven of us on the soymilk team how to make soymilk for the 350 retreatants of Solidity Hamlet. Making soymilk is a day-long process that reminds me a little of taking care of a baby. After supper we measure fifteen cups of soybeans into a large plastic tub. We wash the beans three times and soak them overnight. The next morning during working meditation the little round beans are mixed with water and ground between two stones in the grinding machine. After that we pour the thick white liquid into the mouth of another machine we affectionately named “The Great Silver Dragon” whose belly is a filter bag. The machine whirls the soymilk, filtering out the okara, until milk runs out of the spout into a big stainless steel pot. Several times during the filtering process we empty the soft foamy okara from the filter bag into a basin. The okara is mainly used for compost. Later in the afternoon we cook the soymilk for two hours in huge pots double boiler style. When it is cool, we return to the kitchen and tuck it away for the night in the refrigerator.

Soon after learning how to make soymilk, I begin to identify with the little soybeans. We are both seeds in the womb of Mother Earth, constantly changing. I too, am soaking, soaking in the collective mindful energy of the retreat. My tough outer shell softens, my heart opens. I don’t need to protect and defend myself here. I feel safe.

Like the soybean, I am ground up together with the other retreatants and we slowly become a community. My protective edges wear away in the room I share with five other women as we bump up against each other and learn to live together in this intimate space. The aloneness I brought with me loosens and dissolves when I am helped over a rough spot by new friends. I feel supported by the people here and I give what I can. We live and work together mindfully day after day. We walk as one body during walking meditation. We eat our silent meals. We sit in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall in the morning and in the evening. We harmonize our voices to sing and to chant. We walk slowly up and down the mountain without speaking. Separateness is ground away until we become a Sangha river flowing in the Great Hidden Mountain.

Next we are filtered and refined. We let go of suffering, noticing obstacles to happiness, changing old habits. With Thay’s help I see that I’ve carry my beloved grandmother’s despair inside of me for all these years. Her despair is part of my mind. I take Granny for a walk in the hills and she enjoys it so much, the hills, the flowering trees, the birds and the sunshine. She is content now and so am I. I see something else; the way I try to save everyone and end up losing myself, a painful old habit that leads to exhaustion and feelings of imprisonment. It is thick and heavy like the okara we filter out of the soymilk. I see this when our soymilk team runs into trouble.

The seven of us meet with Thay Phap Do. For the first time I realize that my overactive sense of responsibility affects my friends adversely. It let go of every notion and experience great joy! I find out that he is right when I experience a deep wordless connection with this mountain, with the rabbits and squirrels, with the full moon, with the Sangha. There is enough time and space to enjoy every moment.


Gary answers my question as I walk over to the stove. “The filter bag leaked and okara filled the milk. It was too thick to drink and wouldn’t be very tasty.” My first thought is, Why did the filter bag leak? My second thought is, What about tomorrow when we make soymilk again?

Thay Phap Do comes into the kitchen, looks around, and suggests that we use the metal colander and a big pot. He brings forth a nylon curtain to use as a strainer. I watch him line the colander with the curtain and then I speak. “Phap Do, I think I know what happened to the filter bag.” He doesn’t respond. Then I ask, “Will we have to strain the milk this way every day?” This time Phap Do answers. “Just do it now. Use this curtain to filter the milk now.” I feel a little embarrassed and rebuked, having wanted to impress him by figuring out why the filter bag leaked. I walk

is my habit to arrive early on the days we make soymilk and begin to set up the equipment. I run around the kitchen collecting spoons and pots and basins, thinking how nice it will be for my friends to arrive and have everything already set up. But wait, something is changing. Thay is teaching us to become businessless. I notice that my ancestors’ “businessfulness” appears in me. During our meeting several of my teammates express feeling rushed and left out. My heart thumps in my chest and my breath races. I have never before realized that when I act in that extra-responsible-businessful way I take up my teammates’ space and obstruct us from experiencing the ease and leisure that makes deep connection possible and enjoyable. I happily leave my businessfulness in the filter bag. At the end of our meeting Thay Phap Do asks each of us, “What does a cow say?” “A cow?” “Yes. A cow. You know the cow that gives milk. What does a cow say?” Each of us replies and then Phap Do asks us to repeat the sound all together. “Mooooo!” we bellow and laugh. We’re becoming nourishment for the Sangha, light enough to flow freely like a delicious stream of soymilk. We begin our working meditation now with a cup of tea and a long “Moooooo,” the joyful sound of the soymilk team.

And then we cook. We cook the soymilk in the afternoon and the Sangha cooks slowly and continuously in the pot of mindfulness. I feel myself growing more fresh and wholesome as I listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. He tells us that we can find happiness at any moment. He teaches us to transform our suffering and he shows us that we can into the hall behind the kitchen and feel tears spring into my eyes. And then I smile. Oh! I get it. No past. No future. Only now! No blame. No right. No wrong. No theories or notions. Only now!

I walk back into the kitchen and feel so happy as Gary and I strain the soymilk heavy with okara through the curtain. We pour the fresh soymilk into giant pots and store it for breakfast. Friends from the clean-up crew offer to help carry the pots and mop the floor. Just as we’re finishing up, Phap Do reappears and places a new filter bag on the table.

One morning I sit in the dining room that overlooks the temple and the blue hills. I eat breakfast in silence, concentrating on the oatmeal and the soymilk. Gary sits across the table. I hear a rhythmic sound and look up. Gary points to a red-headed woodpecker in the tree outside the window. We sit silently and watch. Phap Do appears on the path beneath the window. His body is completely still as he stands gazing at the tree and the bird. After several minutes he looks in the window and smiles a Buddha smile. Everything is all right. I no longer need to worry about food or cold or anyone or anything. This moment is enough. I am alive. I am here.

Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, lives in Washington, D.C. where she practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.

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One Small Bowl

A Commentary on Eating Meditation

by David Percival


At Plum Village and Deer Park, the food is delicious, nutritious, and abundant. During the first week of the Summer Opening at Plum Village, I was sitting outside waiting for everyone in my family group to arrive before starting to eat. In front of me was a large plate piled high with food, a large bowl full of food, and a bowl of soup.

In the wonderful silence before starting to eat, I became aware that many of the monks at our table had just one bowl in front of them. Across from me was a slender, trim, happy monk with one small bowl of food; I had enough food to fill four small bowls. Some of the other retreatants at our table had equally impressive quantities of food. Over the next few days, I continued to observe that most monastics used only one bowl when serving themselves.

On the table was a small folded piece of cardboard with the important words I have been repeating for years, but somehow overlooked at this meal:

This food is the gift of the whole universe—
the earth, the sky, and much hard work.
May we be worthy to receive it.
May we transform unskillful states of mind,
especially the habit of eating without moderation.
May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent
We accept this food to realize the path of understanding
and love.

As I sat there, the Fifth Mindfulness Training played in my mind. What am I doing with this much food? By the time we began the meal, I wasn’t very hungry and I couldn’t eat it all. I waited until everyone had finished so I could steal away and discreetly put the remainder in the compost bucket. A wasteful but useful experience.

That evening during walking meditation I further contemplated this experience. Later, in Stepping into Freedom I read about the monastic eating bowl. Thay states that “…the monk’s eating bowl is often called ‘the vessel of appropriate measure’. It should be big enough to hold a suitable amount of food, but not too big as to encourage greed.”

Food portions served in restaurants at home seem to be escalating. I thought about the plague of obesity, eating disorders and addictions, diabetes, heart disease, loss of self-esteem, and other illnesses caused by being overweight. Reports suggest that two-thirds of adults in the

U.S. are overweight. There are untold numbers of diet plans, hundreds of books on how to lose weight, and millions of people desperately struggling to change. Food is a major attachment and can cause great suffering.

In this sea of suffering and despair is there a diet of mindfulness we can have with us always? Can we practice the Fifth Mindfulness Training at every meal?

The key is to practice as a monastic: wherever you go, keep your bowl carefully stored away in your consciousness. When you can, get used to using one small bowl or a salad plate for your meal. At home I have a Deer Park bowl as the centerpiece on our table and I look at it each time I sit down to eat.

When you can, serve yourself just what you need or perhaps a little less. Then practice walking meditation to where you sit, even if it’s just a few steps in your kitchen. Sit with your back straight, and practicing mindful breathing, recite the Five Contemplations. Bring yourself into the present moment so you can touch your food, your family, and your community deeply. Thay tells us that “eating in mindfulness nourishes your happiness, and you feel as though you are sharing a meal with the Buddha and his disciples in the Jeta Grove.”

Discussing the First Novice Precept, On Protecting Life, Thay says, “When a novice practices this precept, he or she learns to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion and thereby transforms the seeds of violence and hatred and nourishes the seeds of love. Violence and hatred cause boundless suffering. While a novice walks, sits, stands, lies down, works, speaks, eats, or drinks, she does not forget that all species are suffering. Protecting life is the first practice of someone cultivating her bodhichitta, her mind of love.” We can bring this teaching into our life by choosing a vegetarian diet.

My practice of eating moderate amounts of wholesome vegetarian food combined with exercise is a practice of love, compassion, and happiness. I begin to realize that craving for food is not an element of happiness. When I started this practice, I thought that I would need to give up many things. But over time I understood that when I let go of craving and attachments, I haven’t lost anything. Instead, a beautiful space opens in my mind as I become free from my food cravings and attachments. As Thay said at the Winter Retreat at Deer Park in March 2004, “Live in such a way that there is beauty in each moment—all our actions are our continuation (our karma). Do not wait!” And, never forget your bowl.


Thich Nhat Hanh, Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1997. Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future to Be Possible – Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1993.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is the subscription manager for the Mindfulness Bell.

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Three Full Moons

by Jerry Braza

mb37-Three1 mb37-Three2

Last winter, for the first time in my life, I had an opportunity to stop long enough to witness three full moons come over the mountain at Deer Park Monastery. Taking a sabbatical from my university teaching position, and with the support of my wife, Kathleen, I attended the Winter Retreat to experience the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh with several hundred monastics and lay practitioners.

