The Sound of the Bell

by Susan Hadler

It’s Sunday afternoon in mid-August and still hot when I arrive at Carolyn’s for the bell training. Eric is standing at the end of the upstairs hallway, smiling and bowing, showing the way to Carolyn’s door. The first thing I see is the big bell sitting on its red and gold cushion in the middle of the room. It seems to belong here, surrounded by Buddhas sitting, Buddhas standing, pictures of Thay and the Dalai Lama, angels and saints and green growing plants. Carolyn offers us cool water and grapes fresh from her neighbor’s arbor.

We sit on cushions circling the bell. Mary arrives and Carolyn begins, “The bell master holds and protects the space for everyone.” Yes, that is how I’ve felt with the Sunday Night Sangha. Held. Safely and quietly. No need to worry about appearances or intrusions. Space to calm down and open up to myself, to bring my body, emotions, and thoughts together in one place, one time, a little island in a calm sea surrounded by little islands. A gift beyond measure.

I remember Thay sitting so peacefully in front of the meditation hall in Plum Village, monks and nuns behind him, laypeople in front. Thay sat in silence and I sat in silence letting anxiety about what would happen next disappear like steam rising from a cup of tea. Thay didn’t seem to worry about time or schedule. He was completely present. His presence helped me be with myself in that peaceful moment.

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Carolyn tells us she invites the bell with her heart. Her heart. Not her thoughts about when to invite the bell or how it should sound. Her heart knows. Carolyn trusts her heart. Then she teaches us the gatha that is recited, most often silently, by the bell inviter before inviting the bell,

Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness,
I send my heart along with the sound of the bell.
May the hearers awaken from forgetfulness
and transcend all anxiety and sorrow.

I love this gatha. It’s an invitation to unload all the stuff I usually carry around with me—self-consciousness, defensive pride, phony cheer, preoccupations and plans, leftover conversations. The gatha is a door opening to a place of freedom.

“Now we can practice inviting the bell.” Carolyn hands the inviter to Eric, who smiles and recites the gatha. The bell’s pure deep voice reverberates inside the room, inside me. Eric practices inviting the bell a few more times and hands the inviter to Mary. Mary recites the gatha slowly and softly wakes the bell. She waits a bit and then the rich and lovely sound surrounds us. Mary practices inviting the bell from the side, and the bell rings out clear and strong.

She passes the inviter to me. Holding it, I remember seeing a nun in the Lower Hamlet standing in the grass in front of the big bell. It was raining. She held the inviter in her hand and stood for what seemed to me a long time. She stood in reverent silence before she invited the bell. I admired her patience, her ability to be with herself alone with the bell. She wasn’t in a hurry to get out of the rain. It didn’t seem like a task for her, something to accomplish or finish, but rather an act with meaning, as if the existence of the bell, the inviter, and herself deserved her whole attention. I saw this in the nun’s silent stance and the slow steady swing of her arm.

Tears fill my eyes as I hold the inviter and look at the bell. The bell seems holy, a symbol of the peace and freedom I found in Plum Village. I hear myself say out loud, “I’m not ready to invite the bell.” I can’t invite the bell. I’m not calm or patient enough.

Carolyn suggests I take a few breaths. Carolyn, Eric, and Mary gently encourage me and then accept me as I am, off balance, selfconscious, a little embarrassed and grateful for their acceptance. Eric and Mary practice inviting the bell some more and then Mary hands me the inviter.

I take it, lay it down to bow, recite the gatha, pick up the inviter, raise my arm and swing. No sound. Silence. I’ve completely missed the bell. We laugh. I try again, from my heart, and this time I hear the sound of the bell flowing out like waves washing dry land. I relax and smile. I feel so happy.

Eric gives me a ride to the Sangha. The Dharma talk of Thay’s we listen to and our Dharma discussion following both focus on the emptiness of emptiness and on impermanence. Joseph suggests we sing.

No coming, no going. No after, no before.
I hold you close to me.
I release you to be so free
Because I am in you and you are in me.

mb36-TheSound2Joseph’s voice, like the bell, reaches a place deep inside that is still and clear. In the silence after singing I notice a little burst of energy tingling up from my stomach to my nose. I bow in and speak, telling the Sangha about the bell training, about not being ready to invite the bell. “I  see now  that I  separated myself from the nun and put her above me. I felt low and unworthy and was unable to invite the bell, even when I tried. The second time I took the inviter I remembered Carolyn’s words and let my heart do the work. In that instant the nun was with me and I was with her. We were inviting the bell together and the bell sang out!” Inviting the bell is inviting everyone to be present, even myself, even the nuns in Plum Village.

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

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To Be Ready

Though many of us accompanied Thay and the monastic Sangha to Vietnam, it was not possible to understand all that was happening, right before our eyes. In this section, we get to hear Thay’s own words, fresh from returning, on what were the most notable events during the trip, and the possible future impact on the Vietnamese government as well as the monastics and lay practitioners there. In Thay’s articulate and practical style, Thay offers the government a six-point plan to begin to transform their limited way of perceiving Buddhist practice, and to use the strengths of the past to solve current problems.

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We also witness more threads continuing to be woven between our spiritual home and our Western roots. Poems, stories, and reports of humanitarian projects all bring us closer to claiming our heritage, not as an Asian or as a Westerner, but as a Buddha-to-be.

Shortly before returning to France from Vietnam, Brother Phap Huu said, “I’m ready to return” [to Plum Village]. I have thought about the words “to be ready.” Am I truly ready? If I am truly ready then I should feel at ease to either stay in Vietnam or return home. If I do not feel at ease, then I am not ready. The three months in Vietnam were very long and very deep. We need a long time to digest what we experienced, so it can nourish our bones and muscles and become part of us. We need at least six months to digest the experiences of this trip.

Before going, I felt I was ready to return to Vietnam. I knew there would be a lot of unexpected situations and difficulties, but I was ready to face them. I had already prepared the fifth mantra. An American lay practitioner devised a fifth mantra, for times when his wife has an idea and if he doesn’t agree with her, there will be discord in the family. So he created this fifth mantra: “Yes Madam. Yes Ma’am.”

We thought we would encounter a lot of obstacles in Vietnam because there are many people in power who are in conflict with each other. Going to Vietnam was like rowing a boat on the ocean, trying to steer skillfully to avoid the waves and sea monsters. We didn’t want to be upset or angry because of the obstacles, so we had to learn how to accept what occurred. When you encounter something that is difficult to accept you say, “Yes Ma’am,” and it becomes easier.

I also had faith that the ancestors, the spiritual patriarchs, had arranged everything, and they would show me the way. I went with a pure heart, a heart that has no plans, no intentions, no desire for gain or authority. If your heart is pure the patriarchs will guide you to do the things that need to be done, and to not do the things that don’t need to be done. I hope you will also have this faith because it helps you when you encounter difficulties. No matter how big the difficulty, you just entrust your whole being to the patriarchs. When you have a pure, clear heart without hidden motivations or a secret agenda, then everything will happen beautifully. This is what happened on the trip.

