Twenty-Three Years as a Nun

By Sister Annabel

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As 2011 begins, I begin my twenty-third year of nunhood. I often think of myself as the continuation of my mother and father and all my blood ancestors. As far as I know, none of my blood ancestors were monks or nuns, though some of them have been fervent Christians who depended very much on their belief in God as a spiritual refuge.

When I was ordained as a nun, I did not tell my mother and father. Thay told me that if I did tell them, they would not understand and would only be confused because they did not have a true perception of what a Buddhist nun was. Two years after being ordained, I accompanied Thay on a teaching tour to England. I invited my mother and father to the retreat without saying anything about being a nun. My mother agreed to register; she had already been to Plum Village and knew a little about the practice, but my father was busy and could not come. I remember catching sight of my mother at the end of a hallway on the arrival day. I recognized her before she recognized me. As we drew closer to each other, she called me the name she had called me as a child. Poor mother! She was taken aback to see me in a brown robe and with a shaved head. The first thing she said was, “Thank goodness your father is not here. He would be shocked to see you with a shaved head.”

As the retreat proceeded, my mother felt more and more at ease. She saw how I interacted with the retreatants, leading the Dharma sharing and giving a presentation on the Five Mindfulness Trainings. She saw that the retreatants had respect for the nuns. She praised me for the way I facilitated the Dharma sharing. When Thay went back to Plum Village after the tour, he allowed me to go home to visit my parents and family. I remembered the words of my mother when she first saw me as a nun, and I did not dare uncover my head for the whole length of my stay. Later, if someone happened to take a photograph of me in Plum Village that I considered to be a good photograph, I would send it to my mother.

Now I can leave my head uncovered when I visit my parents’ house. There has been a shift in the direction of our ancestral stream. The Buddhist nunhood, which seemed so strange at first, has become a much more natural part of the life of my blood family. I would even say that my parents have become more monkand nun-like, and that my spiritual practice has helped them manifest differently than before. This is a ripening of seeds that lie in store consciousness.

Adventure in Vietnam

In 1992, four years after I was ordained, Thay suggested that I go to Vietnam. I went with a number of lay students, and we organized retreats and Days of Mindfulness at the historically sacred Buddhist sites in Vietnam. The most adventurous thing we did was to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Plum Village has a version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings that differs from the mainstream tradition in Vietnam, and many of Thay’s disciples in Saigon and Hue wanted to receive the Plum Village version. First we tried in Hue. Ni Su Dong Thuyen was kind enough to lend her temple. The transmission went unimpeded, but someone made a tape recording that the security police discovered, and we were summoned for a session with them. They told us that we had broken the law and that we had to leave Hue within twenty-four hours and leave Vietnam as soon as possible after that.

We went to Saigon and stayed in a Catholic hotel. We organized a Day of Mindfulness in the oldest temple in Saigon during the weekend, and the security police did not find out about it. Many people came to this famous temple to hear the abbot speak. They had an unexpected Day of Mindfulness with walking meditation. I enjoyed this adventure. We also transmitted the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the rooms behind a bakery on two occasions and no one ever knew.

I am very grateful for the connection with Vietnam that I have experienced as a nun. I have learnt its language, culture, and history, and this has enriched my life greatly. I began my life as a Buddhist practitioner in India and then went to Vietnam. Vietnamese Buddhism is not Chinese Buddhism, as some Western scholars seem to think. Buddhism came to Vietnam across the sea from India, and only after Buddhism had become established in Vietnam was it refreshed by new waves coming from China.

Thay tells us that there will come a time when the Vietnamese monks and nuns will go back to Vietnam to look after the practice centres there. The centres in Europe and North America will be looked after by Western monks and nuns. So as Western monks and nuns, we have a responsibility to stick to the Sangha. It is like when Buddhism came to Vietnam from India: the Vietnamese monks had a responsibility to keep Buddhism alive when the Indian monks went home. If they had not done so, we should not have our Su Ong (teacher) today.

mb57-TwentyThree2Sister Annabel, True Virtue, was ordained in 1988. She is the translator of some of Thay’s books and is presently the Dean of Practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

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Simple Living

An Interview with Brother Phap Trach 

By Sister Chau Nghiem 

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Question: Thank you, Brother, for taking this time. Can you share some of your early childhood experiences of spirituality, Buddhism, or mindfulness? What experiences or conditions watered your seed of becoming a monk?

Brother Phap Trach: When I was little, my mother always took me to the temple. When I, my father, and my brother left Vietnam on a boat, we went to Hong Kong. My father was very religious, very active in the Buddhist Scouts, so he helped to start a Buddhist Scouts in Hong Kong for the Vietnamese refugees, and he always took us to the temple. It was a Chinese temple, but we’d do Vietnamese-style chanting. For three years, every Sunday, we took the bus and the train to the mountain, very high in the mountain. We had to climb a thousand steps. When you’re little the steps are huge. That was when I was about six, seven years old. In my childhood, there were always monks coming to stay in our house. I think they watered our seeds. When I looked at them they were very free. They didn’t have so many worries. I felt very inspired by them. I just liked the way they were. I had a thought when I was young: “Well, if I don’t do anything else, then I’ll become a monk.”

Question: How old were you?

Brother Phap Trach: I was twelve or thirteen. I thought, “If I’m not successful in life, then that’s the way I will go.” Yet there was a point when I said, “I will become a millionaire when I turn thirty.” You just let life carry you away, and you lose touch with your spiritual side.

After you’ve been through a lot and suffered, you ask yourself, “Is there anything else to do in life besides just having a family, being successful, going to work, and spending all your time and energy trying to be wealthy? Is there anything else?” You hit the point where you have suffered enough. There’s something wrong. Something is missing in life. You start to think there must be another way of doing things. There was a point where I gave up. I didn’t really have a path, a direction. I became depressive. On the weekend I partied or went to casinos. I was wasting my time and energy. I broke up with my girlfriend. She was concerned about me. I wasn’t happy with myself. So I escaped into entertainment, gambling, and unwholesome activities.

One day I ran away from home. I didn’t want to go home; I didn’t want to face my difficulties. My family was looking for me and called the police, trying to find me. They found me in a casino. My family suffered a lot with this situation. That was the turning point in my life.

After that situation, Thay led a retreat in Key West, Florida. My brother knew Thay and he knew the practice. He took me, and my brothers and sister also, to meet with Thay and the Sangha. I saw the monks and nuns, and many people practicing. They were walking very slowly. The environment was very calm and peaceful. I talked with the brothers, and they showed me how to practice.

Thay and Sister Chan Khong and the brothers and sisters were doing a skit about novices sleeping and inviting the bell for everyone to wake up. It was wonderful, a real family atmosphere. It really inspired me to consider the path, which had been watered since childhood. That experience made me want to change my life. I really wanted to change the way I was behaving and how I consumed things. It influenced my decision to become a monk. I tried to practice and it really brought peace and calm in me.

Question: Like sitting meditation?

Brother Phap Trach: I did sitting meditation, walking meditation. I read Thay’s books to water the positive seeds in me. And that really changed my mind. My body and my mind became more peaceful. I saw how the practice really works. I had learned many things about the Buddha and how he had all these magical powers. That really didn’t work for me. I wanted to learn more about the more human aspect of the Buddha, because this is what inspired me and made me want to become a monk.

I really wanted to do the practice. I hadn’t really aspired to do something in life before this. I see that in many people in society, who have nothing to do, who may be lost in life. Maybe they need a path also. I felt that if I went on the path I would have a chance in life, and then other people would have a chance, too—many young people who didn’t know what to do with their lives.

Question: What was the most difficult thing to give up when you became a monk?

Brother Phap Trach: The habit of looking for entertainment. Growing up in America, we’re always bombarded with entertainment—video games, movies, and things like that. I used to go to a movie every weekend. I think that energy was really strong in me, looking for entertainment. Becoming a monk, in my novice year, I always looked for entertainment. It’s still there, but it’s not strong. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but you need to channel it into a wholesome direction.

Question: Which practices do you find the most natural and rewarding for you, and which practices do you find the most difficult and challenging?

Brother Phap Trach: Breathing and walking meditation are very basic, profound practices. The practice of being in touch with our body is so important. Wherever I am, I come back to my body. When I am able to do that, I can touch the present moment. It starts right there. At that moment, we have a chance to look at ourselves. We see our environment. We can release whatever is in our mind. We just come back to our breathing. It’s very profound to practice constantly dwelling in the present moment, being happy with that moment. Whatever will happen, or has happened, it’s not a big deal anymore when we’re with ourselves, when we’re with our body. It’s very nice, the feeling of being there, happy with being alive, happy with what we have. It’s very profound.

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Yet, the hardest practice is the simplest practice. I constantly have to remind myself, “You don’t have to look for something extraordinary, but just enjoy the ordinary.” This is the most difficult thing to do, because our mind is a monkey mind, always looking for something difficult and extraordinary. This habit can sometimes make us lose our mind; we lose ourselves. I always remind myself, “You have what you need right here. Doing what you’re doing right now is a wonderful thing.” Thay always reminds us to do that.

Question: In 2008, Thay asked you to come to the EIAB to be abbot of the brothers’ Sangha. How did you feel when he asked you to do this?

Brother Phap Trach: I like adventure, so I just try to accept whatever comes, and take it as a learning opportunity. “Abbot” is just a label for me. Someone needs to take that label on. It’s like someone gives us a name, and we take that name. “Okay, I’ll take that name, to be there.” But living in the Sangha, I can just be myself. I contribute whatever I can, whether that role is an abbot or just a brother. I do what I can do.

Question: You don’t feel some pressure inside that you’re the abbot and you have to do things a certain way? Do you feel it somehow constricts you?

Brother Phap Trach: It’s a challenge to take on that label, because even though I don’t expect much from myself, other people expect things from me, whether the expectations are said out loud or not. The practice is to hold those expectations and accept them as they are, and try to do the best I can to fulfill them. If I cannot do more, then I accept my limitation. That’s my practice. If I don’t have any challenges, then I will not grow. It’s good to have challenges.

As a monk, I have moved around a lot, always traveling, going here and there. Being an abbot helps me to settle, to stay. It’s an advantage and it’s a lesson for me. I enjoy it. It also makes my commitment stronger, to be in one place. It helps me to be more responsible in the Sangha, just to be here, to take that label. It drives me to do better, to learn more, to invest more into the Dharma, to help the young people.

Question: I’m wondering if there’s a time when you had something in mind that you wanted to do, just as Brother Phap Trach, but then because you’re also abbot, you decided to do it differently.

Brother Phap Trach: I really like to travel with the large Sangha, to be able to hop from monastery to monastery, and not stay in one place for a long time. It’s like when we want to do something, or go somewhere, and then we have to stay put. It really brings up challenges in our mind. Like, “I’m supposed to go; I deserve to go on that trip.” But just being, just staying, helps. We don’t have to go. We don’t have to be with Thay to be happy. We don’t have to travel to Asia to be happy. We don’t have to do the things that we think we need to do. We can be happy here, too. We can always find the present moment pleasant. When we accept something, then new doors open to our mind. We can enjoy the new things.

Question: What have you learned in the last three years at the EIAB about Sangha building and how best to support yourself and others on the path?

Brother Phap Trach: I think I’ve grown a lot in learning to be patient and accepting what comes. It takes a lot of time to adapt to a new environment, a new culture, new brothers and sisters. It teaches me to be patient; it tells me, “You have to let yourself adapt to the environment. You have to be patient with your brothers and sisters; they also need time to adapt to the new environment. They have difficulties to transform.You have to accept them as they are.” Everything takes its time to change, to adapt. It’s more like adaptation than change. Like ants—when their organization is disturbed, they need time to reestablish it again. In the beginning, we didn’t know what to do and how to structure our Sangha, but when we allow enough time and space things take care of themselves.

Question: What are some particular things that you’ve had to adapt to here in Germany, in the town of Waldbrol, in this big building, with its tragic past?

Brother Phap Trach: When we become a monastic, we want to live in a simple, secluded place. There was my idea: “Become a monk—simple place.” Coming here, my ideas changed. Even though I still live very simply, I learned that simple living is not dependent on the place we live. Simple living is more about our attitude and our way of being. Even though the building is very big and special, like a castle, and we are next to the city, it doesn’t make us more glamorous. To keep a simple attitude, a simple life, is challenging, but it makes our practice more solid to deal with the suffering that was here in the past. We come here and we slowly change the past. Monks and nuns are living here now. This energy is coming into that past, and it really changes people’s way of seeing this place. I think it’s very good. I think in the long run, we’re creating a wonderful, nice history for this place. It was bad at one time. But we re-create that part. Now it’s something wonderful, and many people benefit from us being here.

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Step into Freedom and Taste True Happiness

Five-Year Monastic Training and Service Program

When we train as a monastic we have the opportunity to find the root of our freedom, solidity, joy and happiness, and to help our society. When we ordain and wear the brown robe, we learn to cut through our illusions and our afflictions. We learn to transform our deepest suffering into a bright future and into an even brighter present. In this process of knowing ourselves and facing our difficulties, we will also learn how to change our society into one that is more compassionate, understanding, and happy. This is a natural process, because as we discover the root of virtue in our own life, we will also be able to help other people to stop creating suffering for themselves and for the world.

Five years of monastic training is a great chance for you to learn how to live your life meaningfully, to discover brotherhood and sisterhood, and to make possible right here and right now the social change we have always dreamt about. Tasting the simple life of a monk or a nun and cultivating your spiritual life, you will be able to assist your elder brothers and sisters in organizing retreats and events all over the world. You will be able to share your practice and transformation and help a great number of people. When we let go of the pursuit of wealth, power, and sensual pleasures, and put on the brown robe, we do not need to wait five years to be able to help people. Right from the first day, we inspire those around us by simply walking with mindfulness, solidity, and freedom.

Basic Requirements:

Age from 17 – 32. If you are under 18, you must have the consent of your parents.

Single or divorced. Your relationships with those close to you are settled, and your decision is in harmony with them, so that they will not be an obstacle to your training as a monastic.

No incurable disease or serious medical condition. Your mental stability and physical health should be sound enough not to be an obstacle for your training and for that of the community.

No debt or financial ties.As monastics we take refuge in the Sangha, and do not have debt or hold bank accounts and/or credit cards.

Commitment to study, practice, and serve. Our training is to flow as a Sangha. You commit to learn how to practice as a community and to follow the guidance of the Sangha, including attending all Sangha activities.

Letting personal possessions go. As part of your training you will be asked to release items such as laptops, cellphones, etc. and to come into the community with your hands empty.

Family visit. You can visit your blood family members for fourteen days after training for two years as a novice. You can keep in contact with them by writing letters and calling them from time to time.

Come to any of our centers in the U.S., France, Germany, and Thailand and practice as a retreatant for two weeks before inquiring about the program.

Please visit www.plumvillage.org for a more detailed description of the Five-Year Monastic Training Program.

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On the Road with Thich Nhat Hanh

A documentary about monks and nuns on tour with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh 

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha walked the length and breadth of India, sharing the Dharma and the way of compassion and freedom. In 2011 the monks and nuns of Plum Village will take to the road with the same goal in mind, but this time using planes, trains, automobiles, social networking, and mobile phones.

Traveling to the U.S. with Thay and the monastic delegation, a team of filmmakers will experience the tour side by side with these monks and nuns, creating a unique feature-length documentary to share the real lives of monastics in the Plum Village Tradition: their stories as young people with aspirations, hopes, and dreams; their trials and challenges along with their joys in the practice. By following Thay and the monastics of Plum Village from large-scale public talks and retreats to personal encounters, we will gain a rare insight into the deep teachings of a true modern Zen Master.

From the natural beauty of sunny Southern California to the swamps of Mississippi, from the Rocky Mountains to Manhattan, this will be a road movie like no other! The film will be directed by Max Pugh, a young filmmaker with a track record of award nominated films. The making of the film and its content will be guided by Plum Village monastics.

The filmmakers want you to get involved! They are conducting a campaign to raise $30,000 to cover production costs. They are offering a unique opportunity to become part of this extraordinary film. To see all the wonderful things offered in exchange for your support, go to http://www.indiegogo.com/tnh.

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Media Reviews

mb57-MediaReviews1One Buddha Is Not Enough
A Story of Collective Awakening

By Thich Nhat Hanh and the Monks and Nuns of Plum Village
Parallax Press, 2010
Paperback, 216 pages

Reviewed by Rasoul Sorkhabi

In August 2009, more than nine hundred people gathered at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, for a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, entitled “One Buddha Is Not Enough.” I was one of them. Many of us had read Thay’s inspiring books or heard his lectures, and we were looking forward to seeing and hearing him in person.

That first evening, we learned that Thay would not attend because he was hospitalized in Massachusetts, where he had led a retreat the week before. Many participants were disappointed, but they also appreciated the situation. Over the next four days, the retreatants as well as the coordinating monks and nuns made the retreat a delightful experience for all. Every day we listened to Dharma talks and chants, ate our food mindfully, and sat and walked in the silence of mindfulness. An account of our experience has been published in this elegant volume.

The book consists of an introduction about the Colorado retreat (“The Miracle of Sangha”), nine chapters by the monks and nuns (texts of their Dharma talks at the retreat), an excerpt from the hospital diary of one of the monks who accompanied Thay (“You Continue in Us”), two letters from Thay that were read to retreat participants, and a final chapter written by Thay (“We Have Arrived, We Are Home”). Reflections and remarks by retreat participants are included, giving a people’s voice to the book. Overall, this is a carefully crafted, absorbing read. Happily, the book preserves the sense of humor that was present at the retreat.

