A Life of Faith

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

By  Sister  Steadiness

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

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

mb33-ALife1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you stay in touch with your family?

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

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

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

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

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

mb33-ALife2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mb33-ALife3

How did you begin helping hungry children in Vietnam?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PDF of this article

Poem: Feelings

My heart is blushing red
I have cried for you once, I will not
cry for you twice
How I miss you
My heart is heart broken
Somewhere deep in your heart I
I know you love me so much
I am waiting
I can feel your heart wanting me.

mb36-Feelingsakira Traub is seven years old and lives in Hove, England.  She loves animals, yoga, and miso soup.  Her mother tells us that she is dealing with painful feelings following her parents’ divorce through words and music. She is a prolific reader, loves to write poetry, and has begun playing the violin.

PDF of this article

Healing from Abuse

Footsteps of Freedom, Love and Peace

by Brian Kimmel

mb52-Healing1

On the day of his sentencing, my former stepfather said to me in front of the judge, my family and his, “I never did anything to hurt you, and I’m sorry you felt I did. I loved you like a son.”

Although it may have seemed empathetic to my personal feelings of hurt and betrayal, it was not an apology and he had not admitted he had sexually abused me. The judge sentenced him that day for seventeen years on two counts of child rape in the first degree. I was twelve years old; his sentence “in the first degree” meant that I was under the age of ten when the acts occurred, and that he did have the intent to harm. Still, I was convinced he loved me. I was convinced that something in him knew that he loved me.

Despite my insights into love, it took me many years to heal and to find freedom from the effects of the abuse. I was introduced to mindfulness practice when I was sixteen years old. I remember the first time I tried sitting meditation, under an old cherry tree in my dad’s front yard. There was a passage in Thay’s book, Being Peace, that read something like: “If you don’t have a Sangha to practice with, practice with a rock, a flower, or a tree.” And that’s what I did. I went outside, bowed to the tree, and sat on the grass as if it were a cushion. I closed my eyes, and for an instant felt at peace.

That one time of feeling at peace was enough to motivate me to continue to practice. Even though I continued to suffer with the effects of the abuse, experiencing anger, depression, anxiety, thoughts of committing suicide, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the more I practiced, the more confident I became in the refuge the practice offered me.

I tried so many different methods to deal with my anger and other challenging emotions. I tried beating pillows, screaming, running, and throwing fits. Each time I acted out my feelings in those ways I felt angrier and more out of control. So I began Thay’s method of sitting and walking with my anger, and I made the practice my own.

When I’d feel angry I’d stop, breathe, and sense the feeling in the center of my body, or wherever the feeling expressed itself. I experienced the emotion deeply, feeling it on many levels through my senses, and through a deeper, intuitive awareness. I’d sit with my feeling as if to hold it in my arms like a crying babe or I’d walk with the feeling as if walking quietly and peacefully with a good friend. I knew the feeling was hurting, and as long as it was hurting a part of me would hurt. Every time I felt anger or whatever the feeling was, if I acted it out through bodily actions, through my words and through my thoughts, I made that feeling grow, I made my suffering grow.

Sometimes anger, like people, says things, does things, or thinks things it doesn’t really mean. Sometimes anger, like people, does things, says things, or thinks things from its own hurt. I know my anger was hurting and as I became aware of how much my anger was hurting, based on how much I was hurting, I started to listen, to really listen.

“Anger, my little one, what are you trying to say? How can I help you suffer less, to ease your pain? How can I help you to be free?”

Anger became a sort of meditation; I allowed anger to be there, without the expectation of getting rid of it. Every time I would try to get rid of anger, I fed it more. If it died down for a moment, in another moment or at a different time it would come back even stronger. Whether I was sitting or walking I made sure to keep my anger close to me. With my anger close to me I was better able to take care of it, to manage it and to make sure it wasn’t doing me or others harm. I learned to walk with my anger for hours, very slowly. I gave myself the permission to spend time unraveling, and getting to know this thing called anger and other challenging emotions or habits of mind. Anything I felt was a threat to my well-being I walked with, sat with, and I encouraged myself to listen and to take care of it with mindfulness, with loving-kindness and compassion.

mb52-Healing2

Sometimes I even walked with my former stepfather in my heart. I felt how it must have been to have caused so much pain in another, and to inherit that pain in his body and mind. “How might he be experiencing the feeling of anger in him?” I wondered. I walked with my former stepfather like walking with a friend, slowly allowing his world to unravel before me, in our footsteps of freedom. We walked in freedom together. He and I were not trapped in the delusion of self and other or in the identity of abuser and abused. We walked together through my actions of mindfulness, concentration, and love. Yes, love.