Accepting the Unexpected

Sometimes we think it best if everything goes according to our plan. But in truth, it is not so. For example, when we were in Hanoi, we asked the government’s permission to use large venues that hold up to six thousand people. We thought that speaking to as many people as possible would be the most effective way to share the practice. But the government would not allow this. At first, they only wanted us to speak within temple grounds. But because of protests, petitions, and requests, they allowed us to speak in a venue that held from three to five hundred people: a tiny amount. However, this turned out to be crucial, because the people who attended the talk were influential in the society: scientists, scholars, and people from important sectors of the government. Having three hundred people of this status and influence was more effective than having a crowd of thirty thousand. If we had tried, we could not have arranged to have such an audience.

For many, it was their first time receiving such helpful and wholesome teachings. After one talk, a popular Vietnamese scholar said that he thought Buddhism was a type of asceticism, that the practice was to just suffer, suppressing your body and mind. But his mind was changed when Thay talked about ways to bring happiness into your life.

What we taught responded directly to the deepest needs of the people. Their eyes and hearts opened. For the first time in history, the Dharma talk in Hanoi ripped through the curtain of delusion and spoke to the leaders of the country, and showed them a new direction. The talk changed their lives and the direction of their future. Perhaps if we had spoken to thirty thousand people, the benefit would not be as great.

During the trip, there were a lot of seeds sown into fertile earth for the first time. Once the seed is sown, it will grow into a beautiful, healthy tree. The Buddhists who listened to the talks were very happy because they need a Buddhism that will help them resolve their daily difficulties. In China and Vietnam now, the practice of Buddhism is mostly prayer and offering incense, the devotional aspect. Only a few people know of the most important aspect of Buddhism, the tradition of wisdom and insight. Venerable monks and nuns who had been practicing for sixty and seventy years, touched the joy and happiness of the Dharma for the first time and experienced real insight. We should praise them for their efforts to try to keep Buddhism alive for the next generations, but they were drying up. Also, the teachings to the young people have not been satisfying; but hearing our new teaching, they became joyful and enthusiastic.

Difficulties Created by the Government

There is a faction of people in the government that is oppressive, scared, and discriminatory, and they can create a lot of anger and division. They didn’t want Thay to return home; they accepted it only through pressure to improve their human rights record. They were determined to restrict Thay to only speaking to the old people. Many police belonged to this group.

For example, when Thay spoke at Thien Mu temple,1 one of the most beautiful temples in Vietnam, nine thousand people attended, sitting in the rain. But the police and government officials had told schoolteachers they must take their students camping that day, as a ploy to keep the students away from the event. This type of manipulation occurred from south to north, arranged by the opposing group within the government. If there was a greater attendance than expected at an event, they tried to curtail the event. In the past, the government oppressed the monastics and lay practitioners, not allowing them to have meetings. A government task force on “religious security” created a lot of wounds and division within the Buddhist community.

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But there were also people who wanted Thay to return, who saw that his presence would be beneficial for the country. They hoped those opposing would see that Thay was not a threat but a help to Vietnam, that our presence would reduce their fear and discrimination. I knew that if I came home with a pure and virtuous heart, we could touch the people directly and give them faith. But I knew it would be difficult. There were also people in the government who supported Thay very much, but they could not speak out without risk to their careers.

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The same happened in Hue, in Binh Dinh, and in Saigon. All together, there were eight talks for government workers and politicians, people we had never been allowed to be in touch with. Their openness was so beautiful. At the end I met President Tran Duc Luong and I suggested six points for the Communist regime to study and practice. I suggested that a Vietnamese Communist is someone firmly rooted in Vietnamese culture, and Buddhism plays an important role in the culture. It has shaped the people and played a decisive role in the governments of the former dynasties when Vietnam was becoming a united people. Buddhism has been in Vietnam for 2,000 years; it is not only a religion, it is an essence that has gone into the blood of the people. Vietnamese Catholics and Communists still have Buddhism within them.

Lighting incense on an ancestral altar in your home is part of Vietnamese culture, not superstition. It is a tradition of insight to acknowledge that you have roots in your ancestors. Buddhism is not something outside of you but inside, and everyone should have a spiritual dimension. Buddhism should not be put under surveillance; we have to let people have freedom.

Many spiritual cultures have entered Vietnam, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. They have combined to become the ethnic and ethical heritage of Vietnam. The government officials who are Buddhist know they need to renew Buddhism and offer Buddhist insight to respond to the needs of the people. The leaders of the country need to step forward and respond to the immediate needs of the people without being dogmatic. If both sides are able to do that, then the Communists and Buddhists can hold hands and go forth in the same direction, working together so that Vietnam will have a future.

If you speak out opposing Communism, there will be no communication, only more struggle and war. We were able to discuss difficulties with the government because we didn’t condemn or judge them; instead, we opened a door to communication and development.

So the people in Vietnam also have a lot to digest and contemplate. It could take the lay practitioners and the monastics five years or more to understand and practice the new teachings. Consider how much longer it will take the government.

Walking in Freedom

After thirty-nine years of exile from my homeland, my only true desire was to walk with real steps of freedom. But if I were not ready, then my steps would not be free. Over the years, as I walked throughout the world, I trained myself to walk peacefully. Taking steps in Vietnam is the same as taking steps here in France; and here, I am still walking in Vietnam. It all depends on whether or not I am ready. A free step in Vietnam is a free step in Europe or America. So my homeland comes home with every step. There are no separate places; with one step you touch home in all places.

In Vietnam, people said, “Thay, you’ve just returned after forty years and you’ve been here for only three months. Why don’t you stay here with us?” They still discriminate. If I had not been in Europe for forty years, then what value would the three months have? Through distance and time we could see more about the country and the people, so that when we returned, we were actually much closer than before.

1 Thien Mu Pagoda is also known for having staged pro-democracy demonstrations in the recent past. Their abbot has been in jail, though is now released. And the site holds the car-relic of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who drove the car to Saigon and immolated himself in protest during the war years under the Diem regime.

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The Six Points Suggested by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

on the Openness of the Vietnamese Communist Party

  1. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease with the cultural traditions of Vietnam and is determined to live in such a way as to make it more beautiful day by day.
  2. The Vietnamese Communist is aware that trees have roots, water has its sources and that ancestors are one’s origin, from which one has received many insights, experiences, and good and beautiful ways of
  3. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease while wearing the national dress and while offering incense at the shrine of King Hung, at their home’s ancestral altar, and at memorials to deceased The shrine of King Hung, the ancestral altars, and the memorials to deceased soldiers are symbols of gratitude towards and respect and love for one’s origin. They are not the objects of a deity faith. (The Ho Chi Minh Memorial is also a symbol of origin and gratitude.)
  4. The Vietnamese Communist understands that religious beliefs are not the essence of The essence of Buddhism is the source of insight that transcends perceptions of being/non-being, mind/body; that has the capacity to embrace, to cultivate brotherhood (love and compassion), and to transform hatred and discrimination. The essence of Buddhism is a wealth of concrete practices which help one to untie internal knots, to reestablish communication, and to bring about reconciliation in oneself, in one’s family and in society. This source of insight and these practices, if applied properly, have the capacity to rebuild peaceful and happy families, villages, and cities free from social ills such as crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and debauchery. This tradition of love and understanding has helped build a gentle and peaceful way of life, helped create many centuries of peace and prosperity, and has become the character of the national culture. This character is in the blood of every Vietnamese, including those who do not consider themselves Buddhist.
  5. Even when seeing those who consider themselves Buddhist but who only know to worship and to pray for favor, the Vietnamese Communist still feels at ease, and does not discriminate against He or she is aware of being more fortunate, of having had the chance to study and to utilize the insight of Buddhism in order to develop a profound internal life, to have more strength to overcome difficulties, to create sympathy and happiness in his or her family, and to organize and to succeed swiftly in his or her career.
  6. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease living together with all traditions (including those introduced into Vietnam long ago or just recently) that incline to become nationalized traditions and thus a part of the people’s The brotherhood among these nationalized traditions is a fact that does not need to bear the title of religion, race, doctrine, or ideology.