There is something profound about the title One Buddha Is Not Enough. “In order to save our planet Earth,” Thay has said, “we must have a collective awakening. Individual awakening is not enough. That is why one Buddha is not enough.”

mb57-MediaReviews2Colors of Compassion
Teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh

A film by Eloise de Leon
Running time: 50 minutes 2011

Reviewed by Angela Dews

Filmmaker Eloise de Leon promises Colors of Compassion will be a cinematic retreat. It is that. In this documentary that chronicles Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2004 People of Color Retreat, we walk with our teacher through Deer Park Monastery’s tawny landscape. The camera pans and then stops. We breathe. We hear a bell, a bird.

Thay says, “. . . the act of making a step is an act of freedom, an act of liberation. You liberate yourself, you liberate your ancestors. It’s an act of revolution.” Retreatants also connect the practice to freedom, and express their willingness to be present: “All you’ve got to say is Shakyamuni Buddha taught liberation and we’re there.”

Those who speak on camera identify themselves as Mexican, African American, Vietnamese, and mixed with other cultures and nationalities. They share why they came and where they came from: “We can feel that we know our parents and our ancestors, and still we ask the question, who am I?” “The color of our skin or what we are categorized as, it doesn’t make us. If we are not skillful, it can confine us.” “How to not abandon our communities and be a mindful social activist is the crucial question for our liberation.” Their stories also answer questions some might have about a retreat for people of color. Why do we need such a retreat? Why might someone like me need the Dharma?

The filmmakers skillfully balance talking and stillness in wonderful scenes: Thay teaches interbeing to a room full of brothers and sisters—some in robes and some not—in the Ocean of Peace meditation hall; and, at the end of the film, during an extraordinary celebration, many receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings and their Dharma names. Perhaps some will find their way through this film into practice, and others will appreciate the vibrancy of people of color, who may have been invisible until now, in their own Sanghas.

mb57-MediaReviews3The Ten Oxherding Paintings
Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh

Edited by Karen Hilsberg
Translated by Sister Dang Nghiem
Jasmine Roots Press, 2011

Reviewed by David Percival, True Wonderful Roots

The Ten Oxherding Paintings have helped Zen students conceptualize the path to enlightenment for almost one thousand years. Attributed to Kuoan Shiyuan, a Chinese Zen master, they depict a young child (the spiritual seeker) searching for an ox (the true self) and his eventual attempts to control it.

In this fresh look at familiar teachings, Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh doesn’t waste any time; he confronts us with the simple truth: “the joy, the enlightenment, the nirvana, all those things are already within us.” The ox is not somewhere else; it just appears that way to the confused child who continues to search. When I began practicing, I also spent too much time searching outside of myself—for teachers, retreats, books, etc. I didn’t understand about coming back to the beautiful island within myself. Only later did I discover the space of mindfulness that was always here in my body and my mind.

As he explains the Ten Oxherding Paintings, the Venerable gives us the immediate realization that we are already riding on the ox—we already are what we’re seeking. We simply need to stop, come back to ourselves, and realize our true nature of recognition and awareness. By cultivating mindfulness and living constantly with our true nature, we’ll recognize the impermanent and fleeting nature of our feelings and perceptions. Instead of being caught up in our mental stress, we’ll dwell in the beautiful space of emptiness, “no longer caught by the self or the ego.”

This beautiful book is an inspiration and a call for practitioners to dwell in the energy of mindfulness, and to understand that “the Buddha is right here in our bodies, in our sadness, and in our anger.”

There is truly nowhere to go and nothing to search for. Whatever we have been looking for has always been right here, inside of us. We can enjoy these profound teachings, enter the mind of our wonderful teacher, Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh, and dwell in the Buddha nature that has always been within us.

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Continuing the Path of the Buddha

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

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The Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Center was established in 1982. Over the years, practice centers have been founded around the world in response to an increasing need from practitioners in many countries. These centers include Deer Park Monastery in California, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, Entering the Stream Meditation Center in Australia, Plum Village International Meditation Center in Thailand, the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, and the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany. All practice meditation according to the Plum Village tradition.

Challenging Times 

In its infancy, Plum Village encountered many infrastructure difficulties. Most of the hamlets were purchased from farmers who raised cattle and sheep, and they lacked electricity and heating systems. Winter at Plum Village was extremely cold, and brothers and sisters had to bring their own blankets to cover themselves during sitting meditation. When Thay wrote his books, one hand held the pen while the other hand warmed over the fire. Water, equipment, utensils, and food were limited. As the number of practitioners at Plum Village increased, it became apparent the infrastructure needed to expand. When Lower Hamlet could not meet the requirements for operating a public center, it was closed down. This has also happened to Upper Hamlet and New Hamlet.

During these years, there were many times when Thay fell ill, and it was uncertain he would recover. Thanks to the support of the Buddha and patriarchs, Thay pulled through. In addition to the physical difficulties, the Sangha also experienced spiritual challenges. The 2009 tragedy at Prajna Monastery in Vietnam was a period of deep difficulty for Plum Village. So much suffering and fear poured on those young, innocent monks and nuns who no longer could take refuge in their own motherland and had to seek refuge across the globe. Fortunately, with the support of the Buddha and ancestors, brothers and sisters adhered to the practice of nonviolence and were able to overcome that painful time.

Plum Village Anniversary 

At the start of the 2011-2012 Winter Retreat, during a monastic day at the Hermitage, Thay and his students sat together around a glowing fire. Thay said, “Next year is the thirtieth anniversary of Plum Village and we will celebrate the whole year. We can organize in such a way that we celebrate in every retreat. If we practice to generate happiness in every day, we don’t need to celebrate in a grand and luxurious fashion in order to be happy. We only need to be happy with what we are doing in our daily life, right in this present moment. That is truly to celebrate.”

Following Thay’s suggestion, we organized six working groups to focus on celebrating this anniversary. The groups presented the history of Plum Village, set up an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, exhibited the Dharma tools Thay often uses while teaching, prepared an exhibition of Thay’s books, worked on Plum Village’s annual Vietnamese magazine, and organized performances. The hamlets were filled with enthusiastic and joyful discussions, which were enough to bring us happiness each day.

Over the next three months, we prepared to celebrate thirty years of Plum Village. The first exhibition took place at the end of March 2012, during the French retreat. We organized in a way that allowed everyone to fully participate in each Day of Mindfulness, as well as in two daily sessions of sitting meditation and chanting. Our free time was used to renovate, repair, and clean the hamlet. Nearly all the tasks were completed by the brothers and sisters on the organizing team. A few brothers and sisters volunteered to sing and play the guitar while we worked, adding an atmosphere of lightness and joy to our tasks. I prepared sweet soup for all the brothers to enjoy during break, and we would sit around the pot, enjoying the soup and stories that brought much laughter. One brother said, “People can earn a lot of money in their jobs, but do they have such light and happy moments like we are enjoying now?” At Plum Village, our salary is the happiness of lay friends who come to practice with us, and our nourishment is the brotherhood and sisterhood.

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The thirty-year anniversary ceremony was celebrated twice during the Summer Opening. After a Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet, Thay lead the Sangha in walking meditation to Son Ha (Foot of the Mountain Temple), where we held the first ceremony. The path from Upper Hamlet to Son Ha passes through a valley of pine trees, which became more beautiful when decorated with pots of flowers to welcome Thay and the Sangha. Thay’s calligraphy—“I have arrived, I am home”—was displayed below the pots in eight different languages. One venerable from China said, “I really like the way brothers and sisters decorate. It is simple, but I can feel there is much love. It is very beautiful and Zen.”

On the grass lawn in front of Son Ha Temple, the Sangha enjoyed classical music performed by our Western brothers and sisters, as well as the lion dance performed by our Vietnamese brothers with the beat of the drums. After the lion dance and a few introductory words about Plum Village and the calligraphy exhibition, Thay was invited to cut the inauguration banner and lead the Sangha into the exhibition.

The second exhibition was organized at New Hamlet. The lion dance also welcomed the Sangha, and the sisters from both New Hamlet and Lower Hamlet gave a musical/dance performance. Everyone then enjoyed some anniversary cake, and Thay opened the exhibition on his Dharma tools and books.

In an opening speech for the calligraphy exhibition, we shared that it has taken us thirty years to come this far. Some people were very touched by this, because thirty years is a relatively long time for such humble development in terms of infrastructure. They could begin to understand how much simpler and more difficult life at Plum Village must have been years ago. Yet Plum Village does not aim to develop monumental buildings, but focuses on the practices so that it can benefit people all around the world.

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The year 2012 marked thirty years of Plum Village, which is neither a short nor a long time. Confucius said, “By the age of thirty, one can be independent.” In other words, when he reached the age of thirty, he was able to stand on his own two feet. Looking back at our history, we dare not be so self-assured, as Plum Village is still very young. As children of the Buddha, we are aware that we should not just work and neglect our practice. We have to make full use of our time to develop our bodhicitta, so that we can grow and turn the Dharma wheel further. This is truly to repay the four debts of gratitude and grow up on our path of practice.

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Integrating Buddhism into Daily Life 

To organize and lead retreats with the intention of integrating Buddhism into daily life is part of our service. Plum Village is open year-round to welcome retreatants from all over the world to practice. Each year, Plum Village offers three or four large retreats, with seven hundred to one thousand participants. Additionally, Thay and Plum Village Dharma teachers lead teaching tours in many countries. In odd-numbered years, Thay and the Plum Village delegation go on a three-month teaching tour in North America and/or Asia. In even-numbered years, Thay goes on a teaching tour in Europe. The Dharma teachers also lead retreats in the spring and autumn. Over the past thirty years, Plum Village has helped people around the world heal their wounds, transform their suffering, reconcile and re-establish communication with loved ones.

At a retreat in Rome, Italy, last autumn, a blind lady shared, “In the 1990s I discovered there was something wrong with my eyes and I could no longer see clearly. I was told that I would become blind within a few years. When I returned home and told my mother, she said it was a hereditary condition. I was very sad knowing I would be blind without a cure. Within the next few years, the state of my eyesight progressively worsened until I was considered blind. I suffered greatly with my condition, and wanted to return to a more spiritual life in order to learn how to live peacefully and harmoniously with this disability. In 1992, I was told that a Vietnamese Buddhist monk was visiting Rome to teach. I found my way to the teaching venue of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh. The first time I heard Thay’s voice I knew he would be my teacher. Thay’s voice is gentle, expressive, and full of compassion. I was so happy! At the retreat I learned how to practice mindfulness and was guided in living mindfully every moment. I learned to breathe and walk in mindfulness, learned ways to reduce tension in my body and calm my mind. Thanks to the practices of mindfulness, I was able to take care of myself in the basic things of my daily life. Even though I can no longer see Thay’s face, I recognize my teacher when I hear that gentle and compassionate voice. I am ever so grateful because he helped me to find myself in a period of life that was full of darkness.” Everyone was very moved by her sharing.

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Transporting Buddhism into the Future 

Today, globalization has brought people more tension, pressure, worries, competition, and violence. In this world, people need a spiritual dimension to their lives more than ever. At Plum Village, we are always enthusiastic about creating fresh, joyful, and gentle methods of practice that will encourage young people to come and practice. Young people are open-minded and creative, with a high capacity to learn. They have strong life energy, a revolutionary spirit, and a huge “fire” of love and aspiration to serve (bodhicitta).

Thay and the Sangha always encourage and support the young monastic brothers and sisters to discover their talents and potential skills. These young monastics practice to transform themselves as well as to be role models and help lay friends to overcome their difficulties. Young monastics are the future and the continuation of the Buddha, of our teacher and spiritual ancestors. They transport Buddhism into the future. Thay has ordained more than eight hundred monastic disciples. Aside from these brothers and sisters, Plum Village also has “golden eggs,” commonly referred to at Plum Village as the “Fragrant Tea Tree” ordination family, with monastics from other Buddhist traditions or temples who have joined the Sangha. The number of monastics in this family has grown to one hundred brothers and sisters, and their presence has enriched Plum Village. Within our Sangha of nine hundred monastics practicing at Plum Village centers (in France and other countries), we have brothers and sisters of twenty-eight different nationalities.

In 2008, many young people attended the retreat in Italy. Aside from the retreat, we also organized a presentation and activities for about five hundred high school students near Rome. During Dharma discussion, we listened deeply to the young people as they shared the difficulties and blockages in their lives. Many felt lonely and alienated with no sense of life direction. Others carried deep wounds and suffering from their family and society. They didn’t believe in themselves and were unable to trust others around them. They were carried away by feelings and emotions, and consequently, their speech and actions were not wholesome.

Thay suggested we initiate a movement especially for young people. The Wake Up movement builds a healthy and compassionate society based on the Five Mindfulness Trainings. It is a source of spiritual nourishment, a playing field especially for young people who seek to direct themselves towards a globalized spiritual ethic.

The Wake Up movement has become very popular, and each year Plum Village organizes several retreats specifically for this movement. Led by young Dharma teachers, these retreats take place around the world. At Trafalgar Square in London in 2012, nearly five thousand young people gathered to sit in meditation and listen to a Dharma talk given by Thay. This movement transcends all religious and national boundaries, inviting everyone to participate in activities that are refreshing, joyful, wholesome, and relevant to the youth of today. In many of the world’s major cities, Sanghas of young people participate in Wake Up activities. As a result, we have created a Wake Up website (www.wkup. org) where people can follow the latest news, practice together, share, and contact each other. The Wake Up movement not only encourages activities that are meaningful and create happiness, but also offers a wholesome context that connects young people from all over the world.

Plum Village has continued to develop methods for practicing mindfulness in ways that are most relevant and useful to modern people. Our Applied Ethics Program aims to integrate mindfulness practices into the education sector. Based on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, this program would be taught as part of the regular curriculum, with mindfulness being the method to put it into practice. Teachers of this subject must know how to practice mindfulness with happiness in order to be able to teach it to students. At Plum Village, we have a new program to train such teachers, and we have organized training programs for educators in many countries, including India, the U.S., Thailand, Bhutan, France, and Germany. At a retreat for American congressmen/women in Washington, D.C., in 2011, and at a lecture in the House of Lords in England in 2012, Thay addressed the issue of how to integrate the Applied Ethics Program into the education sector.

During the 2011 U.S. teaching tour, Thay and a number of brothers and sisters met with Jerry Brown, the governor of California. During that meeting, we addressed how to integrate the Applied Ethics program into California’s education system. Governor Brown welcomed the proposal, saying, “Currently, I manage two private schools, and we can try and apply this program in my two schools first.” During the U.S. tour, Thay also met with Senator Tim Ryan from Ohio and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to discuss the program.

Monastic Life at Plum Village

Individuals with the aspiration to serve and to practice a monastic life of chastity may enter the five-year monastic program at Plum Village. After five years, these individuals may take monastic vows for the rest of their lives, or they can return to lay life and continue to practice as lay Dharma teachers. To join this program, individuals must be under thirty-five years old and have the aspiration to serve and to practice the life of a monastic. The program allows young people to serve in ways that are similar to serving in the army. Yet our true enemies are the “ghosts” of afflictions, like anger, hatred, violence, craving, jealousy, and discrimination. Young people learn the practices of mindfulness in order to recognize, embrace, and transform these ghosts. When we can embrace and transform these ghosts, we experience happiness and freedom. If we practice with good results, we can help our loved ones, society, country, and world become more peaceful and wholesome.

The “brown robe” family, our fourfold Sangha, is comprised of monastic brothers and sisters in brown robes, and laymen and laywomen in the Order of Interbeing. We are all active in teaching and in social aid/relief programs around the world. Created by Thay in 1966, the Order of Interbeing has grown from six to more than one thousand members who practice according to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. These disguised bodhisattvas go into the world to rescue beings. The Understanding and Love Program in Vietnam and India includes more than three hundred kindergartens, operated by these Order of Interbeing bodhisattvas who invest much of their time and energy in developing and serving. Without these bodhisattvas, we cannot give poor children a glass of milk and a meal for lunch.

The brown-robed bodhisattvas of the Order of Interbeing in countries like France, England, Holland, Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Brazil, and Canada, all use skillful means to help Plum Village in its work to rescue all beings. Some translate Thay’s books; others help to print and publish his books or translate audio Dharma talks. Some compose music; others teach mindfulness in prisons; still others help to organize retreats. Additionally, some help with financial and administrative work, while others assist with fundraising or provide legal assistance. Each person is a precious jewel of the Sangha, and we are always grateful for each person’s dedication and presence.

Today there are many active Sanghas practicing according to the tradition of Plum Village, with most located in major cities around the world. Among the one thousand practicing Sanghas, eighty are in the UK, seventy are located in Germany, and more than five hundred are in the U.S. As the scope of our spiritual work is very expansive and not limited to France or Vietnam, we have always done the important work of a gardener (a monastic), to help people tend to the “garden of their heart” and to sow wholesome seeds. Through the rise of so many Sanghas, we see that those seeds have germinated and are now sprouting up everywhere.

The Continuation of Buddha

Over the past thirty years, the Plum Village Sangha boat has weathered many storms and challenges and has delivered many people to the shores of freedom, peace, and happiness. Thay is a solid captain, directing us in navigating the Sangha boat. His wisdom is like a great, ancient tree that continues to flower and produce fruits—an ancient tree in whom we can all take refuge.

We are very grateful to all those who have contributed to creating Plum Village, and to our predecessors who built and developed the Sangha. Stepping onto Upper Hamlet, we can see the shadows and the continuation of Brother Nguyen Hai in Brother Phap Huu, Brother Phap Trien, and many others. Arriving at Deer Park Monastery, we can see the continuation of Brother Giac Thanh in Brother Phap Dung, Brother Phap Hai, Brother Phap Ho, and many other brothers and sisters. When we think of the social relief program, we can also see the continuation of Brother Thanh Van and Sister Chan Khong through Ms. Xuan, Mr. Nghiem, Mr. Dinh, and many other people in the world.

