Awakening to Life

Two Stories by Dzung Vo


mb65-Awakening2Dzung Vo, True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen), lives in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, and practices with the Mindfulness Practice Community of Vancouver. As a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, he practices engaged Buddhism by offering mindfulness to young people suffering from stress and pain.

Just One Thing

In 2013, I attended a five-day mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the international Sangha at Deer Park Monastery. Mindfulness retreats are such a wonderful gift. Retreats are so important for me, to have time to free myself from my day-to-day habit energies, and to nourish my soul and spirit to bring the practice back home and to the world. Coming to Deer Park, or any of the other practice centers in the Plum Village Sangha, feels like coming home. I am deeply grateful to my teachers and the Sangha for this compassionate offering.

During a question-and-answer session at the retreat, Thay reflected on how to stay involved in social activism and positive social change, while at the same time not burning out or giving in to despair. He answered, “My name, Nhat Hanh, means ‘Just One Thing.’ Find just one thing to do, and do that with all of your heart. That is enough.”

When I heard this, I noticed my initial thought-response: “Wait a minute, Thay, how can you say that? You write books, you do calligraphy, give Dharma talks, lead retreats, organize an international Sangha, speak out for social change, meet with world leaders … you do so many things, not just one thing!”

As I looked more deeply into the teaching, I began to receive a different message. I saw that when Thay is giving a Dharma talk to the Sangha, he is fully there with us, 100%, unburdened in that moment by any of his other projects. When he is walking, he is just walking. When he is writing, he is just writing. I believe that this is one way he keeps his joy and compassion alive and protects himself from burnout and despair.


Since returning to Vancouver, I’ve been trying to practice Just One Thing. That first Monday morning, as I was brewing my coffee, I felt a familiar pang of “back to work” anxiety as I began automatically running through my mental to-do list. I noticed it, breathed and smiled, and returned my full attention to the simple act of brewing coffee. The same thing happened again as I was cutting an apple for breakfast. And again as I shaved and brushed my teeth.

One challenge for me about mindfulness practice is that it demands constant attention, endless repetition, to be awake to life in every moment. One wonderful thing about mindfulness practice is that every moment is an opportunity to be awake, to be free. Every moment. This moment. This is it.

mb65-Awakening4Opening, Opening, Now

I decided to become an aspirant for the Order of Interbeing about three years ago, when I began teaching mindfulness to youth in an explicit and intentional way. I knew that I needed to strengthen my own mindfulness practice, and I asked for the guidance and container of the Order of Interbeing to support me. I wanted my practice to be as solid and compassionate as possible, in order for me to be able to offer something beautiful and healing to the youth.

I received the ordination on October 15, 2013, at the Deer Park retreat. Thay gave me the ordination name True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen). Our ordination family name is True Garden, which I love because it is a reminder that practice is always organic and alive, and it needs continuous love and tending in order to produce beautiful vegetables and flowers. I feel that the name “Diligence” is a challenge––as if Thay were reminding me, “Don’t get complacent; don’t take anything for granted. Keep practicing, always!” During the ordination, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. What a compassionate gift from Thay, from the fourfold Sangha that held us in a loving embrace, from my order aspirant teachers Jeanie Seward-Magee and Brother Phap Hai, and from all ancestral teachers. I felt that their greatest hope for us is to wake up to our true nature of interbeing, compassion, and mindfulness. The most I can do to repay that gift is to practice diligently and joyfully, and offer that to the world.

The day before the ordination, I practiced heart-opening in order to be fully present to receive the nourishment and support of the Sangha. My gatha with each step and each breath was,“Opening.” I wrote this haiku on the morning of ordination as I walked slowly to the Ocean of Peace meditation hall, feeling enveloped by and deeply connected to the vast universe of stars in the pre-dawn sky.

ordination day
opening, opening, now
universe is here

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Form Is Emptiness

The Umpqua Area Mindfulness Sangha

By Hope Lindsay


Eleven years ago, our home-based Sangha in Roseburg, Oregon began with three friends. Each of us invited others and at our zenith, about twenty people were on our reminder list with as many as fourteen at any session. Because we came from various traditions, or none at all, we had no particular structure until one of us attended a retreat with Thay and registered our Sangha with the Order of Interbeing.