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Coming Home

By Alexa Singer-Telles

The following stories were shared at the Jewish Roots dharma discussion group at the October 2005 Deer Park Monastery retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The richness of the sharing of this Jewish sangha touched us deeply and inspired us to share a few of our stories with the wider community. As we explored the ways that we feel connected to—or disconnected from—our Jewish roots, our practice supported us to see each other with greater understanding, and to embrace our experiences of both suffering and joy. With deep gratitude we hope to continue this kind of sharing in special affinity dharma discussion groups at retreats in our tradition.

Lyn Fine, True Goodness, Dharma Teacher

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This morning, a friend and I stopped at a bridge while walking along the Sacramento River Trail. The small creek had just filled with water from several days of autumn rain. As we quietly reflected on the moving water and the colorful falling leaves, I heard a loud splash. Three large salmon were working their way up the shallow creek. Two had succeeded in getting to a fairly deep pool while the third was turning its body sideways and undulating to make its way through a shallow rocky channel. I experienced both wonder and determination in the way that salmon travel far into the ocean and then turn and return home to the place of their birth to spawn and die.

Witnessing the salmon, I contemplated the mystery of how one finds the way home.

I had such a homecoming experience at the Deer Park retreat in September. I chose to be in the Jewish Roots dharma discussion group. That first evening, I made my way in the dark to a long picnic table, candlelit, filled with “family,” initially strangers yet at the same time Sangha friends and mishpucha (Yiddish for family). Here were Jews from all over the globe, with different life experiences and relationships to Judaism, yet our connection was palpable. I found the group to be a touchstone, as we gathered around the table, nourishing the deep root of our Jewish heritage. The particularity of the Jewish stories that we told reflected a collective history of suffering, exile, chutzpah, love, tradition, and wisdom. I felt a deep respect for both the challenge and the gift of being Jewish in this world.

Enjoying the Interplay of Traditions

The topic dear to my heart was how people integrated their Jewish roots and Buddhist practice, since that has been a challenge for me. In 1991 when I met Thich Nhat Hanh and began practicing mindfulness, I also met an open-hearted rabbi and began my first exploration of Jewish spirituality. Fortunately, both teachers encouraged embracing both traditions. Though it was complicated at times trying to decide when to keep them separate or weave them together, I eventually let go and learned to enjoy their interplay as it manifested in my teachings and sharings. I drew comfort from the words of Natalie Goldberg, a Jewish Buddhist writer, who explained that the longer she meditated, the more Jewish she became.

Two recent experiences have brought me peace and a sense of integration. This spring our Sangha held a retreat at our tiny local synagogue; temple members who saw the sanctuary transformed into a zendo were inspired to begin a beautification project. I explored the property and discovered a grassy creekside area for walking meditation that I hadn’t seen before. Sangha eyes transformed my perception of the synagogue I have attended for more than twelve years.

The Jewish Roots group completed my journey home. Both a rabbi and a Buddhist monastic from a Jewish background were in the dharma discussion group; their presence and deep wisdom were my vehicle for witnessing interbeing and letting go of any perceived separation. I experienced the mystery and wonder of knowing how to find my way home, just like the salmon.

Alexa Singer-Telles, True Silent Action, co-founded the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California in 1991. She has been creating rituals that weave Buddhist practice together with the cycle of the seasons.

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Where Is the Observer?

By Svein Myreng

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When I was a student, almost thirty years ago, I went through a time of despair. Meeting scientifid and existentialist thinking wiped out the religious belief I once had. I found myself in a meaningless universe of dead matter, where consciousness and life seemed to be just a coincidence. This triggered a great fear of death in me, and engendered heavy questions about the meaning of life.

The first crack in my faith in science came when I listened to a lecture by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had received the Nobel Prize in Literature just a few years earlier (in 1978). With his background in traditional Judaic culture, Singer’s writing is a beautiful door to deeper mysteries in life. He argued eloquently that science cannot give all the answers, and in fact, we humans know very little. Holding up his fountain pen, he said, ”If this pen is the whole of reality, our knowledge is only the little ball on its tip.”

Somewhat later, I came in touch with the writings of D.T. Suzuki. He described Zen as “acquiring a new point of view for looking at things,” beyond the conceptual divisions between inner and outer, self and others. Instead of proposing another set of beliefs, as I felt other religions did, Suzuki pointed the way to an entirely different way of experiencing reality. Most importantly, he suggested that you could seek this new way of experience yourself, beyond words and theories. For me, this was the start of meditative practice, which changed my life forever.

Science vs. Religion

My meeting with Singer and my encounter with Zen enabled me slowly to break out of the straitjacket of scientific thinking as I knew it at the time — almost entirely reductionistic and materialistic. Science has shaped the lives of everybody in the affluent world to a larger extent than we tend to realize — through technologies that have made life much more comfortable, advances in medicine, and so on. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s in Norway, the belief was strong that science would soon replace religion completely, making the world’s faiths a thing of the past.

Therefore, it’s interesting that new discoveries in science seem to validate meditation and similar practices, which many scientists scoffed at not that long ago. From what I understand, studies have confirmed that there is a clear connection between meditation and higher activity in areas of the brain connected to happiness and well-being, and that meditation can actually change the physiology of the brain — something which goes completely against scientific belief of just a decade or two ago. As science has developed more powerful tools for investigating brain activity, it can find correlates between certain activities in the brain and certain sense activities, emotions, and so on.

Still, there seems to be some scientific arrogance when it comes to valid and invalid ways of finding knowledge. I couldn’t help chuckling a bit when I read the following quote from one scientist commenting on the happiness research: “We have all seen those Buddhists, who seem to be so relaxed and happy. Now, we actually know that they are relaxed and happy.” Apparently, happiness is not a fact before it shows up on a brain scan.

When I look at a little blue flower, though, I see a blue flower and not electrons jumping around in my brain. For the time being, there seems to be no place for my personal experience in brain research. To quote B. Alan Wallace, a scientist and a long-time student of H.H. the Dalai Lama: “Strictly speaking, at present there is no scientific evidence even for the existence of consciousness! All the direct evidence we have consists of nonscientific, first-person accounts of being conscious.”(1)

Looking at the Mind

A denial of the subjective seems to come from the old ideal in science that the observer should be as separate from the object of study as possible, with only the object side of the subject-object relationship falling within the scientific field of knowledge. This has allowed science to understand the “outer” world to a tremendously larger degree than ever before in the history of humankind, but leaves it far behind in understanding the mind.