As the younger generation, we are always indebted to our respected Thay, who has given his whole life for the benefit of all beings. Although advancing in age, he never ceases to renew the practices so that they remain relevant and appropriate to the times, especially for future generations seeking to take refuge.

Each of us is a cell in the Sangha body, a member of the Sangha boat. In a body, there are millions of cells. Each cell has its own function. Similarly, with the Sangha boat, we are the wooden planks, the nails, the boat captain. We are the boat. The planks have the function of keeping the water out of the boat, the nails keep the planks together, the captain navigates the boat to its destination, and the boat delivers people across the river. Thanks to the combination of these components working together, we have a solid boat to bring people to the other shore. In the same way, to continue the path of the Buddha is the duty and the collective expedition of the ancestors, of Thay and the Sangha, of all of us together. Each person gives a hand to the career of the Buddha, like one hand carries on from another hand.

Reviewing the past thirty years, we are ever so grateful for the support of the Buddha and ancestors. We are clearly aware that life is impermanent. Any doctrine, any country, any tradition will one day decline because waxing and waning is a never-ending process. But we vow to continue learning and practicing, to take more steps in freedom and solidity in order to offer another thirty years. Thay teaches us, “The first thirty years can go by slowly, but the next thirty years will pass very quickly.” Together, hand in hand with Thay, we can go as a river to climb the hill of the century. It is not a matter of time, be it thirty years or three hundred years, but we have to go in such a way that every minute can bring happiness, peace, and benefit for ourselves and for others. In doing so we can enjoy the inheritance and truly continue the career of the Buddha.

mb64-Continuing6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

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Letters

The Summer 2011 edition contained stories from several monastics and a discussion on intimacy from Thay. For me, Thay’s willingness to discuss the very uncomfortable subject of sexual misconduct makes him stand out as a unique teacher. Over and over, he has braved this subject and it has touched many people in ways he may not even be aware of. Years ago, unknown to my husband and me, our daughter was repeatedly sexually abused by a family friend. This action has caused our family deep and ongoing pain. The lack of mindfulness in these kinds of actions causes pain and suffering all over the planet every day. Just as we were reading Thay’s article in the Mindfulness Bell, the radio was playing yet another story of sexual misconduct by one of our congressmen. Our culture in the west is so focused on sex. There is a myth that without it, one cannot live a happy life. Also, that men especially are unable to channel their sexual energy elsewhere without dire consequences. We are so thankful to have a teacher who repeatedly speaks out for mindfulness in the area of sexual conduct. People across the planet need to address this topic. We need help with ways to be mindful in our sexual activities. May we awaken to our sexual urges and fi healthy ways to manifest them that cause joy rather than suffering. Sharing and shining light, we give thanks for the example set by our teachers.

Bobbie Cleave, True Capacity of the Earth

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Let me take this opportunity to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the beautiful issue of the Mindfulness Bell on monastic life. It is still very nourishing for me to read the stories from my lay and monastic brothers and sisters. I am honored to be a part of it!

Much love, Sister An Nghiem

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We received the latest issue of the Mindfulness Bell last week, and we would like to thank you for doing such beautiful interviews with the monastic brothers and sisters. Our whole Sangha was especially touched by your interview with Brother Phap Trach, as his parents and siblings are members of our Sangha. It was great to see their beautiful faces light up with joy and gentle surprise.

Broward Lotus Sangha (via Facebook)

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Birth of the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism

By Brother Phap Nguyen 

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On April 25, 2011, thirty monks and nuns were welcomed at the Hong Kong airport by the Sangha and transported to the newest Plum Village monastery. A small car held Thay and his attendants, and three buses—carrying the brothers, the sisters, and our luggage—followed Thay’s car to Lotus Pond Temple in the village of Ngong Ping on Lantau Island, Hong Kong.

Halfway up the mountain, we could see a huge bronze Buddha (the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world), sitting majestically on the peak. The road was very beautiful, hugging the mountain on one side and looking steeply down to the South China Sea on the other. Lush vegetation surrounded the winding road and added to the spectacular landscape. It took a little over half an hour to reach the top of the mountain, where many tourists and pilgrims were praying in front of the statue of the Awakened One. This mountain, adorned with the giant statue, is one of the famous tourist attractions of Hong Kong.

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In front of us was the imposing, white granite main gate to Polin Temple. The place was bustling with people. They did not seem to notice that just to the left of this busy gate was a small paved road leading to the hidden Lotus Pond Temple. In there the atmosphere was quiet and full of the flavor of Zen—a world totally different from the one outside. Leaving the bus, we found Thay already sitting in the shade of an ancient banyan tree, enjoying his tea. We bowed to him. He pointed at the tree and said, “This is an old friend of Thay’s.”

We learned that Thay had left his footprint here over forty years ago. It was very moving to witness this return. How fortunate that Thay is still here to be the old sturdy banyan tree where his spiritual descendants can take refuge. “Let’s go to the Buddha Hall to touch the earth before we eat; we are not allowed to eat without paying respect first to the Buddha!” Thay said in his gentle way, with a smile. We were moved. It was truly a reminder in the language of a gentle father.

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The First Seeds

The seeds of a center were sown in Thay’s first teaching visit to Hong Kong in 2001. In 2007, during Thay’s third trip there, a practice community called Plum Village Hong Kong was formed. After that trip, Brother Phap Kham and other Plum Village brothers and sisters residing in Vietnam and Thailand went to Hong Kong every three months to lead retreats and provide guidance to practitioners. In February 2009, a mindfulness practice center was established in the commercial and tourist area Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, with Brothers Phap Kham, Phap Chung, Phap Chung, and Phap Dung as permanent residents.

Although the center is located in a crowded downtown area, the brothers have been able to maintain a diligent practice, keeping the same daily schedule of sitting, walking, and working meditation as at the other Plum Village centers. Some practitioners come to sit with the brothers in the early morning, but the majority come after work for the afternoon walking meditation in the park and sitting meditation in the evening. These practitioners see the importance of the practice, which helps them feel less stressed and brings them peace and happiness in everyday life. Hong Kong, especially in the Tsim Sha Tsui area, is extremely crowded. Many people in this small territory live in small, high rise condominiums. Among such tight quarters, the light and relaxed steps of walking meditation are surprising for many onlookers.

Thay’s 2010 teaching tour brought much benefit to many in Hong Kong. Over 1,400 people participated in the retreat held at the Hong Kong YMCA. More than 300 people received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the end of the retreat. Among those was a venerable monk from another part of China. He had obviously received the Five Precepts elsewhere, but the Venerable insisted, “The Five Mindfulness Trainings as enunciated by Plum Village are so wonderful, I would like to receive them so I may transmit them to my disciples.” There was also an ordination ceremony for twenty-five new Order of Interbeing members from Hong Kong. It was a ceremony of warmth and great joy.

During this same tour, Thay gave a public talk to over 8,000 people at the Hong Kong Convention Center. A Venerable from Hong Kong observed, “Only Zen Master Nhat Hanh has the ability to attract such a large audience. Normally, we would be very happy if eighty people came to a Dharma talk.” Thay’s teaching tour made a big impact on intellectuals and business leaders, and the Hong Kong press published many news articles on Thay and the monastic Sangha as well as the teachings given during the tour.

One businessman interviewing Thay inquired, “Which realm would you prefer to go to when you die?” Thay looked at the person with his compassionate eyes, then gently answered with a smile, “It does not matter where I go. If we live deeply and solidly in the present moment, and are happy right here and now, then we will be happy no matter where we go.” Thay’s answer surprised the businessman. Normally people think that Thay might want to go to Nirvana or the Pure Land, or to the Tushita Heaven to help Maitreya Buddha prepare his appearance on Earth, or even back to this world to help people achieve liberation. Thay’s very practical answer was beyond expectations.

A Renewed Buddhism 

After the interview, the businessman described the status of Buddhism in Hong Kong and the difficulties practitioners were facing. Young people were no longer interested in coming to the temples. There were fewer and fewer monastics. The man spoke of his dream to reintroduce Buddhism in Hong Kong in a way that could bring more peace and happiness to individuals and communities. He acknowledged that wealth, power, and fame would not bring true happiness and peace.

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Thay said the only way to achieve such a goal was to bring forth a renewed Buddhism, responsive to the needs of today’s society. There had to be practices to help people relax, have less stress, calm the body and mind, resolve personal difficulties and suffering, bring reconciliation between family members, friends, and colleagues, and generate peace and happiness in the present moment. We should work to establish a healthy environment that appeals to young people. If not, they would no longer come to the temples and Buddhism would seriously degenerate over time. He said this phenomenon had happened and was still happening—not only to Buddhism but also to Christianity, and not only in Hong Kong but in other countries as well—and would continue if we failed to renew our spiritual tradition.

Thay went on to share about the practice of monastics at mindfulness centers at Plum Village in France; Deer Park Monastery, Blue Cliff Monastery, and Magnolia Grove Monastery in the United States; Nhap Luu in Australia; and Tu Hieu in Vietnam. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Germany brings the practice of Buddhism to modern society in the most practical way. At these centers, all practitioners, regardless of spiritual background, may participate in and benefit from the wisdom of the Buddha.

At the EIAB, unlike other Buddhist institutes around the world, the teaching staff includes more than fifty monastics residing together. The monastics live, practice, and teach on-site. Classes are taught on subjects such as living in harmony with others, managing anger and other emotions, ministering to the dying, etc. Retreats of various lengths are held. Consultations may be set up with the monks and nuns to resolve any question. The energy of the practice is pervasive and palpable. Every Sunday is a public Day of Mindfulness, open to everyone. The monastics in residence are the bedrock of the Institute. Having a large number of monastics in residence helps create strong practice energy and brings the quality and effectiveness of instruction to a very high level.

Thay said we could also establish an Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism (AIAB) in Hong Kong, known as one of the four rising tigers of Asia and as a land of respect for human rights and religious freedom. If an AIAB was established in Hong Kong, it would help not only Hong Kong and in particular its youth, but also countless others in East Asia.

The businessman was very interested in Thay’s statement. He said he had a good-sized temple on Lantau Island, about a ninety-minute drive from downtown Hong Kong, which could be offered to Plum Village for use as a practice center if Thay agreed.

Ideas were exchanged between Thay’s senior disciples and the businessman, who offered to transport Thay and some monastics to visit the temple the following morning. The offer to make the temple into a Plum Village practice center was happily accepted.

Lotus Pond Monastery 

Our sisters moved into the new temple, called Lotus Pond (Lien Tri), nearly a month before our arrival in April 2011. The temple is well laid out and spacious, built in the traditional architecture of Chinese temples. The Buddha Hall, which can seat around 150 people, occupies the top of the three-story building. The middle floor is the residence of the sisters, and the bottom floor is divided into two parts: in front is the ancestors’ hall, and behind it is the dining hall. Outside and to the left of the temple is Thay’s cottage, next to the path leading to our new Bamboo Forest (Truc Lam) Temple where the brothers live. The Bamboo Forest Temple is not as large as Lotus Pond, but it is a comfortable and cozy place for the brothers to live and practice together.

In the last few days of our stay, Thay took us to visit a number of temples on Lantau Island. Most of these temples are deserted, or occupied only by one, two, or three people. We were saddened to see the temples so abandoned. According to local Venerables, the number of monastics in all the temples in Hong Kong totals only about 200. One sister shared that once, on a round to visit nearby temples, she sighted a rather large one on the mountain, with beautiful architecture. Full of anticipation, she went up for a visit. When she arrived, she found all the gates locked. She rang the bell at the front gate. After a while, a man came out and asked, “What do you want?” She woke up to the stark reality that the temple housed no monastics, only a manager and caretaker.

Offering the Temple 

On April 28, 2011, in his first Dharma talk at Lotus Pond Monastery, Thay stated that Lotus Pond would be the foundation of the AIAB, whose purpose is to offer retreats for youth, families, social workers, government officials, teachers, businessmen, psychotherapists, etc. from Hong Kong and other Asian countries. AIAB will train monastic and lay Dharma teachers from Hong Kong and other neighboring countries. Furthermore, AIAB will offer coursework and guidance in the practice toward a Master of Applied Buddhism degree in a cooperative program with Thailand’s Buddhist University, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya. A two-year curriculum will require residency at the monastery under the guidance of monastics. In addition, AIAB will offer a public Day of Mindfulness (DOM) every Sunday.

AIAB will have a minimum of thirty monastics in residence. This minimum is required to provide the appropriate level of support and guidance for the various programs. Thay believes that with the inspiration of AIAB, young people from local areas and neighboring countries will come to apply for the monastic program. The number of monastics in residence will gradually increase to 125, and it is Thay’s wish that a third of these be from Hong Kong. The audience responded with a round of applause, Plum Village style.

mb58-Birth5The first Sunday Day of Mindfulness at Lotus Pond Monastery was attended by over 200 people and included a ceremony to offer the temple to Plum Village for the establishment of the AIAB. The ceremony was modeled after the simple procedure used by King Bimbisara. According to this ancient Indian tradition, the offering has to be handed personally to the receiver. If the object of offering is too large or is something that cannot be touched or seen, water is poured onto the hand of the receiver. When offering the Bamboo Forest Monastery to the Buddha, King Bimbisara knelt in front of the Buddha with a container of water in his hands. After expressing his respect and wish to make the offer to the Buddha, the king poured water into the Buddha’s palms. The businessman who offered Lotus Pond Monastery likewise asked to make the offer, then poured water onto Thay’s hands. The ceremony signified Thay’s acceptance of Lotus Pond Monastery for the establishment of a Plum Village practice center in Hong Kong and marked the formation of the AIAB.

After the offering ceremony, the lay practitioners were jubilant. One woman related that she had quit her previous job in order to have a schedule that would allow her to come every Sunday. She has now found a new job, with permission from supervisors for time off during weekends for practice at the monastery.

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There were over 350 participants at the second (Sunday) DOM. The day began with walking meditation, led by Thay. In addition to the regular schedule, the monastic Sangha also held a Vesak (Buddha’s birthday) celebration ceremony after Thay’s Dharma talk. The children who helped set up the statue of the baby Buddha with the monastics in the front garden were very happy to be given first priority to bathe the baby Buddha.

mb58-Birth7After the ceremony, the Sangha was invited to have lunch in mindfulness with Thay. We all sat in a circle under the trees of the monastery’s front yard. Among us was Father Thomas Kwong, a Catholic priest from Hong Kong who had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at Plum Village. The image of teacher and disciples quietly enjoying a meal together reminded one of the Buddha with the original Sangha. One practitioner remarked, “To have a quiet meal with Thay and the Sangha like this is rather like having the honor of sharing a meal with the Buddha.”

Another practitioner, a Hong Kong woman of Vietnamese origin, said joyfully, “Now that our temple is here, we feel like we have the home of our maternal grandmother to come back to.”

mb58-Birth8Brother Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in International Business and Finance, and worked in the financial field until he moved to Plum Village in 2007. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since.

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Book Reviews

mb59-BookReviews3The Novice
A Story of True Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperCollins, 2011
Hardcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Chau Yoder

Edited by Lyn Fine and Natascha Bruckner

I felt really touched by the new English version of The Novice: A Story of True Love. When I read this story of the novice Kinh Tam in English, and then reread the original Vietnamese version (Su Tich Quan Am Thi Kinh), I felt strongly that many readers would benefit from the tale of injustice, patience, and the four immeasurable minds of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of this ancient Vietnamese story has many deep teachings to transform our suffering.

When I was about fifteen years old, I went with my mom to the Vietnamese opera (Cai Luong) and saw many touching stories. This one penetrated deep into my subconscious, planting seeds about Buddhism, patience, and realizing the great vow to live a free life. I used to hate the character Mau, who falsely stated that Thi Kinh was the parent of her baby. Now, reading Thay’s novel, I feel more compassionate toward Mau. As I read this book, I felt my heart opening—especially toward the end, when I read Thi Kinh’s compassionate letters to her parents, teacher, husband, and Mau. Thi Kinh wrote these love letters at the time she knew she was dying, and I felt she was passing her generosity on to us. Her letter to her parents inspired me to think about my parents. They sacrificed so much for me, and at times I wonder if I was good enough for them. I created suffering for them when I decided to marry my husband Jim and live far away from them. Yet when we became engaged, they generously opened their hearts to Jim, and we all happily lived near each other when Jim and I sponsored them, my grandmother, and my siblings to come the U.S. in 1981.

I felt touched by Thi Kinh’s letter to the abbot, who had accepted Thi Kinh as his student, thinking she was a man. Thi Kinh wrote that in order to go to the pagoda to study, she had to pretend to be a man because there was no nunnery. She asked for forgiveness for the deception. She begged her teacher to build a nunnery so that young women could be students of the Buddha’s teachings. She was thinking about the future, “paying it forward” on her deathbed!

A key teaching in the novel relates to the question of how to be magnanimous without being a victim. Why do people have to be tolerant of injustice in the world? Why do we have to live in the patient way that Thi Kinh lived? Thay writes that being patient does not mean suppressing suffering. We have to be patient in order to understand with loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

Near the end of Thay’s retelling of this ancient tale, the abbot visualizes that Thi Kinh is really a bodhisattva. Her loving kindness is not only for human beings, but for all beings—a grand aspiration. This is the ultimate goal of the true awakened person; how can we live it in our lifetime? This story offers a lot for us to think about: the meaning of equanimity, letting go, nondiscrimination, non-self, patience, and magnanimous living.

In the English edition, a chapter by Sister Chan Khong offers an interesting comparison of the life stories of Thi Kinh and Thich Nhat Hanh, who both have a grand patience and an inclusive heart. Additional chapters describe the activities of the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) founded by Thay in 1964, and the situation in Bat Nha (Prajna), a monastery in Vietnam that was offered to Thay in 2005 by the abbot of a temple in Lam Dong Province, but ousted by the Vietnamese authorities in 2008.