Before I left for Deer Park, as the first moon of 2004 was waxing, my mother celebrated her 100th birthday, and moved from her apartment to a nursing home. In a Dharma talk Thay said, “Some people live to be 100 and never really deeply touch the present moment.” My mother has lived for more than 1,200 full moons. The moon was always there for her. Was she ever there for the moon? How many of her moons reminded her of the preciousness and impermanence of each fleeting moment?

Living in the rural environment of Deer Park, I became much more aware of the moon and its phases. I walked mindfully each evening to the outdoor pay phone to call Kathleen, and would check in with my friend, the moon. Where are you, dear moon? Are you waxing or waning? When will you be full again? The moon became a gentle reminder of the cyclical nature of my being and the temporary nature of all phenomena.

During the first full moon at Deer Park, my son Mark announced his engagement to Preety, a lovely woman from India. Later, my daughter Andrea and her husband Eric shared news of the upcoming birth of another grandson. New moon, new loved ones to cherish. Oh, moon, teach me about change so that I may model your gifts for those I love.

During these three full moons, a friend of thirty years was incarcerated for spousal abuse. I wonder how and when the first blow was struck. Was it in words? Was it a lack of awareness of the other’s suffering? Can my friend see the moon in his “grey wall monastery”? How many moons will offer him comfort during long bleak nights filled with doubt and self-recrimination? Will this time of rehabilitation offer him the light needed to illuminate the sacredness of life?

One night, as I viewed a waning moon, Kathleen shared the news that two good friends were getting a divorce. What caused the light to go out of their relationship? How many moons did they celebrate in happiness? in darkness? Could awareness of the nature of the moon have guided them in more healing directions?

As the new moon emerged in February, we celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. We prepared for Tet through a process of inner and outer spring cleaning, attempting to let go of unfinished business and open more deeply to the present moment. How can we celebrate the New Year, new beginnings, if we are still hanging on to the legacies of the past?

During these three moons, Rick, a longtime colleague, died of a heart attack at his desk after teaching a class. When did he see the moon for the last time? Did he, by chance, ever stop and look deeply at the moon one day with the awareness that this may be his last time seeing it? The moon can be a reminder of the cycle of birth and death and the importance of dwelling deeply in the present moment since it could very well be our last moment.

During these three moons, the Deer Park Sangha took several moonlight walks with our teacher. As the moon guided each footstep through the hills, thoughts of weddings, births, and life events were replaced by gentle reminders that happiness is found in the present moment. Enjoy the moon tonight in its brightness and realize its impermanence. Let the moon become your teacher of change, of mindfulness, of impermanence, and the preciousness of life.

Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a Dharma teacher living in Salem, Oregon. He affiliates with the River Sangha and the Oregon Sangha. He is a Professor of Health Education at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon.

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Airplane Dharma: No Birth , No Death

By Christian Bergmann


We flew one night with the Sangha from Hue to Hanoi. Half the airplane was filled with monastics and lay Sangha. Over an hour into the flight we were told that bad weather conditions were preventing us from landing in Hanoi. Now we were heading for Haiphong, a town by the sea two hours’ drive from Hanoi, and would take a bus from there back to Hanoi. As we approached Haiphong, we could see that the weather there was not much better. It was so foggy we could barely see our own wings, much less any city lights below.

As we got close to the ground the pilot switched off all the cabin lights. We sat in the blackness, flying slower and slower, expecting to touch down any minute but with no idea how close to the ground we actually were. Time seemed to stretch forever sitting in the dark plane.

Suddenly the airplane was thundering, the engines going full blast, as the pilot pulled the plane sharply up. It was very loud in the cabin. I wondered if this would be my last minute in this life. I expected we might hit a building or the trees at any second.

My wife, Angela, and I held hands, saying that we loved each another, just in case these were to be our last words. I trembled.

My legs were shaking, my heart was beating fast and hard, my breath was choppy. Fear of death captured my mind.

It was a powerful teaching. Being a hospice nurse, I had fooled myself into believing I had accepted the impermanence of life. But when that reality got personal and real, I saw that I have a long way to go in my understanding! I was not willing to let go of this life.

So we sang some spiritual songs as I tried to focus on my breath. What brought me the most calm was chanting Avalokiteshvara’s name and visualizing the Buddha’s and Thay’s smiling faces.

This experience was a great mirror in which I saw that my practice has yielded only partial success. And it was a great inspiration to practice wholeheartedly, and to live each day as if it may be the last. As we gained altitude, we flew back to Hue. After refueling, we reboarded the plane for another try.

Christian Bergmann, Joyful Gratitude of the Heart, lives in Berlin, Germany and practices with the Source of Compassion Sangha.

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Lessons from the Deer Park Family Retreat

By Karen Hilsberg


My plan was to take a friend and my children, Ben, five, and Emily, eight, to the family retreat at Deer Park over the fourth of July weekend. This would be our third family retreat with the Deer Park Sangha. Though my husband, Bruce, recently passed away, my hope was to return to a place where we had shared many meaningful times and to continue our family practice with the support of the Sangha. The week before the retreat, my friend decided not to come. Three days before the retreat, Emily voiced her desire not to come as well. When she told me it was “not right to force her” to attend a mindfulness retreat, I could not deny the truth of her words. She and my son opted to stay home with a babysitter and for only the second time as a parent, I traveled without my husband and children.

I felt a mixture of excitement, freedom, anxiety, and fear as I headed out of town: thrilled at the prospect of having only myself to look after and all the programs I could attend uninterrupted by my children’s needs; excited that my children felt safe, independent, and trusting enough to speak their truth and send me on retreat; delighted that I could release my plans and concerns about what others might think, and just take care of myself. All these feelings were mixed with a strange new feeling of independence after the past year of caretaking during Bruce’s illness and dying process. After dreaming of getting away (and sometimes of running away) during the past year while sitting in doctor’s offices and hospitals, in the fullness of time, I was presented with the possibility of a dream come true. And I had taken it.


In this state of mind, I arrived at Deer Park, fully expecting the retreat to be a life-changing experience, based on my previous retreat experience there. I felt open in a way that I never had before––expectant, wondering, and alive. I surrendered to the retreat and the time was magical for me. I practiced mindfulness with my whole heart and created my intention to be fully present. with my experiences and to the Sangha. I am so grateful to the Sangha for the support my family has been offered, and I wanted to give back. I let go of my tendency to create arbitrary plans and instead just followed the schedule and my instincts about where I needed to be, what thoughts and feelings were coming up for me, what I needed to be doing and with whom, and trusted in the refuge of the three jewels.


Besides attending nearly every scheduled activity, I also had the luxury of engaging in many conversations with my lay and monastic brothers and sisters. Highlights of the retreat for me were the Rose Ceremony, the early morning hike up the mountain, participating in a Five Mindfulness Trainings panel presentation, and attending wonderful Dharma talks on parenting. Nourishing moments included laughing with friends in the garden and dining hall after meals, crying about Bruce’s death, seeing a raven for the first time, learning about oak trees, and sleeping in a hut in Clarity Hamlet with the nuns. Everything felt safe and familiar yet totally fresh, surprising, and new to me at the same time.


I have brought home a recharged spiritual battery, newfound and deepened friendships, a more intimate understanding of myself, my marriage, my children, and my priorities as a mother, daughter, sister, and practitioner. I continue to experience new insights that help me transform my life. Central to my newfound freedom has been an awareness of how my plans and ideas about how to parent interfere with my enjoyment of my life and my children here and now. I’ve noticed since I’ve been home that I’ve been listening more deeply to my children, feeling more patient with myself and with them, and taking more time for myself when I feel sad, tired, irritable, or frustrated. I’ve been aware of not pushing myself like I used to and continue to make time and space for my practice at home every day.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, is a psychologist and lives with her children near Deer Park Monastery.

Lessons from Deer Park Monastery

Jewish Roots, Outstretched Branches, & Buddhist Leaves

By Laureen Lazarovici


One of the most satisfying aspects of my retreat at Deer Park in September was taking part in the Jewish Roots discussion group. I knew they were my dharma brothers and sisters and at the same time my tribesmen and women, connected to me by 6000 years of Jewish history and heritage. I heard tales of ambivalence, inner conflict, pain, and also joy, liberation, and compassion. We were all struggling with integrating two moral systems and two sets of spiritual practices into our lives in authentic and meaningful ways.

I’m now realizing how much I saw and experienced the entire retreat through Jewish eyes. For instance, I had great resistance to having meals in silence. In Jewish cultures, and many others as well, meals are times for family and friends to gather, discuss, argue, debate—in short, to be noisy. Jewish holidays are often organized around festive meals and special dishes: the Passover seder features symbolic foods to commemorate the Exodus from slavery to liberation, or we break the fast together after Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. So to be silent while eating when there were other people around was a challenge.

As if to rebel, I made inane small talk in my head and ate my meals as mindlessly as if I were making inane small talk with my friends. I know this was a lost opportunity to practice with gratitude, but it was an eye-opener in its own way.

A Buddhist Bar Mitzvah

During the retreat, I had the privilege of witnessing the transmission ceremonies for the Fourteen and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My reaction was, “We should do this instead of bar mitzvahs.” A bar mitzvah is the coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish thirteen-year-old boys; for girls, the ceremony is called a bat mitzvah. The translation is “son or daughter of the commandments.” For the first time a young person reads from the Torah publicly in synagogue and—ostensibly—takes on the moral responsibility of adulthood.

But in our society, thirteen-year-olds aren’t really on the cusp of adulthood, and many bar and bat mitzvahs simply involve big parties and awkward teenagers trying to pretend they are having a good time. Watching the transmission ceremonies, I thought about how much more powerful it would be if our coming-of-age rituals allowed people—at whatever time in their lives they felt ready—to proclaim publicly and in front of their communities a commitment to live by a set of guiding precepts that bring harmony and happiness to our hearts, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.

Segregating the Sexes

The night before one of the transmission ceremonies, the monks and nuns told the Sangha that for the following morning’s ritual men would sit on one side of the room and women on the other. I’m emphatically not a morning person, so the next morning I dashed to the meditation hall barely awake. In my foggy-headedness, I sat on the men’s side of the hall by mistake. A man sitting in front of me leaned back and tapped me on the knee in what felt like an unnecessarily harsh way. “The women sit on that side,” he hissed.