These sharp subject-object distinctions have, however, been challenged in fields as different as quantum physics and the social sciences, where the role of the observer has turned out to be crucial. In the study of consciousness, which cannot be measured as a “thing in the world,” the subject’s perspective is even more important. This is where the great contemplative traditions enter.

An important part of what a long-term (or not so long-term) meditation practice teaches us is to look at functions of the mind in ever more subtle ways. Thoughts come and go, feelings constantly change; even the subtle impulses that come before we move a hand or foot can be seen clearly when the mind is still. We can notice how a sense perception arises when an impression, for example a sound or a bodily sensation, comes together with a sense organ, for example our ability to hear or to sense with our body.

All thoughts, feelings, impulses, sounds, forms, smells, etc. can be objects of our consciousness, but can the subject become an object? Where is the subject? What does it mean that I experience something? Where is the mind located? In an appendix to The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh quotes Shantideva’s Siksasamuccaya:

“Mind cannot be apprehended, inside, or outside, or in between both. For mind is immaterial, invisible, non-resisting, inconceivable, unsupported, and homeless. Mind has never been seen by any of the Buddhas, nor do they see it, nor will they see it.… ‘where there is an object, there mind arises.’ Is then the mind one thing, and the object another? No, what is the object, just that is the mind. If the object were one thing, and the mind another, then there would be a double state of mind.”(2)

This quote, which has fascinated me for years, does not deal with philosophy. It is about something that is observable. My own meditation practice is not yet strong enough to go as deeply as I would like into its implications. Still, I can offer a few glimpses.

Manas at Work

When we take for granted that there is a me, an observer separate from what is observed, we aren’t looking closely enough. The impression of the distinct observer may be due to other sense impressions located in the body, or to the incessant, semi-conscious thinking that says “I am like this, this is me, this is mine.” (Manas in the vijñanavada model of consciousness.) As an example, if you have a sense impression of a tingling in your foot, do you actually experience it in your foot, or in your head? How does thought make it “my foot tingling”?

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The belief that consciousness has its origin in the brain may support the illusion of the independent observer. Thây strongly challenges this view: “We shouldn’t say that consciousness is born from the brain, because the opposite is true: the brain is born from consciousness.”(3)

In my youth, I felt separate from other people, almost as if separated by a glass wall. This was probably a rather extreme feeling, and it was very unpleasant. Only a subtle separation between observer and observed, however, is enough to rob us of the greatest joy in life. Even if the barrier between me and my surroundings is ever so subtle, it’s still a barrier. When the barrier disappears, if only for a short time, the world appears completely different — sacred, beautiful. As layman P’ang in old China said, “Wonderful snowflakes, each one falls in the perfect place.”

  1. B. Alan Wallace, The Taboo of Subjectivity (California: Oxford University Press, 2000), page 3.
  2. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975). The Siksasamuccaya is translated by Edward Conze; I have exchanged “mind” for Conze’s “thought.”
  3. Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Four Layers of Consciousness” in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Summer

Svein Myreng, True Door, is a senior dharma teacher who lives in Oslo, Norway and practices with the Sangha of Floating Clouds. He thanks his wife and kalyanamitra (spiritual friend), Eevi Beck, for help with this article.

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Heart to Heart

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on an assignment that Thây gave to the sangha at the Breath of the Buddha retreat in June (see the Autumn 2006 issue): to write a letter to a potential suicide bomber.

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Letters to a Suicide Bomber

Dear Beloved One,

I see your face, so fresh and full of energy, before me. I can see that you love this life, your mother, father, and family, and your culture, religion, and country.

I think that probably every day you have been taught that I am your enemy, and that given the chance, I will destroy everything you hold dear.

And even to me, a white American woman almost sixty years old, it looks this way. How else could you feel about me?

It seems that possibly the only alternative we both have to annihilation is, for one moment, to stop and just look into each other’s eyes. Can you see the great sorrow I carry for all the terrible harm my government has caused your people? Can you possibly forgive me?

I want you to have a long life filled with beauty, joy, and accomplishments. I want to offer you a way out of the one-way path to suicide you are on. The only way I know to do this is to show you my breaking heart.

There is so much pain and suffering in life, and there is also so much beauty, peace, and love. Can you and I choose to begin with one step by seeing each other not as “other” but as fellow human beings, each wanting fulfillment and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones?

I know that you are my beloved because I see the preciousness of my life in your face. Can you see me too?

With love and hope,

Barbara Casey
True Spiritual Communication
Jacksonville, Oregon, U.S.A.

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Dear Friend,

I want you to know that your anger and sense of powerlessness at the erosion of your culture and beliefs — I have known these too.

For a long time, I wanted to find a way to fight back at the forces of capitalism and consumerism that were eroding the culture that I love and the society that I hold dear. I envied those who were prepared to die for their beliefs but felt too disempowered to join them.

Then I found a better way than dying for my beliefs. I have learned instead to live for them by living by them. This seems to make a stronger statement than my death could — by showing my love for my society and my culture rather than leaving them forever.

I have learned to live deeply in the present moment, not overwhelmed by the anxieties about the future, or difficulties in the past. By taking good care of the present moment and finding peace in it, I influence my life, my society, and my country for the better.

I know that this path is available for you in the teachings of your faith and I urge you to consider this before you destroy the peace and happiness of those you love and many other precious human lives through your death.

Violence always leads to more violence, until someone has the courage to break this cycle. May you be given the strength and happiness to take this step to end the violence.

Yours sincerely,

Murray Corke

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Dear Sirhan,

It has taken me thirty-eight years to become willing to write to you. Learning how to love by practicing with Thich Nhat Hahn has gradually opened my heart. Right now, today, I love you and look deeply to see your suffering.

When I knew you in college, I enjoyed your company. We were always happy to see you when you came to class. You were fun, joking, smiling, polite, and very smart. You enlivened our classes.

We were part of a group of pacifists. We were dismayed by the war in Vietnam. One of us was an Israeli conscientious objector. You and he were especially close because you both suffered over the treatment of the Palestinians. I knew you were a Palestinian refugee.

I did not know about what had happened to you and your family as a result of your displacement.

I didn’t understand, none of us understood, how much you were suffering. Later, we found out that your sister had died of cancer at Los Angeles County Hospital. You thought that her medical treatment had been inadequate because your family was so poor. When she died, you were heartbroken.

You decided to call attention to the condition of Palestinian refugees by killing Bobby Kennedy. When I saw you kill Bobby on television, I was shocked. I was hooked by my critical discriminating thoughts against you. You had chosen violence, murder. I closed my heart.

At this present, wonderful moment, I see you again as my dear sweet friend, Sirhan. The Mindfulness Trainings of my teacher give me openness, nonattachment to views, and freedom of thought
space to breathe and open my I smile to you. We have both been strongly attached to our views. I wish you the freedom, peace and happiness I have found.

In friendship,

Dollie Laura Meyers
True Recollection of Loving Kindness
Marina del Rey, California, U.S.A.

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Dear Brother, Dear Sister,

Please believe me when I tell you I want with all my heart to know you, to know your feelings, the reasons that motivate you to offer up your life for a cause you believe in.