As time will do, the years drew us in different directions. Changes in jobs, relationships, and family needs took many of us away. For me, a painful transition took place. During our third year I joined the Order of Interbeing, but others wanted different Buddhist orientations. Some had attended Ruth Denison’s Dhamma Dena and felt deep loyalty to that tradition. One person was a devotee of Jack Kornfield and vipassana; one dismissed our tradition as “just mindfulness”; still others found that Tibetan traditions suited them best. Finally, two formed a pre-session study hour for pondering the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and made a decision that our Sangha should be closed to new attendees unless they had an established history of Buddhist practice.

To myself, I repeated the refrain, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” It felt like a power struggle was taking place in a Sangha that had begun in tranquility. The closer we came to a purist form, the further away from openness, inclusiveness, and time for discussion. Our numbers began to dwindle.

Luckily, the minister of Umpqua Unitarian church suggested that I hold a mindful meditation session at the church. The only time available for the space was Wednesday noon. The time of day limits us, perhaps, but we are mostly retirees. A small subgroup comes from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and our Sangha takes on a bit of that flavor. Rather than attention to form, we focus on contemplation, spiritual growth, and insight. Our numbers are growing.

Most of the attendees have a keen sense of social justice and participate in activities such as Women in Black, hospice volunteering, or community action committees; some members sponsor seasonal giving to homeless, animal shelters, third world countries, and so on. When I was drawn to Thay’s teachings many years ago, it was a similar combination of social outreach and contemplation, meditation and daily dedication to the precepts that attracted me. I like this Sangha very much.

Whether it is my shortcoming or my memory of the former Sangha’s struggle, we are not fully structured in the style of Order of Interbeing. We do read the Five Mindfulness Trainings — one Training each week. This seems popular. We open with a bell, lighting incense, a brief reading, silent meditation for twenty minutes, followed by one of the Trainings and a reading that reflects the precept. Most of us sit in chairs. Some of us are ailing, so we do not do walking meditation except at occasional Saturday retreats. And heaven forbid that we sing! No one knows the OI songs but me and I can’t hold a tune. Also, we are rural and out of the way for other OI members to visit us and refresh our practice.

I feel at home in this Sangha. But I do not wear my beloved brown jacket. It would set me apart too much. Instead, I put it on for meditation at home, my private sacred moment.

mb51-Form2Hope Lindsay, True Recollection of the Dharma, worked as a social worker and counselor in hospitals, school districts, and community mental health settings. Now that she has retired she is fulfilling her dream of being a writer.

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Someone Committed to Your Full Awakening

By John Bell

At the January 2007 Order of Interbeing retreat at Deer Park I found myself in a handful of conversations with monastics and lay members about mentoring and support of OI members. It seems that aspirants for the Order get mentoring in preparation for ordination — the aspirant does assigned readings, a Dharma teacher checks in on the aspirant’s practice, and the Sangha sometimes holds a Shining the Light for the aspirant.

But typically once you are ordained, you’re on your own! It seems that only rarely does an OI member have ongoing mentoring by a Dharma teacher or monastic. Even lay Dharma teachers have little personalized support. It seems that this lack of structured support leads some lay OI members to feel disconnected, isolated, and lost, or to leave the Order altogether.

I’m wondering if there might be a missing piece in our community’s structure. I pose it as a question: What would it look like if someone were committed to your full awakening? What would it be like if someone more experienced and wiser in the practice personally cared about your liberation? How might that accelerate your development along the path?

A Personal Spiritual Relationship

As I understand it, at Plum Village, Blue Cliff, and Deer Park Monasteries, there is a mentoring relationship among monastics; each has a specific big brother or big sister. Other traditions have built this relational piece into their practices. If you are in a Twelve-Step program, you have a “sponsor” whom you call or who calls you on a regular basis. If you are in psychotherapy, you have the therapist who not only listens deeply, but also asks important questions that you might not ask yourself. In a peer counseling community, at least one other person is committed to your “re-emergence” and actively assists you to identify and shed unwholesome habit energies.

Another way to get at this issue is to reverse the question: What would it look like if I were committed to someone else’s full awakening? When asked this way, some elements of a caring, personal spiritual relationship become clear for me.