I skulked to the back of the hall and examined my emotions. I felt humiliated and angry, but out of proportion to the incident. It took me a few days to realize why this experience touched a soft spot. Much more than a rough tap on the knee, what bothered me was the ongoing struggle for equality within Judaism.


For their prayer services, very religious Jews segregate the men from the women. The two genders sit on separate sides of the prayer space, usually divided by a mechitzah, a screen or curtain. Sometimes the women’s section is even in the back or upstairs. More liberal branches of Judaism do not follow this practice.

The issue of separate seating divides the Jewish community because it is an indicator of separate and often unequal gender roles in the religion and culture. So for me to be shooed off to the women’s section in a Buddhist context was jarring. [See Sister Annabel’s commentary on “Sitting Separately” in the sidebar.]

What To Keep and What To Let Go Of

Another powerful experience for me during the retreat was the practice of touching the earth. As we lay prostrate on the ground, our teacher instructed us to hold on to what we valued about our ancestors and let go of what caused us pain.

My rigid mind resisted this instruction at first. “No, it’s all or nothing. You have to take the bad parts if you want the good parts.” But then a voice of compassion arose: “Who made up that rule? Just try and see how it feels.” I took a deep breath and let some of the negative legacies from my ancestors flow downward and seep out of my body and into the earth. I felt cleansed and liberated.

Those of us exploring and embracing Buddhism who also want the richness of our root tradition in our spiritual lives can do the same thing. We can experiment with what we keep and what we let go of. These might shift over time, re-assembling themselves in new and perhaps surprising ways. As we work to integrate our practice of Judaism with our practice of Buddhism, we are honoring our roots while letting our branches reach upwards to bring forth new leaves.

Laureen Lazarovici, an “alumna” of the Weeping Cherry Sangha in Arlington, Virginia, now sits with the Malibu Sangha in Los Angeles, California.

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Book Reviews

mb42-Book1This Tender Place
The Story of a Wetland Year

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

Reviewed by Janice Rubin

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

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

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

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

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

mb42-Book2Little Pilgrim

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

Reviewed by Judith Toy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Hope Lindsay and Barbara Casey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dharma Talk: Throwing Away

Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

June 7 – 8, 2006

Thich Nhat Hanh

During the Breath of the Buddha retreat at Plum Village, Thây focused on the Sutra on Mindful Breathing, which he had just translated from the Chinese. In this excerpt from two Dharma talks,Thây discusses exercises 11 through 14.

Exercise 11: Skillfully he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

Exercise 12: Skillfully he practices breathing in, liberating his mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

mb43-dharma2The practice of concentration helps us to understand the nature of affliction, and with that kind of insight, we can burn affliction away. Concentration as energy has the power of transformation. Concentration is something extremely important in the teaching of the Buddha.

To concentrate means to concentrate on something. In the teaching of the Buddha, many kinds of concentration are proposed. According to our need, we can apply one or two of these concentrations to free us, like concentration on impermanence, concentration on non-self, concentration on compassion, concentration on interbeing, and so on. Each concentration, each samadhi, has its own name.

The Buddha spoke about the three doors of liberation, which are considered to be three concentrations: emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness.

Emb43-dharma3mptiness is not a philosophy, a description of reality. Emptiness is a practice. Emptiness does not mean non-being, non-existence. There’s a big difference between non-existence and emptiness. Suppose we look at the glass. It is empty. The glass is empty, but the glass is not non-existent, right? In order to be empty, you have to be there. That is one thing you can learn—emptiness is not non-existence. The second thing is that when we say the glass is empty, you have to ask, “Empty of what?” It’s not empty of air. It is empty of tea, but it is full of air. So the intelligent question to ask is, “Empty of what?” The first answer may be: empty of a separate existence, empty of a separate self.

This is the simplest description in the Buddhist scriptures about emptiness, about interbeing: this is, because that is. As practitioners, we don’t just speak of emptiness as a teaching philosophy. We have to transform emptiness into a complete practice.

Signlessness is the second door of liberation. “Sign” means the appearance or the form. We are used to seeing the form that is the object of our perception. Nimita is the form. Animita is formlessness, or signlessness. The practice is not to be attached to the form, and this needs some training.

Those of us who have lost a loved one, we know grief. But if you are equipped with the concentration of signlessness, formlessness, you can overcome your grief, your sorrow, very quickly. You are capable of seeing things in the light of signlessness: nothing is born, nothing dies. Everything continues in this new form. You also! Your nature is the nature of deathlessness.

Aimlessness is the third door of liberation. Apranihita is the Sanskrit term. Apranihita means you don’t put anything in front of you as object of your pursuit. What you are looking for is already there, not outside of you. You are already what you want to become. You are wonderful just like that. Don’t try to be something else, someone else. You don’t have to go to the future in order to get what you want. Everything you are looking for, it is right here, in the here and the now, including the Kingdom of God, your immortality, your deathlessness. Your enlightenment is right here. And that is truly the third door of liberation: aimlessness.

The Concentration on Loving Kindness

There is a concentration called maitri, karuna—love, compassion. And the contemplation on love, on compassion, can bring you a lot of relief, can bring the nectar of healing to you.

Suppose someone has made you suffer. You think of him or her as very cruel. That person has inflicted on you a lot of suffering, on your family, on your country. And because of that you want that person or that group of persons to suffer a lot for you to get relief. You are thinking in terms of punishment. That hate, that anger, that will to revenge is a kind of fire that continues to burn your body and your mind, and you are in hell. Hell is here in the here and the now.

Just before, we spoke about the Kingdom of God being in the here and the now. But that is true of hell. Hell can be in the here and the now. If we allow the flame of affliction to burn us, there are moments when lying on our bed we cannot sleep because our whole body, our whole being is burned by the fire of hate, of anger, of despair.

The concentration on maitri, on karuna, on compassion, will help you to suffer less.

With your attention focused on the other person, you can see that the other person suffers a lot also. The fact is that when someone suffers a lot and is not capable of handling his or her own suffering, she will spill her suffering all over, and you become a victim of that.

And you may be like that. You are suffering a lot, and if you don’t know how to manage your suffering, you continue to suffer and you will make others around you suffer, including the people you love.

Looking deeply, we see that the other person, as a child, did not have a chance to learn love and compassion from his or her parents. The parents have caused a lot of wounds in him, in her, as a child; and no one has helped him or her to heal the wounds in the child. And then when they went to school, the teacher did not help, and the students around did not help. The seeds of anger, suffering, and hate continued to grow.

Such a person needs help, not punishment. By looking deeply and recognizing the presence of suffering in that person, you might see the truth that that person needs help. And now if we punish him, he will suffer more.

This insight may motivate you to do something to help that person. With that kind of insight, the hate and anger vanish, because that insight brings the nectar of compassion. And the nectar of compassion is wonderful. You stop suffering right away. The fire that has been burning, stops burning. That is the effect of metta meditation, the meditation on compassion.

Compassion for a Suicide Bomber

Nowadays we learn that there are many young people in the Mideast, they are ready to die, to blow themselves up with a bomb in order to kill as many as possible. We call them terrorists, and we believe that in order for the world to be peaceful, you have to kill all these terrorists. So you invest a lot of money and energy into what you call the war against terror. The more you kill, the more terrorists you create, because the killing is an act of punishment. Then the family and the friends of the one who is killed burn with the flame of anger, the will to punish. In killing one so-called terrorist, you create three, four terrorists more. That is what is happening.

There are many young people who suffer so much hate and despair, not only in Iraq, but also in Europe, in America. The number of young people who kill themselves every day is enormous. When you are burned by the flame of despair, of hate, of violence, you suffer so much. And as a young person, you don’t know much about your mind, about the practice. You believe that the only way to stop the suffering, the burning, is to kill yourself.

I guess for many young people, to die is much easier than to live, because they are overwhelmed by the emotions—of hate, of despair. And then you are told that by dying you might help the cause of justice, and you can go to paradise right away after death.

These kinds of perceptions and feelings lead to the act of suicide bombing. If you look deeply, you see that these people need help. And the operation to kill them is not the right answer. We have to help them to see there is a way out of suffering, that only love and compassion and understanding can solve the problem.

One side is using violence. The other side is responding with violence. And the situation goes on without a chance to stop. The way out is shown by the Buddha. Hate cannot respond to hate. Violence cannot respond to violence. There must be another way. The meditation on compassion is essential.

During the war in Vietnam we were able—myself and many friends of ours—to see that the young Americans who came to Vietnam to kill or to be killed were also victims of a wrong policy. With that kind of insight we tried to work for reconciliation rather than supporting one side of the war.

In my experience, the concentration on compassion is a wonderful practice. You may need only fifteen minutes of breathing deeply and looking deeply to recognize that the other person is a victim of his or her own suffering. That person needs you, needs your help, and does not need your punishment. Suddenly the nectar of compassion is born, your heart is blessed with that nectar, and you don’t suffer any more. Instead, you want to do something, to say something, and if you are not capable of loving speech you can write a letter. You can say something kind in order to help that person. But you cannot help that person until you have been able to help yourself. Peace and compassion always begin with yourself.

The Reality of Impermanence

Exercise 13: Contemplating impermanence, I breathe in. Contemplating impermanence, I breathe out.

Impermanence is a key that can unlock the door of reality. It is also a concentration, a practice. Intellectually we know that things are impermanent. We can agree with the truth of impermanence. Our scientists also agree that things are impermanent. But in reality we still behave as though things are permanent.

We have to keep the insight of impermanence alive. When we come in touch with anything, we should be able to see the nature of impermanence in it.

mb43-dharma4We have to distinguish between the notion of impermanence and the insight of impermanence. We may have the notion of impermanence, we may have understood what impermanence is, but we do not have the insight of impermanence. The insight is something alive.

Impermanence is a fact that science has to recognize. When you are able to see the nature of impermanence, you’ll begin to see the nature of non-self. Because non-self is not different from impermanence. Since everything is changing in every second, nothing can remain itself in two consecutive moments. So impermanence means non-self. They are the same thing.