My first thought about your motives is that you feel you are doing a noble, heroic act for Allah, for your families, for the wellbeing of all and that you will be rewarded in heaven. Is this true? I also believe that the goodness you are seeking may not be so different from the goodness I am seeking. I wish for a peaceful life for all, where our nations respect one another, and no one is hungry or without shelter, where no one has to live in fear of war-torn violence, and where all have the freedom live their lives and to practice their beliefs without coercion from other nations.

Do you have other motives also? Do you suffer from not having enough food to eat? Or watching small children suffer from hunger, or cold, living in fear, or bearing the loss of their parents who have

been killed by our bombs? Or the many other injustices that happen when countries fight one another?

It is my wish that you can have a good life, be free to live with your faith, without our country’s attacks. The only way I see this can come about is that you and I understand each other better, know one another’s needs, hopes, and dreams. Deep understanding of one another will help us promote peace and develop compassion so you won’t have to sacrifice your life. Sometimes it requires more to live in order to promote peace.

Can you hear my need to know and understand you? To be able to change in the ways I need to change, in order to bring about the things we both want and need? I need you to understand me in a new light.

Above all, we are brothers and sisters. I pray we can live together as a family.

With love and compassion,

Margaret  Kirschner
True Silent Sound
Portland, Oregon, U.S.A

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Dear Suicide Bomber,

This may surprise you. I am a suicide bomber, too. The bombs I make explode inside you and cause you to want to make the bombs that explode outside of you. My bombs explode in your heart and in your mind.

When my country supports governments, ideals and people that hurt you, oppress you, and cause you to suffer, I detonate a bomb in your heart.

When my government works to undermine your country’s leaders because we fear your political, religious, or social ideologies, I detonate a bomb in your mind.

When the businessmen of my country take unfair advantage of your country to get goods and labor cheaply, I detonate a bomb in your soul.

In doing these things to you, I have violated values and precepts that I aspire to live by. In doing these things to you I have failed to practice deep listening and mindful speech. I have stolen not only your resources, but also your joy. My actions have killed your spirit and your will to live. But I have been too intoxicated by my lifestyle to hear your cries of pain, anger, and grief.

My bombs make you despair of living. They make you want to kill yourself and take others along with you. Looking deeply I can see that when my bombs explode in you, I die also. When you die, I die.

I know that for you to want to kill yourself and others, you must feel very helpless and angry. I feel helpless too, and I don’t know what to do. So I continue to live my life in such a way that you are hurt by my selfishness and greed.

Inside I am very angry and frustrated by the situation we are in together. Whenever I don’t know what to do, I have learned to breathe deeply and try to understand. So that’s what I’m doing. And as I breathe in and out, I can see you there in your country, also breathing in and out. I can feel your anger and frustration. And in this moment I know what I want to do. I want to soothe and comfort you. I want to remove the cause of your suffering so you don’t have to be in pain. I sincerely and genuinely want you to know peace in your heart and relief in your mind. I want you to be happy, whatever that means to you.

I know that you will find it difficult to forgive me and my country for the damage we have done to you. I know we have hurt you deeply and I want to listen as you tell me how we have hurt you.

I also find it difficult to forgive the damage done to my people. I am so sorry to have made you do such terrible things to get my attention. I was not able to hear. Well you have my attention now. I’m listening now. And isn’t that what you have really wanted all along?

Maybe now that we know that we are both suicide bombers, perhaps we could get to know each other. Then maybe you wouldn’t have to kill yourself for me and I wouldn’t have to kill myself for you. Maybe we could find a way to share our planet and its resources as equals. Maybe instead of bombing each other we could live peacefully together. I’d like to try.

Michael  Melancon
True Recollection of  Light
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

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Dear Friend,

I heard about you from a friend. She said you lost your husband and your son. Your grief and despair were so great you no longer wanted to live. You wanted to die and you wanted the people who hurt you so deeply and destroyed your family to suffer in the same way that they made you suffer. So you made the only decision you could — that your last action would be as a suicide bomber. And now you are gone — taking others with you. And all the grief, despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness you felt when you made your decision continue to spread out into more and more people’s lives.

Oh, how I wish I knew you — had been there with you when your husband and little boy died. How I wish I had been there to hold you, to comfort you, to help you to hold all your pain that was too much for one person to hold alone. How I wish I was there talking to you, letting you know you are not alone, and that even though this pain and grief are so intense and consuming, life can go on. The pain can be transformed — it will change. And the anger and hatred can be released in a different way. In a way that can put an end to suffering, instead of creating more suffering for others and for ourselves.

I also have known such pain and despair. My family — grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, altogether maybe twenty-five people were killed in a war before I was even born. My father somehow survived, and somehow continued his life. And I was born. How grateful I am to him, that he didn’t kill himself! All my life I missed my roots, my family so much, without even knowing them. And there was deep despair in my heart — without even being able to name it.

How I wish I was there to tell you — let us do this together, let us hold this pain and despair together, and find a way to continue living. Find a way to live that can really heal this suffering which is not just ours, but all humans. Together learn to see what the true source of this suffering is.

I know if I grew up as you did and had the same experiences, I also could do the same as you did. And if you had some of my childhood and experiences you could be alive now. And you could say this to me — Dear Friend, people are not the enemy. It is the hatred, anger, and pain that we do not know how to handle that is the enemy, that tortures us and hurts us the most. You are not alone in this. For generation upon generation we humans have continued to try to heal our pain by inflicting more pain on others. And so it continues until now.

But what if someone in your family had been able to find another way to heal their pain, to find a way of understanding and being with the pain that could transform it to compassion and love? Then you would have a different chance in your life. And what if you were that person in your family? And instead of being a suicide bomber, you and I together explored, learned, practiced, and found another way? Then you would still be alive now, and you would perhaps have more children and teach them how to handle their pain so that compassion and love could be born. Together we could spread this understanding, compassion, and love out into more and more people’s lives. And maybe one day, there would be peace on this earth, peace in our hearts, and we could be truly happy.

Oh, how I wish I was there with you, dear friend.

Anne Speiser
True Jewel of  Understanding
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A

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Touched by Heart Nectar

Stories from a Joyful Retreat

By Lorrie Harrison

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A friend recently sent a description of what he imagined it was like at Plum Village: “I get a flash of it being like individual bees flowing toward an attractant. The sweet words of Thay and the lovely people and surroundings pull at the soul like the flowers pull the bees. Then the hive disperses to various parts of the world, forever touched by the heart nectar.”

This is exactly what it is like.

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A Family Reunion

About 600 of us from fifty countries are in Plum Village for the June retreat. To help people connect and feel solid, we form “families” of about twenty people. In my Oceans of Peace family, we are from Denmark, Viet Nam, Hong Kong, North Carolina, Wales, the UK, Berkeley, Botswana, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands… and Lopez Island, my home off the coast of Washington State.

The weather is steamy-hot midday, but mornings are blessedly cool. The large pink-petal lotus flowers are just opening, a few lazy frogs lounge on the shiny green lily pads, the sun is still gentle and easy. By 9:00 a.m. we’ve all arrived at the meditation hall for Thay’s Dharma talk. Quietly we slip off our shoes and enter in noble silence. The hall is simple. At one end, two sticks of incense burn on a Buddha altar. Up front, a simple vase sits next to Thay’s cushion with a sprig of flowers and a tray with one small teapot and cup. Cushions and mats are arranged in a large semi-circle with chairs behind. I enjoy hearing the comforting rustles and whispers as lay friends and monastics settle in. Those who don’t speak English plug their headphones into audio boxes for translations of Thay’s talk.