  • First I would have to be committed to my own full awakening! Do I really intend to be free or am I just going through the motions? Am I willing to recognize and embrace my own suffering in order to realize true peace, or am I wanting to stay comfortable and comforted? How do the five hindrances operate in my own practice — desire, aversion, dullness and drowsiness, agitation and regret, and doubt? If I knew that I could only truly assist another to the extent that I had freed myself, then such questions would motivate a more sincere effort, sharpen my practice, and increase my ability to be present to the person I’m committed
  • I would want to practice the four levels of love toward the person — loving kindness, compassion, joy, and I would want to be active in knowing the person and their struggles, showing love, and giving him or her my best.
  • I would want to check any ego tendencies to “help” or “save” the person, to create dependency, or to pat myself on the back for feeling wise, more advanced, or in some way better than the person I’m committed
  • I would want to continually study and practice the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings as the grounding for my If I were not walking the talk, it would show up (at least to myself) in the relationship with the person I’m committed to.
  • I would have to learn how to accept the expression of deep emotions, since the person’s suffering would arise in the course of their liberation I would want to be present when it happened, even urge emotions up and out, if appropriate. I know from my own experience that full release can cleanse and permanently relieve long-stored suffering. The more I have done my own emotional work, the more capacity I have to accept the emotions of others.
  • I would want to continually add to my toolkit of skillful means so that I could think about the person from many To twist an old saying, I want to avoid having only a hammer so I don’t treat everything as a nail. A person’s journey to inner freedom is sometimes subtle, nuanced, non-linear; sometimes wild, roaring, ecstatic; sometimes depressing, confusing, scary. A hammer won’t do for all these!
  • I would want to ask for help when ) didn’t know what to This is where the person committed to my full awakening could come in handy! Or a trusted advisor, or the Sangha, or a Dharma teacher, or a text.
The Benefits of True Love

There are risks in setting up such committed relationships. Since we are human beings and can get hooked by all sorts of unwholesome behaviors, we can fairly well predict that sticky situations would arise. For example, the mentee feels judged or shamed; the mentor feels unskilled or unsuccessful as a mentor; unhealthy dependencies develop; the two cross some boundaries and cause further suffering. However, I suspect that beneficial relationships would far outnumber the distorted ones. The benefits are two-way: if I commit myself to your full awakening, then that intention will necessarily encourage me to grow. True Love is never one-way.


There are a couple of methods that we could experiment with:

  • Formal mentors. Upon ordination each OI member is helped to find an older Dharma brother or sister who would serve as a mentor. This might be the same person who mentored the person as an aspirant. It might be someone with whom the Order member has built a good relationship. It could be a monastic or lay Order member. The mentor would find ways to get to know the person, set up regular practice check-in by phone or in person, and try to attend at least one annual retreat with the person.
  • Practice Partners.  Where an older brother or sister is not readily available, two Order members might pair up and agree to check in regularly. They might ask each other about learnings and challenges in their practice. They could offer reflections, feedback, and suggestions. They might attend retreats together. They might occasionally check in with a Dharma teacher if they feel stuck in their relationship. This kind of peer mentoring would encourage mutual deep listening.

Still other arrangements would occur to us if we began thinking about mentoring. We might need a monastic or senior lay Dharma teacher in charge of thinking about and tracking these support relationships. Maybe when registering for retreats, in addition to stating our Dharma name we would also list our mentor.

A Cascade of Mentors

Creating such mentors or practice partners would call for a crucial shift: each individual, beginning with each lay Order member, would be thought about in a personal and ongoing way. The most important piece is for the Order member to feel personally known and cared about by their support person, and to feel that their practice is deepening partly because of the support person’s commitment to their spiritual development. While it is true that we are all connected and safe in the ultimate dimension, it is most helpful to feel the connection and love on the personal level. I’m envisioning a kind of cascading mentorship, from Thay to senior monastics, senior monastics to senior lay Dharma teachers, senior lay Dharma teachers to senior lay Order members, senior lay Order members to newer Order members, newer Order members to aspirants and Sangha members.