Looking from the angle of time, you say, impermanence. Looking from the angle of space, you say, non-self. They are exactly the same thing.

In the Pali canon, non-desire comes next. In the Chinese canon, throwing away is next.

Throwing Away What?

Exercise 14: Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go. Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

Throwing away is a wonderful practice. You might like to ask, “Throwing away what?” What is to be thrown away?

We have learned that wrong perceptions are the ground of all afflictions— fear, anger, discrimination, despair. So it’s easy to know that throwing away here means to throw away wrong perceptions—ideas or notions—that are at the base of our suffering. It is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation. You have an idea, and you entertain that idea for a long time, and you continue to suffer.

Every one of us entertains an idea about happiness. It may be because of that idea of happiness that we’ve never been happy. So it’s very important to throw away that notion of happiness.

A nation is a community of people, and they may entertain together one idea, one ideology. Each political party—the socialist party, for instance—entertains an idea. And we might get caught in that idea. An ideology may be a trap, and your nation may be caught in it for sixty, seventy years, and during that time you create a lot of suffering. Those who do not agree with that ideology, you put them in psychiatric hospitals. The moment you release that idea, happiness begins to be possible.

So throwing away is very important. It takes insight and courage in order to throw away an idea.

The word is “throwing away.” It’s very strong; it’s not just letting go. The Sanskrit, the Pali term, is “throwing away” in a very strong way. The Vietnamese meditation master Tang Hoi, he used the word phong xa for throwing away. Tang Hoi was the first teacher of meditation in Vietnam, who lived in the first half of the third century.

Insights from the Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away four notions. The first notion is the notion of self. It is by intensive training that you can throw away the notion of self.

If a couple knows how to live in a spirit of non-self, there will be no difficulty, no anger, no discrimination, no despair, because they have realized the truth of non-self. If a father and son, mother and daughter, have the insight of non-self, they look at each other as interbeing.

mb43-dharma5There is the idea that I am this body. This body is mine, belongs to me. This is a notion that does not correspond to reality. When we say the words “I am,” we say it on the ground of the notion “I am,” and still people do not believe very much in that statement. That is why they try to justify it with a kind of argument.

In order to demonstrate that “I am” is a reality, René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” One day I saw a cartoon picturing Descartes touching a horse. He declared, “I think, therefore I am.” And the horse asked back, “You are what?” That is a good question. If you can answer what you are, you may have a better idea that is closer to reality.

In the scripture it is written, “This is, because that is.” This is a statement about interbeing. If you are not there, I cannot be here.

So it is very important to throw away the notion “I am,” the notion of self, because it does not reflect the truth. By looking deeply into the nature of reality, you are capable of throwing away that notion of “I am.”

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away is the notion “man,” human being. This is not too difficult. When we look into the human being, we see human ancestors, we see animal ancestors, we see vegetable ancestors, we see mineral ancestors. We see that the human is made of non-human elements. We see that we are at the same time a rock, a river, a cloud, a squirrel, a rose. And if we take away all the non-human elements, the human being is no longer there.

This is the deepest teaching on deep ecology. In order to protect the human being, you have to protect elements that are not human, because these elements are our ancestors, and if you destroy them there is no way we can be here. That is why discrimination between man and nature is a wrong view. You have to see you as nature, one with nature.

That is why harmony, respect of life, is possible. So throw away the idea that the human being is the boss, man is the boss, man can do anything to nature. The key is contemplation on impermanence of non-self.

The first to be thrown away is the notion of self, the second is the notion of man. With liberation from that notion, we become less proud, less arrogant as a species. We have to respect and protect other species in order for us to have a chance. That is why we said the Diamond Sutra is the oldest text on deep ecology.

We have the notion of la matiere inerte. But if you look deeply into the notion that matter is something without soul, without life, we see that is not true.

First of all, matter is the object of our perceptions. For a long time we believed that matter exists as a separate entity, and matter is something that does not move. But now as science advances, we see that matter is not static and immobile as we thought. In fact, the atoms, the electrons, move a lot. They are very alive. And looking more deeply, we see a lot of our mind in it, and we are not sure that they are there, in the way we imagined. So the distinction between living beings and non-living beings disappears after meditation. There is no longer any discrimination.

The fourth notion to be thrown away is the notion of lifespan. We believe that there is time, and we are born at one point of time. Our birth begins here, and we shall die at another point of time—death. I’ll only spend seventy, eighty, ninety or one hundred years on this planet. After that, I’ll be gone. This is what we believe. But as we look deeply, we see that this is a notion, a wrong perception. Birth is a notion, and death is also a notion. It’s not reality.

We have spoken of the deathlessness of a cloud. The cloud can never die. It can only become rain or snow. In our mind, to die means from something you become nothing; from someone you become no one. But if you look deeply you don’t see anything like that. A cloud can never die. If we look deeply we see that the nature of the cloud is also the nature of no birth. In our mind, to be born means from nothing we become something. From no one we suddenly become someone.

The cloud does not come from nothing. It has come from the water in the river, in the ocean. It has come from the sunshine, the heat. And you know that the birth of a cloud is a poetic image. It is a new manifestation. Before being a cloud, the cloud has been many other things.

Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Birth and death are notions that cannot be applied to reality, because nothing can be born from nothing, and nothing can become nothing at all. This meditation practice of looking deeply will bring about insight. It will dissipate our fear and our despair.

Those are the four basic notions that are at the foundation of our fear, our desperation, our suffering. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to practice looking deeply, so that we can throw them away. The practice of throwing away your notions, your views, is so important. Emancipation and liberation would not be possible without this practice of throwing away.

If we suffer a lot, it’s because we still entertain a number of ideas. The practice of meditation helps us to get free from these ideas.

Our World Needs Wisdom

So the object of our meditation is not something alien to our daily life. The way proposed by the Buddha is to help yourself and to help the people around you. It is to practice looking more deeply in order to be liberated from these notions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence.

Writing a letter to a suicide bomber is true meditation. Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight. As a teacher, as a parent, a journalist, a filmmaker, you are capable of sharing your insight so that you can wake up your nation, your people. And if your nation, your people, are awake, then your government will have to act according to the insight of the people.

Meditation is essential for our survival, our peace, our protection. In fact, it is wrong views that are at the base of our suffering, and throwing away wrong views is the most important, most urgent thing.

To come to a retreat is not to get away from it all. To come to a retreat is an opportunity to look deeper, and to see exactly where we are.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Greg Sever and Janelle Combelic.

The Sutra on Mindful Breathing

This is what I have heard at a time when the Buddha was residing in the Jeta Grove in the town of Sravasti.

On that day, the World-Honored One told the Bhikshus:

“Dear friends, let us enjoy the practice of Mindful Breathing. If a Bhikshu knows how to skillfully practice Mindful Breathing, and does so consistently, he will find his body and mind peaceful; he will acquire positive investigations and reflections; his mind will be calm and pure; and he will have perceptions leading to Wisdom and be able to bring his practice to completion.

“This is how a bhikshu should proceed:

“Whether the bhikshu lives in a village or in a town, in the morning he puts on his sanghati, holds his begging bowl, and goes into town for alms round. While doing so, he knows how to protect his body and his six senses, his mind skillfully focused on whatever is present. After the alms round, he returns to his dwelling, puts his sanghati and begging bowl away, washes his feet, goes into the forest, to an empty room, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty space in the open air, and sits down in an upright position. He holds his mindfulness in front of him, releases all worldly pursuits, and lets go of his anger, torpor, restlessness, regret and doubt, his mind determined to be in accord with wholesome dharmas, leaving far behind the five hindrances that cause afflictions, weaken his wisdom and constitute an obstacle on the path of Nirvana.

1. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his out-breath.

2. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in a long or a short in-breath, fully aware of his long or short in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out a long or a short out-breath, fully aware of his long or short out-breath.

3. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his whole body.

4. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, relaxing his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, relaxing his whole body.

5. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing joy.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing joy.

6. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing happiness.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing happiness.

7. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his feelings.

8. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, calming his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, calming his feelings.

9. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his mind.

10. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, gladdening his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, gladdening his mind.

11. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

12. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, liberating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

13. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating impermanence.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating impermanence.

14. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

15. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating non-desire.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating non-desire.

16. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating cessation.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating cessation.

“Bhikshus! That is how the practice of Mindful Breathing helps make our body and mind peaceful, helps us acquire positive investigations and reflections, makes our mind calm and pure, helps us have perceptions leading to Wisdom, and brings our practice to completion.”

After the Buddha had finished his teaching, the bhikshus, having listened to the Buddha, happily put the teachings into practice.

Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 2, No. 99, Tsa A Han (No. 29) 803.
Chinese translated from Sanskrit by Gunabhadra, A.D. 435-443 ( Liu Song period ).
Translated from Chinese by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Greed, Generosity, & Reality

 By Janice Rubin

mb43-Greed1On a recent Monday evening with my sangha, during the dharma discussion I talked about the book Hooked! In this wonderful book Buddhist scholars and teachers write about greed and the urge to consume. I also spoke about the way our culture’s encouragement of greed and acquisition run counter to Buddhist teachings.

The Second Mindfulness Training teaches us to not take what does not belong to us. Yet when we build bigger cars and homes, acquire more clothing than our closets can hold, or replace items that could have been reused, we are using more than our fair share of the resources of the earth. In Asian countries that are becoming Westernized, the Buddhist life of simplicity has been giving way to a culture of shopping and acquisition. Anxiety appears to be increasing among the people because in an acquisitive culture, adequacy is unattainable—one can never have enough or be good enough.

Letting Go of Attachment

In the Second Mindfulness Training we commit ourselves to practicing generosity by sharing what we have with those in need. The annual “Heavenly Treasures” rummage sale at the church where we meet has served to keep me focused on dana all year round. As I go into drawers or closets, or try to make room for newly acquired books on shelves, I find myself selecting items that I will donate to the sale. Over the years I have been slowly letting go of the unneeded things one accumulates during fifty-five years of marriage. At the same time I have been enabling others to pick up for a song something they might treasure. The church that has been so generous in welcoming us three times each week, and whose pastor, Jack Lohr, founded our Sangha, benefits financially from this giving and in turn, uses the money for good works for those less fortunate.