For many in my family and perhaps in society too, my former stepfather may be a challenging person to love. But he is composed of everything we are all composed of. He has air in him, fire in him; he has beauty and light and love; he has the seed of anger, of hurt and betrayal; he has kindness and compassion, forgiveness and joy; he has all the capacity one needs to live in freedom. For me, my former stepfather was easy to love, because I knew how much he needed love. To have caused another person to suffer causes so much suffering in him. And he may be unaware, unable to forgive all the people who may have “unintentionally” hurt him.

So much of our world depends upon the way in which we view it. If we change our views, the miracle of life tells us that everyone can love, and everyone has love somewhere inside of them. With love the whole world will experience freedom in togetherness and peace.

mb52-Healing3Brian Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, lived for five years in Las Vegas where he helped found the Tuesday Night Mindfulness Group. He will be a full-time student this fall at Naropa University in Colorado.

PDF of this article

Meeting Sadaparibhuta

By Susan Hadler

mb52-Meeting1

Sometimes we meet someone whose Buddha nature shines so brightly that they are like a lamp showing us the way ahead. My Aunt Elinor is that kind of luminous Buddha. She is a form of the bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, Never Disparaging.

Elinor was sent to a mental hospital in 1936 when she was twenty-three years old and the mother of a two-year-old son and a five-month-old daughter. We know now that Elinor had postpartum psychosis, a condition that is treatable. It’s likely that Elinor recovered within several years. And yet she stayed in the mental hospital system for the rest of her life. Her husband died of a heart infection the following June and the children were raised by his sister. Elinor was abandoned by everyone in the family until it was said that she had died.

A Life in Institutions

Elinor was my mother’s oldest sister and I grew up wondering who she was and what had happened to her. Until I counted the number of grandchildren in my grandfather’s obituary, I didn’t know that she had children. When I found her married name I began to look for her, hoping to find where she was buried so that I could bring her flowers.

I searched for many years. Last year I found Elinor alive in a nursing home in Canton, Ohio. She was ninety-four years old and had spent the past seventy-two years in the mental health system, including forty-two years in the mental hospital, sixteen years in a group home, and fourteen years in the nursing home.

Even before I met her, I saw Elinor’s Buddha nature. During a phone conversation, the social worker at the nursing home told me, “Elinor calls the nurses Mother and some of them call her Mother. The others she calls Dorothy or Margery.” The social worker was surprised to learn that Dorothy and Margery were the names of her sisters.

Elinor made everyone around her into family! She embodied the quality of kshanti, all-embracing inclusiveness. As Thay explains in Peaceful Action, Open Heart: “When our heart is large enough, we can be very comfortable, we can embrace the sharp, difficult thing without injury.” Elinor taught me that if I could see everyone around me as my mother, my children, if my heart were large enough to include everyone, I would feel happy and safe and live without the burdens of judgment and fear.

 “Will You Be Kind to Me?”

The week after tracing Elinor, my husband and I drove from Washington, D.C. across the Appalachian Mountains to visit her in eastern Ohio. I immediately recognized her white hair and blue eyes, so like Mother’s. She was sitting in a wheelchair at the table eating dinner. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. She stopped eating for a moment and looked intently at me. Then she offered to share her dinner. A little later she said, “Do you love me? Will you be kind to me? My mother loved me and she treated me like she loved me.”

“Hello, Sadaparibhuta,” I thought to myself. “You speak directly to my heart. You’ve protected and preserved your heart through the long years without family to visit or support or care for you. You know that love is the most important quality and you call forth love in me. I bow to you.”

When Elinor finished eating, she picked up her napkin, shook it out, and folded it with complete concentration. Two people who lived in the nursing home were arguing, the TV was on, a person was moaning behind us, and another person was listening to the radio. Elinor’s response was, “Quite a chorus.” In the midst of the noise and chaos, Elinor accepted the life around her just as it was and she seemed to accept herself as well. When she was tired, she folded her head into her arm and slept. When I rubbed her back too hard, she told me, “That’s awful!”

I enjoyed sitting with Elinor. I felt free to just sit and be present. There was no pressure to please or entertain or even talk. Elinor reminded me that the heart of practice is acceptance. It’s so easy to struggle against the way things are, big things like illness and death, everyday things like traffic jams and frowns. With Elinor at that moment, all was well.

Elinor put her hand on top of mine and I enjoyed the soft warmth. She had long thin fingers that could reach octaves on the piano. When Elinor was young, she was a pianist and played the piano on the radio. “I heard that you play the piano beautifully,” I said. “Yes. I do play the piano. I play Let Me Call You Sweetheart and You Are My Sunshine.”

She nurtured her spirit with music for many years. And she gave music to everyone around her. “When she first came here, she’d walk over to the piano every night after dinner and play for us.

Elinor has a lovely voice and sings often,” the nurse said with a smile. “Everyone here loves Elinor.”