The two guiding relevant questions for Order members are:

  1. Who is personally committed to my full awakening?
  2. Whose full awakening am I personally committed to?

Would this approach be worth trying? What might the benefits be? How might we begin?

mb51-Someone2John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts, and he offers retreats on mindfulness and emotional healing. John is co-founder and vice president of YouthBuild USA, a national network of 226 local YouthBuild programs that work with low-income young people who have dropped out of high school.

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Leaving a Legacy of Love and Compassion

An Interview with Brandy Sacks

mb61-LegacyMindfulness Bell: Brandy, where did you grow up and what were your first religious experiences?

Brandy Sacks: I’ve lived all my adult life in San Diego, California. My parents were non-practicing Jews, and I really wasn’t raised with any spirituality. As I grew up, however, I was attracted to Buddhism, but most of what I saw here in California was Japanese Zen practice. The Zen Center in San Francisco was very prominent. Japanese Zen really didn’t click for me; it seemed too strict, with too many rules. I did, however, become a Reiki Master. 

MB: How did you first encounter the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh? 

BS: I first became aware of Thich Nhat Hanh through my Reiki teacher, who would quote from Thay’s writings and talks. In 1993, I heard Thay was coming to Malibu to lead a Day of Mindfulness. It was one of his earliest retreats on the West Coast; there was no Sangha in Los Angeles or San Diego at the time, and we might get a hundred people for a multi-day retreat, several hundred for a one-day event—much smaller than now. I went to the ‘93 Day of Mindfulness. 

MB: Obviously it was a life-changing experience. 

BS: It was. What really resonated for me were the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thay’s vision for a global spirituality and ethic: reverence for life, true happiness, true love, loving speech and deep listening, and nourishment and healing. They were clear, direct, but not ten commandments. We weren’t striving for perfection, but by following these trainings we could become happier. That really made sense to me. I wanted a spiritual practice that emphasized happiness. So I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings at that retreat. 

MB: Where did you go from there? 

BS: I began reading Thay’s books and continued my sitting here on the West Coast. Then I heard he was coming in 1997 to lead a multi-day retreat in Santa Barbara. We had a huge turnout. People still talk about that one and the one that followed in 1999 as solidifying the West Coast community.

There was still no San Diego Sangha in 1997, but after the retreat there was a lot of talk about Sangha building. Thay stressed that if you wanted to become a member of the Order of Interbeing you had to lead or start a Sangha. About the same time, Christopher Reed, a lay Dharma teacher, started a meditation class that became the first San Diego Sangha. We later moved to the Wat Lau Temple for the Sangha’s meetings and I began leading it. I took the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings at the retreat in 1999. 

MB: How has your personal commitment to Buddhism influenced your professional career? 

BS: I was an elementary school teacher for a number of years. Later I became the manager of operations for a nonprofit called Bread for the Journey. I currently work for another nonprofit, GroundSpark, which uses documentary filmmaking to ignite social change. It’s a great organization and won an Academy Award in 1991 for Deadly Deception, its documentary film on the environmental and health dangers of creating nuclear weapons. Our current project is called Respect for All, a series of films aimed at elementary, middle, and high school audiences on respecting diversity. The middle school films focus quite a bit on stopping bullying; the high school films deal with bullying, sexuality, and other issues.

Around 2001, once the Community of Mindful Living office in Berkeley closed, I took over running the website. The website featured, as its successor still does, an international Sangha directory and a listing of retreats and talks by Thay.  After five or six years I appealed to Janelle Combelic, then editor of the Mindfulness Bell magazine, for assistance with content and direction for the website. We got together a small team of OI members, Dharma teachers, and monastics. We decided to broaden the focus of the website to include the online version of the Mindfulness Bell magazine. We changed the name to and I’ve been webmaster ever since. 

MB: You’ve been engaged in this practice now for almost twenty years. Looking back, what has it meant for you? 

BS: I’m very dedicated to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and once every six weeks I lead a recitation at our Sangha. They remain for me one of the most concrete and real aspects of our practice and underlie all Thay says in his books and all we do.

Looking back, I’m a lot happier, a lot less anxious and fearful, a lot more compassionate and caring. I got ninety percent of that from the practice. It helped me realize and stay mindful of the impact that my words and actions have on those around me. As Thay says, it’s not just about you, it’s about the community of family, friends, and colleagues around you, about the whole world, really, and the impact you have on it, moment to moment.