Another member of my Sangha, Madelain, mentioned that those who refuse to accede to the demands of modern society often find themselves forced to do so. She said she has refused to acquire a cell phone, but may eventually have to do so because the availability of public phones for use in an emergency away from home has diminished. Also, she said, the uncertainty that Social Security benefits will be available when her generation is ready to retire, causes many to invest their money in material goods as a form of insurance.

Steve said he had changed careers because he found the planned obsolescence in the industry in which he worked to be contrary to his beliefs. In the past few years he had experienced much loss, but each loss, whether of material things or relationships, had made him appreciate more what he does have.
Jack, a management consultant, was currently involved in setting up a meeting of large manufacturers from all over the industrialized world. He believes we are at the tail end of the consumer culture. Industrial leaders are now aware of the importance of conserving natural resources and protecting air quality. They are producing goods that are not only better made and longer lasting, but will either be biodegradable or recyclable when they are no longer useful. We are the only animals on earth whose waste is not degradable, he added.

Finding the Middle Way

A longtime Buddhist practitioner, he said one of the problems of an acquisitive lifestyle relates to the fact that acquisition is in the future. What you have can only be enjoyed in the present moment. The greedy person, consumed by thoughts of future acquisition, fails to take pleasure in what is here to be enjoyed now.

I read aloud the first few pages and the last page of an essay by Sumi Loundon, one of the seventeen Buddhist scholars and writers in Hooked! She described, with some humor, her upbringing in a 1970s American Zen Buddhist commune. While grateful for the awareness of consumerism with which she was raised, and which still affects her choices in life, she said she does not intend to raise her children in an atmosphere of such deprivation.

mb43-Greed2We agreed that the Buddha’s teaching on the Middle Waywould be a fi guide for us all on the path between self-abnegating austerity and the rampant consumerism promoted by our society.

Janice Rubin practices, teaches, and writes in Bergen County, New Jersey.

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Heart to Heart

“Heart to Heart” is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell, where we will publish short pieces on a given topic.

Keep your writing personal and concrete, focusing on the fruits of your mindfulness practice. Preference will be given to shorter pieces, under 500 words. All submissions will be edited. Submit via email to mindfulness.bell@yahoo.com.

The topic for the Winter/Spring 2007 issue will be: what you would like to write to a suicide bomber (see Thây’s words about this on page 12). We would prefer to receive submissions by October 15, 2006.

Here is a list of future topics and tentative deadlines, set in advance with the hope that things won’t change too much between now and then… Happy writing!

Issue Topic Deadline
Winter/Spring 2007 Letter to a suicide bomber October 15, 2006
Summer 2007 Second Mindfulness Training February 15, 2007
Autumn 2007 Third Mindfulness Training June 15, 2007
Winter/Spring 2008 Fourth Mindfulness Training October 15, 2007
Summer 2008 Fifth Mindfulness Training February 15, 2008

To launch this section, we present some heartfelt (and even humorous) writings on the First Mindfulness Training.


Committed to compassion and learning ways to protect lives of people, animals, plants and minerals…

Our delightful Tibetan Terrier, Dharma, is under quarantine by the county animal control officials for a severe, unprovoked biting attack on an innocent hiker here in our mountain paradise. It is our custom to daily amble over these magical trails among some of the world’s oldest peaks and valleys. Dharma, a feral Humane Society rescue animal, had been captured as a pup in the wild almost two years ago after rampaging through the highland wilderness during two great hurricanes. She is particularly fearful and unpredictably aggressive with small humans. We have five such small-bodied grandchildren. Visits are always fraught with peril and anxiety and constant vigilance. Four previous bites to adults had not yet resulted in serious harm, nor has this current bite done permanent damage, but we fear the operative phrase is “not yet.” Dharma is ever on guard, is anxiety-ridden during these visits, and in the year-and-a-half we have loved her into the darling companion she is, she is still only to be trusted with my wife, myself, and our amazing dog sitter. All of the experts we have consulted, including Tibetan Terrier Rescue, agree: Dharma should be euthanized.


Earnest practitioners that we fancy ourselves to be ought not to be killing, ought not to let others kill–yet we definitely also ought to cultivate compassion and protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. Unfortunately, especially for Dharma, our world is not only the beautiful, peaceful, controlled environment of our little cottage and dharma hall, it is also the wider world of strangers and children, constant visitors, and uncontrollable circumstances. I have always felt that the precepts, the Mindfulness Trainings, have a certain edge of impossiblity to them. And I have also come to feel that it may be precisely because of this “impossibility” that I practice them.

Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.
–Shantideva, Indian Buddhist Teacher, 8th Century, A.D.

Philip Toy
Black Mountain,
North Carolina

Surrounded by her loving family, Dharma was gently euthanized on July 31, 2006.


The colours of my childhood shimmer green and yellow. Dandelions and grasses in a hot July sun. Cold, crisp white sheets warming to the gentleness of the night. Lilac, intoxicatingly sweet, drifting indoors. The colours of my childhood belong to a time long gone, and a person now dead. They belong to my Nanna and the neat council house on a tatty neglected street she inhabited. From her I learned the tenacity of a heart enveloped in kindness and equanimity. Patience and high moral standards held equal sway. Rosaries at dawn, evening contrition, and masses her comfort and strength.

Did I learn to be a better person because of her? Do I teach my children what she taught me? Or do I take the easy, lazy path of modern parenting, beset and submerged by demons? Modern parenting differs so vastly from the austerity of a Yorkshire childhood in the early 70s! Sometimes I long for simpler, less morally perplexing times. How does the Bodhisattva ideal sit comfortably with Barbie and Gameboys? consumerism and killing games?

Ask any parent or caregiver what is the greatest challenge they face, and they’ll answer unhesitantly: “nits” (head lice). Not tests, not bullying, not the rising cost of uniforms. This tiny, almost insignificant insect raises enormously complex, soul-wrenching problems. With the central moral principle of non-harming and compassion as one’s life’s principles, how exactly is one supposed to react when one’s cherished offspring is sent home from school, menagerie riding aloft, and not allowed back without a clean head?

No other insect or animal raises this issue for me. Ants, silverfish and spiders merrily waltz around the house as if they own it. The mouse in the attic over-winters as content as a maiden aunt soaking in the warm Mediterranean. Worms are rescued, spider nests painted around, birds fed, plants grown for butterflies.

Head lice are an itchy curse to any school-age child, and schools take the position that no child can return until they are louse free. What to do? Options are limited, traditional shorn heads not sitting well with six-year-old divas. Kill them quickly and humanely, snapping their little bodies with a deft flick of a fingernail, and a heart filled with contrition and atonement? Silent prayers for the dead and dying in a scented bathroom. Comb them out? Each released to its own destiny, karmic fine teeth refusing to take responsibility for their eventual demise. Or, most drastic of all, pungent chemicals shrivelling and desiccating innards and limbs? Modern chemicals absolved of ancient worries and intransigencies.

I doubt a satisfactory answer to the dilemma exists. My Nanna, template of compassion, never faced the issue with us, bereft as we were of “friends.” Probably she would have tutted and placed human health paramount; chided me for being “soft”; and sent me outside to play, dandelions yellow and grasses green swaying in the breeze. Simpler times, poor preparation for complex modern conundrums.

Kathryn C.
Hallas Wakefield, West Yorkshire, U.K.

After reading the book Seeds from a Birch Tree by Clark Strand, I discovered that writing haiku poetry is a very lovely way to practice mindfulness. I attempted to distill the First Mindfulness Training to only 17 syllables and humbly offer my effort as encouragement to others to try writing haiku. At the very least, you will have a little gatha to remind you of the mindfulness training.

vowing not to kill —
I carry an ant outside
on a newspaper

Beth Howard
Cheyenne, Wyoming


Earlier this year, a group of practitioners came together as the Ripening Sangha under the guidance and support of Dharma Teacher Brother Phap Tri at Deer Park Monastery. The group includes Order of Interbeing members and aspirants, and we are studying and practicing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Once a month, we visit Deer Park for a Day of Mindfulness, the Fourteen Mindfulness Recitation Ceremony, and a class that focuses on one Mindfulness Training per month. We have also begun enjoying quarterly Weekends of Mindfulness together.

Each month, we write about our study and practice of the Mindfulness Training of the month. We write journal entries and gathas, rewrite the Mindfulness Training from our own experience, and use other methods to deepen our practice.

In April, I wrote a guided meditation to practice with the Twelfth Mindfulness Training (equivalent to the First of the Five) during my morning sitting meditation time. This guided meditation integrates my practice of yogic breathing, in which one inhales the qualities and aspirations one most wants to embody and exhales the qualities one most wants to release or, in Thây’s most recent terminology, “throw away.”

Breathing in, I bring looking deeply in
Breathing out, I release narrow-mindedness and my need for premature closure (my need to make quick decisions and premature judgments)
Breathing in, I bring compassion in
Breathing out, I release judgment (of myself and others)
Breathing in, I bring understanding in
Breathing out, I release disappointment (that things aren’t the way I want them to be or think they should be)
Breathing in, I bring acceptance in
Breathing out, I release attachment to outcome (especially the outcome I want)
Breathing in, I bring peace in
Breathing out, I release blame and violence (toward myself and others)

Karen Hilsberg
Culver City, California

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Hugging as Practice

By David Hughes


I’ve always viewed myself as a hugger, a toucher. I hug my family members, and like to be hugged. I touch a lot — I’ll walk by my wife and touch her shoulder, or reach over and touch my daughter’s arm. My Dad was like this, too. Touching is good; hugging is better. In the workplace, I’m conscious of this tendency, and I have to pay attention to make sure that I curb the impulse to touch lest it be considered inappropriate. I know that many people don’t want to be touched, or at least don’t want to be touched except by a carefully chosen small group of people close to them. But I’ve always thought of myself as a person who likes hugging and touching.