I’m thankful that Thay published The Novice in English, so that young generations in the United States will get to read it and understand their Vietnamese roots a little better. My hope is that when people read this novel, the nectar of compassion in Thi Kinh will drop into their mind, body, and spirit to help them become more compassionate, ethical, loving people who will, in turn, help us live a more harmonious life.

mb59-BookReviews1The Seeds of Love
Growing Mindful Relationships

By Jerry Braza
Tuttle, 2011
Soft cover, 192 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

The foundation for developing mindful and healthy relation- ships begins with ourselves. Three practices—Seeing, Renewing, and Being—will support you as you become the master gardener of your life and your relationships.” This opening passage from The Seeds of Love, by Jerry Braza, reflects the accessible yet deep lessons shared by the seasoned Dharma teacher in his new book. Braza emphasizes teachings and practices that help us nurture positive seeds in ourselves and our loved ones. He writes about how to transform seeds of fear, anger, jealousy, and doubt into love, compassion, and understanding.

While many of the teachings in The Seeds of Love reflect the wisdom of the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh, Braza brings a unique, modern, and American perspective to his presentations. He offers the insights of an experienced lay practitioner and college professor who has practiced with a Sangha for many years. The practices explored are not only for the pur pose of individual self-healing, but also for promoting healthy relationships with our families, friends, and co-practitioners. As the Buddha teaches, we inter-are with each other, so heal- ing within and without cannot be separated.

This book is both simply presented and dense in content. Braza includes beautiful poetry and illustrations that make the book an excellent practice companion. Furthermore, the teachings are accessible to people of all faiths, and Braza incorporates the lessons of many wisdom traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism. Appropriate for beginners and experienced practitioners alike, this is a wonderful continuation of the author’s first book, Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness.

As a gardener, I find the book’s gardening metaphors and themes beautiful. They bring to mind the fact that one translation of an ancient word for “one who meditates or practices mindfulness” is “a cultivator.” The Seeds of Love would be a great book for Sanghas or book groups to read together and use as a basis for meaningful sharing and discussion.

mb59-BookReviews2Walking the Tiger’s Path
A Soldier’s Spiritual Journey in Iraq

By Paul M. Kendel
Tendril Press, 2011
Soft cover, 247 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

“As the gardener, such is the garden.”
— Hebrew Proverb

Until reading Sergeant Kendel’s book, I’d only heard news accounts of the war in Iraq. Although my two nephews have each done two tours in Iraq, they don’t talk about their experiences. Kendel describes the precise type of hell realm this war has been. The “enemy” is both everywhere and nowhere, and compassion is considered a weakness. In the course of serving with the Georgia National Guard, Kendel became a student of the Shambhala Buddhist teachings. He learned that the mind of a tiger, according to Sakyong Mipham, is a “mind of discernment,” allowing us to “stop and think and make a decision based on wisdom and compassion, rather than on hate and fear.”

With story after hair-raising story, Kendel outlines his gradual battlefield enlightenment through correspondence with Buddhist teachers, and through reading Pema Chodron’s Awakening Loving Kindness while on patrol. He came within a fraction of an inch of blowing away a father and his little girl, but made split-second eye contact with the child. Instead of seeing the enemy, he “saw something positive. I saw hope in that little girl’s eyes. Hope…even when the world around her seemed to be in total chaos.”

When Kendel came home, his wife was having an affair and not only ended their marriage, but changed his close relationship with his two sons. And then his mother died. These events, along with haunting incidents in Iraq, constituted for Kendel both a crisis and an opportunity.

His saving grace was the Shambhala practice, along with Margot Neuman, a senior student who reached out and gave Kendel a peaceful place to take refuge. His subsequent visits to the Shambhala Mountain Center, and meeting Pema Cho- dron and Sakyong Mipham as well as Shambhala President Richard Roech, cemented Kendel’s inner peace and gave him a Sangha. The Shambhala warrior, he learned, does not create war at all. The tiger sees with clarity how to act.

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A Love Letter to the 1%

By Brother Phap Ho 

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Dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%,

I have heard much about you, dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%, but I am not sure if we have ever met. My name is Brother Protection and I am a six-foot-two-inch Buddhist monk with a shaved head, brown robes, and glasses. I just turned forty this year, and it’s been eleven years since I lived and worked as a lawyer in Stockholm, Sweden. If you see me around, please stop and say hello. I would love to meet you in person.

Last year I was interviewed by Occupy Boston’s newspaper, together with some other monks and nuns. I remember saying that as we practice walking and sitting meditation, we make happiness and peace possible in the present moment. We also wish for everyone, the 100%, to be happy and peaceful. I looked up toward the tall high-rise buildings and prayed that everyone up there would be free of worry, stress, and frustration.

I know that you must have studied and worked very hard to become part of the 1%. I can also imagine that you have a lot of responsibilities toward many people. Money and power offer not only liberty, but a lot of responsibility. I hope this is not burdening you too much.

As a Buddhist monk, I do not have a lot of money or power, but I do feel much responsibility toward the Earth and the people, animals, and plants on this planet. We all understand that there is just this one planet that is inhabitable in our solar system. When I look up at the full moon, I also look with the eyes of my ancestors and future generations of people of this Earth. I hope they will be able to enjoy the peaceful radiance of the full moon soaring through the dark sky. I hope that everyone on all continents will have enough food to eat and access to clean water. I hope that all people will be able to feel safe in their family, society, and country, and will not have to go through the devastation and suffering of war. I wish for all of us to reflect on what can we do to make this a reality and then to act on our insights and the insights of scientists, on which we rely. We need your help!

Our Earth 

Our natural environment is undergoing great stress due to the way we humans are using the resources of this Earth. Our air, water, and the Earth itself are becoming polluted. As carbon dioxide levels increase, the planet is warming up, causing desertification, extinction of many species, and stronger and more frequent natural disasters, all leading to hardship for so many. Were we to use all the identified fossil fuel resources, including the tar sands, the climate of this planet would change so dramatically that we would no longer recognize it as our Earth. We know that everything changes and nothing lasts forever, but wouldn’t it be nice to take care of the natural environment so that many more generations of people will be able to enjoy the wonders of glaciers, vast forests, an abundance of animal species, and reliable seasons which make agriculture possible? Together we can reduce our emissions and support initiatives and research into renewable, sustainable energy sources. The Earth needs our caring support. We receive everything we have from our planet. Let’s see what we can do for the Earth.

Our Children 

Thousands of children die every day from malnutrition and lack of clean water. I try to imagine a young mother with children who are crying from hunger and getting sick from dirty water. Here in Southern California, where I currently live, people play golf in areas that get only ten inches of rain a year! The golf courses are kept green with water from the Colorado River, which no longer reaches the ocean. On this planet we grow more than enough food for everyone to have plenty to eat, but we throw much of it away. Many crops and water resources are also used for animal food production. Even in this rich country, one-sixth of the population has issues with hunger at the same time that obesity rates are soaring. There is something strange, something scary, about this situation. It seems that with our advancing technology, we have lost some of our common sense. I am sure that together we can find ways to share the resources of this planet so that everyone has enough conditions to feel safe and at ease.

We Are All Human Beings 

In the past, the 1% has not always clearly understood the situation of the 99%, but today information and technology make such understanding possible. When we understand clearly the situation of people in difficult circumstances, we can no longer blame them or say that they are the cause of their own misery. In this country, we might feel that the poor and uneducated just have to make more effort to overcome their difficulties, and some miraculously do. But we also have to be aware of many challenging conditions, such as how unevenly educational resources are distributed, and how much energy teachers in under-served neighborhoods expend in dealing with the social problems of the children in their care. What would we have done if we had grown up in a neighborhood with drugs, gangs, and violence, with a father in jail and a drug- addicted mother? What are the sufferings of a mother addicted to crack? Did she receive love, respect, and education when she was a little girl?

Many studies show that every person has the capacity to transform her life and to learn the skills needed to become capable of taking care of herself and her family. But due to difficulties and lack of opportunities for many generations, people need our help to get back on their feet. They need our acceptance and love to be able to feel good about themselves again. Discrimination causes so much suffering around the world, but when we stop to listen and look deeply, we recognize that we are all human beings, wishing to be able to love and care for our families, wishing to live in peace and freedom. The great diversity of colors, languages, cultures, and views becomes a wonderful asset for a more prosperous human existence on this planet.

I thank you, dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%, for listening to my thoughts and feelings. I know that you have the means and influence to do great things for our planet and all people. But don’t worry or feel burdened. You are not alone. Many of us are very eager to help you. We are all part of the 100%, and remembering and caring for all of us is a great joy. If we support all people in developing their talents and positive qualities, we will make our planet an even more amazing place to live.

It is not easy to be part of the 1%, and therefore I truly wish you happiness and ease. I hope you are able to enjoy the tremendous gift of being alive as a human being on this precious planet.

In joy and gratitude, Brother Protection

mb63-LoveLetter2Brother Phap Ho (Brother Protection) is very grateful to have found his path of practice and service. This article is, in many ways, a fruit of two Wake-Up tours in 2012. “It’s time to wake up,to be the change in the world you want to see” (from the Wake-Up song).

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Monastic Trust Fund

Ensuring the Future of Our Spiritual Community

We all feel great love and affection for our monastic sisters and brothers. Their mindful living provides a beautiful example of the joy we may experience by living simply in our busy society. Their study and practice in spreading the Dharma fulfills our desire to bring peace to our world community. Their care for our retreat centers and educational institutions ensures we will enjoy places of respite and healing. Our monastic sisters and brothers selflessly serve our community and ask so little in return.

Thich Nhat Hanh currently leads about six hundred monks and nuns living in the United States, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, France, Australia, and Germany. These special people have an enormous positive impact as they travel and provide retreats and Dharma talks all over the world. Our monastics share the practice of mindfulness, face to face, with more than 200,000 people a year.

In the Buddhist tradition, members of the monastic community relied on the support of the lay Sangha to provide for the basic needs of their simple lives. They still do so today.

The Monastic Trust Fund is an endowment* that has been created to care for the needs of the monastics while ensuring that your gift continues giving. Only the interest that your gift earns is used to support the monastics. This means your gift will support these spiritual leaders in perpetuity.

Our goal is to grow this fund to ten million dollars in order to ensure the care and continuation of our monastic community. Your gift will provide for the well-being of our monastic brothers and sisters for many years to come by providing ensured funding for sustenance, shelter, and health care.

In 2013, a very generous member of our Sangha will contribute two dollars for every dollar you contribute this year, up to $500,000! This 2:1 match helps ensure that your gift will provide the greatest benefit possible to our monastic sisters and brothers. This means that, for example, your gift of $1,000, matched with $2,000, will result in a total fund gift of $3,000.

Supporting our monastic community is an honor and a way to express our deep gratitude to Thay. Our sisters and brothers are the loving spirits sowing and nurturing the seeds of mindfulness, compassion, and peace. To support them in this loving work they do in the world on behalf of all of us, please consider generously supporting our brothers and sisters with a gift to the Monastic Trust Fund.

Please make your check payable to the Monastic Trust Fund and send to:

Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido, CA 92026

For further information or to make your gift online, visit: ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org.

*The Monastic Trust Fund is a separate 501c3 organization established solely to support our community’s monastic sisters and brothers.

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I was in Florida, on my way to work. It was a beautiful day. The sky was a clear blude all the way to the horizon. I remember appreciating the beauty of the sky, then thinking of my niece and nephew, wondering if, when they get older, having faced all the challenges that life has to offer, they will still be capable of enjoying something so siple as the clear blue sky. I know that growing up, nothing in my education had taught me how to do that. And because of all the love and peace that was in me at that moment, it became very clear to me what I wanted to do with my life. Just as Thay had helped me, I wanted to help others to wake up to the wondres of life and to find peace and happiness.

mb63-Monastic2– Sister Lanh Nghiem

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All Roads Lead to Plum Village

 

By Janelle Combelic

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I left Plum Village in August 1990 after three weeks at my first summer retreat, not knowing that it would take me fourteen years to get back. But those three weeks changed my life.

I had started meditating on my own a couple of years before in Phoenix, Arizona. Every day before going to work as a technical writer I would sit for forty-five minutes. In 1989 I attended my first Vipassana retreat, a six-day silent retreat at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. The teacher was Jack Kornfield. Just about the only thing I remember was his admonition not to take ourselves too seriously. In fact, he mentioned a wonderful Vietnamese monk who told people to smile while they meditated!

A Rustic Peace

Some months later I saw an ad in a Buddhist magazine for Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastery. When I read that Plum Village was in France, where I had grown up, I knew I had to go. And so in July 1990 I found myself sitting in the sunshine outside the train station in Ste. Foy la Grande, waiting with a few strangers. And waiting. Someone finally came to pick us up and drove us to Lower Hamlet.

Conditions on the old farm were very rustic. I stayed in a primitive room in one of the old farm buildings with a few other women. Halfway through my stay I moved into a tent out in an overgrown field (where the new toilet block is now). Dharma Nectar Meditation Hall was new and bright and huge; every morning we gathered around the monks and nuns who sat around a central altar, chanting in Vietnamese. The Buddha garden beyond the windows radiated peace and beauty.

Every week we had a ceremony, as if Thay were squeezing a whole year of Vietnamese culture into a month. The Full Moon Festival in the meadow below Upper Hamlet was spectacular, with the moon rising behind the church of Puyguilhem on its hill across the valley. Most moving was the ceremony for Hiroshima Day when we processed to the pond in the oak wood at Lower Hamlet and launched little paper boats carrying candles with our prayers for peace.

At Upper Hamlet, we crowded into the Transformation Hall to listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. I loved its old white stones and small windows, the intimacy of this ancient barn converted into a Buddhist temple. One day we had a tea ceremony there with Thay. A lively and contentious discussion ensued, where some of the parents staying at Upper Hamlet complained about the lack of a children’s program. I noticed that the Vietnamese children staying at Lower Hamlet with their families, enjoying a welcome immersion in their native culture, behaved calmly and respectfully. The Western children staying at Upper Hamlet were far more boisterous, and their parents wanted more support to enjoy the retreat. I admired Thay’s honesty and openness, his willingness to listen but also his firm commitment to the practice.

Things were not nearly as organized then as they are now. There were no “families,” no work groups. Being new to the practice myself, I tried to get involved with different activities and found myself overcommitted in no time. I also re-created the isolation and loneliness of my life at home. I didn’t make friends and don’t remember learning about Sangha.

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At that time the Plum Village culture seemed rather male-dominated. The monks walked in front of the nuns during pro-cessions, just as in Vietnam. The nuns included Sister Annabel, abbess of Lower Hamlet; Sister Phuong, as Sister Chan Khong was then known; and Sister Jina, newly arrived and still wearing the formal gray robes of a Japanese monastic. I asked a senior laywoman, Joan Halifax, to lead a women’s discussion group. We were astonished when the circle filled the whole Transformation Hall! We had to schedule a second meeting so that everyone could get a chance to share.

Healing My Life

I’m not sure what specifically changed me at that retreat— perhaps one of Thay’s Dharma talks. That summer I was in my mid-thirties, suffering from chronic pain and loneliness. After one last failed relationship I had given up on men entirely to focus on healing my life. So when Thay invited us to write him questions I jumped at the chance. I thought my problems had to do with my father, and to give Thay some background I wrote page after page detailing my history. A few days later, I was astonished to hear Thay telling my story! However, he told it with profound sadness—describing this American woman who got involved with older men, who lost one baby and aborted another, whose younger brother had died of cancer, who didn’t get along with her family. For the first time I saw my own pain with real compassion. No wonder I felt sad all the time!

When I got home I made some decisions to change my life. I consulted a medical doctor and a homeopath and started getting the help I needed. Mysteriously, my healing took me far away from Plum Village and from meditation. For ten years I led an “ordinary” life, letting the world be my teacher.

By the time Thay came to Boulder in 2002 I had started meditating again and in 2003 I went on his retreat in Estes Park. That’s where I discovered Sangha. I started attending Peaceful Hearts Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado, and my life has never been the same.

It has been a long and uneven road, but more and more each day I touch the wonders of life. Who knew a person could be this happy!

mb60-AllRoads3Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, co-founded Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado. In 2010 she moved to Scotland, where she lives in a cottage with her English husband and their Irish setter Seamus. She practices with Northern Lights Sangha at Findhorn.

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Heartsong

By Brother Phap Sieu

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The most common question we are asked as young monastics is, “Why did you become a monk?” I find that I often answer differently. The responses are all true but vary depending on my experiences that day, or who is asking. This process gently reflects that there is no clear stream of events, or even one particular moment, that opens the way to monastic life. The more I recall, the broader my scope of memory becomes. I must conclude that it is a continual process, which may have begun with a mother’s compassion for her son, extending into the present and onwards. However, there are a few particular memories that shine.

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Once during a camping trip organized by the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association, two group leaders got into a very heated argument. Just when it seemed they were about to come to blows, the older one announced, “I’m going to breathe,” and promptly vanished into the trees. At thirteen, I waited as long as I could (about five minutes) and then followed. The smiling man, now sitting calmly under a tree, was unrecognizable as the one who had been yelling just moments before. Later he explained that he had learned how to take care of his anger while living in a monastery in Southern France. But the first time I met the Plum Village monks and nuns was completely against my will.

Miraculous  Brotherhood

There was no way I was going without a fight. A meditation retreat? At the beginning of summer! But kick and scream as I might, it was fruitless. The agreement was made: if my brother and I were to go for just the week, we would get a whole month of summer to ourselves—no extra-curricular activities, no youth camp, no book reports!

The orientation was boring. How could it not be? One thousand people sitting, watching some monk speak in Vietnamese. I understood about one word in twenty and was too cool (or proud, though I never would have admitted it then) to ask for translation. But the chanting was neat. The bell was pretty cool, too. There was something about how an entire room completely stilled—and if you’ve ever been in a room filled with Vietnamese friends, you know what a feat that is.