Thay talks about not turning away from suffering. That’s a continuing challenge for me, but I draw strength from his encouragement to have solidity, be mindful, be content and happy in myself so I have the energy and inner resources to look at the suffering in the world. It’s inspired me to have a career devoted to helping others. 

MB: And because of all this, you’ve decided to leave half of your estate to furthering the work Thay has begun. 

BS: Yes! As soon as I heard that the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation had been created, I decided making a planned gift was a really good thing to do. Planned gifts are going to be essential to helping the monastic and lay communities continue to grow and thrive. Many of us want to ensure that the teachings and the monastic order continue in the future, but we may not have the wealth to make a major gift at the present moment. That makes planned giving an attractive option: if you’ve got a retirement plan, you have assets that you can give after your lifetime.  All it takes is filling out a codicil to your will, and changing your beneficiaries if you have a retirement plan, which is what I did. It’s very easy to do.

mb61-Legacy2How to Leave a Legacy of Love and Compassion

You can leave a legacy of love for our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and his inspirational work around the world by making a bequest gift to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation. Your bequest allows the Sangha to care for our U.S. monastic practice centers, support worldwide humanitarian efforts, and promote programs that bring the practice of mindfulness into schools. Your gift transforms suffering into compassion—bringing peace and joy to millions around the world.

What is legacy giving or planned giving?

A legacy or planned gift is a gift that a donor decides to make available at some future date. Through your will, you can make a generous gift that might not be possible during your lifetime—and have a huge impact on continuing to spread mindfulness and peace around the world.

Who can make a bequest?

Anyone can make a bequest. You do not need to be wealthy; it does not cost a thing, and if you change your mind at any time, you can simply alter your will.

Is it possible to make a gift through my will, and do you want a gift like this?

Yes. A bequest is the most common type of legacy gift and is often the easiest way to make a significant contribution toward the continuation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of mindfulness and peace around the world. The suggested language below can help you and your advisors include us in your will or other estate-planning documents.

May I designate my gift for a specific purpose or practice center?

Yes. Your gift may be designated for any program or practice center supported by the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation. We would be happy to review your designation options with you.

Is it possible to name the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation as a beneficiary of my retirement plan?

Yes. Leaving a retirement plan or IRA (or a portion of it) is a tax-wise gift because you will avoid all estate and income taxes on the plan assets after your lifetime (or at the death of the survivor of you and your spouse). To make this gift, you simply notify your plan’s administrator of your wish to change the beneficiary. A “change of beneficiary” form will be required. The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation can be designated as a full or partial beneficiary of your plan.

Can I use my life insurance policy to benefit the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation?

Yes. You can name the Foundation as a primary, partial, or alternate beneficiary of your life insurance policy by filling out a change of beneficiary form with the insurance company. Furthermore, if you no longer need the policy proceeds in your estate, you can transfer ownership of the policy to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation.

What if I already have a will and I want to make a bequest to the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation?

Generally, you would not need to rewrite your will, but you could create a sort of amendment called a codicil. It is very important to consult a lawyer where you live, so your codicil complies with local laws that will govern your estate.

The beneficiary should be designated as Trustees of the Unified Buddhist Church, a Vermont charitable corporation, tax identification number 03-0356845, (“UBC”), and if you like, you may designate that UBC shall use this gift: (examples)… at the discretion of the TNH Continuation and Legacy Foundation Board of Directors… for Blue Cliff Monastery… for Deer Park Monastery… for Magnolia Grove Monastery.

Whom should I consult about making a planned gift?

You may consult attorneys who practice estate planning, accountants, financial planners, trust officers, insurance agents, stockbrockers, and/or any professional advisor you know and trust who has knowledge about planned giving.

Your will is your legacy of love. Please take a moment to breathe and experience the joy of compassionate giving through a bequest gift that ensures the continuation of Thay’s work. We bow in gratitude for your compassionate heart and would be honored and grateful to be notified of your bequest intentions.

For more information on including the Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation and Unified Buddhist Church in your bequest gift or estate plans, please contact:

Community Liaison, Lorri Houston
Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation and Legacy Foundation
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido, CA 92026
Phone: 760-291-1003 ext. 104
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