So it should come as no surprise that I had a very positive reaction when I first encountered my spiritual leader’s teachings on hugging and hugging meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh has done for hugging what he has done for so many other activities of daily life — transformed the ordinary into the sacred. Thay tells a very funny story of his first visit to the United States, and being given a great big hug of welcome by a large woman. When he describes how truly “foreign” this experience was for him, you can actually feel it. In his culture, people don’t hug very much; people simply don’t hug Zen masters; women don’t even touch monks. Thay confesses to having been taken aback by this enthusiastic hug — but in typical Thich Nhat Hanh fashion, he doesn’t simply leave it at that. Looking deeply at the hugging experience, he recognized how wonderful and positive this practice was at its core. He developed Mindful Hugging as a means of deepening one’s dharma practice.

Three Simple Breaths

Thay suggests that before actually hugging, we take a couple of breaths to bring ourselves fully into the present moment, so that we can really be there for the person we are about to hug. As we then embrace, we breathe in deeply, and on the first in-breath we say to ourselves: breathing in, I am aware that you are alive and in my arms; breathing out, I am so happy. On the second in-breath, we say: breathing in, I know that I am alive and in your arms; breathing out, I am so happy. And finally, a third breath: breathing in, I am aware that we are both alive right now and embraced in each others’ arms; breathing out, I am very happy.

Three simple breaths, three simple gathas. A simple practice that anyone can do at any time. Sounds really easy, doesn’t it? But have you tried it? I have, and I have found that this practice brings up a whole lot of stuff from deep within me — stuff that may be hard-wired into me as a male, or acquired from the culture in which I have lived, or even cultivated by me over the years as a part of my professional and social persona. In short, it’s a deep and profound practice.


Sitting here at my keyboard, I find that taking three long breaths takes a total of about thirty seconds. Standing around after a sangha hugging discussion and actually practicing a single three-breath hugging meditation, I found that it took about an hour! Or so it seemed. Ten seconds for a preparatory breath to be sure I am fully present, the arms around one another, and an hour later I finish with my third breath and release. What’s up with that? Of course, I am more used to the perfunctory tap on the arm, to the quickie social hugging that one gives and gets as a good-night or a good-bye, or a greeting for an old friend. This three-breath, mindful hug is intense! I truly am fully present, and the experience of it is powerful. The urge to break off after that first breath — or even sooner — is palpable. By the second breath, if I stick with it, I know that I am experiencing something very different. And as that third breath rises and falls, I feel the presence of myself and the presence of my friend, alive, real, physical, and very intimate.

Intimate, Intense, Physical

Ah, maybe that’s the real issue. Aside from being the longest thirty seconds in history, it is really intimate. So up comes all of my psychological conditioning about intimacy, about sexuality, about appearances and image. This experience doesn’t fit neatly into any of my pre-existing boxes; it’s out of my comfort zone. This is an intimate, intense, and physical experience with someone who is not my spouse, who is not my daughter or my mother. Do I ever hug my daughters or my mother in such an intense way? Is this sort of physicality reserved exclusively for my wife? Do we as mates even hug this intensely, this intimately?

The friend I hug at sangha is a male, as am I. Two heterosexual males both well over 50. Is this hugging sexual? Does he think it is? Do others, watching, see it as such? Intimate, intense, physical—does that make it sexual? Can I experience those three things all together without also being sexual? Can he? Is this what’s behind the urge to break off the hug prematurely?

Later that evening, after giving another sangha friend a ride, we give each other a hug in my car. I break it off fast. And she confronts me. What’s going on; what happened to the mindful hugging? Again, questions of conditioning, sexuality, and appearance come up strongly. Can I hug a woman so intimately, so meaningfully, without the stereotypical sexual overtones? I can almost hear Billy Crystal’s diatribe in When Harry Met Sally about all relations between a man and a woman being fundamentally sexual. But I have had female friends all of my life, non-sexual friends. I don’t restrict my contact with women, or my concept of women, to the realm of sexuality.

But there it is. I recoil from a deep, close, meaningful hug with a female friend even more abruptly than with my male friend.

The Gift of Being Fully Alive

To hug like this also demands trust. I am vulnerable in this openness. My intentions may be misconstrued. What are my intentions, really? Is this hug in any way in conflict with my commitments, with the third of the Five Mindfulness Trainings? Am I doing this for show? To prove my practice to myself or others? And what about him/her? Where is she coming from? What is his experience right now? Is he thinking something negative about me?

I now see hugging as a very powerful exercise in the context of a committed dharma practice. Mindful hugging, hugging that brings us fully into the present moment, is an extremely skillful means of focusing on our aliveness in all of its glory, with all its wrinkles, its hang-ups, its beauty. It is a practice, not a concept. To take 30 seconds to be fully and completely present with one another is to touch deeply our life right here and right now. We are fully alive. We have bodies. We have texture, we have smells, we have sounds.

Ultimately, it seems to me that this is a deep practice of letting go. Letting go of concepts, of conditioning. Letting go of fears, letting go of the impulse for security. Letting go and just experiencing — fully experiencing — the present moment, the wonder of this precious human birth.

Dmb45-Hugging3avid Hughes, Committed Direction of the Heart, is a member of Open Heart Sangha in Yarmouth, Maine, and an aspirant to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

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The Collective Bodhisattva

Sisterhood and Brotherhood in the Twenty-first Century

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

If you were to ask me what could save this planet Earth I would say not eating meat, not using fossil fuels — but only if based on sisterhood and brotherhood. Sisterhood and brotherhood come first. Whatever we do we should do as a Sangha, as a community. First we look deeply as a community then we come to a consensus on how we should act, and then we act as a community. Our community wants to establish sisterhood and brotherhood within itself and then within society and in the world. As a monk or nun our community is the one into which we have been ordained. As a layperson your community is your family, your church or local Sangha, and possibly also your work place. Having established brotherhood and sisterhood here, you can also bring sisterhood and brotherhood into the society.

Your spouse, your children, your parents and siblings are all your brothers and sisters. To the best of your ability you can practice looking deeply together, come to a consensus, and act together. Children from five years or seven years old can be encouraged to share their views, listen to the views of others that can be simply expressed, and play a role in family decision-making. Teachers and pupils in the school also practice sisterhood and brotherhood in this way. Sisterhood and brotherhood is not just reaching consensus and acting together. It is also communication: listening deeply and speaking lovingly. We should all train in expressing our sincere appreciation of each other; expressing our regret when we do something hurtful; asking others if we have done anything to hurt them; and expressing mindfully and without blame or resentment when we have been hurt.


You may say this is wonderful but it is unrealistic. Yet others have done it and you should make your best effort for the sake of the planet Earth. I have faith in it and I will go on singing my song until this body disintegrates — and the song will continue.

About which programmes you will watch on the television, parents share and children share. If we do decide to watch a programme that is not wholesome, it is not the end of the world, but having watched it we share how it affected each one of us. What seeds were watered, how tired or otherwise we felt afterwards.

Our Contribution to a Global Ethic

There are more than 84,000 things we can choose from to do to save this planet Earth from global warming, from toxic wastes, from running out of drinking water — we have to choose for our own community what is realistic. We do as much as we can and we learn from what other communities are doing but we do not force our ideas on other communities. We encourage them to do what is best for the planet in the context of the appropriateness of their own situation. This is the practice of the Third of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, “Freedom of Thought” [see below].

Once we embark on this path, we feel safe. We are living in a time where the challenges are great, but we face the challenge with compassion and resolution. Knowing that we are doing our best we do not despair. Our minds are at peace and if our efforts to save our planet fail, we will accept to offer up the merit of what we have done for a new civilization that could arise millions of years from now. After all, all civilizations are impermanent. In past lives we have died with our civilization and in future lives we shall die with our civilization. The important thing is the heritage we leave behind us with the actions of our body, speech, and mind.

The Mindfulness Trainings are there to guide us. They are our contribution to a global ethic. They are a living reality. They come alive when we bring them into our daily life. Every day new situations will arise for us to find new ways to put the Mindfulness Trainings into practice. When we see the different situations that arise we shall know how to revise the Trainings every twenty years. The cultural and social situation is constantly changing. There are new challenges that arise and need to be faced. The spirit of the Trainings is clear and they need to be appropriately worded in order to help guide us in the new challenges that are arising.

Buddha Shakyamuni said this clearly, “Ananda, the minor precepts should be revised according to the culture and the time.” When Ananda reported this to the elders, they asked, “But Ananda, did the Buddha say what are the minor precepts? Which precepts specifically can be revised?” Ananda said no and as a result no one ever revised the monastic pratimoksha for 2,600 years. Certain avenues have been opened up by technology that can lead to real corruption of the monastic order, but these cannot be dealt with, because the precepts cannot be changed. When the Buddha said minor precepts he said we can add precepts that are needed because of the time and the culture. We can word precepts in such a way that keeps the spirit of the vinaya but gives concrete guidance where it is needed. The major precepts: not killing, not stealing, keeping celibacy, not lying about our attainments. The minor precepts are there to help us observe the major precepts. If we break them we have not broken the major precepts but we may be on the way to doing so. Technological advances such as the Internet, telephone, and e-mail can be means that take us in the direction of breaking the major precepts. The revised pratimoksha that has been recited and practised in Plum Village and affiliated monasteries since 2000 guide us so that we use these things skillfully in a way that benefits society and our community and not for our corruption as a monk or a nun.

Stopping vs. Acting

We can analyse the Mindfulness Trainings according to the three different actions of body, speech, and mind. We can also analyse them according to the two aspects, stopping and doing. Mindfulness Trainings are not just to remind us to refrain from unskillful actions, they also encourage us to replace unskillful with skillful — in other words, to transform unskillful into skillful energy. If we look at the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we see how the First Training is to stop the principally physical action of killing and replace it with action that protects life. It is mainly a Mindfulness Training encouraging bodily action but in a minor way it includes speech and thought action — “I am determined not to condone any act of killing in my thinking and in my way of life.” We condone by our way of thinking and speaking. At this point, mind and speech action are involved.