It was with the slumped shoulders and defiant eyes classic to many teenage boys that I approached the room marked “Teen Program.” Double-checking my bag to see if my CD player and headphones were on hand, I stepped through the door.

A few days later, one would not have recognized the irrepressibly smiling, glowing young man I’d become. The Teen Program was  awesome! Who knew monks and nuns could be so… cool! They even took us to the beach—even rolled up their pants and played in the waves, splashing! But most miraculous was my sense of brotherhood with the other teens. Who could believe that in just five days I could be so open, feel so embraced by these kids whom I’d just met earlier that week? Certainly not me—nor the other teens. It was with continuing wonderment that we shared, laughed, and learned together.

The drive back to San Francisco from San Diego was about eight hours. As we neared our house I woke up briefly. “Mom…I have a question.” She seemed a bit startled; I’d been so quiet most of the trip. “Why did we wait so long before coming to these retreats?”

The Pursuit of Consumption

So tired. That was the thought that followed me to bed every evening, then waited, crouching by the headboard, to greet me every morning. College was everything I had expected it to be, for the first year. That was before having to worry about rent, essays, job applications, clothes, parties, friends, what I would do with the rest of my life. All I wanted was to find a meaningful direction that truly resonated with me. Instead I was taught how to be “successful”: how to make money and keep it. I ignored the happiness of my heart in favor of the calculating logic of my mind. I began to lose touch with the verve of life. Friends began to tell me I seemed down, needed to get out more. Teachers asked about late assignments, and roommates wondered if I wanted to go out Thursday night.

The absence of a spiritual practice and community support was really beginning to show. The Plum Village Retreats seemed ages ago; I was too “cool” now, too mature for singing circles and handholding. There was no way that stuff would work in the real world.

So instead of returning to my body and my breathing, and taking care of my emotions, I partied. At first the partying was filled with real enthusiasm, excitement, and perhaps even happiness. Then the partying became mandatory. Upon meeting friends on campus, instead of “How are you doing?” or “How’s your day?” the common greeting was, “How was your night?” Without enough courage or mindfulness to face the suffering within myself, to stop I was flung headlong into the whirlpool of consumption.

Suddenly I could not wait for the latest movie, book, or CD, could not wait for the next restaurant to open. Life dwindled to nothing but seeking the means to fulfill my need to consume. Later, in my aspiration letter to the monastic community, I likened the pursuit of consumption to a day in an amusement park. Stand in line for roller coaster: three hours; experience twenty-five-second adrenaline rush; get out of roller coaster; get back in line.

Magical Antidote

One day I received a letter in the mail. It was from Mom. Frustrated by my evasiveness on the phone, she finally put everything she felt to paper: all eighteen pages of it. The first three pages expressed concern for my well-being; the following three pages were full of comfort and encouragement. The next six contained detailed charts and graphs depicting just how much my college education cost. The final five revealed a candid account of Mom’s own experience upon first arriving in the U.S.: the humiliating struggle through high school as a complete alien, being responsible for six younger brothers and sisters, acclimating to a completely new continent—all without even the benefit of a common language.

It was a magical antidote for me. Hand-written and drawn, it was a mother’s true love for her child given form. Reading and receiving the contents accomplished what years of consumption, partying, and even counseling tried to hide: I recognized my suffering. I was no longer victim to my own self-pity, helplessness, and apathy. Reading the letter was the beginning of a re-opening of the heart. It also removed any assumptions about the practice being “kiddie stuff.”

Soon afterwards, I found myself driving south to Deer Park Monastery. I continued to visit Deer Park regularly every few months, commuting up and down the California coast, choosing to spend the weekend or spring break there. It was during one of these trips, windows down, speakers blasting the classic Plum Village CD, Rivers, when something clicked. I must have driven up and down the same highway over fifty times at that point, and never had I once recognized the beauty of the setting sun on my left, the soaring mountains on the right. Was there ever anything so beautiful? How could I have driven right by all these years without ever seeing? My heart was filled with a vast and immense joy. In that moment I made an oath to myself to do whatever it took to continue to live fully in the moment, to no longer be blind or deaf to the wonders around me, to life! It was but a small step from there to Plum Village, where the arms of the Sangha enfolded me.

mb60-Heartsong3Phap Sieu (Dharma Transcendence) is an energetic monk who loves sharing the Dharma with young people. He especially enjoys drinking tea and playing with the brothers. He resides in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

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Wake Up

A Collective Aspiration

By Brother Phap Luu

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In May 2008, Phap Thanh, Phap Ho, Phap Xa and I went to see Thay in Hanoi before flying back to the United States. From the time we arrived until the moment we walked out the door, Thay discussed just one thing: how we can find ways to share the practice with young people? I was living in Deer Park at the time, and there were plenty of young people coming and going. We hosted college retreats, and even a group of college students who came to stay for two weeks. What Thay wanted to begin was an international movement for young people.

Back in Plum Village that summer, Thay continued to press the issue. Phap Linh and Hien Nghiem, only recently ordained as novices, received the full momentum of Thay’s message, and soon, along with many other young monastics and lay friends, they were mounting a website, making films, and finding new ways to reach the youth. At one point, Phap Linh called and asked if I wanted to be the main contact for Wake Up in the States. The program was already present in Thay and Sister Chan Khong’s School for Youth and Social Service in Vietnam, and it was continuing in the youth retreats in Plum Village. A movement was taking form.

It became clear to me that this was not just about sharing the practice of mindfulness with young people; that would make it seem like I had everything sorted out already, and I just needed to pass the wisdom on to them. Wake Up is about finding the answers together. Our ecological communities, our diversity, our aspirations, and our confusion form a common base of happiness and suffering, and these issues are in no way settled once and for all.

Refuge in Harmony

The spirit of Wake Up is a collective aspiration to figure things out together, in our own minds and bodies, as best we can from moment to moment. This means coming back to our breath in times of stress and taking refuge in each other’s insights, even when we’re convinced our idea is best. It’s about waking up to the presence and aspirations of our brothers and sisters, even when we disagree with them, and finding harmony amidst our myriad strands of culture, race, gender, and class.

Wake Up tours are specifically tailored to meet the physical, emotional, and financial needs of young people. Using the spaces that are graciously offered to us, we sum up the basics of the Plum Village tradition for young people. We keep the talks short and the practice simple. We sit, breathe, walk, eat, relax, listen deeply, and speak with mindfulness and love. Every two-hour session has a period for “down time,” when the monastics and young lay practitioners can get to know the first-timers and connect emotionally with them. Also, we try to remove financial obstacles by making everything low-key, from traveling in a van packed with monastics to sleeping on Sangha members’ floors. As always, much depends on the generosity of more mature practitioners who give from the heart.

In 2010, we initiated two Wake Up tours—the first in the United Kingdom and the second in my homeland, the United States. Seven monastics went to the UK in the spring, while eleven of us made it through the northeastern U.S. tour last fall. Thay advises us to go as a river when we travel. Though that has meant, at times, coursing along two or three different channels as we pass an island, the river always comes back to itself.

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In Your Hands

These rivers will soon be coursing through your neighborhood. After this edition of the Mindfulness Bell is published, the Wake Up Tour will have flowed through California, at times in conjunction with our brothers and sisters in the Against the Stream movement (founded by friend Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx). Some pools will swell in Italy, and five young monastics will go to the three largest cities in Spain. Brothers and sisters from the European Institute of Applied Buddhism will support a tour in the Netherlands, and plans are in the works for the first tour in Germany and the second tour in the UK this fall.

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Written words can do little to put you in touch with the energy of the Wake Up movement. If you’re moved by this, please check out the numerous resources we have online:
• The Wake Up website: http://wkup.org, and local sites: http://us.wkup.org, http://uk.wkup.org, etc.
• Wake Up on Facebook (try searching by country or area)
• Videos from the tours on YouTube, Vimeo, and the Wake Up website

We are still in the midst of pulling all of the resources together in a coherent way, but that is another beautiful thing about Wake Up: it’s a grassroots movement and it is already in your hands. We don’t even know all of what is out there, because new retreats, songs, poems, and stories are being created every day.

If you’re young, start a Wake Up group at your school or at home. If you’re more mature, find ways to support Wake Up morally and/or financially. You could offer a space for a Wake Up group to meet, be available and present to support Wake Up groups (but let them lead themselves!), or buy them a ticket to Plum Village or to a retreat near you.

Thank you for your love, care, and support. There is no limit to how far this can go.

mb60-WakeUp4After graduating college and spending some years living and working in Spain and France, Brother Phap Luu (Brother Stream) was ordained as a monk in 2003 at Plum Village. He received teaching transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2011. He has helped to guide retreats in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. He grew up amidst the forests and rivers of western Connecticut, and now lives in the Dharma Cloud Temple of Plum Village.

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Integrating Head and Heart

Organizing a Wake Up Tour

By Brandon Rennels

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A year ago I was sitting at a cafe in Ann Arbor, Michigan, enjoying breakfast with a beloved professor from university. When I was in school he taught a course entitled Psychology of Consciousness, which was my first introduction to mindfulness practice. Peace is Every Step happened to be required reading, and after I finished the course I wondered why this material wasn’t taught in every classroom.

That day, I had gone to the professor seeking guidance. For a few years I had been working internationally in the business world as a management consultant. During this time I developed a skill set for turning high-level strategy into tactical recommendations, and for the cultural sensitivity necessary to bring messages to diverse audiences. While I enjoyed the problem-solving nature of my work, I felt I should be serving a different clientele; it was people, not corporations, I wanted to help grow. I had been keeping up my spiritual practice and also knew there was a growing interest in mindfulness in major U.S. institutions, especially in the field of education.

I knew I wanted to make a change but I didn’t know where to start.

My professor mentioned that there was a growing number of interested educators with Ph.D.s, and a wealth of mindfulness practices. Perhaps what was missing, he said, was support in managing the various threads and actually implementing these new models of learning. He asked: Instead of abandoning my business training, could I somehow integrate head and heart by leveraging my consulting skills to support the realms of mindfulness and education?

I had no idea. But it seemed like the right question to ask. As with all great teachers, he merely pointed the way… and I took it upon myself to forge ahead into the unknown.

Leap of Faith

A few months later I decided to take a leap of faith by embarking on a six-month leave of absence from my corporate post. I had two stated intentions: 1) immerse myself in mindfulness practice, and 2) learn how I might support its growth in education. My first stop was a weeklong retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. I figured it would be an opportunity for immersion. Little did I suspect that both of my intentions would be watered.

On encouragement from a friend, towards the end of the retreat I worked up the courage to ask a monastic if I might be of service. I explained my background and that I could offer my support as a volunteer for the next few months. Much to my surprise, his eyes opened wide: “Ah ha! The universe is aligning.” He told me there were a couple of education initiatives that were searching for support from someone with a business/organizational skill set. Now it was my eyes that opened wide.

Supporting the Sangha

The next month, a week before the east coast Wake Up tour, I arrived at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York. The monastics and I were unsure how I was going to help, but in that not-knowing was a freedom to respond appropriately to whatever situation arose.

Much of the work had already been completed by the time I arrived, and we were in the final stages of preparation for the tour. Entering any project mid-stream can feel overwhelming; ideally, you are there from the beginning. In most cases, however, you don’t have that luxury. More importantly, it just isn’t necessary. Asking questions, listening deeply, and being patient are all it takes to be able to contribute.

My intention was to be as helpful as I could in supporting the Sangha. I began by asking one of the main organizers, “Is there anything you need help with?” When he was feeling more comfortable, I went to the other organizers and asked them. Then I began asking a different question: “This looks like it could use help; do you want me to work on it?” Over time, this evolved into: “I went ahead and took care of this. Let me know what you think.”

This approach created conditions for me to take on operational items such as supporting the website and managing the email list, as well as strategic areas such as overseeing social media presence and helping to allocate the advertising budget. My responsibilities grew organically, and were nurtured in a supportive and collegiate environment with the backdrop of a serene monastery. Not a bad way to work!

A week later the team at Blue Cliff set out on the road to begin the tour.

Space to Breathe

Our first events were in Boston, where we convened as an entire group. The day before the Harvard University event we had a number of decisions to make, and the full community of fifteen-plus monastic and lay friends gathered around a large wooden table. I had become more familiar with the working styles of the group and was looking forward to an unfiltered view of how a Fourfold Sangha makes decisions.

Coming from the corporate world, I was accustomed to a top-down, fast-paced, heavily structured decision-making process. The monastic community operates bottom-up, in a very organic and non-hierarchical way. The meeting opened with three sounds of the bell, and we began by speaking one a time. One of the primary issues was whether or not we were going to visit Occupy Boston. Many questions were raised: How political is the event? Could we go just as spectators? What kind of message would we be sending by going? Should we just go to invite people to our sitting meditation? There were divergent viewpoints, but we eventually reached a full consensus. Afterwards it was explicitly stated that the meeting was over and it was time to let go of any residue and move on. While it was a lengthy process, shortening it would inevitably result in some people not being heard. By giving everyone space to express themselves, regardless of outcome there was no resentment and everyone felt respected.

The following day, over one hundred people showed up for a Day of Mindfulness at Harvard. I volunteered to staff the registration desk, where each attendee would be asked a series of questions that were entered into an Excel file. It was a chance for me to practice my efficiency skills in a potentially stressful environment, as most people would be arriving in a hurry just a few minutes before the start time. I felt it was important for this process to go smoothly, knowing this was the first impression most people would have.

Sitting at the desk, I found myself simultaneously wondering how fast I could process each person’s info and how many people I could get to smile. While I had my verbal script and keyboard strokes down to a science, I protected the space to provide a warm welcome to every person and to allow them space to breathe.

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One hundred people came, one hundred people went. I was gifted with many smiles.

Harmony Was the Way

As the tour progressed I gained more responsibility, and eventually some of the monastics started lovingly (I think) introducing me as “the manager.” While they were mostly joking (I think), in this structure I was perhaps as close to a lay manager as one could get.

A fundamental skill of being a good manager is knowing when to delegate tasks to others. Having faced this situation in the past, I was familiar with the trade-offs. Do the task yourself and it will likely get done faster and with more accuracy. Give the task to others and while it may take longer (and they may not want to do it), you will be teaching someone. What was unique about this situation, however, was the underlying objective. In the corporate world, the priority is productivity; here, the priority was harmony. Ideally you have both, but oftentimes you need to choose which is more important: getting it done or making everyone happy. For the first time in my life, it was clear that harmony was the way.

Near the end of the tour we aspired to send out a “feedback survey” for participants to share their thoughts following the workshops. There were multiple purposes here: for the participants, to provide an outlet to reflect on their experiences and encourage them to keep up their practice; for us, a chance to learn what went well and how we could improve for the next tour. Timing was important; if the survey was sent out too late, response rate would likely be low and the experience would no longer be fresh in their minds.

We decided to administer the survey using two online tools with which the monastics didn’t have much experience. I spent time training one of the tech-savvy nuns how to create the survey, send it out, track responses, etc. Two weeks later the surveys hadn’t yet been sent and I was becoming slightly anxious. I sat with this anxiety and it passed with the understanding of how busy our lives can be. I emailed the sister asking if she needed help, which I would be genuinely happy to provide. The next day I awoke to find all the surveys had been sent out, along with a friendly reply back thanking me for my encouragement. I smiled.

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Looking back at that afternoon with my professor in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t have imagined a more direct manifestation of my desire to integrate head and heart. Perhaps my greatest lesson on this tour was that of trust. Trusting in myself and my abilities, trusting in others and their capacity to support, and trusting in the universe to light the way.

mb60-Integrating4Since the east coast Wake Up tour, Brandon Rennels decided to resign from his post in the corporate world and continue to support mindful education initiatives while deepening his own practice. He spent three months in Plum Village this past winter, practicing and assisting with the Applied Ethics initiative, and is now heading back to California for the next chapter of his journey… just in time for another Wake Up tour.

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Love in Our Generation

By Jenny Hamp

mb60-Love1In April 2011, I asked a Brooklyn Sangha friend how to get in touch with New York Wake Up. The next week I found out I was organizing it. My friend had volunteered me to help a young adult from the Manhattan Sangha who wanted to start a group. Our incentive was an email from Thay’s monastics, a mission like the start of a treasure map: you will have four days with eight monastics for part of a Wake Up tour in New York City, and “it is up to you folks to decide what to do.” Eventually four of us (two men and two women; two people of color and two Caucasians) got together to create a Wake Up group… and somehow plan for our part of the tour.

We decided to focus on the upcoming monastics’ visit and to use weekly Wake Up meetings, open to anyone, for practice and planning. We would have a short sit, drink tea, eat a meal, or walk together in the park. Then we would look at many exciting questions: Should we have a retreat in one place, or different places? Should we have people bring lunch? How were we going to advertise? Understanding often came in conversation when we weren’t looking for answers. I soon caught on to a new energy I hadn’t experienced before. After each meeting I felt lighter, inspired, and optimistic, whether or not we had made any headway. It took me a while to notice this wasn’t a chance occurrence.

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We cast wide nets for schools and contemplative groups who might want to help share the practice with young adults. Every time we had a good insight, or successfully connected with a student group, it felt like sharing a good meal that was never finished. Every time we miscommunicated with someone or an opportunity fell through, we supported each other and held the disappointment without blame or judgment.

Many people quickly swung out to help. The monastics planning the tour brought their experience and clear vision to pull all the threads together. Our lay Dharma teachers offered their full support and also their contacts at universities for us to meet. The Gershwin Hotel provided housing, event planning, food, and a free event space. A young business consultant joined us in planning the tour and launched a Facebook campaign. When we pulled the nets in, we found we would have a full Day of Mindfulness in the city, a concert, a flash mob, two visits to private schools, a visit to a public school, and two sessions at a juvenile detention center. Additionally, over 300 people were planning to attend.