Accepting What Is

How did she manage to keep her heart open and her spirit alive? She had no family. She lived without hearing her children’s laughter. She owned nothing and wore what was handed to her. She ate what was given. She lived without privacy. She wasn’t able to walk down the street for a cup of tea. She was not bitter or angry, although she did not suffer fools. Her life was not cluttered with things she didn’t need. “I don’t want anything at all,” she wrote on a sheet of lined paper clipped into a blue binder. She had little choice except how she related to herself and to those around her. She learned to live beautifully with herself and others. I take strength from the way Elinor survived so well with so little, that she kept what was most valuable — her heart and her music. She was a Buddha in her simplicity, her affection, and her sense of interbeing.

mb52-Meeting2I found the group home in which Elinor had lived for sixteen years after the mental hospitals were emptied of patients in the mid-seventies. “Yes, I remember Elinor,” said the woman who ran the home. “The day she came here she walked up the front steps and when I opened the door she held out her arms and called me Mother! She endeared herself to me … She loved to sing!”

Elinor was my teacher. She showed me how to be aware of love, to give and receive the energy of love, to give space for love to exist and to ripen. I became aware of what cut off the flow between us, things like needless questions and extraneous comments. Elinor spoke out of her true nature and not as I might have wished or expected. That encouraged me to be less concerned about results and more aware of what was true within and around me. Elinor always responded to love and affection. “I love you,” I told Elinor. “That’s the way it should be,” she said.

mb52-Meeting3Elinor’s mother passed away suddenly when Elinor was sixteen, and her father, who could have signed her out of the hospital when she recovered from the post-partum psychosis, never came to take her home. “I love my dad,” she said. “I always will.” This too is Sadaparibhuta’s nurturing love, even in the midst of betrayal and rejection. I come from a family that tends to end relationships when pain or shame overwhelms love. When I think of Elinor, I am aware that when the seed of love has grown small or been lost in the face of fear or hurt, I can find that tiny seed, and with nurturing, it will grow strong again.

mb52-Meeting4A Family Reunited

In July I asked Elinor, “Do you have children?” “Yes,” she said. “I have two and I love them very much.” That was the permission I needed to search for her children. I was able to find them, and Elinor’s daughter and granddaughter came right away to visit her.

In January Elinor took her last breath. The weekend of her memorial service, Elinor’s family and four of my siblings met for the first time. During the service I read a passage from the Bible: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Tears fell as I read, knowing that Elinor was and is the love that bears all things, endures all things.

Before I began to practice, before I found the Sangha, I would have fallen into sorrow and seen Elinor’s life as an unbearable tragedy. Belonging to a Sangha that is supportive and affectionate, I am more aware of the energy of love even when it springs from the muddy ground of a life lived in a mental hospital.

Sitting with Elinor enlarged my heart. The weeds of mystery and tragedy and fear withered as Elinor watered seeds of love and simplicity and interbeing. What an amazing surprise to find that the person who the family abandoned is the one who restores our lost connections and the love that goes with them.

mb52-Meeting5Susan Hadler, True Lotus Recollection, practices with the Washington MIndfulness Community in Washington, D.C.

PDF of this article

Letter from the Editor

Editor-NBDear Thay, dear Sangha,

Many times in my life, I’ve wondered: what is love? How can I love better? Lately, some of my dear friends have been faced with intense suffering. One friend is dying of cancer and his wife was just diagnosed with it, too. Another is having surgery on her spine. Another is feeling waves of anxiety. Daily, I search my heart to find ways to love them more skillfully. The stories in this issue are lanterns illuminating my path. I hope they will help light your way, too.

Ursula LeGuin once wrote, “Love does not just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” In this issue, writers tell us about practical tools that renew and enliven their love—hugging meditation, shared sitting practice, Beginning Anew, metta, and the root of it all, mindfulness. With mindful awareness, we continually wake up to sources of joy, rediscover our own smile, and come home to the love we are.

This issue takes us to Indonesia and Thailand, two of five petals on the“beautiful flower of the Southeast Asia Tour,” as Thay expresses. We witness the alms round at Borobudur and drink Dharma rain in Yojakarta. We journey to “Plum Village Thailand” in Pak Chong, where the Sangha plans to build two monasteries and an Institute of Applied Buddhism. We learn about the first retreat at Nhap Luu Monastery in southern Australia. The fledgling Thai and Australian practice centers need our support; please see pages 45 and 46 to make a financial gift.

Crowning this issue is a rich Dharma talk from our teacher. Gently, he guides us to work with our perception of reality. He walks us through the three doors of liberation—emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness—which “help us to touch the nature of impermanence, of non-longing, of nirvana, and of throwing away.”