Here we can digress a little to see how the aspect of doing has gained importance in the wording of the Plum Village versions of the lay Mindfulness Trainings. In the revised pratimoksha the prescriptive aspect of the Trainings is a little more prominent than in the classical pratimoksha, but it is still of comparatively minor importance. Master Chih I, founder of the Tendai school (late 6) was already discussing Mindfulness Trainings in terms of stopping and acting. He discusses the ten wholesome action trainings (dasakusala-karmani.) These ten trainings that belong to both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions include three trainings for body action, four for speech action, and three for mind action. The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are a revolutionary continuation of the ten wholesome trainings. The ten wholesome trainings were as follows:

1. Refraining from killing (stopping)
Protecting life (acting)

2. Not stealing (stopping)
Practicing generosity (acting)

3. Refraining from sexual misconduct (stopping)
Protecting the good name, happiness, respectability and commitments of others and oneself (acting)

4. Not speaking falsehood (stopping)
Speaking of things as they are (acting)

5. Not speaking divisively (stopping)
Speaking constructively and to bring about reconciliation (acting)

6. Not insulting or denigrating others (stopping)
Speaking gently, respectfully and with compassion (acting)

7. Not exaggerating (stopping)
Speaking words that give rise to confidence and respect (acting)

8. Not being carried away by craving (stopping)
Living simply (acting)

9. Refraining from anger and enmity (stopping)
Developing compassion (acting)

10. Not holding on to prejudices, preconceived ideas (stopping)
Being open and ready to exchange ideas (acting)

If we examine these ten traditional trainings and their continuation in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, we shall see that the fifty-fifty stopping and acting ratio has been maintained. What is different in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings is the ratio of trainings concerning mind action in comparison with those concerning speech and body action. At least half of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings concern mind action. The tenth training of the ten has become the first three trainings of the Fourteen.

The Six Harmonies

Our next link is the Six Harmonies or Togethernesses — how to live in harmony with each other. If we analyse these six we shall see that one is for the body, one for speech, and two for mind action. The remaining two are for body, speech, and mind. Here are the Six Harmonies:

  1. The harmony of the body, to perform bodily actions that promote harmony (body).
  2. The harmony of sharing – to share equally and according to need, benefits that accrue to the individual or the Sangha (body, speech, and mind)
  3. The harmony of speech – speech to promote harmony (speech).
  4. The harmony of thought – thought that promotes harmony (mind).
  5. The harmony of views – resolving questions by harmonizing views (mind).
  6. The harmony of the mindfulness trainings the whole community practises the same mindfulness trainings (body, speech, and mind).

Thus we see that mind is involved in four of the harmonies, body in three, and speech in three.

The Six Harmonies are guides to practicing sisterhood and brotherhood. It is clear that mind action is the overriding practice.

What is it that our world needs? The happiness brought about by sisterhood and brotherhood. We need mind action to bring this about. One right thought can heal the person and heal the world. We should give greater emphasis to mind because mind action can also be very harmful. Mind action can be violent and destructive both to the thinker and to the world. How we think matters. Thinking produces karma; it is not only bodily and speech actions that produce karma. Right thinking is a basic need in order for harmony, sisterhood, and brotherhood to be possible. Right thinking can make harmony of the bodily action possible.

The Buddha gave the example that a monk sees a bowl that has not been washed. He thinks to himself: “The owner of the bowl must have been called away on urgent business to help someone. Why do I not wash his bowl for him?” Thinking like that he washes the bowl, feeling joy in his heart. Or the monk thinks: “What scoundrel left his bowl lying here, unwashed?!” And feeling irritated he turns his back on the bowl. Or the monk thinks: “It is not correct practice to leave the bowl unwashed, but there are demanding circumstances. I have time now, let me wash his bowl.” This shows how right thinking makes right action possible and the feeling of joy that comes with right thinking.

Right thinking also makes right speech possible. The Buddha gives this example. Suppose you want to say something to someone in a discussion or meeting. The situation could be delicate and you want to have a positive outcome from your words. So, before speaking you stop and ask yourself: “If I were to say this, would it make the other(s) happy?” Having breathed mindfully you can either feel a near certainty that it will bring happiness or unhappiness (in which case you do not say it) or you feel unsure and in this case you do not say it. The harmony of mind is the way of thought that produces harmony. When we are thinking negatively about a person we are mindful of our thinking and change the thought as we would a television channel we do not want to watch. We change the thought for a positive thought about the other person. That is how to practice harmony of thought.

Harmony of views depends on mind action. When we hear an item on the agenda to be discussed, our mind may immediately have a view about that item. There is nothing wrong about that. We can share our view, but we are not caught in it. We listen to everyone who has a different view. We feel happy when we hear a view that is more sensible than our own, and immediately let go of our view. When we have listened to everyone’s view and we still like our own idea, we ask ourselves what it is that we like about it and try to see how we can synthesize part of our idea to arrive at consensus, only maintaining our own view if we see it is a matter of life and death — a real danger to body or mind could exist if our own idea is not heeded.

Letting Go of a Separate Self

When I first came to Plum Village twenty-four years ago, it was not a practice centre as it is now. Thay and Sister Chan Khong sponsored refugees from the boat people who were held in refugee camps. They stayed here until they were ready to go out into French society and work. I, too, was a refugee from England from a difficult teaching job. Since we were not yet a practice centre we made our living by agriculture. We were quite poor if you compare it to our community now. We did not have the money to mend the roof in the Lower Hamlet and it needed mending. Our cultivation of soya beans, colza, oats, and vegetables was important to us as a source of revenue. Apart from that there was only the one month summer-retreat.

My mind was shocked to see that the cultivation was not organic. Thay taught me to practice the harmony of views, which is also to practice the first three of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I was somewhat surprised that Thay did not agree that we must cultivate our land organically and impose this idea on the other refugees. Thay told me: you must sit down together and decide as a community how you are going to cultivate. We did this and I was the only one who wanted to go organic. When I told Thay he said that if I wished I could make a small organic garden, cultivate a few plum trees organically, and see how it worked. If it worked well it would be a good argument for increasing the percentage of organic cultivation. I still feel strongly sometimes about certain matters, but I remind myself to practice harmony of views and the first of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. If we are not careful, something like organic gardening can become an –ism or ideology rather than a collective action by the community for the common good.

In practicing letting go of our views and perceptions, we are practicing letting go of our separate self. There is no single pair of eyes that can see as clearly as the Sangha eyes. Working with mind consciousness we are beginning to work with manas. Manas is the layer of consciousness that lies below mind consciousness. It is not as conscious as mind consciousness. It has an energy of its own that seldom rests. It is the energy of cogitation. This cogitation produces and preserves a separate self idea. Sometimes in deep sleep manas is inactive, no longer producing the idea of a separate self. On awakening it immediately comes into action, preserving the idea of self. We could explain this as a primitive survival mechanism. We need to ask, is survival possible without the idea of a separate self? If we can wake up and follow our breathing without needing the idea of a separate self, we are safe. We do not need any other survival mechanism.

The Fourth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings also concerns thought action. It concerns not avoiding suffering. It is the natural tendency of manas to run away from suffering and seek pleasure. In transforming this natural tendency we are mindful of cogitation and can transform manas along with its four mental formations of self — self-love, self-ignorance, self-view, and self complex. Self-love is what makes us feel that suffering is bad and fail to see that suffering is necessary and can also be good. The Fourth Training is to learn to face suffering, accept it, and use it as the mud upon which lotuses can grow. The wording of this Training may also be revised to help us see more clearly the interbeing nature of suffering and happiness.

The transformation of manas does not take place through ideas. In the beginning we hear the teachings on no-self, we meditate on them, and we put them into practice. In order to transform manas we have to practice no-self. What better place than in a practice community? Sitting together, walking together we entrust ourselves to the Sangha body. In the case of personal needs we can bring them to the Sangha body. If the Sangha sees fit and possible the Sangha will help. It is by living no-self that we transform manas. The experience will penetrate down into the deeper levels of consciousness but not the intellectual ideas of no-self.

Education as Key

People have conducted surveys in the United States and Europe to find out what percentage of the population lives in a relatively awakened way — caring for the environment, open to multicultural experience, giving importance to a spiritual dimension in life, living simply in order to have time to share with family and follow the pursuits that nourish oneself, devoting time to helping society, wanting to transform self more than demanding that others transform. What percentage of the population would you think lives this way? Somewhere between seventeen and twenty percent. People such as this are open to a global ethic. They want to live in an ethical way but are not interested in political or moral authorities. When we talk of a global ethic we are talking of something that does not belong to any particular creed or faith but can be accepted by anyone whether he has a creed or not. Such people can easily accept the precepts of the Order of Interbeing.

mb51-TheCollective2We are living at an exciting time when our world can either make a turn for the better or continue down the hill for the worse. Let us stand at the junction and direct the traffic by our compassion and inclusiveness and especially by our right thinking. Education will help more than political or moral authority. Education is to discover, to make known, and to participate. In some schools now children participate, growing and cooking their food in the school garden. It is not only children who need education, we all need it, and it is quite possible to educate without imposing our ideas on others. You can tell your children that they cannot watch television or eat junk food but they might go to their friends’ houses and do just that. The question is how to communicate about toxic foods and allow the children to discover for themselves what is harmful for their minds. Some parents have succeeded in following this middle way.

Education takes place in the framework of the Sangha of sisterhood and brotherhood. If parents are able to educate their children in how to watch television healthily, that is because they have the support of Sangha friends and because the children are able to attend retreats and Days of Mindfulness where there is a children’s programme. We educate each other through the wonderful practice of Dharma discussion. What could be more beautiful than the scene at large retreats of many small groups sitting in circles and listening deeply to learn from each other?

Enlightenment is no longer (or was it ever?) an individual matter. The only way we can proceed is as a collective — a Sangha body. We wake up and help others to wake up together. We are a collective  bodhisattva.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, resides in Waldbröl, Germany where she is helping Thay to establish the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.


  1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

  1. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment to Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

  1. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

  1. The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Awareness of Suffering

Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.

  1. The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Simple, Healthy Living

Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, we are determined not to take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure, nor to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying. We are committed to living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need. We will practice mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs, or any other products that bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness.

  1. The Sixth Mindfulness Training: Dealing with Anger

Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are determined to take care of the energy of anger when it arises and to recognize and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger comes up, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We will learn to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger.

  1. The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment

Aware that life is available only in the present moment and that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness.

  1. The Eighth Mindfulness Training: Community and Communication

Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. We will learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break. We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

  1. The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will not spread news that we do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten our safety.