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The Fruit of Our Efforts

On the first day of the Wake Up Tour in New York, I got to see the fruit of these efforts. After a mindful meal, the monastics asked the group of about 100 young adults what they had experienced. One person was aware of each ingredient in her sandwich, much more now than when she made it. Someone else discovered he actually did not enjoy peanut butter and jelly very much. I was hearing calm accounts of people becoming aware of their food—not as an exotic experiment that was outside of themselves, but as a simple witnessing and perceiving through their own senses. I felt so happy to see that with half a day of practice in the city it was possible to stop. I felt like I had gained many sisters and brothers in an instant. Here were so many other young adults with the same open interest and hopefulness.

Another highlight for me was the ice cream machine at Lehman College. After a session with students, we had dinner there with the monastics and some young adults traveling on the tour. The vending machine was a contraption, and we were so excited to put money in it and see gears and claws and hinges whirring around just to deliver an ice cream sandwich! We laughed with total abandon, and got a second sandwich so we could watch it again, crying with laughter. The sisters cut the sandwiches up carefully so everyone could have a bite, and it seemed totally satisfying. To me this was joy we completely shared, this silliness and amazement generated as a group, just to take in this moment and make each other happy.

The Power to Embrace

Today our Wake Up organizing team of four has grown into eight and has become the caretaking council for Wake Up New York. A yoga center owner who follows Thay offered his space so we could meet. Instead of going to bars on Friday nights, people can come for an hour of practice and then hang out with us. Two of us are pre-aspirants and two are aspirants to the Order of Interbeing, and we feel our teachers right there with us. We have about fifteen people each week. The group has been very joyful and supportive. It is a place where I feel comfortable sharing and can let the group carry me when I feel less able.

At first I thought Wake Up was a space for young adults to relax with our peers and practice a little. However, after practicing with this group and seeing such a strong response in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, I think it’s more than that. Many of us are noticing how affected we are after each gathering; we feel stronger, more confident, and more optimistic. I think it has something to do with meeting people who have similar suffering, and who will be with us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps we realize that many other young adults also feel capable of living in a more humane and compassionate society. We look across the room and see motivation and love in our generation.

We try to deal with the economy, the climate, the suffering of our parents in us, discrimination and greed in our culture, all alone, and maybe we feel sad about the future. I think Wake Up has changed our perspective. From feeling helpless, we’ve moved to feeling we have the power to embrace what lies ahead. It feels very simple: we can accomplish this just by being there for ourselves and each other. In this space we can actively create the acceptance and freedom we want everyone to have, and we feel empowered.

The mission statement developed by Wake Up New York:

Wake Up New York is a group of young meditation practitioners who get together to create a joyful space of refuge for young adults. We are inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. We do the fun things that New York City dwellers do, but actively maintain the best elements of our culture: inclusiveness, healthy consumption, hope, joy, great energy, activism, and community. By being wonderfully together we create support for each other. We find we are not alone with the suffering of our generation. We seek out our true selves amid the dynamics of our new relationships, new jobs, struggling minds, dynamic bodies, busy cities, and big life changes. We share our success in practicing mindfulness and finding happiness. We practice with our local Sanghas, at practice centers, and with the teachings, so as to nurture our hearts and minds and create real hope for our generation and our future.

mb60-Love4Jenny Hamp, Peaceful Refuge of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner Tim. She works as a mechanical engineer, tries to help reduce energy consumption in buildings, and practices not starting interesting new projects.

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Spiritual Friends

Waking Up in Community

By Sister Hanh Nghiem

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Wake Up! Young Buddhists and non-Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society is a worldwide network of young people practicing the living art of mindfulness. It sprang from our teacher’s humble suggestion that young people should create such a movement for themselves.

Why? Why would young people need their own movement? What challenges do they face that are unique to their generation? In today’s society, media and advertising have a far greater impact on our way of thinking and way of being. It’s easy to get caught up in believing that what we see, hear, and learn from the media is who we really are and what we really think, or that the ideal life portrayed would also be our ideal life. Although the media has made communication between people easier than ever before, individualism has actually increased. As a result, how many of us feel lonely, lost, full of despair, angry at our country, emotionally drained, exhausted, and unable to connect with a spiritual leader?

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Although each one of us knows that motion pictures and the media are not reality, they can still affect us—but not if we take an active role in shaping our own life, like a potter shaping a beautiful vase. We can maintain our center by getting in touch with our aspiration in life, our heart song. This awareness of what is important to us can serve as the North Star guiding us in the direction we would like to go in life. We can take an active role in transforming our lump of clay (the unfortunate events that we have to face in our life) and making it into something functional and beautiful. I know staying true to ourselves, keeping it real, is a huge challenge, but having good spiritual friends makes a world of difference.

As I reflect on the reasons for a Wake Up movement and supportive community for young people, I see how my own life has been transformed by a caring community. I’d like to share my perspective on how effective it has been for me, as a young person, to live in a community that guides me on a path of peace, happiness, and love.

A Trusted Community

My community consists of full-time practitioners, primarily monastic. We are an international community, speaking many languages, and from many faiths and beliefs. What unites us is that we want to make our lives meaningful, happy, and peaceful. We have committed ourselves to a lifestyle dedicated to the art of mindful living. I have grown to appreciate our weekly schedule of practice, and the fact that I have brothers and sisters supporting me on my path—friends and family I can trust.

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mb60-Spiritual4My community is not perfect. Being a monastic does not transcend being human, and we all have our weaknesses. We get angry, depressed, overwhelmed, and burnt out. We also have to deal with managers, politics, finances, deadlines, and irrationality. However, we also have the aspiration to live a good and meaningful life, a desire to build brotherhood and sisterhood, and the precious tools to bring this about, like mindful breathing and eating, walking, and sitting meditations.

My community is like a tree and I am the fruit, allowed to mature and ripen in my own time. No one sprays me with pesticides to make me look big and beautiful, while not caring about the inside. Instead, I am growing naturally and organically. Through living with others, I’m learning to live with myself. By watching other people, I’m learning how to be alone and accept myself. After that, I just let the Buddha take care of things.

Together in Each Moment

Just as the monastic community has supported me, the Wake Up movement can support youth who want to connect with others and live fully. It provides young people with an international community of like-minded people who can appreciate the challenges they face. The movement can provide all of the advantages of a community to young people across the world—to connect the huge numbers of young people wanting to make a difference and wanting to live a simple, happy life.

You too can live the life you want to live, by not getting caught up in your ideas but learning from them instead. Have confidence and be gentle with yourself. If you need to recharge your batteries, recall the things that nourish your mind of love. Treat yourself to a weekend of meditation, camping in nature, or chilling with friends. Our ancestors also dreamt of success, but they knew the importance of stopping and having a cup of tea with their neighbors. By not busying themselves with computers and gadgets, they became more aware of their own limitations, and knew when they needed the support of those close by.

Please get together—even if you’re only four or five people, it’s enough. We all have to practice with what we have. Our practice is never finished. Learning to listen to someone share their thoughts and feelings is not something you can do once or twice, but something you do moment by moment. Over time, we learn to listen more wisely, and this is the only difference between a practitioner and a non-practitioner.

You do not need to be a Zen master. The gatha I am using at the moment is: “Stick to the original plan.” Once you have your community, remember that you are practitioners, not saints. You will have ups and downs together. It’s normal. Just stick to the original plan: practice mindfulness, and make your good times and bad times together an adventure.

mb60-Spiritual5Sister Hanh Nghiem (True Adornment with Action), or Sister Onion, lives at the Asian Institute for Applied Buddhism on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

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The Seedling Project

By Members of the European Wake Up Sangha

mb60-Seedling1Thay believed that Buddhism had much to contribute to real social change. He said he would find ways to support me in a movement for social change according to the Buddhist spirit. He would help bring together many good hearts who wanted to work together. He agreed to write articles about this in national magazines and then start several pioneering development villages to show that social change could be based on love, commitment, and responsibility. Eventually we could start a training center for workers in education, agriculture, and health care, who would then go all over the country.
–Sister Chan Khong, Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam

For a long time the vision to organize a Wake Up Vietnam Tour had been nourished by many conditions. Many of us shared a collective aspiration to connect to our spiritual home and ancestors, to practice as a Sangha on a journey, and to get in touch with perspectives and living conditions different from the Eurocentric way of looking and living. Reading Fragrant Palm Leaves by Thay and Learning True Love by Sister Chan Khong touched a strong and inspiring source within us. All these elements gave us the energy to cultivate the conditions for the realization of this vision.

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In August 2011, all the conditions came together, and a group of ten young people from Chile, Belgium, England, Germany, and Holland gathered at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism for a one-week retreat, preparing for a three-and-a-half week journey in Vietnam. We realized that going to Vietnam was essential to deepen our aspirations and our practice, and that to be in touch with the roots of Wake Up, we had to be in touch with Vietnam.

mb60-Seedling3Nourishing Our Roots

In Saigon, morning has broken. The sky is blue, the sun is shining. We are sitting joyfully in a bus on our way to Phap Van Monastery, the former School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), which was founded by Thay in the early 1960s.(1)  Arriving at Phap Van, we enter the meditation hall and are warmly welcomed by a monk and members of the first generation of the SYSS, who have been practicing and engaged in social service in rural areas for more than forty years. Together we enjoy sitting meditation and touching the earth to honour our blood and spiritual ancestors, followed by a sharing on engaged Buddhism, the history of the SYSS, spiritual practice, and our aspirations.

During this session the question is asked, “How can we continue the SYSS?” One of the social workers smiles and answers, “This is very easy. Only by asking yourself this question, you are already beginning to continue the SYSS.”

Leaving the meditation hall, we walk slowly and silently towards the garden in the centre of Phap Van, where there is a memorial to Sister Nhat Chi Mai (2), who immolated herself for peace during the Vietnam War, and to the monastic and lay SYSS workers who died during their service. One of the social workers starts digging a hole for the collective tree-planting ceremony, and each of us contributes by filling the hole with soil and watering the tree. Our first Wake Up tree in Vietnam has been planted, and in this happy moment, we are aware of our spiritual roots and of our aspiration to nourish this tree of understanding and compassion and to continue the beautiful work of the SYSS.

The Seedling Project

On our journey through South, Central, and North Vietnam, we continued to be nourished by the joy of being in touch with monastics, social workers, youth Sanghas, children who are supported by the Love and Understanding Program, and many other beautiful human beings. All these inspiring encounters and conditions gave rise to the development of a collective vision for establishing a green kindergarten in Vietnam. We started calling our vision “the Seedling Project” and imagining it in terms of its social, educational, environmental, and empowerment dimensions.

I. Social

In remote areas, the struggle for a better life leaves people with little time and energy to care about education or cultural and spiritual development. Our aspiration is to build a hybrid space for poor families that will benefit children as well as parents: during the day it will function as a home where children can take refuge, make friends, play, and rest while their parents work, while being provided with healthy nutriments and pre-school education based on mindfulness. In the evenings and on weekends, the space will be a meeting place where teachers and parents can exchange ideas and learn from one another.

II. Education

Teachers in this green kindergarten will be trained in the practice of mindfulness in daily life, healthy consumption, and the cultivation of environmental awareness and ecological practices such as solar cooking, rainwater collection, and organic gardening. The teachers will find ways to integrate mindfulness into the children’s daily activities. Together they will take time to enjoy being in nature and observing natural phenomena. Children will be given opportunities and tools to express themselves artistically through painting, drawing, molding, and tinkering with natural and recycled materials.

III. Architecture and Environment

The kindergarten building will be harmoniously integrated into the natural and cultural environment of the local people. The architectural construction will be simple and economical, ecologi cal and sustainable; it will utilize local know-how and materials and will weave tradition with contemporariness. Renewable energy technologies, such as solar cells, rainwater harvesting, geothermal power systems, greywater treatment plants, and compost toilets, will be introduced, and a permaculture garden with trees, flowers, fruits, and vegetables will be cultivated.

IV. Empowerment

We aspire to provide a space of help through self-help, where local people feel inspired to share knowledge with one another, cultivate awareness, and develop skills. This involves engaging local people in the building process, raising their understanding about the value of natural and cultural resources, training them in ecological practices for daily life, and thus enabling them to transmit their knowledge and skills to their children and other people. Hopefully, the green kindergarten will strengthen the bonds within the local community, become a model for other rural areas in Vietnam, and contribute to a collective environmental awareness.

We consider the project to be a great opportunity for mutual understanding, learning, and growth for both the project team members and the local people. We do not view ourselves as people from the West who are coming to help the poor, incapable people of Vietnam. We aspire to transform the superiority, inferiority, and equality complexes that may lie deep in our store consciousness, as well as the notion of a separate subject and object.

Favourable  Conditions

After presenting this project to Sister Chan Khong and the monastic and lay Sanghas during the Applied Ethics Retreat in Plum Village at the beginning of 2012, we have received much positive feedback. We have raised a great amount of money for this project and have been offered possible sites in Vietnam for the construction of the kindergarten. Many friends with diverse backgrounds and specialized skills have offered support.

We are in the process of making connections with people, organizations, and places in Vietnam and finding ways to establish fruitful cooperation between Europeans and Vietnamese who wish to be involved in the project. We are adopting and combining a variety of approaches—traditional and contemporary, local and global. A member of the project team will soon travel to Indonesia, where she will visit the Green School (3) in Bali, and to Vietnam, where she will visit the various sites that have been proposed for the kindergarten. She will also meet with SYSS workers to continue the dialogue between the SYSS and Wake Up. Meanwhile, our team in Europe is developing a website to present the Seedling Project to a wider audience and to be a platform for the exchange of aspirations, ideas, and know-how.

Clearing Our Streams

In Hue, the sky is still blue and the sun is still shining. It is our last day in Central Vietnam. With ten mango trees and ten pomelo trees in the trunk of our car, we are setting out for a kindergarten built by the Love and Understanding Program. When we arrive in the classroom, we find the children sitting in a circle, singing Plum Village songs to us. Their voices are sweet as mangos, refreshing as pomelos. The whole afternoon is dedicated to playing and singing with children from three different classes and to sharing milk and biscuits with them.

After we enjoy dinner in silence at the kindergarten with Uncle Dinh, the director of the Love and Understanding Program in Hue, and other social workers, an intimate sharing evolves. “How can you keep your deepest aspiration alive?” one of our brothers asks. Uncle Dinh replies, “By understanding and transforming your own suffering. If you are not capable of taking care of yourself, you will not be able to help others.”

Twenty holes have already been dug, and together with our uncles we lower the young trees into the ground. Planting trees with the intention of nourishing our roots and clearing our streams (4), hope to make the world greener, both literally and figuratively, by sowing seeds of brotherhood and sisterhood, understanding and love, joy and happiness, and by sharing our time and material resources with those in need. May there be mangos and pomelos for past, present, and future generations, starting with the cultivation of a small seedling.

This is a compilation of sharings by members of the European Wake Up Sangha who were part of the Wake Up Vietnam Tour. For further information on the Seedling Project, please write to wkupeu@gmail.com.
1. The School of Youth for Social Service was a grassroots relief organization that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives. Rallying some 10,000 student volunteers, the SYSS based its work on the Buddhist principles of nonviolence and compassionate action. The present-day continuation of the SYSS is known as the Love and Understanding Program.

2. Sister Nhat Chi Mai, one of the first members of the Order of Interbeing, burned herself in Saigon on May 16, 1967, as an act of protest against the Vietnam War.

3. For further information, visit www.greenschool.org.

4. Thich Nhat Hanh, original gatha, “Boi dap goc re, khai thong suoi nguon.”

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Entering the Stream Down Under

By Ettianne Anshin

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I practice with seveerral Sydney Sanghas and have visited Nhap Luu (Entering the Stream) Monastery three times in the last eighteen months. This monastery is a two-hour drive from Melbourne and twelve hours ffrroom Sydney, Australia. Since their arrival two years ago, the original three monastics—Sisters Thuan Tien, Luong Nghiem, and Can Nghiem—have been joined by Sister Tri Duyen from Brisbane and a novice, Nguyen Ha, from another tradition in New Zealand. I would like to share with the larger Sangha a little of my experience of the changes occurring at this monastery.

The conditions here at the beginning were probably similar to those in Plum Village about thirty years ago. For example, the monastery had no electricity or permanent buildings other than the meditation hall. However, each year the conditions have become a little easier and the Sangha acquires a greater capacity to tolerate them. This is the third winter retreat for the sisters at Nhap Luu, and I have witnessed a subtle and substantial transformation.

Last year, a member of the Sydney Sangha, with the help of friends from Melbourne, installed a beautiful wooden floor in the meditation hall. Also, Brother Ian Roberts sold his property adjoining the original monastery to Unified Buddhist Church of Australia, so the sisters now have a comfortable home with indoor plumbing. The sisters’ house, named “Peace House” by Ian, has magnificent views of the lake where there are ducks, wild geese, and black swans. The house has a loft with huge windows where the sisters can listen to talks, meditate, and work at the computer. The meditation hall and Peace House now have solar panels for electricity, which should offset the energy used at the monastery. The Sangha can use Peace House as an accommodation for retreats, too.

The bush setting at Nhap Luu is exceedingly tranquil, and the Sangha has created many beautiful paths for walking meditation. Each day we see kangaroos, wallabies, hares, and possums that have many young. The possums come every night to eat from the hands of the sisters, and indeed the wildlife has become quite used to the Sangha. The kangaroos, hares, and wallabies eat near the buildings and allow you to walk close to them. They are fond of eating the flowers that the sisters grow. In the warmer months we can see the rare echidna (a spiny form of anteater) as well. As I write, I can hear kookaburras and crows calling, and we observe many other native birds, such as robins, magpies, and eastern rosella.