The ting-ting-ting of the small bell announces Thay’s arrival. Everyone stands and joins their palms. Our teacher enters the silent hall and walks to his cushion in the center of the front row. He turns to the Sangha and bows. We return his bow, and all sit down.

Seeing Thay for the first time in three years, my heart opens like a morning flower. He looks so young, so fresh; his words are as joyous as his smile. “Dear friends, when I see you all here, come from so far, I feel so happy! We have each other; we have hope. Like many drops of water, we come together to flow as one serene river. On June 21 we will go back into the world, but we are here now. Let us enjoy every minute, every second. For me this is a family reunion, a celebration, a Dharma festival! We entrust ourselves to the Sangha. We learn, we grow and together are free.”

Before the monastic chanting that precedes the Dharma talk, a nun offers this aspiration: “The Sangha is invited to come back to their breathing. Let the whole Sangha breathe as one body, chant as one body, listen as one body and transcend the boundaries of the delusive self, liberating from the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, and the equality complex.”

Huh? I can understand liberating from feeling superior or inferior, but isn’t equality exactly what I’m hoping to nourish? Each morning the aspiration is read aloud and each morning I smile hearing it. The little mystery tickles me. One day, Thay unties the knots of my koan. “When we feel equal, we are still separate. Our practice is to liberate ourselves from all distinctions, to understand I am in you and you are in me. No distinctions. No separation. This is true interbeing.”

Thay talks about Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, saying President Obama is practicing Beginning Anew with Islam. “He is one of the few politicians who knows how to use loving speech. He does not call himself a Dharma teacher, but he is a Dharma teacher!” Thay tells us Obama has manifested for our sake, and asks us to give him our support. “The Sangha is very strong; we should do something to let him know we are here for him. Please reflect on how you might help him. Where there is a will, there is a way! We all know that President Obama is made of many nonObama elements.” Thay’s eyes crinkle into a twinkly smile. “And we are some of those elements!”

Breathe, You’re Online

Thay likes to write on the whiteboard when he talks. I enjoy watching him erase the board. He pauses, quietly stands up, and walks mindfully to the board. Then he picks up the eraser. There is not a sound in the Dharma hall. Hundreds of us, totally silent. It’s easy to smile, relax, and enjoy the peaceful moment. Thay slowly wipes away the words, making a clean space for new writing. I feel calm, free from speed, free from wanting anything, enjoying watching the eraser make wide, peaceful arcs across the board.

Thay is teaching about practicing right diligence: ways to stay safe in a fast world. At Plum Village, the monastics have a way to use the Internet while not getting caught in its energy. They ask another brother or sister to sit beside them while they are online. In this way they are part of the world, but safe, too. Thay paints beautiful calligraphies which are sold in the bookshop to raise money for special projects. The newest is “Breathe, you’re online.” How cool to have a teacher who, at age eighty-three, uses the Internet to share the Dharma!

A Path to Joy

One of Thay’s themes in this retreat is joy. He talks about the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths, reminding us that the first truth is that life contains suffering. But, he says, we concentrate too much there. The second truth is that there is a path to suffering; the way we have been living has brought suffering to us. Remove the cause and the effect will vanish. The third is that there is joy, an end to suffering, and it is the absence of darkness, the presence of light. The fourth noble truth is that there is a path to that joy.

The old language, from the time of the Buddha, calls the third noble truth the cessation of ill-being, but Thay’s teaching is clear: let us call this by its true name, joy! Let’s find a way to make this wonderful teaching available to everyone. The world needs our help. “Dear friends, please be the best practitioners you can be. That is why we live our life in mindfulness and concentration: it is for our own liberation. With that, we can help to liberate the world.

We can learn to gladden our minds. Please don’t leave your love, your compassion in the basement of your store consciousness. Go get them! They will be your tonic, your strength, your nourishment. You will become stronger, and then, when pain, confusion, sadness come, you will be able to handle them.”

How do we bring up this feeling of joy? We make use of our breathing. We return to the present moment so that insight, knowledge, and awareness will bloom, and joy will be possible right away. We don’t have to be excited any more. Our joy can be calm and peaceful. This is true joy.

Circle of Friends

After the Dharma talk, we wander around the grounds. It’s nice to seek a soft patch of grass by the lotus pond or a wisp of shade. The monks show us where to pick juicy black mulberries from the trees. The nuns are selling little treats to raise money for needy children in Vietnam. We gather at their tables, choosing sweet crepes served on fat green leaves, warm sesame balls (oh, the doughy goodness!), and squares of carroty cake.

The big bell calls us for walking meditation. We gather in one huge circle, monastics and lay friends side by side. Someone begins singing, “Happiness is here and now, I have dropped my worries. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no longer in a hurry.” More little songs follow with simple words, melodies, and hand motions. We sing in French, German, Dutch, Vietnamese, and Spanish. Years ago I felt a little goofy singing like this, but now these songs awaken my tender heart. I feel like a happy kindergartner, safe in a circle of friends.

After we sing half a dozen songs, a hush falls on the group. Like flowers turning toward the sun, the circle opens as Thay joins us. We join our palms and bow. Taking two children by the hand, he starts making slow, mindful steps. Imagine the extraordinary sight: 600 people silently walking step-by-gentle-step around the lotus pond, through the stately rows of poplar trees, into the forest, down beside the creek, and finally back to the hamlet. We walk for forty-five minutes, flowing in a silent Dharma river.

mb52-Touched3Lorrie Harrison, Compassionate Listening of the Heart, is a founding member of the Morning Light Sangha on Lopez Island in Washington State. A professional writer, she lived and practiced near Plum Village for five months over the summer.

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Book Reviews

mb63-Books1Ten Breaths to Happiness
Touching Life in Its Fullness

By Glen Schneider
Foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2013
Soft cover, 108 pages

Reviewed by Louise Dunlap,True Silent Teaching

“Our hands imbibe like roots, so I place them on what is beautiful in this world” (Francis of Assisi). So begins Glen Schneider’s chapter on the Ten Breaths Practice. We place our hands on our bellies. Our hands are like roots touching deeply into ourselves. And we use them to count ten breaths, completely bypassing words and brain. We do this practice at moments when something beautiful touches us—the moon shining through bare branches, a dear friend’s compassion and goodness. As we train our mindfulness on beauty for the span of ten breaths (thirty seconds), we open new neural pathways to happiness, which can—with practice—replace habitual negativity, pain, and even trauma.

While the Ten Breaths Practice is ancient, Schneider connects it to neuroscience with explanations that flow easily enough for beginners. As Einstein once said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This fifty-page book is like a poem in the sense that every word resonates, nothing is out of place, and the images carry us beyond our usual thinking.

For me, what’s especially beautiful is the way Schneider, a trained naturalist, helps me touch what seems “out there” in Mother Nature. For instance, he happened to look up at a 152-foot redwood tree that stands outside city hall in his home town, and he realized it was time to stop on the busy sidewalk, place his hands on his belly, and practice. “On the eighth breath,” he tells us, “a glowing feeling arose in my chest and spread to my face with a huge, blossoming smile. I felt a barrier in myself dissolve and the tree became alive.” As Thay tells us, Mother Earth is not just “out there” but also inside ourselves.