  1. The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting the Sangha

Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

  1. The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood

Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not supporting companies that deprive others of their chance to live.

  1. The Twelfth Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life

Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.

  1. The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity

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

  1. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: Right Conduct

(For lay members): Aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment. In sexual relations, we must be aware of future suffering that may be caused. We know that to preserve the happiness

of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. We will treat our bodies with respect and preserve our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings.

(For monastic members): Aware that the aspiration of a monk or a nun can only be realized when he or she wholly leaves behind the bonds of worldly love, we are committed to practicing chastity and to helping others protect themselves. We are aware that loneliness and suffering cannot be alleviated by the coming together of two bodies in a sexual relationship, but by the practice of true understanding and compassion. We know that a sexual relationship will destroy our life as a monk or a nun, will prevent us from realizing our ideal of serving living beings, and will harm others. We are determined not to suppress or mistreat our body or to look upon our body as only an instrument, but to learn to handle our body with respect. We are determined to preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal.

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A Frolic Down the Path of the Buddha

By Janelle Combelic


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

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

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

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

On the Road to Plum Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retreat Rockettes

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

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

Enough already! Quiet.

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

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

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

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

I Have an Idea!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Practicing in Uncertain Times

By Bethany Klug


Uncertain economic times can bring up difficult emotions and challenge our practice. Mindfulness practice can decrease our stress and help us see opportunities that we might otherwise miss. Here are a few tips to keep our practice on track.

Dwell in the present moment. Certainty is a notion that causes suffering, as all things—even human-made things like companies, stock markets, and jobs—are born, change form, and die. This is impermanence. Dwelling in the present moment increases our awareness of how things change, and lessens our surprise or shock when they do.

Let go of external definitions. We suffer when we define ourselves by our job or possessions. If we lose them, we feel worthless. Identifying with our job or possessions prevents us from being happy and free. Letting go of external definitions of ourselves and enjoying the fullness of the present moment, we can lose our job, possessions, and even everything we cherish, and still be happy and free.

Nourish peace and joy. Often, letting go means confronting difficult feelings and perceptions. We must be sure to nourish our peace and joy to avoid feeling overwhelmed. This could be as simple as appreciating birdsong in the morning or fireflies at night. How is it possible to enjoy anything in difficult times? The Buddha taught that the mind is a field of seeds where wholesome and unwholesome states exist side by side. We make unwholesome seeds stronger by giving them the wrong kind of attention, such as obsessing or worrying over them. Tough emotions invade our consciousness like a pop-up window on a website. By returning our attention to our breath and a more neutral feeling—such as the freshness of the morning—we can close the pop-up window and shift to a more wholesome mind state. Once we feel stronger, we may consciously re-open the pop-up and look more deeply into the feelings that arise from it.

Empower yourself. We may feel powerless amidst the news of plants closing, the Gulf oil spill, and home foreclosures, unless we recognize that the economy is a manifestation of our collective mind. Since our thoughts and actions create our economy, they can change it for the better. This is empowering. Each of us can pick an area of the economy we’d like to improve and change our relationship to it. For instance, I don’t like the impact of industrial agriculture on our health or the planet’s, so I buy my food from local organic farmers and grow a garden. Last year I built a root cellar, stocked it with squash and root vegetables, fermented vegetables, and canned using low temperature methods. I didn’t need to shop for vegetables until March.

Looking deeply into the Fifth Mindfulness Training, mindful consumption, helps us see ways to create a more equitable and sustainable economy. We have the power and the responsibility to change our situation. If we don’t, who will?


Be sure to practice! When life gets stressful, it’s easy to resonate with that stress and do things that make it worse. Instead of taking a mindful walk after dinner or attending a Sangha gathering, we might watch bad economic news on TV, becoming so consumed in fear and anxiety that we miss that fact that we’ve eaten a bag of chips or cookies—leaving us more depressed and five pounds heavier! With deep intention and awareness we can turn off the TV or other source of bad news, and do what nourishes our happiness, peace, and joy.

Many years ago, my teacher, Brother Chan Huy, suggested the profoundly beneficial practice of reciting the wake-up gatha each morning upon rising and the gatha on impermanence before going to sleep. The wake-up gatha helps us touch joy and affirms our aspiration to live in an awakened way before our feet even touch the ground. The gatha on impermanence reminds us that another day has passed, and encourages us to reflect on our practice “so that life does not drift away without meaning.”

Wake-up Gatha
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

Gatha on Impermanence
The day is now ended.
Our lives are shorter.
Let us look carefully,
What have we done?
Noble Sangha, with all of our heart,
Let us be diligent,
Engaging in the practice.
Let us live deeply,
Free from our afflictions,
Aware of impermanence,
So that life does not drift away without meaning.

mb55-Practicing3Bethany Klug, The Practice of True Emptiness, convenes the Heartland Community of Mindful Living along with her husband David, True Wonderful Lamp (pictured). They reside in Kansas City with their spiritual director, Shanti the Cat.

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The Love of a Mother

By Bettina Romhardt


“A mother’s life is not confined to her alone. She is the starting point of life that unfolds into the infinite future. With this in mind, a mother should be careful in thoughts, choice of words and behavior, and live her life with reverence.”
– Shundo Aoyama, a Japanese Zen priest

The love of a mother is highly valued in different religions and cultures. It is often evoked as the highest expression of unconditional and selfless love. Many mothers share that they hadn’t experienced this kind of devotion before giving birth to a child. In the Discourse on Love, we find: “Just as a mother protects and loves her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos.” Yet many mothers don’t appreciate that motherhood can be a kind of spiritual training, a path to explore love and to learn true love.


I became a mother one year after I left Plum Village, where I had lived in Lower Hamlet for five years. I’d made a big change from life in an international community to life within a small family. For me, giving birth was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and our son Jonathan filled my husband Kai and me with love and amazement. My husband and I had both lived in Plum Village before our marriage, and as a married couple we continued to live a life centered in the practice, but I could not appreciate being a mother. I was used to offering my time, energy, and care to the members and guests of the Sangha, and now I found myself caring for one little being, twenty-four hours a day. It felt somehow narrow.


It took time to discover that I was being asked to cultivate and strengthen the same qualities I had practiced in Plum Village: presence, discipline, patience, kindness, devotion, and letting go. One night when I got out of bed to tend to Jonathan, I remembered how much I had appreciated getting up to greet guests when they arrived late at night at the Lower Hamlet. I smiled, seeing that life always asks us to respond to what is needed in this very moment in whatever form it appears, no more, no less. In the faces of mothers and fathers I met, I began to see their dedication and effort, their steadiness and generosity, their tiredness and exhaustion, and I felt much appreciation and compassion for them.

Looking Deeply at Motherhood

But amazingly, when I looked more deeply, I saw many mothers who could not appreciate themselves as mothers, or who appreciated themselves very little, and I began to wonder why this was so. One aspect is that our modern society doesn’t really value being “just a mother,” but there are also inner attitudes that contribute. One is the ideal of the “perfect” mother as a source of never-ending energy for her children, which is very hard to live up to and can lead to feeling “never good enough.” There are many such ideals, personal and collective, transmitted to us by our mothers, grandmothers, ancestors, and society. We need awareness of these expectations to be able to relax into the challenges of daily life with loving kindness towards ourselves and acceptance of our limitations.

Listening to mothers talking to one other, I also discovered that about eighty percent of their conversation is about the life, growth, and development of their children, and very little of it is about how they themselves are growing as mothers and what they are learning about themselves. Becoming a mother seems so natural that there is often little awareness about what it really means in one’s personal life and growth. It is very beneficial to look at this.

After offering days of mindfulness for families for some years, I started to offer retreats for mothers so that they could take time and space to deeply look into motherhood. In guided meditations we look into what we have learned as mothers, what we have given to our children, and what they have given to us. One participant said, “I learned with my children something I could not accept before: that I can’t control life. With my children I constantly need to let go of my plans and see my needs as only one part of the whole picture.” Another said, “I feel so challenged to develop patience, seeing my daughter forgetting her jacket here and there.” Just by giving attention, mothers see so many of the wholesome qualities they have cultivated. Joy, appreciation, confidence, and strength grow out of this awareness. If I appreciate and love myself as a mother, appreciation and love for my child can flow naturally.

Another common concern among mothers is finding time and energy to practice a spiritual path. A frequent comment is “I am often too tired for sitting meditation.” A mother of a young child cannot spend hours in sitting meditation, but we are challenged to cultivate and strengthen qualities of heart and mind, which we often attempt to do in extended retreats. In our tradition, we are invited to practice twenty-four hours a day, and we will not find any place or time on earth that doesn’t allow us to practice being mindful. But we need to take care of ourselves and restore our energy in order to sustain and strengthen the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

“Mama, You Can Go Rest”

To take time “just for myself ” is often challenging for a mother. I need to look deeply to see that by respecting myself, I respect my child. Every hour of every day, I transmit everything to my child: my joy, irritation, contentment, sadness, the way I talk, the way I think or handle my emotions. Of course, parents want to offer the best to their children—the best food, the best kindergarten, and the best school—but they also need to keep in mind Thay’s teaching that the best we can offer is our true presence and our own happiness.

The practice of stopping to care for myself and my child is crucial. If I stop and take three breaths, I can come back to myself and remember, “I am here for me and I am here for you.” When I am in touch with myself, I feel my true needs and learn to take care of them. I need to nourish myself with the same wholesome nutriments I feed my child. In my experience, children understand and support our efforts to do this. When Jonathan grew old enough to no longer need a nap in the afternoon, I told him that I still needed this time to stop and renew myself. Nowadays he sometimes tells me, “Mama, you can go rest.” We need creativity to find time for our true needs and we need discipline to take care of them.

It is wonderful to sit in a circle of mothers, sharing our joy and pain, our experiences and questions. Let us create circles of mothers to support one other on the path of learning true love for ourselves, our children, and all beings.

mb56-TheLove4Bettina Romhardt, Tree of True Awakening, is a Dharma teacher practicing with her son Jonathan (7), her husband Kai, and the Sangha  Zehlendorf/Berlin.

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