Growing Community 

Nhap Luu is an extensive property that requires much work from the sisters. Sangha members come for weekend stays and sometimes longer. The Sangha in Melbourne is quite small, although recent efforts to promote the monastery locally have seen some new friends joining. Some members of the Sangha have been helping to run a monthly market stall, and their efforts are bearing fruit as they make contacts within the local community. The Melbourne Sangha has been of considerable assistance to the sisters, giving both physical support and help with administering the centre. Many have been generous with time, skills, knowledge, and financial assistance.

The sisters have become more involved with the local community. They’ve taught high school students about taking care of their suffering, helping them to transform. They’ve also done chaplaincy training, so they can assist when needed.  At Vesak, they celebrated with other monastics from the State of Victoria and the community, and led a guided meditation. They’ve also joined the Australian Sangha Association for monastics. The monastery now has a blog and a Facebook page to keep the community informed, and there is a bookshop for visitors to purchase Plum Village merchandise.

Tomorrow a group of ten community members will visit from a nearby information centre to join in a Day of Mindfulness and learn about our practice. This monastery is in a quite rural area of Victoria with many generations of farming families; it will be interesting to see their reactions to a very different culture transplanted into this community.

Last September and October, two brothers visited from Plum Village. They led retreats and gave talks here and in Sydney. Thay Phap Hai and Dharma teachers Kenley Neufeld and Karen Hilsberg have been providing a superb program of online teaching for lay friends, Sangha builders, OI aspirants, mentors, and Dharma teachers in training. Meanwhile, UBC Australia has been accepted as a sponsoring body for monastics, and in early 2013, Nhap Luu will welcome seven more sisters—six originally from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam and one who has Australian citizenship. A lay friend has been tremendously helpful, sharing her expertise and assisting with immigration paperwork and office administration—more hands to lighten the load.

I have been helping Sister Can Nghiem with her English comprehension and pronunciation, while she in turn has been helping with my Vietnamese. Sister Luong Nghiem has been instructing me on the bell, and I am tremendously grateful to her and all the sisters for their guidance, sumptuous food, and warm smiles during my stay.

The conditions are basic at Nhap Luu, but the environment is quite beautiful. As I sit and write, I watch the sun set and I hear the crickets singing against the background of a new moon. We hope to see many visitors come, support the monastery, and help us to bloom.

For more information about Nhap Luu Monastery, visit www.nhapluu.blogspot.com or find Entering the Stream Monastery on Facebook.

mb62-Entering2Ettianne Anshin, True Auspicious Path, lives in Sydney, Australia and practices with several Sydney groups, including the Lotus Bud Sangha. She works part-time for The Buddhist Council of New South Wales, coordinating the Schools Religious Education program, and consults on community development projects.

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More Joy and Less Suffering

An Interview with Chau Yoder 

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ChauYoder, Tam Luu Ly / Chan Tham Tue, was born in Hanoi, Vietnam and lives in Walnut Creek, California with her husband Jim, to whom she has been married since 1971. They have two adult daughters, Ann and Lynn. Chau earned her Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Electronic Engineering (B.S.E.E.E.) from California State University at Fresno and worked for twenty-five years at Chevron Corporation—as a manager in Chevron Information Technology, then Manager of Network Operations, and later as a consultant in Applied Behavioral Science.

Chau has a deep aspiration to share specific and important methods and techniques for enhancing mindful living, all emphasizing self-awareness of body and mind. She studied with Master Ce Hang Truong to become a trainer in Integral Tai Chi and learned MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. She is currently an active Dharma Teacher, ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2003. Since 1989, she has offered workshops and classes on mindful leadership, mindful living, and qigong to promote healthy and happy living. She has presented her programs in youth, corporate, and retreat environments.

ChauYoder was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 17, 2012, for this special anniversary issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share a meaningful experience from your time there?

Chau Yoder: In 1997 I went to Plum Village for the first time, and in Thay’s first Dharma talk, he encouraged everybody to be in extended silence. I spent about ten days in silence except during Dharma discussions. I discovered the power of silence. Once during the week, a young nun misunderstood my actions and she scolded me, but I hadn’t done what she was accusing me of. I caught myself ready to respond and heard my inner voice: “Oh! I’m in silence.” So I just stayed quiet. I was so free. I felt so good. That’s why now I talk about the power of silence.

MB: Did you notice a deeper silence internally because of the external silence?

CY: I recognize that I catch my own thinking more. I am able to sort it out, able to understand myself better. I call it peeling the onion. I recognize my bad seeds and my good seeds.

mb61-MoreJoy3MB: When and how did you first meet Thay? As a young practitioner, did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CY: In 1987 I read Thay’s books, Peace Is Every Step and Being Peace. His writing is so clear. Thay’s Dharma body exhibits a peace and calmness that I really like. I observed his mindful walk—he was so there in the moment. I felt like when I found Thay’s teaching I returned to my roots, both with blood and spiritual ancestors.

In 1991, I had a pivotal moment during a five-day retreat at Kim Son Monastery in Watsonville, California. I was sitting with my mom next to me when Thay Phap Dang chanted a sutra. Suddenly, tears poured down my face and I couldn’t stop crying through the lunch that followed. I couldn’t eat.  After lunch, I wrote a letter to Thay and put it in the bell.

When you ask Thay a question, he’ll often answer it in public somewhere, and you feel like, “Oh, he’s talking to me.” That afternoon Thay said in his talk, “Watch out for your desire. Don’t think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” I felt like he was talking to me. I had signed my name to the letter, so the abbot of Kim Son, Thay Tinh Tu, came out and touched my head and talked to me, trying to console me. That was a pivotal moment. That’s when I recognized that the seeds in me of wanting to be a nun were so strong.

Years later, Thay talked to me when I was at his hut in Plum Village with a few others. Thay was talking about people like me, who are married. He turned to me and said, “If your will is strong, then you can do it. Right, Chau?” I knew he was right. I knew that my will was not strong enough to become a nun. More and more, people keep encouraging me to nurture the seeds inside of me to be a monastic and maybe one of these days, one of these years, at least next lifetime, I can be. And that’s my vow. Next lifetime, I want to be a little boy novice. [Smiles.]

mb61-MoreJoy4My parents didn’t want me to be a monastic, so I studied hard to get a scholarship and came from Vietnam to the U.S. The first day I arrived at California State University, Fresno (which was about two weeks after I arrived in the U.S.), I saw my husband, Jim, and fell in love and that was it!

MB: You’ve devoted your life to the practice as a layperson. How have you manifested a devout daily practice?

CY: I believe that practicing with Thay Tu Luc, the abbot of the Compassion Meditation Center in Hayward, California, is one of my key activities that help me to be on the path of mindfulness. I am lucky to have this condition in my life, so I don’t have to go to Deer Park Monastery or wait until Thay Nhat Hanh comes. Thay Tu Luc represents Thay Nhat Hanh’s teaching here for me.

When I went to the retreat with Thay at Kim Son Monastery in 1989, the abbot, Thay Tinh Tu, taught us the sixteen health stick exercises, the ones that Plum Village does now. Every morning, I went and practiced with him at 5:30, before Thay’s events. One morning, he handed the stick to me and said, “Take this home and practice.” So I took it home, practiced, and eventually taught it along with meditation to my work colleagues at Chevron. It really helped them with their stress. That started my teaching career.

Then Jim and I went to the retreat for business people at Plum Village in 1999. There, Sister Chan Khong asked me to lead La Boi Publishing [publishers of Thay’s books in Vietnamese]. The more I got to edit Thay’s books, the deeper I got into his teaching. I really treasure that.

MB: Can you tell me a little bit more about La Boi Publishing?

CY: At the beginning, I headed a team of volunteers. Every year for a while, we published two or three books of Thay’s in Vietnamese. It was really active. But in 2005, when Thay started to go to Vietnam, more books were printed in Vietnam. They’re much cheaper to publish there. Eventually we lost our free storage space for La Boi, so it became more practical to print all the books in Vietnam.

Thay also encouraged us to share the Dharma and to practice together. In 1999, we created a monthly meditation group called La Boi Sangha. At first it was purely Vietnamese, and then a few English-speaking people joined us. We became bilingual. But now we’ve returned to only Vietnamese. I feel like I’m a bridge between Vietnamese and English, so I encourage people to do both.

MB: I am curious about your work with bridging between the Vietnamese and Western cultures. How are you a bridge, and how does that feel for you?

CY: It’s just natural, I think, because I’m married to Jim and because I came here when I went to school in 1967. My English speaking and understanding is pretty good, so I can connect with English-speaking people and I still have the roots of Vietnamese, especially after I started to edit and publish Thay’s books in Vietnamese. Also conditions have been right, because in 1999 I started to be more involved with the English-speaking Community of Mindful Living in Northern California and with Parallax Press.

MB: Did you find that your practice changed after you received the Lamp Transmission?

CY: Not really. Like I mentioned, I have been teaching since 1989. After the Lamp Transmission, maybe people notice you more. Thay said that we are all Dharma teachers already, and we just have to share what we learn. The key thing is that we have to stay fresh and joyful and we have to watch out for becoming cocky. Of course, I’m very honored. The lamp is in the front of my house, so I’m reminded and thankful for Thay and the community to keep the trust in me, to give me that opportunity.

MB: What activities are you involved in that bring the Dharma to life for you?

CY: For sixteen years I have been teaching mindful leadership to 147 senior high school students and twenty adults at an annual Rotary Leadership camp. Since 2007, about once a year I travel with my husband to a foreign country to deliver several hundred prosthetic hands and train people who have lost their hands.

MB: Your email address includes the phrase “high spirits.” In my perception, you’re a person of very high spirits and joy. How do you keep your joy alive every day?

CY: Every day I lie down and appreciate the Buddhas in the ten thousand directions who help me and the people around me to see and follow the path. Namo Amitabha, Namo  Avalokiteshvara. I also write in a little notebook all the affirmations for my five organs, for my mind and body, to stay centered and happy. Every morning before I get up, I recite in Vietnamese the waking-up gatha that Thay wrote. I pray that beings around me help themselves and protect themselves, and if I accidentally harm any beings, then please help them to go to nirvana. That’s my normal routine. Then I get up, and I sit and meditate and pray and chant and invite the bell. I walk here and there mindfully every day. For exercise I do tai chi, qigong, and yoga.

I remember Thay said it is important to be fresh as flowers. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Morning and night, I focus on my joyful and beneficial daily spirit with a beginner’s mind vow and appreciation. Since 1989, I’ve been teaching at a weekly cancer support group. I also teach at a Jewish old folks’ home, and I still teach at Chevron once a month. I’ve pretty much surrounded myself with these things. I’m just so thankful, sitting here, looking out the window, thankful for this little awesome place we have to remind me of nature and practice.

Since I began to practice with Thay, I’ve learned to enjoy nature so much more. I used to be a city girl. And I used to be very scared of death—of my family’s death, of my own death. I had a one-year-old brother who died when I was only five; I cried and cried. When I studied with Thay and understood better about no coming, no going, that helped me so much. I no longer feel fear of death or worry about my loved ones. I learned from Thay and other teachers that we are nothing but energy. That helped me survive raising my two daughters. Now they are thirty-seven and thirty-three. Otherwise I would just worry about them so much. When I learned these things, I would pray to Avalokiteshvara, send Avalokiteshvara energy through me, in me, and then I’d give them loving energy and prayer energy. So I feel much more at peace. All of these practices help me to be in the moment.

Since I began to study with Thay and the community, I understand my body reactions much faster. I used to have pain from worry, from anxiety. I used to be a super Type A person. I know some of that energy is still in me, but I’m a calmer Type A! [Laughter.]

Before I studied with Thay, I learned from another practice how to transform my migraine headaches into nothing. No more migraine headaches! If I don’t do the mindful practices, both physical and mental, I can see the impact on my body.

MB: It sounds like you’ve had some deep transformations thanks to the practice.

CY: Yes, definitely. Someone who worked for me told me, “I used to be very scared of you.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, we used to call you dragon lady! We were so scared of you.” If they didn’t perform, I would nail them, I guess. But then he said, “But now you’re very nice. You’re the best manager. We love you now.” So I learned to listen to people better, and understand them better, and empathize better. I know that when I first studied these things, I was so critical of myself. I was a perfectionist, and very critical of myself and of others. So I just created suffering for myself and others.

I have to agree; I have transformed a lot. My life is much more peaceful and joyful. I still yell back at Jim sometimes, but I know how to apologize and I stop myself much faster. I rarely have the blow-ups that I used to have frequently! I still have fear, anger, and anxiety when dealing with the difficulties of life; however, I feel that they are much less than before. I have to constantly work on being mindful and peeling my onion to transform my bad habit energy.

I am so thankful to the practice for my transformation. This is the momentum that helps me help others. I have found this path helps me have more joy and less suffering. That’s my vow, now—to help others and equally, myself, to have more joy and less suffering in life.

MB: What guidance would you like to share with young practitioners?

CY: PBS (Pause, Breathe, and Smile). Practice mindful breathing even just ten minutes a day to be a balanced, ethical, and compassionate leader—a leader of yourself. Treasure your greatness. Appreciate your youth and live mindfully in the moment. Practice when you are young; then you will have a much fuller life and balance in all areas of your life. You will definitely be happier. Practice a new routine for twenty-eight days straight to change your habits.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Jim Yoder

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

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Her original name is Phuong; her monastic name is Chan Khong (True Emptiness). Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong started Plum Village together in 1982. That Plum Village has become what it is today and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s teachings is, to a great extent, a result of Sister Chan Khong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath.

I first met Thay and Sister Phuong in 1984, during a meditation weekend in Amsterdam. In the evening, there was a special program with Vietnamese music. At one point, the music stopped abruptly, and Sister Phuong began to sing. I was deeply touched by her voice. Never had I heard someone sing like that. She sang my heart open, and I cried and cried, not understanding what was happening to me.

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During the first summer I spent in Plum Village, Sister Phuong wasn’t yet a nun. She had lovely long black hair that, when in her way, she would casually put up in a bun by sticking a pen through it. She warmly welcomed the few Westerners that visited Plum Village in those days, and she did what she could to make us feel at home. At that time, she was the only person able to translate from Vietnamese into English or French. When Thay gave a Dharma talk, or when there was an event in Vietnamese, she would sit next to us and translate for hours on end without ever appearing to get tired. Sister Phuong’s way of translating was so expressive that, even after having translated for hours, her voice sounded as colorful as it did when she began.

mb61-NotDifferent3Three years later, when I moved to Plum Village, I was often the only one during the winter season who didn’t understand Vietnamese. There were about ten of us by then, and after dinner, as we were enjoying countless cups of tea, there was usually a lot of conversation, all in Vietnamese. During those moments, I felt so left out, but when Sister Phuong was around she would always come sit next to me and, while participating wholeheartedly in the conversation, she would translate for me at the same time. I savored those moments in her presence.

She strengthened my confidence that there is always a solution to any problem. One winter, I had promised to make a flower arrangement for a Tea Meditation in the Lower Hamlet. I looked all over and could not find a single flower. When everyone was seated in the zendo and Sister Phuong was about to enter, I ran to her with an empty bowl in my hands, telling her, quite unhappily, that I had not succeeded in making the flower arrangement. Even before I had finished speaking, she picked up some tufts of grass that were growing along the path, added a few handfuls of pebbles from the path we were standing on, picked up a stick lying nearby, planted it in the middle, and . . . voila! Her creation was complete, and the Tea Meditation could begin. While we entered, she gave me a mischievous wink and whispered, “Pure nature.”

As the years passed, more and more people came to Plum Village, and new sleeping quarters needed to be created. One of the places chosen for a future dormitory was the attic of the house where my room was. Cleaning it was a gigantic job, with spider webs from floor to ceiling and the dust of ages everywhere. After cleaning for just a few minutes, I looked like a mineworker. Many hours of scrubbing and sweeping later, I seemed to have made no progress at all. One afternoon, after a few days of lonesome work in that cheerless place, Sister Phuong suddenly appeared, joining me in my work with great swiftness. Her help and enthusiasm were most welcome, but at the same time I felt embarrassed that she was there mopping the floor with me while she had countless other things to do. No matter what I said, she was not at all receptive to my urging that she spend her time in a different way; she continued until the job was done. She never felt that any job was beneath her.