Ten Breaths to Happiness deepens one of my favorite themes in Thay’s teaching, his use of the word “touch.” When Thay urges us to “touch the wave, touch the water,” there is something beyond philosophy about this, something very much of the body. With hands on the belly for ten breaths, and those mysterious neural pathways actually opening up, I can feel my body at one with my mind.

Besides talking us through ten breaths, Schneider (a Dharma teacher ordained by Thay in 2011) offers appendices of other Earth-centered practices, including a beautiful Touching the Earth.

mb63-Books2The Green Boat
Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture

By Mary Pipher
Riverhead Books, 2013 Soft cover, 240 pages

Reviewed by Louise Dunlap, True Silent Teaching

Mary Pipher is widely known for her healing book, Reviving Ophelia, about teenage girls in crisis. Now—amidst extreme weather, disappearing species, and fouled water—she turns her attention as a skilled therapist to our relationship with Mother Earth. As climate change and related crises accelerate before our eyes, she hones in on some crucial questions: Why do so many humans seem frozen or indifferent, caught in cognitive dissonance? How can we move beyond our own shock and paralysis toward actions that shift the balance and avert suffering?

Pipher’s hallmark is real-life stories—wise teaching tales of young mothers, grocery clerks, ranchers, and artists—mostly from her beloved state of Nebraska. But the story at the heart of this book is Pipher’s own. After reading the truth about climate disaster in Bill McKibben’s Earth during a summer of record heat waves, this grandmother and longtime friend of Mother Earth was devastated. She recalls the night her grown daughter, a mother herself, asked point-blank: “Does this storm mean climate change?” Pipher had to gently tell the truth and watch the pain in her daughter’s face.

Afterwards, she called a small group together to begin a coalition that would temporarily stop the Keystone XL pipeline from promoting climate-threatening tar sands fossil fuel. This group worked hard but caringly, even joyfully. They shared meals, played with children, and walked out on a bit of remaining prairie under the stars. Through actions such as appearing at statewide festivals and carrying wildflowers into their State Capitol, they spoke truth in ways others could hear. Their movement created a common cause between conservative ranchers and environmentalists. Separation and discrimination melted away in shared concern for Mother Earth.

Thay’s teachings on interbeing and ecology permeate this book and are often quoted. When Pipher writes of how she deals with the painful feelings that come with full awareness of climate catastrophe, I hear Thay’s voice reminding us of the Pure Land available in the present moment. Pipher cultivates “the sparkling moment” and knows “how to step outdoors and look for the green heron or the redolent milkweed blossom.”

For those of us called to revive Mother Earth, Mary Pipher re-minds us that reviving ourselves is part of the process, and that this practice is the essence of hope.

mb63-Books3Awakening Joy
10 Steps to Happiness

By James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander
Parallax Press, 2012 Soft cover, 294 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

In the words of author and teacher James Baraz, “Joy and happiness are more than just good ideas. They can be the baseline on which we live our lives. The purpose of this book is to show how to access that switch inside and live life with greater joy.” Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness is based on the wisdom gleaned from twenty years of teaching this ten-session course in person and online to thousands of participants. It emphasizes the key principle that our joy and happiness are up to us. This is not a workbook, but it is a self-led course that can be read individually and also used as a guide for leading the effective ten-week class in Sanghas, jails, prisons, schools, clinics, and book groups.

Each chapter focuses on one of the key steps for awakening joy, such as: “Inclining the Mind toward Joy,” “Mindfulness,” and “The Bliss of Blamelessness.” Each chapter contains a self-contained teaching on the selected topic in a readable format, offering practices that can be implemented one week at a time. The authors integrate a balanced and seamless use of anecdotes highlighting successes of past course participants, their own personal insights and transformations, current findings in neuroscience, and the teachings of the Buddha, along with modern-day applications for everyday life. The readings evoke the feeling of sharing an intimate conversation with a wise teacher over a cup of tea. They are gentle, personal, and helpful.

My favorite part of the book is the story of Baraz fathering a son when he was in his early twenties. He shares about his pain of being estranged from his son for over twenty years and then about their reunion and reconciliation using many of the principles shared in this book. It is a beautiful example of how we can use our own suffering as the impetus toward compassion, healing, and especially joy. In the introduction to the paperback edition, Baraz shares several letters he has received from past course participants. The best testimony for the healing power of joy is expressed in this excerpt: “Seeking joy after thirty-one years in prison can be a daunting endeavor, but your insights have helped.” The lessons offered in Awakening Joy are highly relevant for beginning and experienced practitioners of mindfulness because they bring a fresh and unique perspective to many of the core teachings and practices of the Buddha.

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Transforming Self, Transforming Society

An Interview with Cheri Maples

mb61-Transform1 Cheri Maples was given the Lamp Transmission in 2008, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She worked for twenty-five years in the criminal justice system. She was a police officer for twenty years, ending her career as the Captain of Personnel and Training for the Madison Police Department. She was also the head of probation and parole for the State of Wisconsin and an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. She is a licensed attorney and a licensed clinical social worker.

Cheri has learned peace in one’s own heart is a prerequisite to providing true justice and com passion to others. She specializes in translating the language and practice of mindfulness into an understandable framework for criminal justice professionals. Cheri also helps health-care workers, teachers, and employees of social service agencies to manage the emotional effects of their work, while maintaining an open heart and healthy boundaries

Cheri Maples was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 11, 2012, for this special issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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 some of the meaningful experiences from your time there?

Cheri Maples: I’ve only been in Plum Village twice—once for a summer retreat in 2002, when I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, and again when Thay transmitted the Lamp to me in January of 2008. It seems like yesterday.

When I went on my first retreat with Thay in 1991, it was the beginning of a self-transformation that continues to this day. I wouldn’t have had the kind of career I had as a police officer and as head of probation and parole or as the Assistant Attorney General without Thay’s teachings.

The most significant experience I had at Plum Village was writing Thay a letter about my aspirations and putting that letter in the bell. I was in a challenging place as a police officer at the time, feeling very much on the victim continuum at times and the oppressor continuum at other times. The next day I was sitting in the back of the meditation hall during Thay’s Dharma talk. He spoke about the different faces of love and about fierce compassion and gentle compassion, and the need for wisdom and skillful means to combine them in the job of police officer. I sat in the back with tears streaming down my face. My heart was blown wide open.

Somethig very significant happened that day that affected the way I did things after that.

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MB: Did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CM: At that retreat I asked Thay during the question and answer session if he would do a retreat for police officers. He agreed, and the next year we had a retreat for criminal justice and helping professionals in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Just as memorable was receiving the Transmission of the Lamp. Thay said to me that carrying a gun with compassion in one’s heart can be an act of love. He gave me a directive to take mindfulness practice to police officers and criminal justice professionals.

Another highlight was Thay meeting with the police officers at the retreat. When they first arrived, they were so angry that Thay was saying things like, “You can never fight violence with violence.” They asked me, “Cheri, what are we supposed to do when we go to a call and people are beating each other up?”