Holding this magazine, you hold the fruits of many practitioners’ attention and love. This publication is brought to life by their contributions, but also by your support. Please visit www.mindfulnessbell.org to renew your subscription, give a gift subscription, or donate. Your offering will help sustain our beautiful Dharma flower and lift us closer to our goal of creating an online magazine.

May the insight, beauty, and joy in these pages bring understanding and peace. May they light our way home.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Benevolent Respect of the Heart

PDF of this article

On the Way Home

By Eileen Kiera

mb60-OnTheWay1

In the early years of Plum Village there were only two hamlets—Upper Hamlet at Thenac and Lower Hamlet at Meyrac. The hamlets were open for visitors one month each summer from mid-July to mid-August. A few dozen Westerners from all over Europe and North America stayed in Upper Hamlet, and Vietnamese émigrés stayed in Lower Hamlet. Thay gave several Dharma talks each week at one of the hamlets, sometimes in English, sometimes in French, and sometimes in Vietnamese. We walked back and forth between the hamlets to her Thay speak and to visit with our friends in the other hamlet.

One day, I was late for the Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet, and was hurrying along the road when I saw a small yellow Renault, clearly a Plum Village car, come trundling along. I waved at the car, somewhat frantically, and stood in the road in such a way that the driver couldn’t miss seeing me. I really wanted a ride. I really didn’t want to miss the Dharma talk, and my gestures made clear that I needed the car to stop and pick me up. The car came to a halt and I saw it was Sister Chan Khong (Chi Phuong in those days) driving Thay up for the Dharma talk. Embarrassed by the demanding and impatient demeanor I had shown in flagging them down, I nevertheless crawled into the back seat and offered apologies. Sister Chan Khong gently admonished me, saying something to the effect that of course they would stop and pick me up, and then she turned around to drive us up the hill.

mb60-OnTheWay2

The ride was short, maybe fifteen minutes, and we passed the time in silence. But it was a silence that was infused with a feeling of love. It was palpable. The air of love was thick enough to touch, and I was humbled by it. I knew this love wasn’t about me, particularly, but that I was included in it. Eventually, after many more years of practice, I came to realize that I and all beings were always embraced by this love. As I sat in the back seat, quiet and at peace, I rested in the warmth of love. The Dharma talk had touched me with no words at all.

Carrying the Light

I carried Thay’s teaching with me whenever I left Plum Village and came back to my home in Western Washington. Once again I entered the life of a householder, with job, husband, daughter, and many friends. Sometimes I would long for the love and ease I felt when I was at Plum Village. I knew it was in me, as well as at Plum Village, so my practice became to create within my family and community the peace and love Thay had shown me. And what a sweet practice it was. It began with being aware of what I was thinking and feeling throughout the day. When my mind was distracted, I would let go and come back to my breathing, particularly when I saw that my thoughts and feelings were creating harm or suffering within me. I knew that if I held on to these thoughts I would believe them true, and from them I would create suffering around me. I saw all of this clearly, over and over again.

One time, when my two-year-old daughter fell from a countertop onto the floor, I was flooded with anger. I’d frequently lifted her down from high places and told her of the dangers of climbing on things, but she persisted when my back was turned. After she fell, she was scared and crying, but initially my anger prevented me from going to her. When I felt the heat of my anger, I turned my awareness to my breath, and took a few conscious breaths to see her with fresh eyes, remembering how I’d felt when I saw her for the first time. Instantly my anger melted. I was filled with love for her. Instinctively I went to her and cradled her in my lap. After a few more sobs, she jumped out of my lap, smiled, and said in her baby-talk way, “That why no climb, Mama.” I never had to rescue her again from high places.

In 1990, Thay transmitted the lamp to me and asked me to begin teaching. In spite of feeling unworthy, I felt honored to accept the transmission and to carry the light of Buddha’s lamp forward in North America. But in my mind, I wasn’t a teacher unless I had students. So when I came home from Plum Village that summer, I waited to see if people would invite me to teach. And they did, so along with students came the new practice of sharing the Dharma by words and activity. My model was Thay. Through the many years of teaching, I still look to him whenever there is a difficulty in Sangha or with Sangha members. I always ask myself, “What would Thay do here?” And I pull up all of his patience, his love, his gentle spirit and rest there for a while. Then, when I am solid, I step forth with the Thay who lives within me, in honor of Thay, who continues to show me the way in this life.

mb60-OnTheWay3Eileen Kiera, True Lamp meets regularly with Sanghas in her area and has led retreats throughout the United States, in Europe, Australia, Canada, and Mexico. She is co-founder of Mountain Lamp community, a rural lay practice center in northwestern Washington state, where she lives with her husband and community of practice.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: The Four Immeasurable Minds

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mb18-dharma2

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDF of this article

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