I was often amazed by her inexhaustible energy. If something needed to be finished, she simply continued until it was done, if necessary beyond midnight, without eating and often all by herself. When packages of medicine needed to be sent to Vietnam, she sat for hours on the stone floor, addressing labels and writing uplifting words to each family. Others came and joined her in her work, but when they left she continued. And never have I detected a glimpse of self-pity in her. Despite all she has to do, I never heard her complain that she was too busy. I also never heard her complain of feeling cold, although in the wintertime in the drafty rooms of Plum Village there is certainly reason enough to do so. In early autumn, when I was already wearing two pairs of socks, I saw her walking without any. She never gave the slightest attention to her own discomfort.

mb61-NotDifferent4During a Tea Meditation, many years ago, I remember her telling us that she had just received a message from Vietnam that a number of artists had been imprisoned. She cried openly as she spoke. I felt so touched. While I suffer from my own pain, I saw her suffer from the pain of others. Far more often though, I saw her laughing, because she is very open to the comical aspects of a situation. Once a small group of very important Vietnamese monks from America paid a short visit to Plum Village. On the morning of their departure, we were all, about twelve people, called to the zendo. We sat in a circle while Thay spoke for a while in Vietnamese. We had just adopted a new routine in Plum Village; when someone was leaving, in order to say goodbye to him or her on behalf of the whole Sangha, one of the permanent residents would practice “hugging meditation” with the parting friend during a communal meeting. Hugging meditation is done in the following way: you first bow to each other, aware of your breath and forming a lotus bud with your hands to offer to the other person. Then you embrace the other person, holding him or her during three in- and out-breaths, fully aware of the fact that (1) you yourself are still alive, (2) the friend in your arms is still alive, and (3) you are lucky to be able to hold each other. Well, that morning Thay asked one of the nuns to come up to say goodbye to one of the visiting monks. In the meantime, he explained to the monk how hugging meditation was done. Only those who know the tradition well can gather how revolutionary Thay was at that moment. It was obvious to us that the monk in question was clearly not accustomed to this form of meditation. And certainly not with a nun! They both stood in front of each other. After exchanging a short, uneasy glance, they started bowing very deeply, and the inevitable happened: their heads collided. It took all of us great pains to refrain from laughing out loud; and like us, Sister Phuong sat for a long time with a twisted face that she just couldn’t manage to get back into the right expression, however hard she tried.

mb61-NotDifferent5Though countless practical things continuously demanded her attention, Sister Phuong also kept an eye on how we were doing. And if she suspected that something was wrong with one of us, she asked straightaway about it. Whatever it was she wanted to discuss, she always came immediately to the heart of the matter. When I wanted to tell her something, she usually got the point long before I had finished. Her way of listening was very attentive and without judging. When I spoke with her, I always felt a lot of space. Yet I also know from experience that her way of communicating has its own rules, and at times that has been quite difficult for me. The hardest to digest was her sudden way of stopping a conversation—completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a story, in the middle of a sentence. Since I learned that this moment could arrive at any time, I brought up what I wanted to talk about right away, or else she’d be gone long before I’d touched the topic I’d wanted to discuss. And that would be really bad luck. Because she was so busy, you’d never know when your next chance would be.

She could abruptly cut off a conversation on the telephone as well. Just like that. It has happened to me more than once. In the middle of a sentence, I would suddenly hear “beep, beep, beep” in my ear, the connection having been broken. At first I felt really hurt, but as time passed I learned to see that as her “suchness” and to simply accept it as just one of her many sides.

As far as I could see, the contact between Thay and Sister Phuong was very harmonious and without tension. Once, however, at the end of dinner, Thay spoke to her in an unusually stern voice: “Finish your meal!” Because it was so different from how Thay normally spoke to her or to any of us, I never forgot it. There were a few grains of rice (maybe eight or twelve) left on her plate, and Thay further said something like, “Many people are hungry at this moment.” To my surprise, Sister Phuong, with a look of remorse, proceeded to eat the remaining grains of rice on her plate, without any protest at having been addressed that way.

The first year I lived in Plum Village, Thay was the only monastic. But after their trip to India in 1988, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Chan Vi returned with shaved heads—they had become nuns. This unexpected change was a great shock to me. Thay must have noticed, because soon after their return, when I happened to be alone in a room with him and Sister Chan Khong, he invited me to touch Sister Chan Khong’s head to feel for myself how it felt without hair. While I was very carefully touching her head, she laughed at me in a playful way and then took me warmly into her arms and said, “I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference at all between us.”

I felt that something had changed in Sister Chan Khong. I felt the practice had really become number one in her life and that she had made a vow to try with all her heart to live as mindfully as possible. I noticed, for example, that in the middle of a conversation that was getting too noisy, she would become quieter, or while doing something very quickly, she would suddenly slow down. Because I so clearly felt the change that took place in her, it was quite natural for me to start calling her “Sister” instead of just “Phuong.” Speaking about her new position as a nun, she once told me that she wanted to be careful that she didn’t become proud. She explained to me that in the Vietnamese community this could easily happen because, as a monastic, Vietnamese people have the tendency to look up to you very much.

I have always known Sister Chan Khong as a jack-of-all-trades. According to her, she has much less energy than ten years ago, but when I see how much she takes on, seemingly without any effort, I am truly amazed. During a retreat some years ago in a Tibetan monastery in France, Thay fell ill. From that moment on, Sister Phuong took care of every aspect of the program, including the Dharma talk. On top of that, she cooked twice a day for Thay and the three Plum Village residents who had come to take care of the children’s program. In her remaining time, she was available for retreatants who wanted to discuss their problems with her. And when the children’s program didn’t run so smoothly, she took care of that as well. She was the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, and she continued to be in good spirits.

I have often wondered where her endless supply of energy comes from. I partly attribute it to the fact that she truly lives in the present; from moment to moment she deals with what is coming up, and she doesn’t lose energy in worrying about what may come next, which to me is a reflection of a deeply rooted faith. Even more important though, I think, is her compassion. When she became a nun, she received from Thay the name “Chan Khong,” “True Emptiness.” “My happiness is your happiness” and “your pain is my pain” is something that she truly lives. Seeing the self in the non-self is not a theory for her but the very ground of her being. 

Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I am Home  (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

mb61-NotDifferent6Eveline Beumkes, True Harmony/Peace, lived in Plum Village for three years from 1988 to 1991. She helped to organize the practice in Amsterdam, Holland and helped translate Thay’s books into Dutch. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. 

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Plum Village Smiles

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During the Summer Opening in the first years, I stayed in the room above the bookshop in Upper Hamlet. We had very few rooms then, and I had to share the room with four or five children. They stayed in the room with me and at night they sprawled out on the floor.

I thought that children needed to sing; that chanting alone was not enough. I intended to write the song, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life…” for the children. One afternoon we did sitting meditation in the Bamboo Hall. The walls are made of stone. Facing a big block of stone, the tune for the song came to me. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life, Namo Buddhaya.” I thought to myself, “I am here to do sitting meditation and not to make up songs. Let’s continue it after the sitting meditation.” However, after a few minutes, the music returned to me. I thought, “If it’s going to be like this, I might as well compose the song now.” So I continued writing that song and, after the meditation, I recorded in order not to forget it.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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In the past I taught several generations of monastic disciples, but I was never as happy as I am now, with teacher and disciple living together and practicing together. Every day I find ways to transmit all that I have realized for myself to my disciples, like the first banana leaf transmitting to the second and the third. The happiness that monks and nuns give me is very great. Monks and nuns in Plum Village all have beauty, sweetness, bright smiles, and twinkling eyes.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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We have been able to present the teachings in such a way that young people and Westerners can understand them, accept them, and apply them. That is a big success of Plum Village, but it is not the work of one person alone or just the work of a few years. It is the work of thirty-five years that includes twenty years of Plum Village and the work of the entire Sanhga.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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Photos courtesy of Plum Village, Jeanne Anselmo, Lyn Fine, Eileen Kiera, and David Lawrence. Quotes reprinted from I Have Arrived, I Am Home (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

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The Spirit of Non-Self

Living in Sangha Paradise 

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

A mist thickly covers the forests and mountains of Deer Park Monastery. The entire practice center is embraced by an atmosphere of stillness. The activity bell wakes all from slumber at exactly 5:00 a.m., followed by reverberating sounds of the Great Temple Bell in front of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. The powerful sounds of the bell, harmonizing with the light and flowing voice of a sister chanting, enhance the peacefulness of a new day.

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Today is the fourth day of a five-day retreat, “Opening the Door of Your Heart,” for people who speak Vietnamese. In the tranquil atmosphere of the morning, the Sangha queues up to get a packed breakfast in preparation for hiking up the misty mountain and enjoying their first meal of the day.  About 500 monastic and lay friends practice walking meditation along the winding path. When the Sangha reaches Elephant Peak, some people are, perhaps, surprised to see Thay already seated in meditation with    his attendants. Standing here, one faces an ocean of clouds that covers an area of the city of Escondido. It feels as if one is hovering among the clouds of a faraway land of enchantment. It is truly a Zen experience to be in the spaciousness of earth and grand open sky. Everyone finds a comfortable place to sit among the huge flat rock formations that have been here for hundreds of years.

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After practicing sitting meditation for half an hour, I slowly open my eyes to see that the sun has risen and made the sea of clouds appear even clearer. The Sangha begins eating breakfast in silence. After some time, Thay shows me a cluster of tiny ants carrying crumbs dropped from our rice cakes. They carry their food in just one direction. Some ants move rice cake crumbs or potato skins many times larger than themselves. Sometimes two or three ants clutch one piece together. Thay compassionately gives them some more food that they can bring back to their nest for the colony to enjoy.

Thay tells me to take a photo of these ants. I do so and feel curious about where they are taking these provisions and how big their colony is. I follow their trail and feel pity to see how small they are, because they have to carry food so much larger than their bodies. Their paths wind up and down the rock surface. Some lose their balance and topple over due to their heavy load. I just let them be and don’t interfere, as if I were not there. My observation takes me to the entrance of their nest, a crack in the rock with a lot of sand surrounding it. I feel despondent that I can’t continue farther while they unaffectedly carry on their task. A sense of curiosity continues in my store consciousness for the next few days.

Like A Colony of Ants

Recently, I saw a short documentary film called “Animal Planet,” which examined the life and activities of a colony of ants. Thousands of them followed each other in a meadow of tall green grass that resembled the young plants in a rice paddy. Many climbed grass stems and bit off young shoots, while those on the ground carried the shoots back to the nest. Each had its own particular task to do, be it to bite off the shoots, transport provisions, or remain inside to build the underground nest from the grass that had been carried back. They seemed to work like an ensemble without a leader or discrimination. None of them seemed to complain about each other. The way they lived reminded me of our Sangha.

As brothers and sisters in the Dharma, we work together like ants in a colony, or like cells in a body. In a body, there is no single cell that is considered the leader of all other cells. A retreatant once asked one of our sisters who plays the violin, “Why does Thay travel with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour?” She replied, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra.” The conductor would not attract an audience by himself; yet if there were no conductor, the quality of music produced by the orchestra would not be very high. Thay has never wanted to control us. He only seeks to open doors and clear obstacles for us. Thay just allows things to unfold naturally and tries to find the best way to help all of us develop our various talents. We inter-depend on one another; we inter-are with each other. When our individual skills are combined, they no longer belong to any particular person, but become the effectiveness of the whole Sangha.

Whether we are at our monastery or on the road, and especially during the recent retreats in North America, our brothers and sisters live and work together like a colony of ants; we flow as a river. Our 2011 U.S. Tour, which spanned three months, included five public talks, eight Days of Mindfulness (DOM), an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, seven retreats in as many states, a half DOM with the Google staff at their headquarters in California, and a talk for congressmen and women in Washington, D.C. Each retreat had from eight hundred to one thousand participants, the DOMs had from one thousand to sixteen hundred people, and the public talks attracted approximately twenty five hundred attendees. The majority of activities were organized by monastic brothers and sisters. The tour took the organizing team two years to plan.

We work together as an ensemble, and each person is allocated a task: some oversee logistics, others take care of registration, and others welcome and orient retreatants. Some brothers and sisters do the grocery shopping while others cook. Some manage the accommodations and others are in charge of hygiene. We have a transportation coordinator and children’s program supervisors. A team films the Dharma talks, a team produces the DVDs, and a team sells Thay’s calligraphies and books. All these tasks are tightly coordinated, and they all relate to each other.

When we’re on big teaching tours and retreats, the brothers and sisters do much work, but there are rarely complaints or criticism. Glitches are opportunities for us to learn new things and better understand each other. One brother is the treasurer, and he is on a cooking team, the CD producing team, and the organizing team. He has such a lot of work to do, but he is always fresh, smiling, and full of energy! One time when I saw that he had a great deal of bookkeeping work to do, I said to him, “Dear brother, you have so much work to do. May I give you a hand?” He looked at me kindly and replied, “The paperwork is a bit complicated. It’s okay, I’ll do it.” I continued, “But please take care of your health.” He smiled and said in his humorous way, “There’s no need to live a long life. Forty years is enough!” Matching his wit, I replied, “Thay has said that whoever goes before he does is not showing enough filial piety! The Buddha and Thay have entrusted their mission to us, so we can’t go so early!” We both laughed.

Recognizing Paradise

During our retreats there is much joy, and peals of laughter can be heard everywhere, especially in the kitchen. Each kitchen team has only five or six people, but they cook for over a thousand retreatants. They do so with happiness cultivated from the love of brotherhood and sisterhood. One day I went into the kitchen and saw a sister at the stove frying tofu. I was surprised at how tall she was that day, and then I realized that she was standing on a step in order to comfortably reach the stove top. I saw the large tray of delicious fried tofu pieces, and thought it must have taken her quite some time to fry all of that tofu in the midday heat, yet her face was still fresh. I said to her, “Sister, you are so good!”

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An elder brother had been assigned to that same cooking team. He was cooking a huge pot of curry and using a large wooden ladle to stir. The curry was appealing, but the most amusing sight was that the pot was as tall as his ribs! This pot surely would need to be carried by three or four people. I had a funny thought: Cooking like this, one does not need to go to the gym and lift weights! I felt very happy because I knew for sure that the food cooked by the brothers and sisters had a lot of love in it, and that the retreatants would be able to taste and enjoy it.

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When I have a bit of spare time during a tour, I like to watch children play together; I think they look like innocent angels. I particularly relish hearing their spontaneous laughter echoing in the summer air. At least a few dozen children come with their parents to each retreat. Brothers and sisters take care of the children’s program very skillfully; they are mostly “baby monks” or “baby nuns” who have grown up in the monastery. They wholeheartedly guide, play with, and offer their presence to the children. That’s why the children who attend Plum Village retreats are so happy. When I look into the bright eyes of these children, I know that we are sowing good seeds in them—seeds of peace, happiness, and liberation.

I also like to drop by the bookshop to see Thay’s new calligraphy, which helps remind people to practice mindfulness at home. The calligraphies may say, for example, “Breathe, my dear,” or “Peace is every step,” or “Happiness begins with your lovely smile.” The calligraphy stand is always full of people. An elder sister is happily helping her younger sisters distribute the calligraphies, even though she has many other things to do. Promoting calligraphy involves more than just selling individual sheets; there are also elements of practice and play. People often have many questions about the meaning of Thay’s calligraphies; therefore the stand is like a Dharma hall. This is an opportunity for elder sisters to pass on their experience to younger ones, while also working to serve and liberate all beings. The elder sisters explain the calligraphies in a dynamic way, while the younger sisters’ fresh faces and witty comments attract visitors, as well.

Despite the crowds, the atmosphere at retreats is serene and peaceful. One practitioner commented, “Even though there are about a thousand retreatants here, it doesn’t feel like it. The atmosphere here is totally different from outside.” There are not only those who are experienced in the practices of Plum Village, but also many newcomers. The long-time practitioners are a much-needed foundation and source of support for newer practitioners. During one walking meditation session full of people, one retreatant exclaimed, “This is a miracle! We are walking in paradise!” Thanks to the mindful presence and collective energy of the Sangha, we can recognize this paradise.

Our Source of Energy

mb61-Spirit5During a Dharma sharing session at Estes Park, Colorado, one retreatant commented, “In this retreat there are up to eight hundred people and everything is done by the brothers and sisters. I’m truly surprised to see that you do all of these things so wholeheartedly. I’m curious to know how you all have so much energy.” I looked at her and simply replied, “Your tears and smiles are our source of energy.” It is true that there are tears from pain and suffering, but there are also tears born of happiness. And smiles are signs of joy, peace, happiness, and transformation. Both tears and smiles are a source of inspiration that nourishes our mind of love. That is why we have so much energy to continue what we are doing. I feel so nourished and happy as a monastic because my brothers and sisters and I have come across a way of practice that is relevant to us. We are able to continue the Buddha’s task of liberating beings in the way that Thay has transmitted to us.

Personally, I think we monastics benefit the most from these retreats. When we conduct such retreats, we have the opportunity to come in contact with the suffering of people from many sectors of society. As monastics, there are places that we cannot go; there are things that only laypeople can do. However, through our interactions with lay friends, and listening to their life experiences and suffering, we are able to see different aspects of life more clearly. Sometimes, just by listening, we alleviate much of their pain and suffering. When I’m able to sit and listen to people’s deepest pain and hidden difficulties, then naturally the energy of compassion arises within me. This kind of energy makes me so happy whenever I’m able to generate it.

I think it’s truly wonderful to be a monastic, especially when I have the chance to help others. In my opinion, “miraculous” things don’t need to be lofty; it is what I can do every day that counts. To be able to help others benefit from their practice, to bring about healing, transformation, happiness, peace, and joy in others is already a miracle. My life is so fulfilling and happy. What else is there to search for?

The Spirit of Sangha

We monastics spend much time learning, practicing, and conducting retreats. Another art needs to be nourished every day, as well: the art of developing brotherhood and sisterhood. This is the foundation of happiness in our daily practice. Everything we do holds the purpose of building brotherhood and sisterhood, and drinking tea together is one of our favourite methods for doing so. Drinking tea is a meditation practice. Each pot of tea contains so many joyful stories that we share with each other, especially after a session of sitting meditation and chanting. And nothing beats hiking up a mountain and drinking tea together there. Our daily activities have all the elements of mindfulness practice, play, work, and learning. It is only when we live and work in this spirit of inclusiveness and inter-relatedness that large-scale teaching tours can be successful and beneficial for practitioners.

Living and practicing in the Sangha, as well as going on teaching tours with Thay, have given me a precious lesson—anything can be accomplished when we have ideals, aspirations, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Further, when we are able to let go of our individualism, then we can easily flow with togetherness. That is the spirit of living in the Sangha, the spirit of non-self. That is the love of brotherhood and sisterhood.

There is a popular proverb in Vietnamese: “One stick cannot make a mountain, but three sticks together create a solid peak.” It is a sensible proverb that everyone likes and appreciates. Before I was ordained, it did not hold much meaning for me. It was merely a nice idea. But after becoming a monk, having lived and practiced with the Sangha, I realize its depth and truth. I appreciate this proverb, thanks to the miraculous power of the Sangha and the wonders of a lifestyle of non-self. This lifestyle is truly a Sangha paradise.

mb61-Spirit6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

 

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