So Thay met with them for an hour and it was incredible to watch the energy in the room change. At the end of the retreat, the police officers were asked to do a presentation to the community. I’ve never seen police officers so open, sharing what it is like for them. It was a lesson to me in how understanding can be created by just getting people talking to each other.

After the retreat, the sixteen officers from my department who attended held hands and did walking meditation. Sixteen police officers holding hands, creating peaceful steps on the earth together, forming a circle afterwards, and bowing to each other, and hugging each other. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d ever see anything like that.

A couple of weeks later, a friend who had attended the retreat told me: “I saw two of your young officers who had been at the retreat; they were arresting somebody and they very gently put the person in the back of the car, then they turned and bowed to me.” That’s what interbeing has come to mean to me—no separation. No separation between the person bowing and the person who is bowed to, between the person we are arresting and the person we are protecting. Each of us has all the elements in us and we have to take good care of all the elements.

The other experience that has been particularly transformative to me is Thay’s emphasis on practicing mindfulness in daily life. I knew nothing about any of the intellectual concepts or frameworks of Buddhism when I went to that first retreat. Now all of them make sense to me, and I’ve learned them intuitively by practicing. At first my life was so busy, I could only find moments here and there to walk or eat or meditate. I was in law school and raising two young children and working full time and I still found a way to preserve my sanity with the practice. And over the years that just got stronger and stronger.

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MB: What does “the Plum Village tradition” mean to you?

CM: I think the strongest part of our tradition that I don’t see in other Buddhist traditions in the same way, is the emphasis on Sangha and community. And also, the emphasis on engaged practice, taking your practice out into the world but being part of the practice organism. What that means to me is to build community wherever I am. To build relationships with all the people I work with and all the people I interact with, not just in the practice Sangha but in the workplace. It means seeing community and interbeing everywhere.

MB: Could you give a couple of specific examples?

CM: Our Sangha has taken on a prison project where several of us teach meditation and mindfulness. We have two people who do prison chaplaincy work and we have a number of people who run circles of support for people coming out into the community. We’ve had a few people released from prison who have become members of our Sangha.

I also travel around the country talking to different agencies in the public and private sectors about how to bring mindfulness to their organization and their daily lives. This includes attorneys, judges, and police and correctional officers, as well as people in social services who work with the families of children who have been neglected and abused. People who see horrible things that many people in society don’t see. People are starting to understand that the employees who experience trauma as the result of the violence they see over and over need help to do their job compassionately.

I also lead unconscious bias workshops as a way of personally committing myself to doing something about the incredible racial disparities in the criminal justice system throughout this country.

The thing that I am most excited about right now is an organization called the Dane County Time Bank, working to change the agreements around money in community through creating a bartering system. Many of the organizations and agencies in Madison (Wisconsin) belong, as well as over two thousand individuals. The philosophy is that one hour of my time is worth one hour of your time, so whether you’re a lawyer or work at McDonald’s, your time is valued the same.

When I spend an hour teaching somebody mindfulness, I get an hour building a website or learning accounting, having electrical work done, having the oil in my car changed. When you see this working in challenged neighborhoods, it creates public safety, because people start to see themselves as part of the community rather than just consumers and critics. Now I’m working to take time banking into a prison in Wisconsin. This is such a great way to transform the underground economy, which is usually based on drugs, to one based on human relational skills. They could provide hospice care for each other, they could tutor each other, they could sit with each other when they’re sick, they could provide legal work for each other. There are so many things that can be done.

MB: It’s moving to hear about this. It sounds revolutionary.

CM: When you start practicing in this tradition deeply, and you begin to see the connections, and you begin to do things from a place of compassion and caring, your heart gets so much more open. It gets really fun.

I’ve been honored to be part of restorative justice days in prisons; they have been phenomenal. When I deal with victims who are only interested in punishing the perpetrator, they don’t heal. But when they start looking for some meaning from the experience, which includes forgiveness and reconciliation, they begin to heal.

MB: How have you been able to be in the midst of violence and all of the emotions that go along with it, while maintaining your own inner peace and being a peacemaker as well?

CM: Fierce compassion means knowing how to set high quality boundaries while continuing to be part of stopping violence. It’s being clear about the intention in my heart. Am I angry at this person and wanting an eye for an eye? Or do I want to protect this person from the karma of their unconscious behavior as well as the people they might hurt? That’s a very different set of values to be armed with.

And it is very difficult and there are times when I feel angry and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the wounded view of my own self, not being attached to that view. And then helping others do that.

When we do unskillful things, it’s often because we’re attached to a wounded self. Victims can develop a sense of entitlement that can be just as dangerous as the oppressor’s abuse of power. We also have to learn to have faith in our Buddha nature and accept our humanity. I encourage people to ask themselves, “When will I be enough? What would make me enough?”

Although I do have the faith that the energy of the universe is always available to me, I also know it is important to take care of myself. I can’t expose myself to violence and suffering every day. I take time to water the seeds of joy and engage in the things that to me are very refreshing and healing.

In order to engage with compassion, which means to have an open heart in response to suffering, one has to have the tools of equanimity or you’ll get lost in anger. I see myself as a drop of water in this ocean of consciousness, that can be relied upon. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my ups and downs, but they don’t scare me anymore. I’m not trying to fence myself off from them.

Everything in life to me is the Dharma; everything is an opportunity to learn something.

MB: How do you water your own seeds of joy?

CM: I bicycle, I boogie board, I go on sailing trips with friends, I go on solo motorcycle camping trips, I spend time with my family and the people that I love. I live in a place that allows me easy access to nature. Meditating to me is a joy. I make sure I take time to go on a couple of personal retreats each year where I’m not teaching but I’m just a member. Sometimes I go on very long personal retreats. I’m a big baseball fan. Baseball waters the seeds of joy for me. To me, it’s a very Buddhist sport because it’s a timeless game and the goal is to come home. Most important, I get my next year’s calendar ahead of time, and I put in all the things I want to do to nourish myself; then all my teaching and work experiences are scheduled around those things, so I make sure that I have time for me.

mb61-Transform4I’m very committed to making sure the most important things for me are not at the mercy of the things that are less important. I try to live consciously in that way. And that has meant renouncing, giving up living in fast forward. I feel like I’ve found that balance of being of service and making sure that I take care of myself. “When I take care of me, I take care of you; when I take care of you, I take and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the care of me.”

MB: Do you have any advice for people whose lives are stuck on fast forward and don’t know how to transition to a more sane life where they’re taking care of themselves?

CM: To understand that being on fast forward is a choice. It might be an unconscious choice; it certainly was for me. This culture rewards us for striving, for achieving, for being competitive. Here are three pieces of advice: 1) Look at your attachment to a wounded self. Is it there? It doesn’t have to be. 2) Proactively manage your time so that the things that matter the most are not at the mercy of the things that matter the least. 3) Understand that everything you do is a choice. Being exposed to this practice and the tools that allow us to work deeply with our own capacity for freedom is a privilege, so take advantage of it.

MB: Is there anything you would like to add?

CM: I would like to send my love to the entire Order of Interbeing and particularly to Thay and the monastics, who have been so crucial to my self-transformation.

Edited by Barbara Casey 

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